On Duchess, an excerpt from The Long Flight Home
The bird, unique with its glowing purplish-green neck plume, more appropriate for a peacock than a pigeon, fluttered to the floor and waddled to Susan’s feet.
“I’m afraid I’ve spoiled you.” Susan poured feed into her hand and kneeled. Duchess pecked at the grains.
The touch of the beak tickled Susan’s palm. She knew she shouldn’t be hand-feeding a pigeon—it wasn’t the Pigeon Service’s protocol, or her grandfather’s—and would no doubt cause problems if Duchess were put into service. But this bird was different. All because a feral cat had managed to scratch its way under the door and take the lives of Bertie’s prized racing pigeons, Skye and Islay.
Three years earlier, Susan and Bertie had found what was left of Skye behind the grain barrel. They had found Islay in her nest with a severely injured wing, sitting on an egg she had laid before her attack. They had tried to repair Islay’s wing with tape and splinters of wood, but she was too weak to eat, and sat feebly on her egg for five days before she passed. They had buried her in one of Bertie’s tobacco boxes, next to Skye near the edge of Epping Forest.
When none of the other pigeons would sit on the egg, tainted from the feline tragedy, Susan insisted on incubating, despite her grandfather’s belief that the chances of the egg hatching were extraordinarily slim, especially without a calibrated incubator that they could not afford. Stubborn like her grandfather, Susan retrieved a blue ceramic bowl, once used by her grandmother to eat oatmeal. She warmed the bowl with water from the teakettle to establish a good base temperature, then delicately wrapped the egg in a lightly moistened towel and placed it inside. Setting the bowl under Bertie’s desk lamp, she adjusted the distance to reach the ideal temperature by using a medical thermometer, which she had tested by sticking it under a nesting pigeon.
For two weeks and two days, Susan rotated the egg every eight hours and sprinkled drops of water onto the towel to keep the proper humidity. And despite the odds of having to bury the egg next to its parents, the egg quivered early on a Sunday morning. Susan and her grandfather skipped church, pulled up chairs, and watched for three hours as the egg slowly cracked open. As church bells rang over Epping to release their congregations, a shriveled hatchling poked its way into the world.
It had been a miracle, but Susan knew that this hatchling still had a slim chance of survival without the aid of her parents’ pigeon milk. Undeterred, she took to grinding seed into paste and feeding the hatchling by hand. Within a few days, the hatchling was able to stand, unfurl its wings, and peck. One week later, it was eating feed with the others in the loft. And Susan named her Duchess, despite her grandfather’s fondness for naming his racing pigeons after remote Scottish land masses, none of which they had ever visited.
Duchess had grown into something extraordinary. And it wasn’t just her looks, even though her neck plume shimmered like mother of pearl. It was the bird’s intelligence—or odd behavior, as her grandfather believed—that made her stand out among the flock. While homing pigeons were trained by the reward of food, Duchess seemed to be driven by the need to understand the world around her, a strange sense of curiosity hidden behind her golden eyes. Instead of joining the group, Duchess was content to watch her companions eat as she stood on Susan’s shoulder, cooing in response to Susan’s words, as if the bird enjoyed the art of conversation. And even more impressive was Duchess’s athletic ability, typically the first to arrive home after the pigeons were released at a distant training location. Bertie had commented that Duchess was the fastest to return, only because of her desire to get a few minutes of Susan’s undivided attention. Susan laughed but knew there was some truth to what he said.