The Inspirational Undead.

Apparently this is the day when the blogosphere and the twitterverse and everybody who thinks the world is holding its breath to hear their latest breadfruit recipe weighs in on What Happened This Year and What This Portends for Next Year and how everyone should Dream Big And Hug Someone.  If that’s what you’re looking for, you’re in the wrong place.  All I offer this year’s end is a handful of horrifying images and a heart-warming tale to go with them.

This is Zombie Pidge.  I encountered him in the wake of a recent night of drinks and snuffles with a few friends down at the Court Jester.  One of those friends had suggested something called “saline nasal irrigation” as an alternative to the dilute hydrochloric acid I’d been snorting to keep my cold at bay.  It was in the course of seeking out that ancient Indian treatment that I first encountered this little guy huddling inside the outer door of Shopper’s Drug Mart, sheltering from the filthy freezing slush of the Danforth.  He could not fly, but other than that his demeanor was pretty much indistinguishable from that of any pigeon: not afraid of humans, but certainly not all that keen on being approached or picked up.

What was remarkable about this bird was not his demeanor per sé, but the fact that he had any demeanor at all.  It may not be entirely clear from these pictures — the little guy was too traumatised to stick his neck out for a better view, given that he’d just endured capture and transport that  must have hit him pretty much the way Dave Bowman experienced the light trip at the end of 2001 — but this bird had no real neck to speak of. Those white bits are vertebrae. We’re not talking about a deep flesh wound with bone visible at the bottom: we’re talking about the cervical flesh and skin stripped away completely, leaving a denuded spine and trachea and esophagus exposed to the winter night. We’re talking about what amounted to a pigeon head and a pigeon body, connected by a length of pigeon skeleton that might as well have been animated by Ray Harryhausen for all the muscles or tendons that I could see.  The carotid and jugular vessels (or whatever birds have in their stead) must have been intact — but I couldn’t make out anything but a bloody windpipe and a few feather-spines and those flensed, impossible vertebrae, bobbing back and forth in typical pigeon fashion as he walked.  Bone naked.

You want a Christmas miracle, kids, here it is: this mutilated bipartite creature connected by sticks and string, waddling furiously into the Cosmetics department in a desperate attempt to keep out from underfoot.

I’ve been known to kill the mortally wounded before, to save them suffering.  I’ve hammered the skulls of unfortunate mice brought in by the Gang of Fur, used a convenient rock to crush the head of the occasional seagull with a broken spine. (The eyes are what bother me most.  They’re indestructible. You can hammer a rodent skull to bloody paste and tooth shards, and those beady little eyes bounce back into shape and stare up at you like tiny reproachful superballs.  Eyeballs are tough.)  Usually, though, I don’t have the heart. Unless the wound is obviously mortal I tell myself that maybe they’ll pull through, you never know.  I tell myself that at least I can make them comfortable, that at the worst they’ll die warm and safe from predators who’d tear them limb from limb as they thrashed in the mud.  I live in a major city: I’ve long since lost count of the urban wildlife to whom I’ve given palliative care and faint hope.

Zombie Pidge was different.  This wasn’t just a mortal wound: this was a wound that should have killed the little featherduster in seconds flat.  I couldn’t for the life of me see how anything so ravaged could still be alive.  And if this little fucker had made the leap to undead status, who know how long he might last?  We were already way off the chart: maybe he might even recover.

They didn’t really want him in Cosmetics.  I managed to corner him between the lip gloss and a special promotional display for Nip’n’Tuck Home Cosmetic Surgery Accessories. I scooped him up and covered his head to calm him down.  The lady behind the counter gave me a little box to put him in (Dove, the label read.  I shit you not).  I took him home on the subway and marvelled at the scrabbling sounds rising from the box, at the subtle inertia of that small mass moving back and forth on my leg.  I got him home, set him up in the walk-in closet we generally use for such things.  (The last pigeon we had in there had some kind of neurological disorder; lasted a couple of weeks and died in mid-spasm, spraying an arc of birdseed across Caitlin’s shoes). I set ZP up with food and water, turned out the light, fell asleep astonished at his continued survival; woke up the next morning to the sound of that undead thing still scrabbling energetically behind the door.

He died around ten that morning.  He died warm and safe from predators that would have skewered and stomped him into the pavement with their five-inch stiletto heels.

That’s it.  That’s my inspirational Holiday Tale.  If it doesn’t do it for you, there’s plenty of other blogs and twits out there guaranteed to induce diabetes and swamp you in saccharine, full to the gorge with wishes of peace and love and good fuzzy-wuzzy feelings. But I used to be a biologist before I became a professional liar, and I’m telling you: this was a fucking miracle.  Or maybe it’s just life.

Either way, it’s good enough for me.

This entry was posted on Saturday, December 31st, 2011 at 2:48 pm and is filed under eulogy. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. Both comments and pings are currently closed.

53 Responses to “The Inspirational Undead.”

  1. peter darbyshire

    You’re not trying the “saline nasal irrigation” that introduces brain-eating amoeba to your brain, are you? Because after the past year, that would be a poor way to start 2012.

  2. Terry

    Thanks for giving the tough little guy a warm safe place to die. That’s more than most creatures get. Surely good karma will be your reward.

  3. Carlos

    Nice story, tho, silly me, I was fully expecting ZP to recover.

    Happy new year! Looking forward to the new yarn, too!

  4. Lynn

    Thank you for helping out his little guy, as well as the others. I’ve found myself doing the same for many a creature. Glad he/she had a safe, warm place to die. It’s the least any of us can hope for.

    I hate to bug you with asking for advice, but I’ve been thinking about going back to college to get into biology. I’d be interested in field work, monitoring species, or rehabbing injured wildlife. I have a special love for birds, but like mammals and reptiles, too.

    I’ve hesitated to get back in college because I’ve read that some jobs require a daunting amount of years in school, and two or more degrees.
    So, I haven’t been sure of what to do for some time, and I’ve wondered if there was anything I could get into without extensive college.

  5. Madeline Ashby

    Wow. Never did I imagine that Dave’s recommendation of waterboarding oneself would ever lead to a reduction in total global suffering. But apparently, it did! Good work.

  6. 03

    One has to admit, pigeons are incredibly resilient, I’ve learned that in all too many embarrassing ways in the teenage days of my homebrew crossbow hobby. Hope this little memory did not spoil the eerie-yet-heartwarming mood of this post 🙂

  7. Heath Graham

    Holy squid. That’s astounding. Up there with Mike the Headless Chicken.

    And in the end, isn’t a warm place to die, safe from predators that would dismember you alive, all ANY of us can really ask for?

  8. 03

    On a different note, one has to wonder what could inflict such a peculiar wound (if we lived in sci-fi, this would be start of a long and dangerous investigation hinting at a possible existential threat)

  9. Nestor

    A true Christmas miracle.

    Tried that nasal irrigation crap, personally, I didn’t like it and believe it’s probably counter productive, but ymmv

  10. Lars

    Happy New Year, Peter.
    Thanks for the past year of interesting and challenging reading.

  11. RedIndianGirl

    Dude. You are far kinder and humane than I. This Mohawk girl woulda stomped on that mutilated invader nuisance species faster than you could say “Hey wait a minute –“.

  12. rosyatrandom

    I took care of an injured magpie once that my friends and had found in a park after playing some hockey. It was pretty badly beaten up–though not _quite_ in the same league as the pigeon up there–, and was breathing pretty heavily. A night in a comfy shoebox, with food and water, and the next morning saw it alive and in seemingly better shape. Its breathing, at least, had gotten better.

    It was then that I made, looking back, my critical error of judgement: I took it to the vets.

    They took it in, and when I phoned up a couple of days later it was dead.

    Vets, I do not think, have much incentive to tend to injured magpies.

  13. Lidija

    happier story than the one about my broken kitten with the missing eyes. all we could do for him was name him charley and pay the vet to put him down. and cry, being the sissies we are. ok, on the up side, the vet refused to take the money in the end. maybe it was because of all the crying.

  14. Kenneth

    The second picture is the most–

    I don’t know if the word is terrifying, or awe-inspiring. My brain screams that anything that looks like that ought to already be dead, but what do I know.

    (I’ve been lurking around for a while here, still working through all the existing blog-posts. I feel my poor self growing more intelligent by the hour.)

    Side Note: It is very difficult to be a Peter Watts fan in the Philippines. I’ve read through nearly all of the backlog, but own none in a physical format. Local bookstores all have Blindsight listed in their inventories, but it is perpetually “out of stock.” And I wanted so very badly to buy a pile of copies for Christmas gift-giving.

  15. 01


    “On a different note, one has to wonder what could inflict such a peculiar wound”

    A poorly built crossbow ? 😛

  16. 01

    Eh, which is the correct tag fer them quotes again ?

  17. demoscene Val

    I suppose all we can hope sometimes is what gives us peace in our minds accomplishes a similarly positive (if utterly unsimilar) feeling in the minds of other living things. A hope that a better death matters in our corner of the void. Peace.

  18. Sheila

    01: do you mean


    or perhaps ipsum



  19. Sheila

    arg, stupid non significant white space. I thought I’d get the tags for you. they are blockquote and em. or i if you are a horrible physical markup instead of logical markup person.

  20. Janbo

    It is a good thing you have done.

    OT, I have a visiting female cat that is almost Banana’s twin: her right ear points up but otherwise they’re identical. Photo soon. I’ve taken up cat fostering and find that I have a “knack” for it. Go figure.

    And HNY to you too.

  21. Emily

    You continue to amaze me.

    Brave little guy – things like THIS are far more likely to stay with me and form a lump in my throat than any first world problem story.

    I think we should turn ZP into the new underground Christmas story. Fuck religion and fat men in red suits.

  22. ken

    Watts, you are something, man. My hat is off to you for your kindness and compassion towards all creatures of the Earth. I’ll add this to the running tally of beers that I owe you (I think we’re up to a case and a half by now).

    Now, go and wash your hands for about thirty minutes. I don’t mean to disrespect the memory of good Zombie Pidge, but I’m given to understand that pigeons can carry some nasty shit.

    Then again, I’m no ornithologist, so I default to a more learned voice.

  23. Alehkhs

    Yeah… I’m going to have to agree with Mr. Darbyshire: Given your still recent pattern of unlikely misfortune, I would probably advise against “saline nasal irrigation,” considering it killed at least two in 2011 by introducing Naegleria fowleri to the nasal tissues.

    Sure, it’s rare, but I hear NF is too…

  24. 01

    Can’t our pharmacorp friends add some freaking antiseptic to those nasal irrigation-shmirigation stuff ? Or would that be… “not organic” ?

  25. Michael VF

    I have trouble wrapping my mind around those pictures… It looks unreal. It looks like one quick peck would cause its head to fall off….

    But zombie pidge is still second to the headless wonder chicken:

    I’ve always wondered if this story is true though…

  26. Salmundo

    Reminds me of a certain apocalyptic sea lion bull. Seems you may have a soft spot for the magnificently wounded survivor ,call it Fisher king syndrome . One might think it would be a commen response but revulsion seems more typical.

  27. Sheila

    In the last chapter of King Solomon’s Ring by Konrad Lorenz he describes threat displays and responses and contrasts turtle doves to wolves.

    He had tried to pair a turtle dove with a ring dove, and left them in a cage while he took a trip to Vienna. When he came back, the ring dove had plucked and flayed the back of the turtle dove from the top of its head down the whole length of its back.

    He speculated that the doves have a different mechanism in reaction to threats that keep them from killing each other — when one attacks the other flees. Where-as with canines, when one attacks the other submits and the attacker stops the fight.

    Since the birds where in a cage, the other could not flee. This interrupted the normal course of things.

    The book was written long ago, so I don’t know how the information still stands. If it is true, then maybe your pigeon was prevented from fleeing from another bird that started to peck out its feathers. looks like it got interrupted.

    (he also described how turkeys and peacocks get mixed up. turkeys have a submission gesture, but not the peacocks, so as a peacock attacks a turkey, it triggers the turkey’s submission display and dooms the animal, since the peacock does not have the same triggers)

  28. Sheila

    So, I haven’t been sure of what to do for some time, and I’ve wondered if there was anything I could get into without extensive college

    I wonder if some open science group would provide a way for your to express your interests without involving a lot of formal education? I’m not certain at all, since I haven’t had a lot of experience with open science groups.

  29. Sheila

    My comment about birds pecking other birds on the back is awaiting moderation, but anyway, I don’t know if that is the best hypothesis. other animals go for the neck, right? so maybe someone tried to take a chomp and the zp was able to escape before the next chomp.

    Did you find any blood under the fingernails?

  30. Nestor

    Happy new year Peter, I regret to inform you that your reinterpretation of The Thing has been surpassed

  31. Peter Watts

    You might try any local wildlife rescue/rehab facilities. I don’t know where you live, but places like the Vancouver Aquarium usually have “orphaned” seal pup rehab programs or injured waterfowl programs that depend upon volunteer labor, and they’ll take anyone who isn’t afraid to get their hands dirty.

    Re Nasal Irrigation, I hear you: it didn’t do squat for me beyond leaving the memory of a weird salty water park flowing through my still-congested nose.

    Re Penguin Thing: Well, at least a marine mammal figured prominently in the cast.


    This Mohawk girl woulda stomped on that mutilated invader nuisance species faster than you could say “Hey wait a minute –”

    Yeah, and the North American lions and their sibling megafauna shoulda stomped your nuisance-invading butts when you tromped across the Bering Land Bridge; and you shoulda stomped ours when we took a shortcut across the Atlantic. Go back far enough, everyone’s an invader except ehemoth.

    Zombie Pidge was a tough little nuisance. Cut him some slack, or you have to pay for the beers next time.

  32. Hljóðlegur

    Oh dear, how I hate finding a mortally-wounded bird; my heart goes out to you. They are so programmed to behave normally even with horrible injuries, that they can be at death’s door and seem okay. My sister learned the hard way with song bird research to check capturees for adequate fat padding – they would appear fine, appear to be eating, right up until they died.

  33. Chinedum Richard Ofoegbu

    Good Christmas story or BEST Christmas story? Y/Y

    Seriously, that is both gruesome and heartwarming. What’s that poem:

    I never saw a wild thing
    sorry for itself.
    A small bird will drop frozen dead from a bough
    without ever having felt sorry for itself.

    Yeah, that’s all that comes to mind right now. When it comes to dealing stoically with injury, humans have nothing on any other species.

  34. Yukon Val

    Awww…soo cutely horrible. I vote for pigeon-on pigeon violence to explain those injuries. Sweet of you to provide hospice…

  35. Yukon Val

    And…apparently, I have hit submit instead of refresh

  36. Yukon Val

    I don’t hold that much of a grudge for pigeons as invaders… they are a great food source for urban raptors, including peregrine falcons. Yukon pigeons showed up in the 1970’s. The Whitehorse flock peaked at 450 in the ’90’s. There was a feedstore with an open yard elderly woman who liked to feed the pigeons . The store closed, the woman died and a pair of northern goshawks took up housekeeping in the clay cliffs, year-round. Seven pigeons were counted in 2004. Then, the local CBC radio ran a story about the last pigeon battlestar colony survivors and people starting feeding them…again. There are something like 40 now. English sparrows showed up a few summers ago and we can probably thank the pigeon feeders for their having managed to overwinter and breed.

    I think domesticated cats are a much worse invasive species, in terms of impact to birds native to NA, anyway. Free-range cats do feed urban foxes, coyotes and (the occasional) racoon and great horned owl. But those guys don’t really need much help, foodwise.

    Happy New Year

  37. Anony Mouse

    @Yukon Val: “I think domesticated cats are a much worse invasive species”

    Them’s fight’n words.

    Our cat-hating neighbour once came to our house complaining that she saw our cat kill a bird and demanded to know what I was going to do about it. I told her that I would give the cat a good talking to and give the bird a decent burial in our garden (I didn’t mention that our garden could probably be considered a mass grave for birds, mice and the odd squirrel and rabbit; but my tomatoes grow very well). I then asked her why she never complains about the cat killing mice, which he does with far greater frequency than he does birds. She said that this was OK because she doesn’t like mice.

    Our cat, like all self-respecting cats, always brings his kills home to leave on our font porch. But I have yet to explain why all of these kills have had the heads removed. A cat version of The Godfather keeps coming to mind.

  38. Sheila

    Yukon Val, do you live near White Horse? I am in Chicago and a friend and I once sent a note to an email on the White Horse (city hall? memory is failing) website saying that we were sorry we couldn’t visit but could they send us a city pin anyway? And they mailed us pins! That was very nice of them.

    (there was a note on the website about how visitors could stop by and get a pin).

    I wish I could visit.

  39. Sheila

    I need to reread about the mega fauna die out. I cannot remember the causes. Could I have an alternate history where they didn’t and people got to ride around on wooly mammoths and use them for transport?

  40. Sheila

    oh btw, happy holidays and touchy feely crap like that.

  41. Yukon Val

    @Anony Mouse I adore my cats, but love doesn’t have to be blind. I’m not very concerned about cats killing mice either. And I love mice. They sing to attract mates! Awesome. I don’t really enjoy living with mice, however and, more importantly, the mice my cats can catch are not threatened. There are lots of songbird species that are, though. So, I’m more concerned about bird-catching by domestic cats generally. Hypothetical, though. My ‘hood features diverse cat predators, so the cats stay in. Brains are nice and fatty. If you are not really hungry, just high-grade the best bits.

    @Sheila I live in Whitehorse. Yukon hospitality is serious business and the actual number of tourists remains manageable. So, people can do little extra things. Hope you liked the pins.

    This is the latest megafauna extinction overview paper I’m aware of. Looks like the extinction causes vary for each species and regionally..

  42. Peter Watts

    “Take the beam from thine own eye before you take the speck from they brother’s” — Jesus T. Christ

    I always find it vaguely ironic when people complain about the way cats, seals, or various bird species are responsible for such wanton ecological damage (this generally happens only when said “destructive” species is being blamed for taking something we H. saps want for ourselves). I say, money/mouth time: you can start complaining about fish-eating seals or bird-eating cats or invasive pesky pigeons after you’ve culled, say, a couple hundred million human beings.

    @Sheila: A few years back I ran across an article in Science (don’t have time to look up the specifics) which used (amongst other things) midden analysis to conclude that most of the North American megafauna was wiped out within a few centuries of Human immigration across the Bering Land Bridge — and further, that said extinctions followed a front moving from northwest to southeast, coincident with human expansion across the continent. At the time, it seemed pretty compelling evidence that we were the ones who’d wiped everything out, in which case your alternate timeline might contain mammoths or people, but never one riding the other. Don’t know to what extent the news item Val cited invalidates that.

  43. Andrea_A

    @Anony Mouse
    I agree. Cats are really worse predators, maybe one cat had been cause of a bird species extinction in New Zealand:
    In Australia, feral cats are classified as invasive species:
    And your decapitating cat? Maybe it is well-fed, picky — and therefore only eating the delicious brain. (In a TV documentary I watched Grizzly bears doing exactly the same thing with salmons.)
    As long as my beloved cat had been alife, my parents’ wood stove also acted as a crematory for mice.

  44. Yukon Val

    @Peter and Sheila The study takes the archaeological record into account…and a whole bunch of other kinds of information. It pretty much concludes that hunting pressure drove some species to extinction, may have contributed to the extinction of some, and could not have contributed whatsoever to the extinction of others. It looks at species in NA and Eurasia. Mammoths and people co-existed in Eurasia for over 100,000 years. Mammoths were still present in Alaska at 10,500 years ago, even though people showed up around 14,000. Mammoths were actually still roaming around on Wrangell Island (off the Siberian coast) 4000 years ago. And, they were a miniaturized version! Totally ridable, though I don’t know if anyone ever did.

  45. Peter Watts

    @Andrea: “The Trouble with Tibbles”!!!!!

    (credit Caitlin for the pun.)

  46. Andrea_A

    @Peter: hehe.

    @Sheila: Not exactly alternative history, but in Baxter/Clarke’s “Firstborn” an alternative earth got sampled from patches collected throughout the last million years. 19th-century Chicago got transplanted to it, surrounded by ice, and as far as I remember the inhabitants used tamed Mammoths to evacuate the town farther southwards.

    Do you know about this BBC documentary?
    Their conclusion is that there’s a major difference between co-existence of Megafauna and Humans in Eurasia, compared to the situation in America (and Australia/New Zealand). The animals had got time to adapt to the evolving Human thread, even more in Africa.

  47. Anony Mouse

    I heard something the other day that I found amusing, although I can’t vouch for its truth. But even if its not true, it should be. And it would make a good Monty Python skit.

    Apparently, during the European plague, there was one theory that it was caused by feral cats, so they made an effort to kill all the cats. Needless to say, this resulted in a baby boom for the rats.

  48. Sylocat

    Our cat, like all self-respecting cats, always brings his kills home to leave on our font porch.

    Amateurs. One of mine brings them indoors, still alive and screaming, and disembowels them on my kitchen floor.

    This, incidentally, is how I learned what sound rabbits make when in distress.

  49. Fyra länkar och ett citat | Tystnad

    […] Watts blogginlägg om den förmodat vandöda duva – eftersom någonting som är så skadat ut så bara inte skall […]

  50. Hank Roberts

    aside –> Johnston et al. Resistance of Acanthamoeba Cysts to Disinfection in Multiple Contact Lens Solutions. Journal of Clinical Microbiology, 2009; 47 (7): 2040 DOI: 10.1128/JCM.00575-09

  51. Andrea_A
  52. Cookie McCool

    Despite the fact that my neti pot looks a like a tea pot with a small penis attached, that shit works wonders for my sinuses. Probably better than inserting an actual penis into into your nostril, I reckon. I think I’m going to quit my job and work in advertising. Who wouldn’t trust that slogan, “Performs even better than an actual penis up your nostrils!”?

  53. Justin Stanley

    Take this as a comment, Peter, weird it may be: I think you would make an excellent brain injury case manager.

    It involves a careful mix of the Bosch-esque awe at the world’s horrors, and a weird can-do optimism that you can only get from a profound respect for neuroplasticity.

    this was a very touching post. cheers.