At one time, if you told me a person and a pigeon could become friends, I probably would have tilted my head and smiled. The possibility would have intrigued me since I have always taken a liking to birds. Still, the idea of a wild bird and an ordinary person connecting seemed farfetched.
Feeding wild birds has always been a hobby of mine. A pastime that has made me happy ever since I was a child.
While backpacking solo, I chose to spend a lot of my time around nature. In the same way that so many people enjoy “people-watching,” watching birds is just as grounding for me. It connects me to wildlife since most of the animals we typically encounter in civilized areas usually are birds. I like to observe their behavior and laugh over their inquisitiveness.
They say curiosity killed the cat, but really I think pigeons are far more daring animals.
Not unlike people, each bird has its own personality and if you watch them closely enough, you can definitely see their unique characteristics through their flockmates’ interactions and behaviors.
In Croatia, I had the distinct honor of bonding with two wild pigeons during my month-long visit.
Befriending Wild Pigeons
My whole story about becoming close friends with a flock of pigeons from Zadar started with this bird right here.
For the longest time, this pigeon went without a name. Toward the end of my visit, I finally settled on naming her Belle because each morning, I’d see her right around the time when the church bells in Zadar would ring.
Belle was a quiet and gentle bird. She also happened to have an injured leg. It made walking a challenge for her.
I would oftentimes see her struggling to compete with the rest of her flock for food. After noticing this, my goal became to help her out by distracting the other birds while I discreetly gave her a separate pile of food to enjoy. I wanted her to be able to eat without getting constantly pushed and shoved around by the more aggressive pigeons as she so often would be.
Belle quickly caught onto our secret strategy.
Next, I’d like you to meet Jesse.
Not that I went to Croatia expecting to befriend any pigeons, but it didn’t surprise me as much when I got close to Belle considering I was targeting her with food, whereas Jesse and I bonded by pure chance.
I singled out Belle from day 1 because of her leg injury, but befriending Jesse… kind of just happened.
Jesse was a bold and assertive pigeon who held himself with poise. I think he must have been a very dominant member of his flock because he struck me as somewhat of a leader among them. He was always courageous, the first in line, and appeared to be exceedingly intelligent.
His big black eyes were mesmerizing.
I guess from seeing me with Belle, he deemed me trustworthy and safe. Then he charmed me.
How It All Began
As you’re beginning to see, I forged unexpected friendships with these two pigeons during the month I spent traveling around Zadar, Croatia.
Belle and Jesse taught me a ton of lessons about pigeons and the way their minds work. After experiencing something so unusual, I felt compelled to share our story and pass on bits of what I learned from them. Even though this animal friendship began as nothing more than a little hobby, as the days passed, it almost became like a science experiment for me.
When I realized that the birds and I had forged a connection, I began to want to test the limits to see just how far I could actually take things.
- To what extent would pigeons trust me?
- Would the trust be transferrable onto others?
- Would wild pigeons allow me to pick them up?
- How far would a pigeon willingly follow me?
Bonding with Wild Pigeons
Although my experience developed into somewhat of a science experiment, it certainly didn’t begin with the intention of becoming one.
As early as my first day in Zadar, it was my priority to stop by a supermarket to purchase a bag of grains. I chose one with a little bit of everything for a healthful variety. By day 2, I had already found a local flock of pigeons to feed over by the city’s waterfront. I first encountered them while sitting down on a bench by the water to do some blogging. A few approached me, but they wouldn’t dare get too close.
They approached, as feral pigeons often do, closer than most other birds would dare come while still keeping a safe distance from my legs.
I never travel without grains handy.
Every traveler has their “thing” that they won’t go places without. In my case, you’ll hardly ever find me without a string bag or backpack that has something for birds: rice, bread, grains, or seed.
(Also, I’m not just saying that either. Here’s proof!)
Building Trust With Pigeons
I guess the fastest way to any bird’s heart is with food. Food is sort of like this universal love language that seemingly all animals share.
The challenge is that most species aren’t courageous enough to take food willingly from a stranger. So those associations aren’t easily formed. Pigeons, however, are sort of infamous for the fact that they will. Still, they typically exercise caution around humans and most will fly away if you get too close. It can take weeks or even months to build trust with any wild animal. Pigeons included.
Whether it is by feeding them or not, you have to be intentional about helping them. They’re smart enough to understand what’s happening around them. It can take days or even weeks… but I think pigeons usually realize you’re trying to help them.
This was how I confirmed my first three suspicions:
1. Pigeons can recognize humans.
2. Pigeons can remember actions.
3. Unlike migratory birds, pigeons typically stay in a general area and will usually return back to it.
Finding My Flock
I think a lot of people see birds and dismiss them as animals that just pass by. It can be difficult to comprehend that birds also have territories and nests they call home so one visits a place in town, it’s probably a local that has visited before.
In fact, many birds are not migratory and will stay within a common vicinity. Pigeons in particular have excellent homing abilities. One article from the New York Times explains that pigeons, unlike other species of birds, don’t migrate. If removed from their typical nesting area they are able to use their excellent homing abilities to return even from great distances.
This talent with recognizing the world extends to their interactions with other birds and with humans.
Just as I learned to recognize them over time, they undoubtedly learned to recognize me.
My Friendship with Belle
Compared to Jesse, Belle liked to keep a bit of distance for safe measure, but we definitely still developed a strong friendship. In fact, I’d even go as far as to say that I was much closer with Belle than any of the other birds in their flock.
Here is a music video I put together with footage I had of her:
During my time in Croatia, I oftentimes referred to Belle simply as “my pigeon” because of the connection we had. She didn’t have a name yet, but she was the main bird I was focused on visiting.
In the YouTube video above, you can see Belle’s injury and how it impacts her ability to walk, the other birds in her flock, and a glimpse into the connection that we had.
I first met Belle on my third day in Zadar. The following day, I noticed another pigeon bouncing the same way she would and realized it was her again! From that day onward, I tried to find Belle as often as I could. I didn’t spot her every single day, but the final tally was pretty close to it. I’d take at least one photo if I saw her each day to keep track.
Over a span of 28 days, I must have seen her somewhere in the city at least over 25 times or more. Going a full day without her landing nearby became an oddity. My trip may have only been four weeks long, but I grew very attached to her in that short span of time.
Each morning, I’d go by the waterfront and await the arrival of her and her flock. Once I was spotted, they’d land around me.
I began to learn and understand “pigeon time” and became familiar with their schedule of which times I was likely to see them and when I was almost certain not to. I also grew familiar with the weather-connection. Cold, windy, or rainy days meant I’d see them usually 1-2 hours later than usual.
I remember, when the time came for me to move on and travel somewhere new, I dreamt that I was on an airplane and when I looked out the window, Belle was outside of it flying.
I was devastated about eventually leaving.
I never was good at good-byes.
My Friendship with Jesse
Jesse was an observant pigeon. You can see him here in the background on high-alert when I was paying more attention to Belle than to him. His big bug eyes never missed a thing.
Jesse didn’t allow me to hold him until 14 days after I met him. So it took us two weeks to develop enough trust in one another for that type of interaction.
Even though Belle trusted me, perhaps due to her foot injury and poor balance, she wouldn’t really allow me to lift her up. Jesse on the other hand…. would fly and land on top of me…
To the point where I’d speedwalk in the city center because if Jesse spotted me, we’d turn heads with him making his *grand landing.* Hahaha.
(For the record, I think I was just as afraid to hold Jesse at first as he was of me. When the time came to try it, it was HIS decision… not mine.) I wasn’t actively trying to hold Jesse or to train him.
The first time it ever happened, I wasn’t expecting it and had a little panic attack. I was in disbelief. Did this bird…. just decide…. he trusts me THIS MUCH? It was stunning.
Then we bonded a bit more and became buds. What once left me speechless became normal Jesse behavior and I realized he just wanted to chill together after he ate lunch.
The hand taming came naturally to him. Jesse discovered on his own accord that if he flew onto this stranger’s hand, he’d receive first-class pigeon treatment and gain early access to food.
If you’ve never held a pigeon before, let me be the first to tell you, it is the most unusual feeling when they grip onto you. Their bodies are hefty and airy all at the same time. They’re pretty cool birds.
Leaving My Flock
At the end of the month, it was difficult for me to leave Zadar. Sometimes you can travel to a place for only a few days and fall in love. It hits a little differently when you go somewhere and forge a really special connection with something or someone there.
Some people might say think I am crazy or say, “dude, they’re just birds,” and that’s fine. I don’t expect everyone to get it. You can’t easily earn or replace a bird’s friendship. If you’ve never experienced this kind of bond with a wild animal before, it’s difficult to fully appreciate why someone would be so reluctant to give it up.
It’s kind of like having a pet you’re really attached to. If something happens, you can get a new one, but you can’t ever replace the ones you’ve loved.
Wild animals are naturally and instinctually afraid of humans. Pigeons may be friendlier than most, but to gain one’s total trust is still a stretching task that takes time, patience, and persistence.
It was so incredibly hard to say good-bye forever and walk away from a flock of birds that I spent weeks trying my best to build a connection with. It felt so horrible to break the routine we all got used to. To wake up on my last day in Zadar knowing the flock would be looking for me only to never see me ever again after I’d left the city.
To think that my pigeon, Belle, would be hobbling around looking for a private pile of birdseed… only never to get one.
To think that Jesse might be roosting in a treetop scanning the humans passing underneath wondering where that “Rocky” guy vanished off to.
Leaving is hard. Leaving without being able to explain yourself is harder.
All of this took place at the end of 2018.
I told myself I’d go back someday. I don’t know if that’ll actually happen or not. Pigeons can live for years so I do sort of wonder if Jesse and Belle are still around.
For the longest time, I was reluctant to share details about my experience online because I feared someone might see this post and identify where they live. Even if the odds of someone acting on it are slim, I didn’t want any tourists or travel bloggers finding them or disturbing them when the birds are just trying to innocently live their lives. (In the age of social media, people will do just about anything for a photo…)
A lot of time has now passed. I don’t know if they’re still around or not. I’m just hoping that at this point, I pray my writing never causes these birds to be bothered, followed, or stalked by other travelers.
I am still curious if they would still have the capacity to remember me or how easily they’d fall back into their old patterns if they saw me again. Unfortunately, with the state of the world, it is unlikely I’ll have the opportunity to test that out anytime soon.
Whether or not my wish of seeing them again comes to fruition someday, we shall see. I just hope the flock has been okay. I’d like to think Belle and Jesse are still flying about happily living their best pigeon-lives in Zadar.