For the Birds Radio Program: Bernice the Pigeon

Original Air Date: Sept. 9, 1991

What’s a pigeon doing sleeping in Laura Erickson’s rain gutter? 3:42 Date confirmed

Audio missing


Does anyone out there know how I can find the owner of a racing pigeon? A couple of weeks ago, a pretty gray pigeon with two leg bands turned up injured at a garden shop in Duluth. He or she was apparently attacked by a hawk: the belly was ripped wide open and the breast bone was broken at the bottom. Whenever it tried to walk, it toppled over, and was obviously in great pain whenever it opened its wings. The feet were cool so at least it hadn’t developed an infection yet. I don’t know how to suture wounds, so all I could do was disinfect it and keep the bird quiet and fed, and hope for the best.

Whenever I have a bird in such bad condition, I try to keep my kids from seeing it, but they gravitated to the box in the living room and pretty soon were petting the bird and calling it Bernice after Bert’s pigeon on Sesame Street. And Bernice responded to all the love and attention. Within four days, she was walking fairly well and occasionally opening her wings, though she didn’t actually flap them for over a week. When she started escaping from her box, I decided to let her spend her days in the frong yard. In spite of all the commotion from our house construction, our street repavement, and what seems like hundreds of little kids running about, Bernice stuck around, exploring her new territory. I brought her into our garage at night, and pretty soon she was going in by herself during hot afternoons or when hawks started flying over. Since our garage is in the basement of our house, that arrangement was eventually changed. Bernice eats like a pig, and what goes in eventually comes out. Now that she’s airborne again, she sleeps in the rain gutter over our front door.

At first I fed her the mixture of seeds that I feed Rosie, our pet lovebird, but when I decided that Bernice was going to survive, I went to the feed store and bought a seed mixture specifically designed for pigeons. Unfortunately, this new mixture lacked her favorite seed, safflower, so I had to go back and buy a couple of pounds of that.

Pigeons are not native to North America. They belong to the species ornithologists call Rock Doves, which originated in Eurasia. They were domesticated for food and carrying messages. Their supreme homing ability has been used by people in wartime—the U.S. Army Signal Corps used pigeons during both World Wars, and even managed to train some pigeons to return to mobile units or to ships at sea. France still maintains its pigeon corps, and here in the U.S., some hospitals use pigeons to carry blood samples to laboratories since they make it much quicker than cars. Homing pigeons can fly 50 miles per hour, and never get stopped by traffic or trains. But most homing pigeons are now used for sport in pigeon races.

Some domesticated Rock Doves were bred for fancy plumage or bizarre shapes—tumblers and fantails come to mind. And even homing pigeons were often bred for white feathers or fancy patterned plumage. Bernice is pretty much your standard gray pigeon. Her right leg sports a pinkish orange band numbered CU91 on one side and 2360 on the other. Her left leg carries a yellow band with 25 on both sides. If you happen to know how I can find her home, let me know.