‚ÄúThat‚Äôs kind of his happy sound,‚ÄĚ said Mark LaFreniere from the backyard of his Russell Boulevard residence, west of city limits. He was stroking his 10-year-old pigeon, Lucky, who cooed softly.
‚ÄúI give him all kinds of attention in the morning,‚ÄĚ LaFreniere said. ‚ÄúI exercise him. I talk to him like a bird. I massage his wings. They like their feathers on their chest played with. I learned that from a video of a mother bird playing with her baby bird.‚ÄĚ
Lucky‚Äôs origin story is not significantly different from Harry Potter‚Äôs. He showed up on the former firefighter‚Äôs doorstep one day as a baby with a cut on his forehead. And he was special.
LaFreniere‚Äôs next-door neighbor, Lucinda Childress, had come upon the gnarly scene of a hawk attack gone wrong. The hawk had ambushed a nest of baby pigeons and one baby had survived the predator‚Äôs talons, but ‚ÄĒ with a deep gash on top of his head ‚ÄĒ didn‚Äôt seem like he would live much longer. She knew there was only one man she could turn to: The Bird Man of Russell Boulevard.
‚ÄúI lived in this house years ago and we had chickens. And I was always fascinated with the chickens,‚ÄĚ LaFreniere said. ‚ÄúI think it‚Äôs sort of a tragedy that (most people) never get to know about birds, know that they‚Äôre very emotional, very smart really.‚ÄĚ
A ‚ÄėLucky‚Äô start
LaFreniere‚Äôs reputation as a savior of birds was born with one of the smartest types of birds on the planet, the crow. In 2007, he found a dehydrated baby crow in his backyard and decided to nurse it back to health on a diet of fried eggs.
‚ÄúIt was pretty funny. It would just scream at me,‚ÄĚ LaFreniere said, wanting to be fed. ‚ÄúI‚Äôd come out with (some) fried egg and put it there and it‚Äôd gobble up the fried egg.‚ÄĚ
And then, he added, ‚ÄúOne day he just disappeared ‚Ä¶ He flew away with some other crows.‚ÄĚ
His success with the crow gave Childress confidence that her neighbor could deal with the bloodied baby bird in her yard. But the situation didn‚Äôt look good.
‚ÄúI was kind of challenged in that I didn‚Äôt know what to do,‚ÄĚ said LaFreniere, a retired 32-year firefighter with no formal training in animal care. ‚ÄúI put some Neosporin on the wound ‚ÄĒ the big old gash on his head ‚ÄĒ I gave him some water, I put him in a cage out in the back shed ‚Ä¶ I thought he‚Äôd be dead in the morning.‚ÄĚ
The next day, LaFreniere awoke to a bittersweet surprise.
‚ÄúHe was alive! And I was like ‚ÄėOh no ‚Ä¶ what do I feed him?‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Through some internet digging, he found a suitable baby-bird formula to feed the injured chick, whom he had dubbed ‚ÄúLucky.‚ÄĚ However, he soon encountered another complication.
‚ÄúWhen he was hungry he would just open his mouth and scream. And I‚Äôd just drop in the food. I had to do that every three hours,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúMy wife didn‚Äôt want to have anything to do with feeding the baby bird, or my daughters, who were going to school ‚Ä¶ So I put him in a cat-carrier box with a towel and brought him to work and set my watch.‚ÄĚ
The formula Lucky was being fed every three hours would often stick to his feathers and dry, LaFreniere explained. So he decided to wash him off in the firehouse sink, attracting the attention of his fellow firefighters.
‚ÄúThey were really amused when I gave him a bath in the sink,‚ÄĚ he remembered. ‚ÄúThat was quite a show.‚ÄĚ
However much his coworkers enjoyed it when he bathed the bird, the infant pigeon liked it even more.
‚ÄúHe really likes (bathing). He‚Äôll put his wing(s) out so I can get water underneath them and then after a while ‚Ä¶ all his feathers puff up and he shakes his feathers like a dog,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúYou could tell after I gave a bath he was more relaxed. He would loosen his grip and almost fall over.‚ÄĚ
Although LaFreniere had a fun time looking after Lucky, the little guy was a lot of responsibility; LaFreniere was still hoping that he would grow up and fly away with other birds, as his crow had done.
After taking care of him for a while, however, he realized that future was impossible ‚ÄĒ Lucky was blind.
‚ÄúWhen I found that he was blind I thought, ‚ÄėWell, what am I gonna do with a blind pigeon?‚Äô I can‚Äôt be taking care of a handicapped pigeon for the rest of his life ‚Ä¶ So I was thinking of all these ways to humanely terminate him.‚ÄĚ
Before he could figure out how to put him down, however, one incident changed his perspective.
Lucky had moved on to eating bird seed instead of baby formula, and LaFreniere put food and water out for him in bowls every day, each time in the same position.
‚ÄúOne day I was in a hurry and I wasn‚Äôt paying attention and I got (the bowls) mixed up. I came back and there was water all over the cage. He was trying to get food but ‚Äėdamn!‚Äô he kept getting water!‚ÄĚ
The realization that Lucky could remember the positions of the food and water bowls made LaFreniere reconsider euthanizing him.
‚ÄúHe could remember where his food and water were ‚Ä¶ so I just didn‚Äôt have the heart for it. You know it‚Äôs like mother‚Äôs care. You take care of them, you get attached to them!‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėSparky‚Äô joins the flock
So Lucky lived on and a few years later, in January of 2011, he got a brother.
‚ÄúThe last month before I retired, I was parking my car in the back of the station and they said, ‚ÄėHey it‚Äôs your lucky day; we have a bird for you!‚Äô Someone had brought in a baby pigeon, and they didn‚Äôt know what to do; but they knew I knew what to do.‚ÄĚ
The new pigeon was named ‚ÄėSparky‚Äô in honor of the firehouse he came from. Sparky had full eyesight and an aptitude for flight. LaFreniere figured this would translate into his eventual departure into the wild.
‚ÄúI thought, ‚ÄėOh yeah, there‚Äôs pigeons around here, he‚Äôll just meet up with them and take off.‚Äô So he flies with the pigeons for like 20 minutes and then he‚Äôs done. He never flew with them again. It was so weird. He‚Äôd fly around here ‚Ä¶ and land my shoulder and talk to me.‚ÄĚ
The new pigeon grew very attached to LaFreniere, even accompanying him on drives into town.
‚ÄúI‚Äôd go, ‚ÄėI‚Äôm going for a ride, you can come if you want‚Äô and I get in the car and he never gets off my shoulder,‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúAnd we‚Äôre going down the road and he‚Äôs like ‚ÄėWell, this is so cool. It‚Äôs like I‚Äôm flying but I‚Äôm not doing anything!‚Äô‚ÄĚ
Sparky also paid visits to LaFreniere‚Äôs parents‚Äô house next door where he showed off his signature attitude.
‚ÄúThere were these figurines on a shelf up by the ceiling.‚ÄĚ LaFreniere explained. ‚ÄúHe would fly up there and talk to them and strut around, puff his feathers and make all different kind of sounds.‚ÄĚ
His flying skills got him out of numerous close calls with the local hawks, who would dive in for sneak attacks, hungry for pigeon blood.
‚ÄúI couldn‚Äôt believe how fast he could fly. (He and the hawk) flew around to the other side of that house there ‚Ä¶ in two, maybe three seconds at the max,‚ÄĚ he said, referring to the house two doors down. ‚ÄúThen a little while later, way up in the sky is my pigeon. And I call him and he comes down ‚Ä¶ It was amazing.‚ÄĚ
Sparky also had a special technique of ‚Äúflapping like a butterfly‚ÄĚ in order to escape predators; that gave LaFreniere confidence in his security. ‚ÄúI didn‚Äôt think anything could ever catch him.‚ÄĚ
However, Sparky was no Lucky, and one December day in 2016, his luck ran out.
‚ÄúI brought him in the house and ‚Ä¶ I was showing him himself in the mirror and he was looking at himself, ya know, like ‚ÄėI‚Äôm gonna kick your ass‚Äô,‚ÄĚ LaFreniere said. As the dogs started furiously barking, he took Sparky outside.
LaFreniere had to push him off, but the bird returned. ‚ÄúAnd I go ‚ÄėNo, no, no ‚ÄĒ you can‚Äôt come inside‚Äô‚ÄĚ he explained, grabbing Sparky and tossing him back outside.
A while later, however, LaFreniere saw a pool of feathers by the front door. Then, he said, ‚ÄúI look and there‚Äôs another pool of feathers about 20 feet away. And in the middle is a hawk eating my pigeon! Just like that. And he was dead, there was no way I could save him.‚ÄĚ
‚ÄėThere‚Äôs a connection that‚Äôs made‚Äô
But LaFreniere didn‚Äôt exactly think of it as the death of a pet. To him, his birds are wild animals who just needed some help surviving.
‚ÄúI look at it like, ‚ÄėHey if its gonna die, its gonna die,‚Äô but let‚Äôs give it a try, give it a chance.‚ÄĚ he said. ‚ÄúYou do what you can.‚ÄĚ
Helping the animals is also a mutually beneficial relationship in his eyes, making it worth the extra responsibilities.
‚ÄúThey teach compassion,‚ÄĚ LaFreniere said. ‚ÄúWhen you have to take care of something, a creature that‚Äôs totally dependent on you, there‚Äôs a connection that‚Äôs made where you start having feelings or concerns for that animal. So that can be carried over to other human beings, too.‚ÄĚ
Regardless of Lucky‚Äôs effect on the human psyche, exercising and bathing and talking to him every day gives Mark LaFreniere something to do and brightens his mornings.
‚ÄúIf they go, they go. If they stay, well it‚Äôs fun and games, but it is a little bit more stressful.‚ÄĚ
LaFreniere concluded, ‚ÄúBut then again, it‚Äôs fun in a way. I don‚Äôt know, what else would I be doing? I‚Äôd be reading a book I guess.‚ÄĚ