Ploughshares Helps Palomacy Improve the Image of Pigeons

A pigeon and dove rescue group uses an aviary at Ploughshares to rehab and rehome the often maligned birds.


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Elizabeth Young is an ambassador in pigeon diplomacy with Palomacy.

Photo by Heather Finnecy

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Debbie Ruth was out walking her dogs in Alameda in November 2014, when she came across a very odd and very sick bird. “It was bigger than a pigeon, it was smaller than a duck, and it was sprayed pink,” Ruth recalls. Ruth took it home. “Ajax, that’s her name, came back to life,” Ruth says.

Ajax turned out to be a domesticated King pigeon—big white birds that are bred for meat or ceremonial release and splashed with dye to mark their arrival date at the poultry market.

“We’ve gotten them dyed green, yellow, and blue, too,” says Elizabeth Young, founder and executive director of Palomacy Pigeon & Dove Rescue, a San Francisco-based pigeon and dove rescue service.

“King pigeons fly like toaster ovens,” Young adds. “They are big, white birds that don’t know what to do in the wild, so when people let them go at ceremonies, they land in parking lots and stand around looking helpless.”

Ruth suspects that Ajax escaped being someone’s dinner or someone’s ceremonial release. Or that someone simply bought Ajax from a store and released her into the wild, falsely thinking that they were saving her.

“Unfortunately, domesticated pigeons don’t survive well in the wild, which makes them an easy mark, but they make great pets indoors or outdoors in a predator-proof aviary,” Young says, noting that Palomacy houses rescued birds in foster and adopter homes and backyards throughout the Bay Area.

Palomacy couldn’t find Ajax a permanent home immediately, but Young gave Ruth critical advice that helped her build a large DIY cage and successfully foster her rescued pigeon.

When Ruth discovered that pigeons are monogamous, she visited a pigeon shelter in San Francisco and picked out Ajax’s mate, Theo.

After Ajax and Theo were adopted, Ruth convinced Ploughshare Nursery’s General Manager Jeff Bridge to let Palomacy install a foster aviary at the nursery, where she now works as a Palomacy volunteer.

As a social enterprise of Alameda Point Collaborative, Ploughshares carries drought-tolerant, edible, and native plants; trains and employs residents of APC’s supportive housing community, and uses its sales proceeds to support housing for formerly homeless families.

“It’s really fun and inspiring to have the pigeons here,” says Bridge, pushing a wheelbarrow between beds full of orange poppies and scarlet-flowered sage toward Palomacy’s aviary, which opened in December. Bridge credits APC’s Executive Director Doug Biggs with green-lighting the project.

A Palomacy volunteer, Ruth helps Young tack up informational signage about pigeons and opens the mesh-covered wooden door that leads into aviary. “I’m always looking for more volunteers,” Ruth laughs, as 14 domesticated pigeons flutter from perch to perch, surrounding her in a gentle cloud of white-feathered flaps and coos as she fills bowls with fresh birdseed.

Young credits a parrot named Tookie for nudging her on the path toward pigeon rescue. “I’ve always loved animals: horses, jellyfish, eagles, elephants, everything, but once I adopted Tookie, a green-cheeked conure, I became obsessed with birds,” she says.

Obsession morphed into outrage, when Young was volunteering at the San Francisco Animal Care & Control shelter. “I was surprised to see we were getting domesticated pigeons each week, but no help getting them rescued,” she recalls. “It was this strange gap: parrots, puppies, kittens, rabbits, rats, guinea pigs, and snakes all had rescue groups, but these birds were quietly killed each week. So why no rescue for pigeons?”

The answer, says Young, stems from fear and ignorance. “So, it’s really a PR issue,” she says.

Once revered as symbols of peace and fertility, wild pigeons have fallen from grace in cities, where they live in large flocks that startle tourists and annoy property owners.

“They’re common, we take them for granted, and while there are hundreds of species of pigeons worldwide, some extraordinarily beautiful, most people think city pigeons are gray and not beautiful,” Young says.

Young admits that she resisted the idea of starting a rescue service. But the more she learned, the more convinced she was that something had to be done.

“Paloma means pigeon or dove in Spanish, and we call what we are doing ‘pigeon diplomacy,’ ” she says. “Pigeons are tragic creatures. They need an embassy and they need ambassadors.”

Palomacy rescues fancy pigeons, bred for coloring and feathering; and homing pigeons, bred for racing and ceremonial release; as well as King pigeons, with doves only accounting for about 10 percent of the caseload. “People love doves,” says Young, who has helped 700 domesticated pigeons receive care and find foster and permanent homes since 2007.

A white King pigeon named Dooby takes off with a crack of wings, followed closely by his mate Newark as Young checks on each bird. “Everyone’s in a committed relationship,” she says.

Young notices that Newark is limping across the floor toward a food bowl. Young gathers Newark under her arm and attaches a makeshift sole fashioned from first-aid tape to the underneath of the bird’s bright-red foot. Newark remains motionless.

“Pigeons are very good sports,” she says, releasing Newark onto the aviary floor, where she runs awkwardly on her new sole and retreats into her nesting box with Dooby.

“Smokey is a survivor of pigeon racing,” says Young, petting the soft-feathered bird as she explains that people release homing pigeons by the thousands in races that are hundreds of miles from their home. Racing pigeons are great fliers, but they are also very family-oriented, leaving them under great duress that far from home.

  Young notes that because people naturally love doves, she’s been advised to call her pigeons “doves” so they will get adopted more. “But to call these white homing pigeons that are released at wedding ‘doves’ is to do them a disservice,” she says. Unlike pigeons, doves bite, hunt insects, and are promiscuous. And while doves are good fliers, many don’t return home.

How does rescue happen? “Some approach people for help,” Young says. “We call it self-rescue.”

In one case, a man, Bruce, was watering in Point Reyes when he encountered a racing pigeon. “The pigeon came walking up and stood there watching him water,” says Young. “That’s when Bruce noticed the band around the leg of the bird, which he called Vivienne, because he mistakenly thought the bird was a girl,” Young says, noting the pigeon was emaciated and close to death.

But thanks to Bruce’s foster care, Mr. Vivian survived and resides at Ploughshares Nursery, where he is happily attached to Smokey in Palomacy’s foster aviary.

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