The Bird Man

In Pittsburgh, Uncategorized on May 13, 2011 at 12:00 am

An excerpt from my Nature & Environmental Writing class. We were asked to maintain journals on environmental concerns.

A man stooped over the sidewalk, but I could barely see him. He was surrounded by a cloud of pigeons. They whirled around his arched body, a great cyclone of feathers and heads. Beneath his feet, a pool of pigeons rippled, their hundred heads pecking at the ground.

When I got close enough to take a picture, the man turned suddenly — which startled the entire flock. They all took wing at once, the air whipped with sound and movement, and I could feel the breeze of their bodies as they whisked just past my head. I ducked, and a moment later, there was only me and the old man.
          The man glared at my with yellowed eyes. His tongue lay over his bottom lip, as if paralyzed in mid-smack. His face was pruny and leathered, and when I nodded to him, he only jerked his head from side to side. His throat made a little sound, but no words came; and a second later he rotated, revealing the worn-through spots in his coat. As he walked away, he groped popcorn from his pocket and tossed it to the pavement, which spawned a new pool of pigeons.
          “They’re just rats with wings,” my ex-girlfriend used to sniff. “They’re disgusting.”
          I’ve always been drawn to city pigeons, these odd ducks of the avian world. They could be no city pigeons without cities, and their global migration is owed entirely to humans. What’s odd is that doves (the symbol of peace and hope) are practically identical to pigeons (the symbol of urban pestilence). It’s hard to imagine your average park-pigeon carrying a fig-leaf in its beak, but there’s not a lot of genetic objection.

          Before there were Bag Ladies and Cat Ladies, there were Bird Ladies — odd old women who fed pigeons in the park. There must be a thousand New Yorker cartoons about this strange demographic, but not much serious consideration. Bird Ladies (and in this case, a Bird Man) are characterized as lonely and crazy, but I wonder if there’s something more to it. Sure, birds don’t judge. They flock to anyone with food. In most parks, pigeons will come incredibly close to their feeders, even balance on their arms and peck directly out of a human hand. Didn’t Mary Poppins implore her children to “feed the birds”? Isn’t there something harmlessly intimate about cavorting with a gaggle of winged rodentiae?
          Or could this be the poor man’s chance to feel nature? In dense cities, where trees are crowned with steel grates and landlords forbid anything furrier than goldfish, wouldn’t a lonesome, unmarried, mildly schizophrenic loner appreciate the comfort of a hundred instant friends? Where people are manipulative and unforgiving, the birds are enthusiastic and welcoming. Where people write laws, the birds obey only their hunger and pecking orders. We are land-bound, crawling from one interior to another, but the birds are free. Pigeons don’t even fly south for the winter, because they’re comfortable just about anywhere.
          As I strolled through South Side, I caught up with the Bird Man. Not deliberately. He was just very slow. The Bird Man hobbled, because his spine was crooked and his leg bent sideways. Every few paces, he released more popcorn to the ground, and pigeons emerged from the air, spontaneously generated from ice and concrete. I stepped around them and passed the Bird Man, who paused to study them, to nod to himself, to look up at snowflakes that now drifted from the sky.

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