Nothing is Ever the Same Again
Band-tailed pigeons and embracing change
The shadow of a red-tailed hawk passes through my yard and crosses the street heralded by a chorus of alarming songbirds. This is a common sight and I’m not really paying much attention until I hear the distinct simultaneous clap of a dozen wings. I look up from my seat on the porch to see the hawk pitching up above the tallest Aleppo pine on the street, then she dives, pumping her wings to match the pace of a flock of pigeons. The percussion of wings I heard is distinct to the band-tailed pigeon, Patagioenas fasciata. The sound is likely how they warn their flock mates of danger as they flee.
I run into my yard to watch the chase, more to watch the pigeons than the hawk. I only see them a few times a year and they usually stay high in the pines. They travel in small flocks, their columbiform silhouette unmistakable, but every time I spot them, I’m confused for a moment. Their wingbeat and behaviors are so different from our introduced and ubiquitous rock pigeons. Then my moment of confusion always gives way to bittersweet reverie. Band-tailed pigeons remind me that there was once another native species of North American pigeon that I will never have the pleasure of seeing in flight. I always pause to watch them.
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Band-tailed are North American’s only native pigeon. While they aren’t endangered, the Pacific coast population has experienced a steady decline of 2% of its population since 1968. Loss of the nut and fruit eating pigeons’ breeding and winter habitat and their low reproduction rate are thought to have the greatest impact on their population. Most pairs only have one chick per year.
The pigeons also struggle with an ancient protozoan parasite, Trichomonsis gallinae, a disease that can be transmitted to the raptors that eat infected birds. All falconers know it as frounce. Even T-Rex got frounce and managed to survive until the sky fell. Yet, an estimated 43,000 band-taileds died in just one outbreak in Carmel Valley in 2007. These outbreaks, while not usually that extreme, have become more common over the last 20 years during the winter months.
Scientists investigating these die-offs along California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevada Mountain ranges, were startled to discover a new species of trich infecting the birds along with T. gallinae. Trichomonsis stableri was officially named in 2014. I love it when scientists discover new species, but I’m not a fan of protozoan parasites, especially ones closely related to a human STD.
Scientists wonder if trich might have dealt a final blow to the decimated population of the passenger pigeon just over 100 years ago. Once they were so numerous that they blotted out the sun, but deforestation and overhunting made them a rarity by 1889. Martha, the last of her kind, lived to be 27 years old under the care of the Cincinnati Zoological Gardens, but died with no mate to found. When I watch the band-tailed pigeons, I can’t help but imagine their bright-chested slighter cousin filling the sky in flocks a billion birds strong.
It has been hypothesized that the passenger pigeon could be a model for de-extinction. By editing the genome of its closest living relative, the band-tailed pigeon, scientists envision breeding a new generation of passenger pigeons. Ultimately, they could be reintroduced, and perhaps even help restore eastern forest ecology. I think that’s one hell of a longshot, but I love this thought experiment. I do hope it comes to fruition in my lifetime, but the truth is that even if scientists succeed it just wouldn’t be the same.
I’ve been thinking a lot lately about what we break and what we lose throughout our lifetimes and how nothing is ever the same again. The dentist can fix damaged teeth, but the crown never quite feels right against my tongue. As my body changes dramatically signaling the end of my fertility, I know that I am losing bone density, skin elasticity, and experiencing cognitive decline as my brain adjusts to less estrogen. My body will stay strong if I do the work and my brain will return to normal, but my body won’t be the same and my brain will be rewired to tackle my new hormonal norm. I wonder if I will always be metaphorically running my tongue over what is new and wishing I had never lost a tooth.
Samantha Dunn published a beautiful piece recently about hearing loss, wearing a hearing aid for the first time, and facing that it isn’t the same as having your hearing intact.
What I’ve had to learn is a new way of being in the world, a way that was never possible when I was still pretending my hearing hadn’t lessened. Facing the truth means that I’ve had to become more present to what’s going on around me, to really stop to observe my world, to not just hear but to listen deeply.
I’ve been thinking about Sam’s words a lot since I read that piece and maybe it is okay that so many things in life can never be the same. Maybe that’s the point. No one loves loss and change, but in these experiences are perspective, second chances, and the siren song to appreciate all that we have that remains unchanged.
I still have band-tailed pigeons that visit because of the two coast live oaks in backyard. I get to support my co-workers in their efforts to restore the largest coast live oak woodland near my home. I will likely never get to see a passenger pigeon, but I can help save the primary winter food source for its cousin the band-tailed.
I don’t have to pretend that things haven’t changed or mire my thoughts in wishing they had stayed the same. Maybe instead, I can listen, see, hear, and experience the world in new ways and more deeply. Maybe, in this new way of walking through the world, I can also help make sure that the little girls like I once was can also grow up to love band-tailed pigeons.
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