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Five strangers drove a 600-mile relay to save an injured pigeon

Mel Tillery, a naturalist and animal lover, holds an injured pigeon found on the side of a road in Baltimore. Tillery gathered a group of five strangers to each drive a leg of a 600-mile trip to a pigeon rescue in Georgia. (Courtesy of Mel Tillery)

Night had fallen in the rural town of Blacksburg, S.C., when 26-year-old PhD student Mae Kwong-Moses pulled into the Food Lion parking lot.

Another car arrived, and its driver emerged, handing her a cardboard box with holes punched in the sides. She thanked the stranger, buckled the box into her back seat and began a three-hour drive south.

It was the final stretch in what its participants have dubbed the Great Pigeon Relay: an ambitious, crowdsourced bid to transport an injured pigeon down the Eastern Seaboard, from Baltimore to the Ramsey Loft, a pigeon-specific rescue aviary in Hephzibah, Ga.

The 600-mile trip was carried out on April 30 by people in five cars, all strangers who connected over social media to coordinate the effort.

The pigeon, which its chauffeurs named “Passenger,” was first rescued in Baltimore by Mel Tillery on April 27. Tillery was driving to the Enoch Pratt Free Library in the Roland Park neighborhood of Baltimore when they spotted an immobile bird in the middle of the road, probably hit by a car.

Most people would have kept driving, but Tillery, 34, who has experience with wildlife rehabilitation, was quick to scoop up the bird, ease it into an Amazon box and drive it home. Sitting in afternoon traffic, Tillery snapped a picture of the pigeon and posted it on Tumblr.

“It was kind of a surreal and weird image that also reflects a common experience in my life,” Tillery said.

They captioned the photo: “Just having a normal one. Stuck in traffic with a pigeon in my car.”

At home, Tillery assessed the pigeon’s condition as grim: It looked underweight and seemed to have a head injury, a broken wing and balance issues. Tillery knew from experience rescuing birds that the local wildlife center accepts only pigeons that can be rehabilitated and released. This bird clearly didn’t fit the bill.

But over the next few days in an old bird cage on Tillery’s porch in Towson, Md., the pigeon’s balance started to improve, and it began to drink water and eat the seed blend Tillery set out. These promising signs convinced Tillery to seek out specialized help.

Fortunately, the photo Tillery posted on Tumblr had quickly grabbed the attention of animal lovers. At one user’s suggestion, Tillery contacted the Ramsey Loft, where pigeon rehabilitator Danielle Ramsey examined photos and videos of the bird. Together, they decided that its best hope for survival would be to bring it to Ramsey’s home aviary in Georgia.

“I think when I saw the bird improving, I was like, I feel optimistic enough that this bird will survive long enough to make it to Georgia,” Tillery said. “It wants to live, [so] I think we can try to get it there.”

How does one transport a pigeon 600 miles? If a bird can survive the trip, it’s actually possible to mail it through the U.S. Postal Service. But this pigeon was far too frail to be shipped, so Tillery called upon the power of the Internet to coordinate volunteer drivers.

“A whole bunch of people stepped up — it was like a snowball effect,” said Tillery, adding that the Tumblr photo had gained more than 10,000 likes, replies and other interactions.

More than 20 people from across the East Coast reached out with offers to help transport the pigeon, with some willing to drive six hours or more to get the bird to safety.

Tillery chose five people — three individuals and one couple — to carry out the trip along the most direct route possible. The volunteers then connected on the messaging site Discord to plan their meetup times.

Former circus elephants just arrived at a new sanctuary. They are swimming and grazing on fruit buffets.

Finally, on April 30, Tillery packed Passenger the pigeon into a comfortable box complete with air holes, food, a soft towel and care instructions — and drove the first leg of the journey, about two hours to Herndon, Va.

Sales engineer and self-proclaimed animal lover Natalie Landsberg, 24, collected Passenger from Tillery about 1:30 p.m. Thanks to her flexible work-from-home schedule, she was able to spend the afternoon driving the second leg of the journey from Herndon to Richmond — a trip that took three hours with traffic.

In Richmond, she passed the bird off to freelance artist Rohan Maythe and his partner, Michael Dyess, both 27, who took Passenger the next leg of the trip. Their drive took around two and a half hours each way.

“Passenger was a very good little road trip buddy,” Maythe recalled. “He was pretty active for us and would peek at us through the holes in the box.”

The sun was beginning to dip low as the couple handed Passenger off to the next driver, Emily Orton, in Chapel Hill, N.C. By the time Orton, 22, reached the Food Lion parking lot in South Carolina three hours later, the sky was dark.

But Kwong-Moses was prepared for a long nighttime drive — she had been checking her phone all day to keep up with Passenger’s progress south.

“We were all watching out for the Discord updates about Passenger approaching us,” she said, adding that she was eager to help the pigeon reach its destination.

“When am I going to get another chance to participate in a pigeon rescue caravan?” she said.

Her participation also had a self-serving element: “Low-key, partially it was about the end of the semester. … I tend to create distractions for myself,” she admitted.

Around 2 a.m. on May 1, Kwong-Moses reached Ramsey’s home. The rescue mission was complete — and not a minute too soon.

“He was so emaciated,” Ramsey, 36, recalled. “If I had dipped him for the lice [removal], the shock from getting wet would have killed him where he stood. He was that bad off.”

More than two weeks later, Ramsey says, Passenger is slowly improving. Instead of lying in the recovery cage, the bird has been standing upright much of the time, even pacing and once fluttering its wings in a meager attempt at flight.

Ramsey estimates that the bird is only around 6 months old, meaning it could have as many as 15 more years to live.

“He’s going to be evaluated as he heals. And when he is as healed as he is going to be, we will move him out to the loft and see how he handles being around other pigeons,” she said. “We’re going to find him a home. And he’s going to be here for as long as that takes.”

An interstate caravan to save a single bird that many consider a common pest may sound excessive. But Tillery and Ramsey both note that pigeons first came to North America as domesticated pets — and they’re still excluded from most of the laws that protect the continent’s native birds from harm.

She just graduated from college. She said her Uber passenger made it possible.

Ramsey said her affection for this species stems in part from a desire to right what she sees as a wrong.

“They’re the avian equivalent of stray dogs,” she said. “We’ve got shelters for literally every other domestic animal in the U.S. But pigeons fall through the cracks.”

Ramsey’s organization is one of only a handful in the country dedicated to pigeon rescue. But she has hope that kind strangers, like those involved in the Great Pigeon Relay, may represent a growing community that cares about these birds.

“I have a much bigger appreciation for pigeons after reading all the stuff that the Ramsey Loft does,” said Landsberg, the second driver in the relay. “Now I’m semiactive in the pigeon rescue Discord, [and] I volunteered my services if needed in the future.”

The other drivers have kept in touch through the online group, as well.

Ramsey said she was touched — and impressed — by the relay effort.

“Honestly, even if he hadn’t made it, it still would have been worth it for him to at least be in comfort, and safety, when he passed,” she said of Passenger. “He’s still a domestic animal. He still deserves to not just waste away on the street.”

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