Gaston- The pigeon nestling who survived through the odds

As a veterinary nurse you see cases every day that can be emotionally challenging and because of this, eventually, you can handle them better and see the cases clearly without as much of a wall of emotion. I still care about my patients, but you have to be able to almost take a step back, so that you can work efficiently and do the right thing without tearing up all of the time.  So there I was, thinking I was stronger and could handle most difficult situations and then a pigeon nestling upset me.

If you work in veterinary practice, you will know that in the spring, summer and early autumn, you will be given gifts of boxes, bags and blankets containing wildlife that has come into hardship. I have seen baby foxes, rabbits, bats, seagulls covered in tar, hedgehogs and most types of British birds as nestlings, fledglings or adults with broken wings. Unfortunately for pigeons, they are amongst the most common to be brought in. Whether this is due to the structure or placements of their nest, or whether it’s just because they are just so many, I am yet to know for sure. But where I have worked, there would be several consecutive weeks where there would be pigeons every few days.

It was during one of these times, that this particular pigeon was brought in. From what I gathered, he had been attacked by a cat, who had gone on to scatter the nest. He was nowhere near ready to fledge, he was covered in yellow down and still resembled a dodo. He had a large wound on his chest, actually near his crop, and it didn’t look as though he was going to make it. With pigeon nestlings that young, it can be difficult to rear them correctly and with his wound, the odds weren’t in his favour. Usually at this point as a nurse, you accept that you can’t save everything. The problem was he thought I was his mum. He would flutter his wings and squeal for food constantly. I understand all young pigeons do this to their parents, but it was the first time I had been mistaken by a chick as a parent. His squeal was so sad sounding and almost pathetic. I knew if I gave him food with his crop open, it would spill out or cause more infection. Yet he kept squealing.

All day, as I walked past doing my daily duties, he would squeal and flutter his wings, trying to impress me, begging for food. There was something just so tragic about this hungry, desperate chick who probably wasn’t going to survive. It ended up getting to me that much that I asked the veterinary surgeon, who I was working with that day, whether she would see if she could fix him so I could make an attempt at hand rearing him from home. And so she did. When it was the end of the day and he had come round from his anaesthetic, I put him in a carrier, strapped him in the car next to me and drove us home.

For the first few days, I had to open his beak and put food in. He knew how to swallow, so every four hours throughout the day I would force feed him. After about four or five days, he began to recognise peas and seed as food and would peck them and eat them on his own. I still was unsure of how bad the infection would be and what his chances looked like. We had given him another chance, but whether he would overcome the infection was another story. But he did! And he began to look better and better every day. I removed his stitches after 10 days and the wound looked good. Over a few weeks, his down grew out and adult feathers grew in. He started to fill out. Pigeon chicks are never ready to fledge until they have their full adult plumage, which can take months to grow in. This is why many people do not know what a pigeon chick looks like, because they emerge as adults. I wasn’t going to give him up but one dilemma with hand rearing wild birds is that they do not know how to find food, shelter and do not recognise danger and this was and is something that bothers me.

So currently Gaston the pigeon remains in my care. We have a large aviary and the long term goal is to possibly rear another pigeon and release them as a pair, with the aviary available for shelter. It may be that if he returns to the aviary at night, I will shut him in his protection and allow him to fly free during the day. His wings are currently not strong enough to support lengthy flight but they will be some day. He still thinks I am his mother but thankfully is frightened of other people. I am not sure of the final outcome but I am very glad I have given him the chance to become and adult and another shot at life.

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