The mangy pigeons that congregate around Dúlra’s house like a gang of street drinkers are an eyesore. At least six sit on the roof waiting to be fed. When the first one arrived six months ago, Dúlra wasn’t bothered – it’s nice to have an extra species in the garden. But word of Dúlra’s generosity must have spread in the bird world, and soon there were half a dozen.
They know they’re on to a good thing – regular feeding with Dúlra’s high protein (and high cost!) bird mix.
Neighbours probably think he’s got a pigeon shed – but instead of prize-winning homers and racers, these birds are the common city feral type that you have to step over in Belfast city centre. The ‘rats with wings’ so derided by city dwellers the world over.
Dúlra spreads bird food liberally on the path every day for the finches, robins and other small birds. The pigeons sit on the roof like sentinels, the white-stained slates proof of their presence. And as soon as Dúlra’s magic mix of seeds, husks and peanuts is scattered, they’re down before the back door has even been shut.
At first Dúlra resented them. These birds are mongrels rather than pedigrees. They originated from the wild rock doves and stock doves, which bred with racing pigeons who never made it back home. Over time, they’ve come to depend on people like no other bird, their populations being most dense where our own populations are most dense – city centres. But truth is, while we may think there are a lot of pigeons, there are probably not much more than 10,000 in Belfast. Because we see them so often, they appear more common than they really are.
As the summer went on, Dúlra’s cold heart began to thaw. These birds were loyal. They weren’t heading to the hills any time soon, like the finches. And they were patient. They would sit staring at the garden for hours, waiting for their patron to spread his rich bounty. Probably more than anything else, their confidence was contagious. If these pigeons were landing in the garden and not nervously flying away at the first gust of wind, then other birds tended to stay put too.
One pigeon in particular was prettier than the rest. It looked just like the wild rock dove which it was obviously descended from. The rock dove is now very rare, its population having been diluted by breeding with feral doves. Dúlra saw one once on a cliff-face on Tory Island off Donegal, a solitary bird incubating its eggs.
This one in Dúlra’s garden had the same two black bars on its wing, and a healthy iridescent green sheen on its neck. The oil-rich mix of seeds that Dúlra offers will do its plumage no harm at all.
In the street Dúlra would have blanked it, but now that it was a regular in his garden, he found himself admiring the perfect plumage.
Tragically, it was those same feathers that he found scattered on the lawn this week after they’d been ripped asunder. Dúlra needn't have minded about the pigeons becoming pests – the local sparrowhawk is his unpaid Rentokil agent.
One by one the pigeons have been picked off with the precision of a sniper. Dúlra actually saw the sparrowhawk stooping for her kill this week – it was certainly a ‘her’ because only the female sparrowhawk is big enough to kill a pigeon. She was hovering near the house, being pestered by a crow, when she suddenly folded her wings and fell like a stone into Dúlra’s garden. And a bit like the kids’ song ‘ten green bottles sitting on the wall’, Dúlra knew there would be one less pigeon in his garden.
Today there are just two pigeons on the roof. Dúlra feels like a guard on death row, fattening the two remaining birds up for their inevitable date with the executioner.
But now he’s on the side of the pigeons. Hopefully, somehow, he'll help them see through the winter.
Glengormley Reader: I saw a flock of about 40 geese this week arriving in from the north, flying in a V-shape and honking excitedly.
Dúlra: They are probably white-fronted goose, gé bhánéadanach, which arrive from Greenland.
- If you see anything unusual or have any nature questions for Dúlra, you can text him on 07801 414804.