Hello from Turkey! My husband and I have made the second stop in our Turkish travels in the region of Cappadocia, which is famous for its ancient cave ruins and fairy chimney rock formations (see photo above.) During our daylong hike of the cave cities with our guide, Kezban, I learned something surprising… something that made me feel a bit ashamed for some of my past attitudes, beliefs and actions. In order to explain this fully, I’ll have to backtrack to December 2011, where, from my Ann Arbor apartment, I waged a war of territory against one very stubborn pigeon.
One night when I arrived home from a long day of teaching, I discovered a large, winged creature on the railing leading to my front door. Startled, I stepped back slowly. I was used to seeing pigeons in big, grotesque groups pecking away at whatever vermin or rodent scampered by. But I’d never seen one chilling out all by itself. Its chest was puffed and it cast a very prominent shadow with the help of my front porch light — for a bird that many people called “a rat with wings” it was surprisingly intimidating. So after gathering myself, I tried timidly to shoo him away… but he didn’t even flinch. He just sat there all smug like he’d claimed his territory and didn’t wish to discuss it further. It was about midnight at this point, so I figured I’d ignore the pigeon for now and just go inside. But as I tried to breeze by to my front door, the bird got all wound up, sqwuaking, flapping its dingy gray wings and letting off so many feathers, I felt trapped in a pillow fight. I screamed, covered my head, and after fumbling with my keys, I finally managed to get in the front door of my apartment. “Holy crap. That was unpleasant,” I thought. “But I’m sure he’ll be gone in the morning.”
The next morning….
At this point, I figured this pigeon was probably guarding a nest. Okay, I get that. No one wants to be a deadbeat parent. So I called my apartment’s leasing agent who said he’d contact Animal Control to pursue a humane removal. A few days passed and as I gazed out the window at my unsightly feathered porch accessory, I received a call from my leasing agent who said: “Animal Control checked it out and there was no nest, Ms. Lee. In fact, there was no pigeon either. Are you sure that’s what you saw?”
Apparently, this was a savvy bird who came mostly at sundown and went as it pleased and only seemed to show its beaked face when I was alone. My apartment’s maintenance crew made two more honest attempts, but the pigeon never seemed to be around when they arrived. The only way I was certain that the bird wasn’t a figment of my imagination was because all the while, it was using my deck as its personal toilet, leaving MOUNDS and MOUNDS of crap everywhere while it waited for me to come home at night so it could continue its reign of flapping terror.
This went on for WEEKS. So I decided I’d take things into my own hands. I got brave! I tried approaching the porch quickly and with heavy steps, swinging my purse like a lasso, and yes, flapping my arms to mimic the presence of a dominant bird…. (a low point. I know.) But the pigeon wouldn’t move. Next, I tried a little research on the internet. Here’s an abbreviated list of the internet’s best suggestions:
1. Purchase a sound device that creates irritating ambient noise. (No good, as I too have ears.)
2. Install anti-roosting spikes. (Expensive, involved, and potentially dangerous!)
3. Cover the bird’s landing area in a gooey, noxious household chemical like toilet bowl cleaner. (I’d rather have a bird than a deck covered in Sno Bol.)
4. Get a predatory bird, such as a hawk or a vulture. (How do you just get a vulture??)
5. Spray the bird down with a mix of ice cold water and cayenne pepper. (BINGO! Cruel, yes. But I was getting desperate and this seemed to be the most economical and humane solution. I mean, after I sprayed him, he could just fly to a fountain and rinse himself off, right?)
So I researched some water guns. Admittedly, I was pretty angry with this bird, so I wanted one of those water guns that came with refillable canisters you could wear like a backpack and could be pumped with so much air, the resultant pressure could knock a mailbox off its post. But those bad boys are $75, so I went with the more classic water “handgun” from my youth…. a little neon green thing with a cartoon cowboy on the side.
From here, things got busy with school, so after spending some time attending to non-bird-related issues, I realized something. Since the day I purchased that water gun, the bird hadn’t been around. Even after sundown, which was his favorite time to perch and poop, he didn’t show up. And from that day forward, he never reappeared. Did he know what I was up to? Of course not! (Or did he?) I’ll never know and it still drives me a little nuts. Not getting to defeat the bird was worse than having a bird in the first place! It managed to continue tormenting me by eluding my counter-attack! And ever since then, I’ve had a deep disdain for pigeons… until today when we were hiking through the Cappadocian caves and we came across these:
I turned to our guide. “Hey Kezban, what are those little cubbies inside the cave?”
“Take a guess,” she replied. “What do you think they were used for?”
“I don’t know. Shoes?”
“Sorry, no. They are pigeon holes.”
“Pigeon holes. Little places for pigeons to come and rest.”
“Oh God,” I said, contorting my face in disgust. “Did ancient Cappadocians keep pigeons as pets?”
“Not exactly. The pigeons were kept for their dung,” she said. “A pigeon’s dung is concentrated and is an extremely effective and potent fertilizer.”
I got a bad shiver up my spine. Pigeons are known to carry disease! And they’ll eat whatever garbage you put in front of them! But I wanted to be respectful so I simply asked, “Why couldn’t they just use horse dung?”
“During war times, the cave dwellers lived on meager rations and horses need to be fed. Pigeons on the other hand are very independent. They fly off during the day, collect their own food, and then very reliably fly back to the caves and defecate neatly into their pigeon holes. And if you notice, their dung doesn’t have an overwhelmingly noxious smell, so it was more pleasant for the residents. Besides, it’s not easy to get a horse up into the caves, so the dwellers would have to hunt down their dung. Why hunt for dung if you can just get it to come to you?”
“So the pigeons would just know to come back to these little holes each night?”
“Yes, it’s almost as though the pigeons understood their role in sustaining the lives of the Cappadocian people. Even today, modern Turks regard pigeons as one of the land’s ecological saviors and you see their image in some of the frescos and secos painted on the cave walls. And our botanists tell us that years later, our region’s soil is still some of the most fertile in Eurasia, which is why we can grow many fruits and vegetables that can’t survive in other areas — such as figs, hazelnuts and pomegranates.”
Damnit, I thought. I love figs, hazelnuts and pomegranates. And apparently, I had pigeons to thank for their abundance. So of course, at this point, I started to think about my Ann Arbor pigeon… the one I tried to lasso with my handbag… the one I’d purchased a water gun to attack. The whole time, I thought he was there to terrorize me… but apparently, it was in his nature to find a home and then return to it faithfully every night, thinking that it was helping out in some way. And the mounds of poop it left on my porch… those were… gifts? I don’t know… maybe that’s going a little too far. But I do know that I’ve spent a lifetime seeing pigeons as pests, so it was kind of enlightening to learn that they played such a big role Turkey’s history. And since I feel a little guilty for all the anguish I must’ve caused that bird, I thought I’d help free them from their proverbial pigeon holes (yes, that’s where that term comes from!) and let them resuscitate their undeserved reputations with this little bit of education from a reformed pigeon-hater.