Something had happened to the humans, and no-one knew what. Some terrible plague, perhaps, that made them hunch inside their houses, fearing Death.
Whatever it was, the daily supply of sandwich-ends and abandoned potato-fries dropped off to nothing. A hundred thousand of that dominating species, usually so prodigal of their lunches and munches, no longer trod the streets, no longer dropped their crusts and crumbs and cheesy crackers. Occasionally people, strange and solitary, walked by with echoing feet in the streets of
a town that was almost a ghost. Fifty people from this city and its surrounding communities lay dead or dying, and tens of thousands reeled in shock.
But pigeons cannot count, and consequently live less anxious lives. They merely calculate, in the moment, balancing risks and opportunity, learning likelihoods, enjoying each reward as it comes. The nearness of quick walkers versus the fragment of sausage roll; the roadways where cars move more slowly; the safest perches not too heavily contested by other roosting birds. A pigeon with its tiny brain knows how to weigh up peace and safety, nutrients and comfort—and will adjust when circumstances change.
The pigeons—most of them—flew away. To make a living somewhere else. Outside the town. Their street-smarts and their taste for delicacies wouldn’t help them here. They would have to re- member instincts from farther back, the ways to forage and survive within a different food chain.
A lucky few would find the litter-bins behind the village shops, or discover which suburban gardens had bird-tables. Most of them learned to search for seeding plants and peck for grubs—a low-fat diet that left them leaner, perhaps a little quicker of flight. Would they hone their new skills quickly enough to stay alive? Would they have the resources, resourcefulness, to nest out here and breed?
As spring burst buds and flourished foliage, the marks of Death appeared too. Grey scatterings of feathers where a pigeon met its end. A stoat or kestrel had discovered easy prey, and would breed the better for this new source of food. Larger holes appeared under walls and woodpiles, for the foxes had left the city too, following the pigeons and finding easier ambush among grass and hedgerow than around the gaping rectangles of town. How many pigeons died is anyone’s guess, but the local food chains—from predators to flies, from those that eat flies to those that eat the things that eat flies—enjoyed a spring and summer of plenty... while the local songbirds, voles and hares enjoyed some respite from attack.
And the poor, beleaguered pigeons, numbers decimating, hardly seemed to notice. They carried on calculating, sharpening their skills, rolling their dice against the tooth and claw of Nature until they claimed their foothold within it.
By the middle of the summer, when the town began to open up once more and the humans walked around shedding careless calories of processed food, most of the remaining pigeons were too busy to come back yet. Fragments of eggshell, larger than songbirds’, whiter than owls’, lay under trees or behind farm buildings. The pigeons with their minimal intellects have accom- plished their yearly task, solved the most difficult equation they’ve ever yet faced.
They will go home, when they are ready. They will scuffle at your feet once more for your sweet high-energy snacks, and only their genes will remember their season of living on the edge, outside the town, on the boundary of survival.
Until next time.