For the Birds Radio Program: Imelda

Original Air Date: March 25, 1991

Laura’s taking care of a pure white pigeon she’s calling Imelda. 4:07, date verified.

Audio missing


Two weeks ago, a nice man found a hurt pigeon in downtown Duluth and brought it to me. She was in a gutter, bleeding from two large wounds. Since she had no broken bones and the wounds appeared to be caused by ripping rather than by impact, with a big gash under her right wing and another along the back of her neck on the left side, I suspect that she was knocked out of the sky by the Peregrine Falcon that’s been hanging around the Duluth harbor all winter. Peregrines usually retrieve their prey as it falls to the ground, but the downtown noise and bustle may have frightened it away. Anyway, the man stopped her bleeding and kept her overnight, and brought her to me the next day.

She’s a beautiful albino pigeon, with snowy white plumage, pick eye rings, and bright red feet. I don’t normally take care of pigeons—I concentrate on songbirds and nighthawks—and feel a little uneasy helping out non-native birds like House Sparrows and starlings. Long ago, pigeons were domesticated in Europe, Asia, and the Middle East for food, racing, carrying messages, and their wide variety of plumage and colors, and they were first brought to America in the 1700s and 1800s by pigeon fanciers. Although pigeons aren’t part of America’s natural avifauna, they’re restricted to urban and agricultural habitat and don’t really compete for food or nesting sites with native birds. And they also provide an enormous amount of food for Peregrine Falcons and, in winter, Snowy Owls.

Some people look at and feel sorry for individual birds without considering the wider ecological effects of their actions. People who release tropical parrots and other exotic cause serious problems for native wildlife. Releasing rehabilitated birds that may actually be genetically unfit or that harbor diseases is also dangerous. Some people carry their concern for individual animals to the extreme of opposing all scientific research on animals.

Other people tend to exaggerate the opposite side of the argument—they look only at populations and have no interest in individual creatures. These types often accuse rehabilitators of sentimentality for concentrating energy on individual birds rather than protecting whole populations from pollution and habitat losses. After all, in the overall scheme of things, what’s one pigeon? This type tends to support every kind of animal research—whether it’s for biology, serious medical research, or just to develop a better mascara.

And here I sit, uncomfortably straddling the middle. I find the knowledge gained from ornithological research fascinating and valuable from an intellectual standpoint. Lots of medical research now is done on Zebra Finches, which I support as long as it’s done as humanely as possible. And I certainly don’t mind dissecting or skinning a dead bird. But when I hold a living bird bleeding in my hands, somehow nothing else matters except to relieve it of its suffering and try to make it better.

So now I have a pigeon. The man had been calling her Georgette, but I decided to name her Rocky, since ornithologists call pigeons Rock Doves. Somehow neither name stuck—for a completely unknown reason, I find myself calling her Imelda, which makes no sense whatsoever. She doesn’t have a single pair of shoes or a dead mate pickled somewhere, at least not as far as I now. Her wounds are pretty much healed now and she sits in my office watching me work and overall making a big mess. As soon as the weather permits, she’ll be released to return to her mate and home in downtown Duluth. If you ever run into a white pigeon named Imelda, give her my best.