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(Catherine Lepage for The Globe and Mail)
(Catherine Lepage for The Globe and Mail)

Facts & Arguments Essay

I bonded with the pigeons on my balcony Add to ...

"Your troll gave birth to an egg?"

It was the first Facebook comment I received after I had hurriedly uploaded a photo of my recent discovery.

No, my troll did not give birth to an egg. That's a garden gnome and he's decoration. Obviously. Besides, eggs aren't birthed. And I'm pretty sure trolls, though not actually real, are mammals. But yes, that's an egg. In a near-miraculously constructed pigeon nest. In an outside corner of my third-floor balcony. You're welcome.

I am an incorrigible researcher. "Pigeon reproduction" - true to form, the Internet pulled through again. I learned that rock pigeons mate for life. That's it, I love them. They need names, immediately. Humans can't even do that half the time.

The dad will find materials to build the nest. Mom lays one egg, takes off, presumably to sit in a Wal-Mart parking lot and wonder how in the hell she's going to make this work, then returns to lay a second egg. There are almost always two eggs. The first one is usually a male chick, the second usually his sister. Incubation lasts 17 to 19 days and mom and dad share the duty.

Like Wikipedia is some kind of digital crystal ball, Mom laid a second egg the next day and the shift work began.

Even if pigeons were able to take it easy, the look in their eyes would still lead you to believe they're absolutely shocked, all of the time. I'd go out on the balcony on occasion and watch them. They'd stare back wide-eyed and freeze, like I'd walked out unaware that my fly was down and they weren't quite sure if they should say something.

My research continued. I told friends I was going to make miniature backpacks and train the babies to become carrier pigeons. Thanks to uncanny homing skills, they actually can do that.

This isn't the first time I've had a change of heart toward a creature commonly considered a pest. Standing in front of a reconstructed termite mound in an Australian museum last year, I was speed-reading through a paragraph about insects that I never really cared much about when I read that only once a healthy colony is established will winged termites be produced. Those termites fly off and establish their own colonies and the cycle continues. I was alone, but frantically looked around the room for someone to share this discovery with. Imagine if you were that termite? The chosen one? What a responsibility!

But I'm no easy sell. When a family of rats moved into a bachelor apartment I lived in one winter, I called pest control, set traps and moved out. Roof rats could very well have a secret habit of hugging each other as an adorable gesture of companionship. Don't care. That's just gross. Seriously. One pooped on my stove. Not cool.

This time though, when the time came to draw the line between appreciating nature and messing with it, my heartstrings were admittedly pulled.

I'd been told by a pest control company that it was fine to watch the birdlets grow up, but that we should get rid of the nest once the kids are no longer dependent on it. Bird nests can harbour mites and once the family clears out, the mites set their sights on the closest alternative warm-blooded meal. Namely, me.

The eggs hatched slowly over the course of one day, but Mom and Dad kept the situation under wraps so I didn't get a glimpse of the babies until the next day, when Mom stepped off the nest.

They were chicks, technically. Their bright pink skin was far too big for their delicate little bodies, and sparse tufts of yellow fuzz didn't do much to hide it. But it was their heads that gave me pause. Their eyes, not yet open, were two dark, bulbous protrusions on the top of their tiny heads, framing a pink beak about the size of a Smart car.

They grew up incredibly quickly and soon the only way to tell them apart from their parents was a slight size difference.

It takes about four weeks for new pigeons to learn to fly and I was looking forward to witnessing their first liftoff. I came home from work one day and saw three pigeons on the roof of the house next door with eyes locked on the littlest one, perched on the balcony railing about 10 metres away.

The young'un curled her toes over the outside edge of the railing. She stretched out her wings, flapped frantically and stepped off the edge. A second later she appeared just above the eavestrough on the neighbour's house. She scrambled, on foot, up to her waiting family. They huddled on the rooftop all evening and in the morning they were gone.

Living in a city, I see pigeons everywhere, but my gaze lingers on them longer now, aware of what it took for them to get to where they are. Sure, they're still pests. But they're also creatures with their own fascinating life cycles that, once you're aware of them, allow you to see them for more than their nuisance.

I stood one morning on my way to work waiting for the cross signal when a telltale splat hit the concrete a few inches in front of the woman before me. We both looked up to the underside of a pigeon sitting on a telephone line above us. She looked over at me like I was supposed to share in her disgust at the nerve of this guy.

I looked back up to the pigeon and smiled. "I guess his aim's a little off today."

Heather Cleland lives in Vancouver.

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