Gallery: Pigeon Rescue [5 Images] Click any image to expand.
By John Chambless
Walking into her dining room -- or what would be her dining room if it wasn’t a home for pigeons -- Judy Rice was surrounded by four of her most ardent admirers.
Three pigeons in large cages, and one in a converted playpen, were loudly cooing and bobbing their heads as Rice approached. “All of the birds are in a nesting mood right now,” she said, smiling. “There are four females in this room, but one thinks she’s a male pigeon -- too much testosterone -- and two others think they’re male humans because they’re imprinted. All three have chosen me for their lifelong mate, and although they exhibit male characteristics, they still have female instincts. They don’t give it any thought. It’s just the way things are.”
Since last fall, Rice, 59, has been accepting pigeons for rehabilitation in her Landenberg home. Veterinary support is provided by Rob Teti, DVM, who runs Chenoa Manor, an animal rescue in Avondale. Rice used to work for Tri-State Bird Rescue and Research, in Newark, Del., but Tri-State no longer rehabilitates pigeons.
Rice grew up with an assortment of animals, including horses, ducks, and chickens, on a small farm in northern Chester County. After returning to the family farm in 1983, she began raising chickens. “My idea was to run a commercial egg farm, but to be successful, you don’t keep birds that are sick, injured, or non-productive," she said. "I didn’t have the heart to cull the flocks, so I learned how to rehab them. I have a 'protect and serve' gene, inherited from a long line of Philly cops. That need to protect saved the lives of a lot of chickens.“
Rice had previously worked in medical laboratories and clinics for people, but then became a math teacher. Throughout that 27-year teaching career -- 20 of them at Villanova University -- Rice gained more rehabbing skills through hands-on experience, reading, and vet tech coursework.
In 1998, Rice joined Tri-State Bird Rescue. Besides doing bird care, transporting birds, front desk duties, and writing, she also took home ducks, geese, and chickens to live on the farm. These birds made several trips back to Tri-State, where Rice used them to train new volunteers in bird handling. Years later, she was asked to raise the baby pigeons that were brought to the center.
Rice initially thought of pigeons only as “those birds in city parks that demand food and poop on statues. Now I know them as loyal, loving creatures who demand food and poop on everything! They’re not the smartest birds,“ she admitted with a smile, “but they have endearing qualities. Mates share duties equally, building the nest together and taking turns sitting on the eggs and feeding the young.”
They are affectionate with each other, “kissing” with their beaks and giving each other sticks, feathers, or torn bits of newspaper as tokens. The birds are let out twice a day to fly around her house, but they are happy to return to their cages.
“They adapt beautifully to captivity,” Rice said. In the wild, pigeons nest in cavities, out of sight. Their natural diet consists of seeds, vegetables, fruits, grains and nuts, but they’ll try anything. Like all wild birds, they should never be fed bread or any other substance that can expand or clump. These foods can lead to potentially fatal digestive disorders in birds. Pigeons live about two years in the wild, falling prey to hawks, cats, cars, collisions with buildings, or disease. In captivity, healthy pigeons can be expected to live about 25 years.
Up close, the birds have iridescent plumage around their necks that seems to change from green to purple as they move. They regard visitors warily, but will allow themselves to be picked up by Rice and stroked. If frightened or confronted, they can punch with their wings, inflicting a smack that stings.
Rice names all of her resident birds. One who recently died, Ada, is seen in many of her photos. Ada recognized the shapes of animals in pictures and figurines and would confront them as if they were real. He was also dedicated to picking up and tossing a wind-up chicken toy.
On the lower level of Rice’s house are several more cages. In one sits Floyd, a white pigeon whose feathers were alarmingly pink. Rice thinks he was dyed to be released as part of some sort of ceremony, but ended up getting lost. The pink coloring has faded as Floyd has molted, but he’s still an unusual flamingo color. His mate, a former racing pigeon, doesn’t seem to mind, and they happily take turns sitting on two fake eggs in a nest box as Rice visits with them. “They’re always snuggling,” she said of the pair.
Rice has learned about the high-stakes world of racing pigeons, where birds are bred and raised to compete in homing contests. Most pigeons have powerful homing instincts. They are also monogamous and extremely devoted to their mates. You can take a pigeon hundreds of miles away from home, and they’ll try to get back to their loved ones. But racing is a commercial enterprise, with thousands of dollars at stake, and all but the fastest birds face being culled.
Pointing out a lean brown-and-white bird in a cage by itself, Rice said, “Ptery is a Long-Faced Tumbler, bred for exhibition. Tumblers have a neurological disorder that causes them to somersault when flying high. Essentially, they’re having a mini-seizure. They don’t always pull out of it before reaching the ground. “Rollers” have a similar brain disorder, but their seizures take the form of rolling on the ground.
Show pigeons are bred in a dizzying variety of types, including breeds with feathers on their feet that make it difficult for them to fly. Some have beaks too small for them to eat normal-sized food or to feed their young.
Years ago, when she started raising baby pigeons for Tri-State, Rice released them from her house. In her yard is a screened gazebo that serves as a transition station for these wild birds. “But one day,” she recalled, “I released a brother and sister in the morning. They went up in the air, circled the yard three times, and took off. I thought, ‘Great, they found a place to go!’ Later that day, I heard a knocking on the screen door, but saw no one there. Then a little head peeked around the corner. The female was clinging to the side of the house and knocking on the screen with her wrist. She flew right back in. I spent weeks trying to release her, but she came back every time.
That bird, named Chubby Checker, is now a permanent resident. Since then, the birds have been released at Rob Teti’s Chenoa Manor in Avondale. Teti also has pens for non-releasable pigeons.
Upstairs in her living room, Rice is keeping Euston, a European starling that’s regarded as a nuisance bird that nests in dryer vents, eaves or overhangs. “Starlings are mimics,” Rice said. “They’re related to the myna bird. Euston imitates whistles and speech. Right now, he has a 15-word vocabulary, including his name, ‘Hi gorgeous,' and ‘mealworms -- oh boy!' He ‘talks’ when listening to the radio, TV, or me. He’s joining the conversation with the only words he knows.”
It’s clear that something about the trust of these injured creatures strikes a chord in her. A cancer survivor, Rice also deals with the consequences of other diseases, including MS, Type 1 diabetes, and arthritis.
“I thrive on challenges. Like my ‘patients,‘ I’m adaptable, and I don’t let handicaps stop me," she said. "I have a full supply of meds, and can treat pigeons for parasites, fungal, viral, and bacterial infections, wounds, and broken bones. Birds requiring more serious care, such as surgery, are taken to Dr. Teti. There are back-up rehabbers available if the caseload gets too large, so no bird will suffer or go untreated.
"All creatures have a right to life," she said. "While this is rewarding for me in so many ways, ultimately, it’s about their survival.”
Judy Rice treats all wild pigeons and lost domestic pigeons. She can be reached at 610-268-2732 between 7 a.m. and 7 p.m.
To contact Staff Writer John Chambless, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.