A common pigeon asks for help on a Martha’s Vineyard ferryboat

Pigeons can be pests, but when one walks up to you all tangled up in fishing line, what are you going to do? — Photo courtesy of National Audubon Society

I’m not a big fan of pigeons. Sure, they’re deft aerialists, and they’re interesting for their variable, occasionally beautiful plumage and their over-the-top social habits. But let’s face it: given where and how they live, a feral pigeon is a tough thing to love.

Neither am I a fan of trying to rescue distressed wildlife. By the time a wild animal is in a condition in which you can catch it, it is usually a goner — sick, injured or poisoned, and close to death. Intervening, while I honor the compassion behind the impulse, often just adds to the stress the dying animal is experiencing, while drawing you into an emotional involvement that will end badly. I know. I’ve been there.

And yet, on Sunday, the following happened. I was on the ferry Nantucket, about to leave Woods Hole, enjoying bright sun and a sheltered spot on the weather deck. A pigeon landed on the deck next to me, and instead of marching comically about in hopes of a handout, as pigeons generally do, it stood motionless and stared at me.

It was a typical pigeon, the common gray variant, probably a female because it was smallish and its neck feathers showed only a hint of iridescence. Shackling its feet together and wrapped among its toes was a tangle of monofilament fishing line. As anyone would, I felt sorry for the bird. But the problem looked lethal, limiting the bird’s mobility and surely threatening the circulation in its feet. But it could fly just fine, so I saw little prospect of offering any useful assistance. And — well, it’s just a pigeon!

I went inside to buy my traditional ferry-trip beer. Stepping outside again, I didn’t see the pigeon. But moments later, as I stood near the rail, the bird flew in and landed on the back of the seat closest to me. And, once again, it perched motionless and stared at me. I put the beer in the cup-holder on the seat arm and offered the bird my finger to perch on. It declined, jumped to the ground, but moments later, flew back up to the seat-back.

So I picked it up. It made no real effort to evade me; its wings flapped a couple of times until I could get a grip over the shoulders, locking them to the bird’s sides, and then the bird went still.

I carry a pocket knife with a sharp edge and a fine point on the blade. With the pigeon in one hand and the open knife in the other, I went to work on the monofilament tangle, snipping and unwinding. Some twists had cut into the flesh of the feet and toes, but it looked like the tissues had not yet died.

This might actually work, I thought. The bird lay tense but not struggling in my hand, eyes half-closed. We were off West Chop when I plucked the last strand of fishing line out of a crevasse in a toe’s pink flesh with the tip of my knife.

Released, the pigeon made a short circle over the water and landed again on the deck. As I watched, it sheltered for a few minutes in the lee of the boat’s superstructure. Then it began patrolling the deck, head bobbing, beak zeroing in on tiny specks of edible something or other. Like a pigeon. It showed neither fear nor gratitude. Indeed, it showed no interest at all. We were done.

I don’t quite know what to make of this. But I feel quite clear that this bird asked me for help, somehow realizing that I had the ability to solve its problem. Perhaps it was an escaped domestic pigeon, used to human handling — though its ordinary plumage and lack of any bands suggested a feral origin. Certainly, being a member of the either the Woods Hole or the Vineyard Haven pigeon flock, it had experience with people and, perhaps, had learned to see us more as a resource than a threat. Still, I can’t shake the conviction that this was an extraordinarily brave bird, and one with a remarkable ability to see across the divide between different species.

The experience didn’t change my principle of non-intervention with distressed wildlife. Nor did it change my attitude toward pigeons: I find I still regard them as a not very appealing non-native species, worth watching in flight but important mainly because Cooper’s hawks consider them prime eating.

And yet a pigeon begged me for help. In some dim, birdy way, it looked beyond the danger and the ruthless social competition of its life; somehow, it imagined the existence of compassion and hoped that I might be compassionate. Then the bird matched its appeal with its trust. I have no explanation. But the episode reminded me that humans and animals, for all their differences, also share many similarities. And sometimes the connection outweighs the separation.