THE BIRDMAN OF SHILSHOLE
by Clarence Brown
American Reporter Correspondent
SEATTLE, Wash. –- As a birder, I am strictly an amateur, and never roam about in search of them. But when they come to me, as they incessantly do so long as I remember to fill the feeder on the back deck, I like to know who they are.
Those on the feeder are, as you might imagine, mostly house sparrows, but we also see goldfinches, pine siskins, and even the occasional northern flicker, a sort of woodpecker. It is of course the Cape Fuchsia, not the feeder, that fetches the Hummingbirds.
There are birds that I do go in search of, and these are the pigeons in Golden Gardens Park, on the shore of the Puget Sound. It is my habit to go feed them when the children are in school, for little people love nothing more than dashing at a group of pigeons to scatter them.
The other day I filled my large cake tin with seed and drove through the leafy tunnel that leads down to the coast. I had no idea whether the birds would know me now after such a long break–since May.
The day was foggy, but the sun was breaking through. I knew that I was taking a chance on a Saturday, when the kids who love to run at the birds might be there, but I went anyway.
Since I had not been there for months, I assumed that any pigeon who knew me or my routine would have died or migrated or something. I thought that I could sprinkle a few seed in the parking lot to get their attention and then gradually edge toward the table that I always sat at when feeding them.
My usual space by some miracle was free, so I pulled in, got out, put on my cap ... and heard a powerful whirr of wings behind me. And around me.
And over me.
They mobbed me. Never have I been so overwhelmed–and this without the least hint that I had any seed to distribute. It was simply me, my van, my usual parking space, my usual time of day... .
On the way to the table–to which they preceded me of course–I opened the pathetic little can of seed that I'd brought, and then they were literally all over me, on my cap, my shoulders, my arms.
My conclusion is that pigeons remember the circumstances likely to produce food, even when there is no evidence of food itself. But for whatever reason I was touched to the point of tears...almost. Never have I been so moved by a group of animals. Non-human animals, that is.
It was beautiful at the water, the sun fully out now, even though the Olympics were still shrouded, and the Sound alive with all sorts of sail and motor. A young fellow with a mercifully beautiful voice was plucking his guitar and singing, sitting all by himself on a bench beside the walk. I did not see a tin cup. L'art pour l'art.
Passersby who did not stop for him stopped to gawk at me and my birds. Asian families, each with a camera, always pause in their stroll to capture the scene on film.
Today an old geezer, shirtless, stopped for a moment, looked at me, and said, "So, the Birdman of Shilshole is back!" Others beside the pigeons seem to know me.
After I feed them at the usual table, I go back to the car, put away the can, fetch my cane, and go for a walk. After flocking after me down the path for a while they understand that I am for the nonce seedless. But when I come back, they flock around once again, and I feed them once again.
Clarence Brown is a cartoonist, writer, and Professor Emeritus of Comparative Literature at Princeton University.