fire escape interlude

dana hemes

Photo: Jonah Rosenberg

IKEA is king in the disposable, consumer society. Flat-packed pieces, complete with a single allen wrench and illustrated instructions, swiftly spread Swedish minimalism across the globe. It’s shiny and cheap and feeds us as our appetite for a better future (and meatballs) grows. It is specifically designed for the transitional phases in life: college dorm room desks and shower caddies, first studio apartment futons, baby cribs, tiny bunk beds… Trips to the homeware superstore mark a new chapter in life, and subsequently a new dumpster filled with plastic, particle board, and chipped veneer.

It seemed appropriate that a pigeon chose to lay eggs in an empty IKEA bucket that I forgot out on my fire escape. She threw a few twigs in the bottom and voila -- a sheltered space that would suffice for a few weeks. Pigeon rearing is an extremely temporary process, which is part of the reason you never see baby pigeons amongst the flocks fighting over bread crumbs in city squares. The eggs hatch in 18 days, and the pigeons are fully grown and ready to leave the nest only 30 days after that.


I was thrilled. As a rule-breaking patron of my fire escape, I had a front-row seat to the brief and mysterious life cycle of the majestic rock dove. Each morning and evening I climbed through the window to take a peek on their progress. Mom and dad (both sexes help in feeding and sheltering the babies) were weary of my human presence and would fly across the courtyard, keeping a piercing eye trained on me as I snapped a few pictures. I put out bowls of seed and water, but they never accepted my offerings. Nonetheless, the babies grew rapidly, doubling in size in only a few days. They were yellow and pink and the stretched skin over their eyes was milky blue, their bodies transforming from spiky blobs into characters from a children’s book.  

And then, on the evening of the fifth day, I peeked in and only saw stillness. The baby birds were nestled together, but there was no vibrating energy of life. Their muscles no longer trembled as they gained strength, and their once-quivering heartbeats weren’t shaking their tiny chests. I climbed back inside, heavy with loss as the mother pigeon resumed her position in the bucket, sheltering her babies. She stayed for two more days before leaving her lifeless nest, which turned out to be more temporary than expected. But unlike IKEA dressers, these little pigeons did not end up in a dumpster. I buried them out in a secluded area of a public park, near to a small garden I secretly built last year, in an interspecies ceremony with humans and dogs and birds and bacteria and mosquitoes and trees and poison ivy, as the brief life of these little creatures became food and sustenance for other flora and fauna.