How Cleaning Up Pigeon Sh*t Helped Me Get Over Myself

Illustrated by Mary Galloway.
A friend of mine has an exceedingly New York story about the time a rat took a seat on her foot while she waited on a subway platform. There she was, catching up on her reading until a G train felt like materializing, when she felt warmth and pressure on her sneaker. She peered over her magazine and saw a large rat “just chilling on my foot, lounging on it,” as if it were a bench. Predictably, she lost her mind. I, on the other hand, am more than a bit jealous. She made friends in the wild! Let me explain: I’m a lifelong animal lover, and a proud volunteer at the Wild Bird Fund (WBF). It’s the city’s only rehabilitation center for sick and injured wildlife, and my work there requires that I care for a constant stream of so-called urban pests. Alongside the sexy migratory species that pass through the Northeast in the spring and fall, delighting bird-watchers like Jonathan Franzen, the WBF works with pigeons, gulls, bats, and squirrels. They even catch and release the mice that infiltrate their building in search of spilled birdseed. Once a week, I take a train to the WBF’s headquarters, just west of Central Park, change into hospital scrubs, and get cozy with needy beings most people do their best to avoid. I started volunteering at the WBF simply because I enjoy working with animals, but my time there has changed me in ways I would never have expected. I get nipped and crapped on, often. I find myself covered in vomit, and worms, and fish guts. Every now and then I get a feather or a foot in my mouth. That might sound revolting, but for me it’s consistently and completely therapeutic; when I shed my street clothes, I’m able to shed the anxieties I layer on throughout the week. To my great surprise, I’ve found that getting covered in shit helps me work through my own shit. Here’s how.

To my great surprise, I’ve found that getting covered in shit helps me work through my own shit.

I am not what you would call an extrovert, and part of the reason I’ve always felt comfortable with animals is that I don’t have to worry about being cool enough for their art school friends or make small talk with them about whether or not Jon Snow is really dead. I expected the WBF to indulge my social awkwardness — what hospital wouldn’t love a volunteer who’s content to mop quietly in the isolation ward? — but it’s denied me that luxury. If I’m the only person in the lobby when someone rushes in with a wounded bird, I can’t pretend I need to use the bathroom and fade away.

A month ago, as I helped soak a giant swan’s injured foot in an Epsom salt bath, a gaggle of little girls gathered on the sidewalk at the center’s front window to make saucer eyes at us. There was no pretending we were invisible; on the contrary, I did my damndest to get those girls to drag their parents through our front door, ask a million questions, and fall hard for the birds and our work. Sure, Instagram me and the swan. Share that with everyone you know! Tag us!

I’m an especially eager wingwoman for the pigeon hatchlings that fill the center’s incubators. Though their patchy feathers and lumpy beaks will never go viral on social media, I’ll talk them up to tour groups of schoolchildren until my peeping’s as hoarse as the patients’. Pigeons come to the WBF with cigarette burns, half-plucked, and wingless with obvious scissor marks. How do you release baby birds you’ve helped raise into a city where that awaits them? How do you stop talking about it? Working at the hospital has been as lethal to my vanity as it’s been to my social anxiety. In early December, the same afternoon my husband and I firmed up plans to visit family in California for Christmas, a young herring gull wriggled out of the bath towel I’d been using to transfer him from his cage to an exercise pool — and bit me in the face. Gulls are notorious biters, and my fingers have felt their wrath many times. My chin was new to the game, however, and it didn’t fare well. A long, deep scratch started at the corner of my mouth and extended down to my jaw, like a marionette’s seam; it bled like a motherfucker, and I ended up grabbing another towel for myself. My husband stepped back and cocked his head when he saw my bandaged face that night: “Street brawl?” The wound took its sweet time to heal and fade, and there was nothing I could do to camouflage it. The fact that I’d spend the holiday season looking like a supervillain was an unexpected gift: Normally, I get a little self-conscious about seeing my friends and family during the holidays, but knowing that this gash came from a gull I’d helped made it okay. Plus, it felt a bit badass, to be honest. Why bother hemming and hawing about special occasion makeup and this or that little black dress when you look like you’ve been dueling? I pursed my lips at myself in the mirror, wrinkling my nasty scab, as I pulled on a sequined top before the first party. I was a mess, but I decided not to care. The scratch is finally gone, and since then, other imperfections have stopped bothering me so much. Sporting a wound for weeks made me realize that worrying about your looks just gets in the way of living your life; I can’t go back to bothering about lines on my face. That angry bird will save me a fortune on concealer. I started spending time at the WBF when I was a magazine editor; a year later, when I became a full-time writer, the shifts I’d had to wedge into my weekends started creeping into the middle of my schedule. They belong there, I think. I’ve developed the patience freelancing demands in the long, quiet hours I’ve spent loosening dried blood and tar from pigeon feathers, wiping down row after row of cages, and recording a baby bird’s weight gains, a gram at a time. And that intimacy has become the antidote to the lacerating world in my head. In essence, this intense, filthy work has helped me understand that I can treat myself as kindly as I want others to be treated.

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