One flew into the fellow's head

August 30, 1996

What is a sociology researcher to do when a pigeon starts a family under her desk? Sarah Nelson explains. Now here is a conundrum for the silly season. What do you do when a pigeon builds a nest under your office desk, and lays two eggs in it?

During my life, this is not a question I have often asked myself. I do not know why it never ranked highly, but take warning now and put it on your priority list. The whole saga could be a metaphor for the existential crisis in contemporary sociology.

It all began as I was trying to digest a tuna sandwich and some racy prose on feminism and postmodernism. "Appeals to experience as authentic reconstructions of the nascent self," I read, "have resulted in the dissemination of identities within feminism that are often perceived as counter-productive." In a flurry of protesting feathers, a pigeon reared up and crashed into my head.

Each day I opened my door, the same thing happened. Once-friendly sociology staff began making excuses for declining my coffee. A week passed before we noticed the cosy nest of twigs and two pearly eggs under the desk beside my left foot.

After the shock, the first reaction was a glimmer of hopeful superstition. Could this be a miraculous good-luck omen, a portent of great wealth , research grants and a world bestseller? A sniggering THES Scottish correspondent advised consulting ancient Chinese folklore.

Brute truth soon cut optimism short. This was no falcon, dotterel or rare African warbler blasted into Edinburgh University by Atlantic storms. My golden goose was a street-pigeon, one of millions, a notorious urban pest and health hazard. The only blessings it was likely to bestow were fleas or asthma.

The next sense was of ridicule and humiliation. What were the fates saying about my research? Why had I been targeted among thousands to be given the bird? Then it transpired I was not alone: the whole sociology department was under unheard-of siege. Two weeks ago, a lecturer had to transplant another nest from his office to the balcony.

The dilemma of What to Do Next stirs amazing sentimentality, even if everyone detests pigeons. "I know how she feels!" the mother in me cried, surveying the exiled bird's stupid, forlorn red eye outside the window. Softhearted social scientists scratched their heads for a solution. I wondered with guilty prejudice whether mechanical engineering lecturers and macho medics would have reached for the rubbish-bin, or cooked the eggs for tea.

The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds would tell us what to do; or send some uniformed nest-relocator, fresh from dodging a spitting fulmar on St Kilda.

"Sorry!" piped the disembodied telephone voice. "All birds' nests are protected by law. You must wait four weeks for the eggs to hatch and another two for the wee ones to fly away."

"But I need to use my office, I have nowhere to go," I warbled. "Sorry!" repeated the pitiless voice. Sorry, but this seemed remarkably unhelpful. Who would evacuate their office for n weeks for a street pigeon? Surely the RSPB should accept callers' genuine concern and suggest alternative ways of saving the nest? And why the inconsistent footnote that I could try ringing Rentokil? "I'd love to know what they do when birds nest in their own office," snorted the man from environmental health. Given the law, a discreet veil had better be drawn over his own advice.

Grimly, I imagined huddling in the draughty corridor for two months while the wretched pigeon chomped my biscuits, drank my coffee and thumbed critically through my papers on "bowel disorders and childhood trauma" or Kernberg's "Aggression in personality disorders and perversions." As always in universities, the support staff came up trumps.

"I used to work in a maternity unit, birds were always nesting there!" said the young servitor cheerfully, as he gently slid the nest on to a shovel and Hoovered the droppings.

Tiptoeing across to a venerable, cavernous Edinburgh University staff loo, he laid the nest on a sheltered sill outside the window, inches from the toilet bowl.

For five days I was racked with tormented guilt, unable to write a sentence or read a single paper on the social construction of childhood sexuality. I imagined hungry herring gulls devouring the white blobs, or the eggs growing cold and rancid as the frantic mother searched in vain.

Finally peeping in, I spied the stupid red eye of the fat bird as she yawned snugly on the window-sill. My elation was contagious. Two days later a tiny, blind, scrawny yellow bundle of incredible ugliness blundered about in the nest as lecturers and secretaries rushed in to stare wondrously at five-minute intervals.

My reputation soared, even though I had not written a line and all my grant applications had been turned down. Surely the servitor deserved the credit? Clearly I should change direction altogether and apply for an ornithology grant - "sexual abuse among short-eared owls", perhaps. Meanwhile, in the street below, hordes of detested pigeons fell over our feet among the chip papers, and splattered our car bonnets.

What did it all mean? What have we learned about ourselves, cognitive dissonance or the social order? How, indeed, has the experience enriched contemporary feminist discourses? These questions should undoubtedly figure in our next series of departmental seminars; with luck, pigs will fly before they do.

Sarah Nelson is honorary research fellow in the sociology department at Edinburgh University.

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