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Meet the N.L. couple finding happiness in pet pigeons

Whether wandering around the Avalon Mall or walking along the harbourside during cruise ship season, Matthew and Jay Howlett regularly draw curious glances from passersby. Proudly perched on either one’s shoulder is a pigeon wearing pants, and chances are his name is Mr. Earl Grey.

Pet pigeons may be unconventional, but there's room for love and acceptance

A bald Birmingham roller in a purple fabric diaper poses in front of a ship

Whether wandering around the Avalon Mall or walking along the harbour side during cruise ship season, partners Matthew and Jay Howlett regularly draw curious glances from passersby.

Proudly perched on either of their shoulders is a pigeon wearing pants, and chances are his name is Mr. Earl Grey.

"We get stopped every two seconds," said Jay Howlett when describing people's reactions to seeing the unconventional sight in public.

"Is that real? Of course he's real. He's a gentleman. Look at him."

Matthew and Jay Howlett are pigeon fanciers who take care of injured and rehabilitated pigeons that need some tender, loving care. Alongside their four pigeons and two diamond doves, the Howletts' St. John's apartment is also home to a corn snake, a pumpkin patch tarantula, an African fat tail gecko and a Syrian hamster.

WATCH | They're like cats…with wings:

Tiny pants, big hearts: why pigeons make the perfect pets for this St. John’s couple

13 hours ago

Duration 3:04

Jay and Matthew Howlett were already into exotic pets when they discovered the colourful world of pigeon fanciers. The couple began taking in injured birds as pets, and now their apartment is home to a handful of pigeons with big personalities.

Their journey with the small-billed birds began in 2021 when Jay's friend in Australia showed them their own flock via video calls. Surprised by the notion of pigeon ownership, Jay started researching to find out more about the world of these feathered creatures. What soon followed was a deeper understanding of where the birds — often seen pecking at the ground, eating grit and sand — came from and of their untold stories.

"It turns out that we've had them for about 8,000 to 10,000 years in worldwide history. Like, they've been with people that long. We've had them in World War I and World War II, so they're veterans. A lot of people own them for racing, which personally I don't condone. I do find it [to be] cruelty," said Jay Howlett.

"But the coolest thing in history that I found was that they just co-existed with us. We use their eggs. We use their poop for fertilizer. Unfortunately, they're on our city streets because of us."

Welcome to the family

With a newfound appreciation for pigeons, Jay Howlett reached out to fellow enthusiasts on a pan-Canadian group on Facebook, stating that they were looking to keep a pigeon as a pet.

"So, we found a really nice fella out in Witless Bay.… And he was basically like pick one, pick two. How many do you want? And we end up going with two."

Named Chai and Mr. Earl Grey, the pigeons took a few months to adjust to their new surroundings and human family. Gradually, their distinct personalities began to shine through.

"Earl Grey is a very dapper, loud gentleman. He loves to strut around the house and hoard all of my yarn. Chai is Earl's flockmate. He is a little bit more timid and likes to keep to himself. He loves nesting, pretending he has an egg and sitting on it. The egg is a round chapstick," Jay Howlett said.

In 2022, a tip off from a friend about a starving pigeon outside a convenience shop near MUN spurred the Howletts into action beyond mere pet ownership. They brought the bird home, affectionately naming her Waffles.

"We made her very comfortable. We tried our best to make sure that she was hydrated more than anything. We thought she was on the mend, but the stress from being starved and neglected for so long outside in the cold. She ended up having a stroke and she passed away while I was at work," Jay Howlett said sorrowfully.

Moved by their experience with Waffles, the Howletts devoted themselves to opening up their hearts and home to even more pigeons in need. Along came Peaches, a white homing pigeon found at Bowring Park, and Chilli, whose hunched wings looked like a heavy ash-gray cloak.

"We found him over the summer at Kenny's Pond and we were just feeding the pigeons like we normally do, and I saw a pigeon that was kind of limping but couldn't fly. So I picked him up. His wing was broken but already fused in two places and his toe was backwards, so I decided to take him home," said Jay Howlett.

The Howletts promptly sought care from the Rock Wildlife Rescue, a rehabilitation centre located in Torbay. Due to the nature of his injuries, Chilli's wings had to be clipped, rendering him unable to fly ever again.

"​​He's a strong bird. He was our latest one and he's doing fantastic. He just has a big fear of people. But he knows lately he's starting to come around and understand that we've helped him," said Jay.

Matthew Howlett said another pigeon was attacked by a hawk.

"Parts of his body were actually missing. But according to Karen [the operator of the rescue group], as of right now, since we found him and got him the proper care, there's a higher chance that he's going to live now because he's passed the 48-hour period where he would have passed away," he said.

Learning to build loving, "coo"-operative relationships

When asked why they bring their pigeons outdoors, on a leash, in pigeon pants that act and look like a diaper, their immediate response is education and awareness.

"We want to be a soft rescue. That's our goal. We want to be somebody who takes in pigeons from the Rock Wildlife that can't be re-released and give them proper homes because they deserve it," said Jay Howlett.

By expanding their haven for the birds, the Howletts also hope to play an important role in addressing abuse toward pigeons or overbreeding, particularly among those who are already unable to fend for themselves.

Ultimately, their message is to keep an eye out for any pigeon showing signs of disorientation, injury or panic from being near animals of prey like feral cats and hawks, and to bring them in for care at the Rock Wildlife Rescue.

"[The] least we can do is throw out a couple of seeds for them — not bread — and then just be nice to them," said Jay Howlett. "They are just as cold as you are in the winter time, [and] as hot as you are in the summertime."

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ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Nabila Qureshi is a journalist at the CBC bureau in St. John's. You can reach her at nabila.qureshi@cbc.ca.

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