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Image by Karsten Würth

     Each spring and fall, as if following some mysterious natural calendar, a multitude of visitors descend on our family vineyard. Scores of beating wings greet us with a rush, filling the sky with motion. We are never sure when to expect the great flock of band-tailed pigeons, but their appearance is like a blessing of rain, like the return of a long-absent family.

     Our guests stay about a week, rising from one gnarled live oak with a fluttering surge and settling in the next, sending cascades of shadows over the rolling ranks of trellised vines. Then one day they are gone, having moved on to the next stop in their migration. These appearances have punctuated the ebb and flow of life on our tiny mountain wine estate for the past decade.

     Ever since he came into our lives.

     I will never forget that morning years ago, on the waning shoulder of summer, when I pulled into the Diamond Springs Quick Stop after dropping the kids off at school. The faded old California Gold Rush town streamed with early commuter traffic making its way through the winding foothill road—a hodgepodge of sleek hybrids, dilapidated pickups, and slow-moving construction vehicles. On either side, historic storefronts and boomtown vestiges baked in the dust and heat of a rainless August. Going over my mental to-do list, I absently reached for the nozzle of the gas pump and began filling, glancing down at my grubby work sneakers and jeans.

     And there he was, leaning weakly against the curb, his beady eyes staring at me from red rims. His sleek charcoal feathers were rumpled, his yellow beak open, gasping exhaust-laced air that pulsed with the roar and clatter of traffic.

     I froze, feeling a stab in the tender spot in my heart, the deep place that lost and hurt creatures always seemed to find.

     “What happened to you, little one?” I spoke gently, squatting down to take a closer look, careful to avoid the gobs of chewing gum mashed into the pavement.

     He swayed slightly, watching me guardedly, his heart trying to pound its way out of his tiny ribcage. Even in such a state, his feathers were exquisite, a dusky hue of gray with a striking crescent of white across the back of his neck.

     “Are you sick? Hurt?” I sighed. “Well, I can’t just leave you here, can I?”

     Hauling myself up, I rummaged around in the back of my van. Finding an empty wine box, I bent down and gently enfolded him in a greasy rag, careful not to damage his delicate wings. He put up no struggle as I placed him inside the box and folded the lid shut. Our home was a rustic but practical arrangement—a farmhouse sheltered by oaks, nestled at the base of a vineyard-striped knoll. Leaning over our kitchen table, I eased the lid open so Rich could peer inside.

     My husband’s brow bunched as he studied the listless creature. “He won’t likely live,” he cautioned.

     I nodded. Of all the birds we’d rescued from the claws of cats and kamikaze crashes into windows over the years, most hadn’t survived the shock. Still, we had to try.

     And so, my new charge moved into our guest room, its door shut tight against two curious cats. We furnished his box with a soft cloth, a tiny dish of water, and a scattering of birdseed. When the kids came home from school, two more eager caregivers cooed with delight and concern. Eager hands wanted to bring more food and water and stroke the silky feathers.

     “Hi, little pigeon. Let’s call him Smidgeon!”

     “Shhh. Let’s not scare him,” I urged. “He just needs to rest now.”



     The next morning, I braced myself as I unfolded the lid of the box, a knot of dread forming in my gut. But there he was, just as I had left him—looking up at me, beak slightly ajar, chest pulsing with rapid cycles of breath.

     “Well, good morning, Smidgeon. I’m glad to see that you’re still with us.” I reached down to stroke his back with one finger, feeling the reassuring warmth and softness of his feathers.

     He hunched into the side of his box, one bright eye regarding me as if trying to decide whether I could be trusted.

     “You are certainly a lovely one, aren’t you?” His coloring seemed exotic, almost regal. Not your typical parking lot pigeon variety. Our guest was clearly no dumpster diver.

      A little online research revealed him to be a band-tailed pigeon, or patagioenas fasciata, California’s only native variety—most likely a member of the coastal subspecies found across the mountain ranges from BC to Mexico. A close cousin of the extinct passenger pigeon, the band-tails are mostly migratory forest dwellers.

     How curious that I’d never seen one like him, even in the more wooded areas of our property. As I sat with him for a while, I wondered, how had he ended up in a gas station in such a poor state? Had he been hit by a car? Would he have found himself in harm’s way, if not for the relentless push of humanity into his habitat? The conservation websites reported a steady population decline of his breed, due in part to loss of habitat. Well, I would not let Smidgeon become a statistic. As his rescuer and a guilty member of the human species, I felt doubly responsible for his survival.



     Days passed, then a week. Each morning, I could see the vitality slowly seep back into his small body. The birdseed disappeared and was refilled. He began to spend more time upright and moved around his box with increasing confidence, the bedding mussed by his restless talons. He gingerly stretched and tested his wings.

     Then one afternoon, we sensed that the wait was over. We locked the cats inside and carried his box out, gently setting it on the patio table. The whole family gathered around, keeping a respectful distance as I pried the lid open. We held our breath, waiting to see what would happen. My heart ached with wanting him to be free, and at the same time, not wanting to say goodbye.

     Nothing happened.

     I drew close and peered inside. He was staring up at the sky.

     “Go on, fly,” I said.

     But he didn’t budge.

     “Come on, Smidgeon,” the kids chorused.

     Rich walked over and eased the box onto its side. “Maybe he can’t get out that way. Let’s make it easier.”

     After a time, the bird tentatively emerged, his head jutting out with each step. He looked around, stretching out his wings with the flourish of geisha fans. His eyes darted around, taking in his surroundings. Then, with some effort, he flapped his way up to the roof gutter, turned, and peered down at us.

     Our hearts leapt and we exchanged smiles of relief. He would be fine.



     Autumn spread its colorful wings over the vineyard, and the heavy clusters of fruit sweetened for harvest. Our days stretched with long hours of labor and the heady smells of fermentation.

     Each morning, when we would arrive at the winery and prepare for another grape crush, there would be a fluttering overhead as Smidgeon settled in the rafters of the crush pad awning, his head poking out to greet us, his bright eyes watching. He would keep us company throughout the day, checking on our progress as if appointed as foreman.

      And at the day’s end, when the sky erupted into molten oranges and yellows, our companion would glide back down over the vineyard to the house, finding a perch to fluff his wings and settle for the night.

      Gradually, the daylight hours shortened and a chill began to take hold of the air. Then, one morning, there were no glinting eyes or beating wings to greet us.

      He was gone.

     We all were struck by Smidgeon’s sudden departure, including our harvest helpers. How could this tiny creature have lodged himself into our hearts, only to leave? But winter would soon blanket the Sierra Nevada, bringing frost and bitter wind. Better for him that he had moved on.



     The little bird drifted into memory, his brief tenure leaving behind a sense of fondness and gratitude. We thought of him less and less. Life went on.

     Months trudged by, bringing gloom, muddy boots, and occasional dumps of snow so heavy they brought oak limbs crashing to the earth. We still thought of him on occasion, wondering where he had found refuge for the winter.

     At last, spring cycled in, waking the vines from their slumber. The hills came to life once more, the breeze fragrant with pollen and humming with bees. A chorus of birdsong rang from the greening treetops.

     Then, one mild afternoon perfumed by lilacs and wild herbs, the beating of a half dozen pairs of wings disrupted the burgeoning foliage of an oak tree. My heart began to pound as I caught glimpses of dusky gray feathers and bright yellow beaks. For the first time in my memory, a tiny flock of band-tail pigeons settled onto branches, cooing to one another as they foraged for tasty treats. Familiar pairs of eyes gleamed from numerous branches.

     During those few days the flock stayed with us, we all had smiles and a lightness to our steps. Although he hadn’t announced himself or fluttered to his former perches, we knew Smidgeon had come home. It felt right, the completion of an unfinished song. We were not surprised, however, when a few days later the flock moved on. But now we wondered if we would see them again, once the seasons turned and signaled the hour to move on.



    It is said that Julius Caesar sent pigeons with news of his conquest of Gaul back to Rome. In the same way, pigeons were dispatched by Napoleon to report his defeat in the Battle of Waterloo. The mechanism that allows migratory birds the uncanny ability to navigate great distances, and then return to the very same place, is one of nature’s great mysteries. Various scientific theories attempting to explain their magnetoreception—the way they sense and respond to the Earth’s magnetic field—have gained traction, only to be abandoned.

     I was fascinated to learn that when a pigeon stays in a place for about two months, the location starts to imprint on its biology. After that, it will keep returning to the same place all its life.

     Does this impressive homing impulse boil down to biology, then? Or are there less tangible factors that come into play: The familiarity of sights and sounds? Feelings or memories of comfort and safety? Connections that go beyond the realm of biochemistry? Certainly, humans often feel compelled to return to familiar places that have positive associations for them. And isn’t home more than simply a practical solution, more than a cold collection of walls and possessions?

     Sure enough, through the years, the flock would return for a brief time each spring and fall. They grew more numerous each season until they filled the maze of branches in a massive, two-hundred-year-old oak. Their movement from one tree to the next would set the air thrumming, and sunlight would dance off a hundred glossy wings. Each arrival would bring joy, and each departure a pang of sadness.

     “See you in a few months,” I would murmur under my breath.



     Many seasons had passed since we released Smidgeon to the wild. One gold-tinged fall day, I glanced out the window, my eyes drawn by a flicker of movement. The flock had returned, but this time, a lone band-tailed pigeon perched on the lid of our BBQ, peering at me through the glass. Its movements were slow, and its feathers a little dull.

     It couldn’t be. Too many years had come and gone. “Smidgeon?”

     I slipped outside and approached the elderly bird. “Is that you?” I wasn’t sure.

     The bird regarded me cautiously but did not fly away. I wondered if he even could, for all his frailty.

     “Just a minute,” I said. I returned with a crust of bread, set it on the ground, and stepped back.

     He stayed where he was, holding his ground on the BBQ, shifting from one foot to the other.

     “Alright, I’ll get out of your way.” I went back inside and watched through the window as he fluttered down to his meal. I felt like the parent of a prodigal son, thrilled by the notion of Smidgeon returning to us after so many years. Smiling, I turned away to let him enjoy his food in peace.

     Moments passed before someone noticed one of our cats slinking under a bed.

     “Hey, what do you have there?” Shouts of alarm sounded, and footsteps pounded into the bedroom. The cat was dragged out by the scruff.

     A trail of dusky feathers betrayed the tragedy even before we found the limp body.

     The realization hit me like a punch in the gut. Grief welled up through my chest and tears blurred my vision. This was all my fault. Moments earlier, the cats had been asleep on the beds. I hadn’t even thought to lock the cat door. Because of my carelessness, the tiny life had been snuffed.

     Guilt and anger consumed me, even as Rich took me into his arms.

     “I’m sure it wasn’t him,” he soothed. “It’s been ages. Pigeons don’t live that long.”

     But my face was a pale mask of grief.

     He tried to numb the sting with philosophical balm. “He was obviously weak. Chances are, he wouldn’t have survived long. It was just a matter of time.”

     I shook my head. None of that mattered. I had betrayed his trust, betrayed his friendship.



     To this day, I still wonder if it was Smidgeon who succumbed to the cat’s predatory instincts. I have since read that a pigeon’s lifespan in the wild, with healthy foraging, is much longer than those scavenging in city gutters. It could very well have been him. If so, then perhaps there is a sort of poetry to his story. With our chance meeting, he received the gift of life, only to give it back in the end, as if repaying a debt of borrowed time. And in between, with every turn of season, every migration, he reconnected with the place where he had known safe harbor and healing. Even now, he will always have a home in the tender place in my heart—the place which, once opened to a fellow creature, brings the inescapable pain of loss, but also great joy.

     How wildly beautiful nature is—and how ruthlessly harsh. It feels like Smidgeon’s story should have a kinder ending. But then again, who of us can escape the final turn of our seasons? Who really has a choice in how our final paragraph is written?

Christine Rorden is an emerging fiction writer, having worked in educational publishing and winemaking for many years. She is drawn to creating works that inspire change and reflection, particularly in the areas of environmental and social justice.

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