It was the fattest pigeon I have ever seen.
It eyed a six foot bird feeder with the zeal of a professional steeplejack. And then, improbably, the huge ungainly bird opened its wings and began, tortuously, to waft the air in its vicinity.
The little pigeon wings do not grow in size to compensate for portly pigeons. They lifted this great pudding of an overfed bird into a kind of juddering flight, veering crazily this way and that in the manner of a sozzled louche dandy on his way home in the early hours of a London morning.
He rose inexorably higher, a triumph of willpower over basic physics, until he reached the bar by the hole where the seeds could be had.
We knew that pole could no more take this pigeon’s weight than a cocktail stick support an entire grapefruit. And we watched as, slowly, the seed feeder pole, previously stood at a proud 90 degree angle to the ground, six feet tall, began to list dangerously.
The other birds took one look and shot off. But the pigeon sat there, taking the air, considering his next outsize move.
The pole came to rest at 45 degrees to the ground as we sat and watched through the glass of the restaurant, crying tears of mirth.
As we got up from the table to leave he was still sitting there.
It is incidents such as this which have convinced us all that the pigeon is not the brightest fairy light in the string.
It is common as muck. Google pigeon distribution and you will find they are basically everywhere. Everywhere except the Sahara Desert and the Arctic.
And yet today, we hear, a pigeon’s valiant deeds are being trumpeted, and its message rushed straight to code-cracking experts at the brain-drain to rule them all, Bletchley Park.
The news story broke yesterday: Dave Martin was renovating his Surrey chimney when pigeon bones began, one by one, to drop down. And finally, down dropped an unceremonious pigeon leg with a small red canister attached to it.
It has been confirmed to be a World War II message, in code, destined for Bletchley Park, the UK’s National Codes and Cipher Centre.
The heroic pigeon in question had almost made it home before it got a got confused and fell down a chimney.
No one seems to be mourning the pigeon. They have honoured three of the War’s greatest pigeon heroes by stuffing them and standing them up in the Imperial War Museum North for tourists to gawp at.
The sight of the forlorn little leg with a message which never got there: it made me think. Such a very simple creature, carrying messages from complex minds.
How do these birds keep such exalted company?
The pigeon has one overriding strength: it knows how to go home.
It knows this not because of a high IQ, but because it has a nerve in its beak which can detect magnetic fields. But over and above this, pigeons have a sense of smell which can rival a bloodhound. Their mental map of the world is made of odours, according to new research by an Italian team, reported in BBC Earth News in 2011.
They fly over a constantly changing, subtle, dynamic smellscape. A pigeon’s SQ is out of this world.
So our common, portly friends have distinguished themselves even though they are of very little brain. And they did it by doing what comes naturally: going home. But doing it efficiently, relentlessly, without exception. They have won medals and acclaim, carried vital supplies from hispital to hospital, even been employed by MI5.
Going home has backfired on occasion: there’s a leg with a message on to prove it – but their dogged persistence in trying to get home: it has rendered them heroic in men’s eyes.
Because they did what they were created to do.
Sniff their way home.