It had been a long day and I think we were discussing something like how many gallons of hand sanitiser we would need for the summer, Covid-19 related stuff, over a cup of tea and some home made cake. My mind was drifting a little towards the little spider making a web in between the slats of the bench I was sitting on. I wondered how many generations of spiders had grown up on that bench with the playground as their home for their brief lives.
The three of us, Oli, Leah and myself had been meeting for the umpteenth time that week and we were on the terrace enjoying the afternoon a little. There was a light breeze, it was a slightly grey but warm day, when suddenly at head height,a slow moving grey ball of feathers gracefully glided in and perfectly settled on the office window ledge. This was not an attack of any sort, but a controlled landing by, what looked like, a tired looking pigeon.
Initial surprise quickly gave way to curiosity as our visitor was clearly settled and showed no interest or fear about our proximity. Ah ha, I thought, it must be some kind of racing pigeon, used to humans nearby. A quick check towards its scaly red feed showed it had white identification rings and numbers. Within a couple of minutes The Royal Pigeon Racing Association had given me the owner’s name and contact details in exchange for our feathery friend’s ID. Apparently, the law states that owners must make arrangements to pick up their stray racing pigeons.
In the meantime, we realised that our manners were lacking and should offer our new friend some refreshments. A posh bowl of tap water and some top grade mixed bird seed was presented. This was feasted upon as if it was the best restaurant in town before “Pepper” the pigeon settled on the perch, blew out his/her feathers and rested its head in order to have a proper sleep.
I rang the owner and gave him the news of his pigeon. He sounded a little bothered and asked if I had “contained” it. “What do you mean?” I said. “Put it in a box,” he replied. OK, I thought, that can’t be too difficult. “What size box?” I said. “Oh, about 10 inches by 3 inches” he advised, “they normally get delivered that way”. “But that’s tiny” I heard myself saying. What does he want me to do next, post it back? He then advised that perhaps after a short rest and some food, the pigeon might take off again, especially if it was on a high ledge or roof. So I figured that was the best option, but first I would need to catch it.
The pigeon was given some time to rest before being ushered off the office window and away. Thing is, Pepper fancied walking and really was not up for any flying at all. So for the next hour I tried to pick the bird up, uncertain of how to do this - to lunge or to lure - following it around the playground’s perimeter. Every time I got a finger tip to it’s feathers, the bird got into smaller gaps or simply glided away a couple of metres. We clambered over the pile of shredded bark on the concrete before exploring the log piles, went through the den by the wall and ended up playing some mad chase game behind the camouflage netting and fence by the car crushing machine, where the pigeon would climb through the thick forest of branches that had been dumped there to a point that I could go no further, poked in the eye by twigs, impaled by sharp thorns and covered in old petrol and oil from the machine. I would then have to climb out, go to the other end, where I could reach the pigeon once more, but after getting close the bird would simply turn around and walk back in the other direction and out of my reach again.
My desire to help the pigeon was draining a little, but the thought of the end that inevitably would come at the paws and jaws of either the cat or the fox who live at Grove sometime in the next hour or so drove me on. My next attempt was somewhat cavalier, but the tactic of diving headfirst into the branches, ignoring the pain, and using a long stick to shepherd the bird worked. It was trapped and I reached out with both hands, fully expecting to get a sharp peck on the fleshy part of my thumb, but to my surprise, the little bundle sort of accepted its fate and relaxed into my hands.
It was tiny, when the feathers were pressed in, there was nothing to its body. You just felt the heartbeat racing at a thousand miles an hour, but even so Pepper looked quite relaxed. The next job was to get the pigeon to a safe place, on a roof or something, that's what the owner had said. So up on the terrace and then a short hop to the roof - easy, peasy I thought, job done.
The day was winding down a bit, Oli was running that night, Leah had left and I was thinking about leaving as well. Back in the office, I was packing my bag when I saw out of the corner of my eye, the pigeon gliding towards the climbing wall and landing on top. Hmmmm, I thought, could be worse - at least it can still fly, he’ll be off soon. Yeah, right.
Five minutes later, I’m outside on the terrace, looking across to the bird on the wall, when it takes off and once again glides towards the building. However this time, the trajectory was wrong for a landing on the window ledge. Pepper wasn’t heading for the window; it was heading for me, like one of those birds of prey wranglers at the Lambeth Country Show. However at the last minute, the bird veered left and flew straight into the big mirror on the wall next to me - it must have looked like a window to our feathery friend and had thought to fly through it to safety beyond. Pepper must have felt a right idiot, as it stood up and staggered into the building, hiding behind the table tennis table. It was like watching a drunk trying to get into a house after a heavy night, post-lockdown, and ending up sleeping in the shed.
What now I thought, until Oli came up with a bright idea. He suggested the bird stayed for the night. Capital idea, so the plan was hatched, shutters shut, premium bird seed and water left and Pepper was happy as any pigeon could be. A night’s rest then off in the morning.
I was a little anxious the following morning as I didn’t know if I was to be greeted by an angry and enlivened bird as I opened the door, but Pepper was quietly and happily sitting on the paint pot we had left it on last night, although there was evidence of some late night snacking going on. The bird looked a little guilty.
Now the time for a return flight was here and I opened the nearby shutter, only to reveal the cat that always turns up first thing in the morning, perhaps it had been smelling caged pigeon all night. The cat is small and jet black, very anxious around strangers, but is a killing machine, loves to eat and chase around. I had watched many times as it practised stalking and killing prey again and again, just to get the moves right when the time comes.
The major trophy I witnessed the cat devouring one day was a large grey squirrel, headless by the time I arrived, and I had to chase him off to hide the corpse as a 5 year old birthday boy was being shown around the playground by his father, who had hired the place for the lucky kid’s party. But that’s another story.
So the building shutter was dropped to protect the bird and a little snack prepared for the cat. I led the the little furry monster to the other side of the building, by the Unity cafe, and returned to the flightless pigeon. There was limited time available, so I chased the bird out through the staff entrance and it promptly turned left and walked down the path to the gate entrance by the post box. OMG I thought, glancing down the other way to see the cat still at breakfast. I calculated I still had some time and got the long stick back from yesterday’s chase and forced the bird back up the path towards the sand pit. I yelled and jumped about and hey presto it took off.
Pepper landed again on top of the small red slide to the left of the main towers. Come on pigeon, you can do it, I was thinking as I re-positioned myself by the slide ready to scare the pigeon into flight once more. Sure enough, it jumped and flew off, gaining a little height before taking a sharp right and gliding down, over the main fence, into the scrap yard next door.
“Oh flipping heck” I muttered out loud to no one in particular and was torn between trying to retrieve the bird from what would possibly be a gruesome end next door or moving on with the day. I was due down at Peckham in 30 minutes to view an old ceramic sink for the playground and chose to keep my appointment in SE22.
As I wandered out onto Gordon Grove, I was perhaps still thinking about both options before my feet took me up the entrance road to the scrapyard. Ridiculously, I found myself climbing up and down mountains of tyres, peering through gaps into the empty yard next door and even asking one of the lads around the arches if they had seen a pigeon. I satisfied myself over my efforts, albeit fruitless, and continued on to Peckham with a guilt-free heart.
End of story?
Back at the playground about 90 minutes later, I was in the office, shutters up and the day was progressing as normal. Cup of tea in hand I looked out the window only to see once more Pepper the pigeon coming in for another landing on the window ledge. It overshot a little, slid, hit the window and gently dropped to the terrace below. The bird looked very happy to be back “home”
I was also very happy to see Pepper and a little proud that it had made it back. So I thought this deserved some reward and prepared a meal once again. Pepper had just crossed the terrace floor to devour some seeds when I noticed the black cat just looming into view. It was in full prowl mode, low to the ground and moving slowly from the direction of the tyre swing through the long grass towards the pigeon, who was happy and content, spinning in tight circles, like a Flamenco dancer, throwing seeds up in the air as if there was no tomorrow.
I shouted out the window, neither cat nor bird took the blind bit of notice and I then added arm waving into the equation with a renewed effort to distract. Still no joy, it was a split second decision, I ran outside shouting and waving, and leapt to my right toward the office window just as the cat was accelerating towards the pigeon, now 2-3 metres away. Almost Ethan Hunt like, I hurled myself between the two animals, one intent on murder the other on dancing, and by sheer will forced the cat to stop. The cat looked at me, a friend, with hatred and scorn before retreating back towards the sandpit, making some unholy and I’m sure deeply offensive noises in my direction.
The cat was furious but settled, the pigeon dizzy with happiness as it had now found the water bath I had set out the previous night and was having a leisurely wash, unaware of the game of life and death that had just been played out. Hey Ho, I thought before taking no nonsense and re-capturing the pigeon on my first attempt. A large cardboard box was located as I held the bird safe and secure from horrible demise. I reached in with the bird and Leah, who was by now on hand, placed a lid on top. This was then firmly secured by a 5 litre tin of yellow gloss paint and placed on top of one of the picnic benches. Pepper was now a “contained” bird.
I called the owner again and told him the story of the day and that we really wanted the bird collected. He did cheekily ask if we might have any staff that would be coming nearby West Drayton any time soon, but was not surprised to learn that we couldn’t help. It would have been nice to have seen the owner and have a chat, but his wife and daughter came down instead.
We asked a few questions about the pigeon, but didn’t get much from her, just that it was a young bird, about 6 months old, with no name and she didn’t know whether it was a girl or a boy, which was a little sad from our point of view.
However, there it is, Grove Adventure Playground continues in the fine tradition of animals at the playground and we can now add the story of Pepper the racing pigeon that strayed from its path who stayed with us for a couple of days in July 2020.