Mark McDermott

The Pigeon Man

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Dr. G.R. Enright Jr. is a man of many talents: an engineer, trial lawyer, hot-air balloonist, magician, and inventor. His primary mission in life, however, is pigeon rescue

The Pigeon Man. Photo by Mark McDermott

Originally published Jan. 16, 2003

A few months ago, a customer came into Trader Joe’s in Redondo’s Riviera Village and alerted the manager on duty that a pigeon had been badly injured in the parking lot. She thought maybe a car had run over the bird. Assistant manager Billy Brandon immediately phoned the only person he knew who would help.

Dr. G.R. Enright, Jr., better known as “Red,” was on the scene in minutes. The bird was convulsing, the pupils of its eyes were shrunken to a pinpoint, and its belly had the telltale bulge of a recent meal. It had been poisoned, Enright knew instantly, most likely with a seed mixture containing the chemical Avitrol.

“It’s a very strong nerve poison,” Enright said. “The birds die of multiple heart attacks. It’s the most painful death imaginable.”

Enright asked for something sharp, and Brandon produced a box-cutter. They set up an operating table right there in the parking lot. Enright opened up the bird’s crop and cleaned out the poison birdseed with water, but all to no avail. The bird died of a heart attack in his hands.

Mean bastards, he thought to himself.

Then he looked out across the parking lot and saw something strange — a pigeon perched on a car. Pigeons don’t usually perch on cars, but this pigeon had been watching the whole operation. It was the dead bird’s mate. Enright approached the pigeon, and it didn’t flee as he took hold of its convulsing body. It had also eaten the poison seed. Enright repeated the procedure, cleaned out the crop, and patched the bird up with tape. The pigeon was saved.

Brandon swept the parking lot, but it proved impossible to get all the seed from the cracks in the concrete. The next day, as Enright was putting up a reward poster offering $500 for information about the poisoning, he noticed a mother sparrow teaching her two babies how to feed, picking seeds out of the cracks. He shooed them away, but it was too late. “Nobody will see those birds ever again,” he sadly noted.

Avitrol is legal only when used by a licensed pest-control specialist, and of course never in a public place where non-targeted species — including humans — might be exposed. New York City has banned its use as too dangerous for urban settings, and the National Humane Society is lobbying for a nationwide ban.

The management of the shopping plaza said it had nothing to do with the poisoning. “If you’ve got dying birds around, it detracts from ambience of the whole thing,” said the man responsible for maintenance at the plaza, who did not give his name. “I’m horrified anyone would do something like this. It’s dangerous not only to those birds, but to any bird, any dog, or even kids in the neighborhood. I hope they catch whoever did it.”

Much of the urban world is, in fact,  anti-pigeon. Look closely at ledges and other potential perching places in many commercial areas, and you’ll notice rows of spikes meant to discourage the presence of pigeons and their droppings. Avitrol is designed for one reason — to rid places of birds that have become a pestilence, foremost among them pigeons.

Enright argues the targeting of pigeons is particularly reprehensible because the birds are “the descendents of heroes,” a species that for thousands of years worked as messengers for humanity, before the advent of electronic communication displaced their usefulness and they were discarded.

“These pigeons are a man-made bird,” Enright said. “With selective breeding, we have intentionally bred fear of humans out of them for thousands of generations. To take a bird we have intentionally made totally dependant on us, to turn around and use that trust to slaughter them, it is unthinkable to me.”

Gone to the birds

Dr. G.R. Enright, Jr., has pursued a diverse array of endeavors.

He is by profession an electrical engineer, lawyer, and corporate consultant. But in the course of his life, a voracious curiosity has led him to pursue other interests so avidly they cannot be described as mere hobbies.  He is a sailor practiced at the nearly lost art of celestial navigation; a balloonist who has risen to 27,500 feet through the power of hot air alone; and a licensed pilot who survived a small plane crash in which he intentionally ran into a power pole to avoid crashing into a housing tract. He is a stage magician, an alleged renegade beekeeper (he argued his own case successfully in court, using a magic trick as part of his case), and still has hopes of becoming the inventor of, among other things, better airplanes. Enright is also a photographer, writer, weaver, and occasionally an actor (his hoary beard was first grown when he acted in the Downey Civic Light Opera’s production of Fiddler on the Roof).

Of late, however, this Renaissance man has concerned himself mainly with pigeons. He has become friend, advocate, and protector of a species he believes has been unfairly maligned.

It began for him one morning a little more than five years ago when he was returning to his Hollywood Riviera home after breakfast with a friend in San Pedro. He noticed a pigeon struggling in the middle of the road, and after initially driving by, he turned around and went back to investigate.

“I could see it was still breathing,” he said. “But it was cold, and its eyes were glossed over. Then I reach under this bird, and find that it’s sticky wet. I thought, oh God, and I looked at my hands and they were clear, there was no blood on them. I could tell this stuff had familiar smell…it was liquid floor wax. He had drunk some — you could see it around his mouth — and he had tried to take a bath in it.”

Enright took the bird home and nursed it back to health. Its left ankle was swollen, and a veterinarian prescribed low-grade antibiotics to help fight the infection. Enright kept the pigeon in a cardboard box on a table in his living room and fed it scrambled eggs with a turkey baster. Samson, as Enright named the bird, made himself quite literally at home: on his forays around the room, he gathered pens, bits of paper, and other debris and began decorating his box.

“That’s why pigeons are so much like people,” Enright said. “They get an area, and that becomes their place. And they defend it. It becomes almost comical, because they have no real weapons, no talons or anything.”

After two weeks Samson was in good health and Enright decided it was time to set the bird free. “He was a free living pigeon,” he explained. “I was thinking he must have a mate, a nest, and he needs to get back to what he was doing.”

He took the bird to a friend’s house with a video camera, intending to film the bird as it returned to its wild existence. He placed Samson’s box on a table in the backyard and opened it, expecting the pigeon to burst out and fly away. Instead, Samson commenced cleaning his feathers, then looked up at Enright and flew out of the box and inside the house. Enright shoed him outside, said his final goodbye, and went back inside the house so the bird would know he could go. “I’m thinking this guy just doesn’t know he’s free yet,” he said.

Samson hopped up onto a beam, then the roof, then flew off in the direction where he’d been found, apparently heading home. A few minutes later there was a loud “bam!” at the back door.  “There he is, back at the glass door beating at it with his chest and beak. I open door and he comes inside, and he looked at me like, ‘What the hell are you doing shutting me out?’ It hit me like a ton of bricks: here is a wild bird and he has made a conscious decision to return to and live in captivity. I couldn’t believe it.”

So began Enright’s investigations into pigeon nature, and his new vocation of pigeon rescue.

Pigeons and man

Pigeons have made a long journey through human history, and given their lofty beginnings it seems an unlikely fate that they should ever have become known as pests. They were the favored pets of Roman emperors, revered in ancient Greece as symbolic of love and beauty, and treasured in the Orient as symbols of purity and fertility.

Pigeons are descended from a cliff-dwelling species called rock doves. Their earliest known domestication is believed to have occurred more than 7,000 years ago in Mesopotamia, although archeologists have found cave paintings that may indicate the human-pigeon relationship goes back even further. Ancient Greeks used the birds as messengers; during the first Olympiad in 776 B.C., for example, pigeons carried results of the competition throughout the country. Empires throughout the world — from Rome to the Middle East and even in China — used pigeons as primitive information networks, particularly during times of war. Between 1000 and 1500 A.D. the caliph of Baghdad and the sultan of Egypt organized a postal system using the birds. Northern European knights came into contact with these winged mailing systems during the Crusades and returned home with messenger pigeons. European settlers later introduced the species to the New World.

There was, of course, already an indigenous population of pigeons in America — what was perhaps once the most populous bird on Earth, the Passenger Pigeon, which numbered in the billions when Europeans arrived. It passed from existence when the last died in captivity in 1914. The pigeons found in cities today are all the descendents of messenger pigeons, a species known as Columba Livia Domestica.

In addition to their domestic use as messengers, pigeons have been used to great effect by the American military. Perhaps the most famous was “Cher Ami,” one of 600 birds used by the U.S. Army Signal Corps in France during World War I. On his last mission, Cher Ami, despite being shot through the breast, managed to return to his loft with a message capsule dangling from the remainder of a leg that had also had been shattered by enemy fire. The message told of an infantry division that had been isolated from American forces. This “Lost Battalion,” the 77th Infantry, was rescued a few hours after the message was received, and Cher Ami was credited with saving 194 lives. The bird was awarded the French “Croix de Guerre” for his heroic service. He died in 1919 as a result of his battle wounds, and is still on display at the Smithsonian Museum. Another famous war pigeon, “GI Joe,” is credited with saving 1,000 lives during WWII.

Although a subculture of pigeon breeders raise the birds for racing — they fly at speeds of 40-60 mph — pigeons have largely been forgotten as pets in America. Some countries still use the birds as messengers — in India, it is known as “p-mail” — but by and large pigeons are now mostly strays. They are widely thought of as domesticated pigeons gone feral, but Enright thinks this is inaccurate.

 “There is no such thing as a wild pigeon,” he said.  “They are homeless pets. You only find pigeons where you find people; they can’t live without humans. People think feeding them crumbs is supplemental, but its not. It’s how they live.”

Pigeon nature

Pigeons’ claim to fame is their navigational ability. They use the sun as a compass, but also use the Earth’s magnetism as a navigational device. The birds have amazingly keen eyesight; another human use of the species has been in search and rescue operations, where the birds are carried in planes and used to spot people adrift at sea.

Biologically, the pigeon also has some outstanding characteristics. Both females and males, for example, form milk in their crops that they regurgitate and feed their young. Also, the way pigeons drink — immersing their beaks up to nostril level and pulling up water in a long continuous draughts, sort of like sucking on a straw — is unlike the way any other bird drinks. Pigeons are also fiercely monogamous, and mate for life.

Over the past five years, Enright has lived with pigeons day in and day out, becoming as intimate with the creatures as Diane Fossey was with gorillas. Enright can often be spotted wearing a business suit, a briefcase in one hand and a homemade pigeon-carrying box in the other, as he goes about his work.  The pigeons sometimes wait in the car while he argues court cases.

Dozens of birds have come in and out of his life, and he remembers each one for its  unique characteristics. Archie was a pigeon, Enright speculates, who was of a mistrustful nature because his malformed body had made him an outcast even among pigeons. After Archie’s rescue, he was skittish and avoided all contact. But then one day he looked Enright directly in the eye for 20 seconds and, apparently deciding this guy could be trusted, became somewhat affectionate. Then there was Fermin, an abandoned nestling who was relayed to Enright by the people at the Point Fermin Sea Bird Rescue facility.  Fermin grew to become his in-house pigeon psychologist, teaching other young birds how to eat and socialize. She eventually mated with a male named Barbae, the survivor of hawk attack whom, Enright says, she helped “bring out of his shell of paranoia.” Candie and Markie were a pair of females who never left each other’s side; it took Enright months to realize it was because Candie was totally blind and Markie stayed around to help guide her to food and water.

He has marveled at the behavior of mates, who are intensely loyal to each other. Samson, after his mate Petuna died, fell into a deep depression. “Samson grieved six months, very vocally,” Enright said. “You never heard so much crying in your life. I can’t even describe it. You’d have to hear it, just a mournful sound.”

G.R. Enright and two of his feathered friends. Fermin and Barbie. Photo by Mark McDermott

Mates also have squabbles. A bird named Sister, for example — whom Enright described as “very serious, not a big sense of humor” — was approached by a single male one day. The male was flirting, and although Sister was having none of it, her mate Doorstop saw the flirtation, flew in between the birds, and began pecking at Sister “Her eyes were big as saucers,” Enright remembered. She unleashed a furious counterattack that sent Doorstop fleeing to a corner, where he was banished for the next hour.

Certain pigeons are especially dear to Enright. Socrates, named for his philosophical nature, was able to teach himself to fly again despite having most of one wing amputated. “His philosophical approach boggled my mind,” Enright said.  “I learned more from watching that bird handle his missing wing then I ever learned in school. While I’m feeling sorry for him, there he was getting on with life, teaching himself how to fly again. These birds will take whatever assets they have left and go ahead and enjoy living. They just don’t give up.”

Percie, named for his persistence, lacks the use of both legs, and gets around by the ungainly process of beating his wings on the ground and pulling himself forward a fraction of an inch at a time. Percie’s best friend is Citibank, who was found mutilated and covered in blood under a bush next to the Hermosa Beach branch of Citibank, another victim of a hawk attack.  Her right wing is permanently locked in place against her side and she suffers from a lingering nerve disorder that makes it impossible for her to feed herself. 

“I have never been closer to any living thing than I am to this loving little bird,” Enright said.  “She craves affection, and together with Percie, she sleeps curled up in the bend of my arm at night. She spends most of the day tending to Percie, usually standing on his shoulders.”

Pigeon brains

 Enright’s high regard for pigeon intelligence has some support in scientific literature, most prominently in studies conducted by Richard Herrnstein and his colleagues at the Harvard Pigeon Lab. Avian intelligence in general has been reassessed in recent years as it has been documented that many birds have conceptual abilities previously thought to be only the domain of primates. While parrots have received much attention for their ability to communicate different concepts, pigeons have also been found to perform surprisingly well in laboratory tests, and have shown the ability to “hold in mind” sequential ordering as well as to recognize all 26 letters of the alphabet.  One test even found pigeons could be taught to discern between Picasso and Monet paintings.

Scientific data aside, Enright’s crusade to restore the reputation of pigeons is conducted one person at a time. Bruce Caron, a contractor from Lomita, found an injured bird and was put in contact with Enright by a local pet store. Enright encouraged him to keep the bird for a while as a pet. He didn’t take much encouraging — he already had a houseful of adopted animals, mostly cats, and he feeds skunks, raccoons, and any other wild animals that appear near his house.

His pigeon, however, was a revelation to him. “Everybody thought I was an idiot,” he said. “I mean, a pigeon?” Caron’s wife, Cheryl Ann, was not pleased with the new addition to the family, and his father-in-law was dumbfounded. It didn’t take long for Walter Pigeon, as the bird was named (Caron didn’t realize it was a female until it was too late), to win over a flock of converts. First among them was Cheryl Ann, who the bird took to cuddling with after Caron left for work in the morning. That was only the beginning.

“She was a big hit at family parties over the holidays,” Caron said. “She would jump around from shoulder to shoulder. Nobody can believe a pigeon is so smart and affectionate, and wants to hang out with people. My father-in-law was like, c’mon, take a picture of me with the pigeon.”

Walter Pigeon sometimes goes to work with Caron, and one day he thought he’d lost the bird when it flew out the warehouse door. When Caron returned home that night, three miles away, he was amazed to find the bird waiting. The following week, the pigeon pulled another trick—it laid an egg. “That’s when we found out she wasn’t a he,” he said. “It’s like, what’s next? I feel like writing a Walter Pigeon newsletter. It’s amazing when you get to know this little being and realize it’s more than just a flying rat like everyone says. Now I look differently at all the pigeons I see.”

Caron is thankful for Enright’s encouragement. “I think it takes a certain special kind of person to actually spend the time and do what he does.”

Enright has an informal network of pet stores, bird lovers, and neighbors who help him with his pigeon rescues. His neighbor, Don Russell, and Tomi Tokemoto, owner of Animal Lovers pet store, taught him some of the rudiments of pigeon care.

“Word got around he does that sort of thing — there are wild bird rescuers, but they really don’t care much about pigeons,” Tokemoto said. “There’s a big void here. He does this for the love of pigeons.”

Tokemoto helped him a few years ago when there was a rash of pigeon poisonings. Like Enright, she wanted to get the word out that these birds are not just pests. “People just consider them messy, dirty pests, but they are not,” she said. ” They are wonderful, intelligent, loyal beings. Once they attach themselves to you, they will never leave you.”

Enright said the bad reputation pigeons have is a product of false hype.  “The pest control industry can make a fortune by selling devices to kill or control pigeons,” he said. “The industry has convinced people pigeons are a health hazard. In fact, there is no recorded case in history where a human has caught anything from a pigeon.”

“They are like little people,” he added.  “They exhibit exactly the intelligence and emotions that you expect to find in people. They take care of each other, even when no romance is involved, like Citibank taking care of Percie. I have never loved anything in my life more than these birds, and they return that love.”

Life on the street, even without poison, is an ugly adventure for pigeons. Enright has rescued pigeons that were partly eaten alive by hawks, chopped by engine fan blades, soaked in motor oil, and maimed in other ways too various to list. A street pigeon’s life expectancy is three years, while in captivity they have been known to live as long as 30 years.

 “It’s a hard life for them, and really, they are so sweet,” said the newly converted pigeon man, Bruce Caron. “It just kills me that people think so badly of them. I know it sounds wacky, but get yourself a pigeon.” E.R.

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