Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Birds of Lincoln Heights: How Shitty Things Can Also Be Beautiful

Olga García Echeverría 

There is an elderly man on our block who loves to feed birds. My girlfriend and I call him Mr. Tom because he is not much of a talker and "Tom" is pretty much what we could get out of him. Every morning, at around 7:00 AM, Mr. Tom drives his Cadillac to the small "park" in the middle of our street. I say "park" in quotes because it is more like an island of grass with some palm trees, benches, and a sandbox.

Mr. Tom only lives a few houses away from this island of grass and sand, but he needs the car to transport the huge sacks of bird seed that he unloads from the trunk. After Mr. Tom has unloaded the sacks, he drags them to the sandbox, opens them, dumps them, and then carefully proceeds to rake the seeds into the sand, creating ripples and patterns on the ground. Mr. Tom is very systematic and serious when he does this. Once, our dog ran into the sandbox while Mr. Tom was raking, and he got terribly bothered, as if someone had just ruined a masterpiece he was creating. All we could do was apologize profusely and try to explain to our dear little dog that the park and the sandbox were off limits in the early mornings.

Because I don't want to bother him, I have always hesitated to ask Mr. Tom why he does what he does. Yet, it's been a lingering question in my mind since I moved here four years ago. Why do you feed the birds? I imagine the cost of feeding so many pigeons on a regular basis costs a pretty penny. This past Monday morning, as Mr. Tom was packing up and getting ready to leave the park, I rushed over to greet him. He was, as always, both civil and curt. Good morning. Goodbye. It's as if he's on a mission, and he doesn't have time for chitchat or bullshit.

Excuse me, can I ask you a quick question? I blurted out as the pigeons swooped around us, enjoying their morning seeds. He was already in the driver's seat and getting ready to start his car, so I did not wait for a response. Why do you do it? Feed these birds every morning?

He paused and looked at me as if the question had caught him off guard.  I like birds, he said turning on his ignition.

For a few seconds his words hovered in the air between us and I thought that was all I was going to get, but then he added, When I first moved to this neighborhood 20 years ago, the birds around here were so starved they hardly had any feathers. They have plenty of feathers now. Some people feed stray cats. Others dogs. I feed birds. Have a nice day, he said as he waved goodbye and began to drive away.

Thanks to Mr. Tom I call our block The Pigeon Capital of Los Angeles. Often when I leave for work in the mornings, there are dozens of birds perched on telephone wires and more dozens circling the sky. So many well-fed pigeons bring forth the hawks, who cruise the sky regularly, waiting for the right moment to strike. Then there is El Arbol de Las Palomas, where about a half dozen doves hang out and nest. Our street is literally the land of rustling wings. And at times, it is the land of gangs of birds, perched high, gawking. It's reminiscent of Hitchcock's The Birds, which is one of my favorite movies, so I don't much mind the ominous quality of having so many winged creatures looming.

The downfall, though, is all the bird shit--white-greyish airborne turds that fall like miniature bombs and splotch whatever they touch. Few on the block escape these droppings. Depending on where we park or which way the winds blew (do winds actually blow in LA?), our cars may or may not get plastered. I used to get angry when my car got bombed. Bird shirt calcifies very quickly under the LA sun, and it eats car paint. 

It's a pain to have to be wiping bird shit on a regular basis, but I admire Mr. Tom and his 20-year devotion way too much to complain or ask him to stop. Feeding the birds of Lincoln Heights is his ritual. Maybe it's what keeps him alive or feeds his happiness. It definitely keeps the pigeons and doves in our neighborhood happy, and by extension the red-tail hawks. And despite the caca-inconvenience, I cannot deny how spectacular the sky looks when so many pigeons are flying in choreographed circles, swooping down to the sandbox and then back up into the urban sky.





*An earlier version of this blog was posted at


Amelia ML Montes said...

This is such a loving and beautiful posting about how our gente takes care of each other, of our surroundings--the birds! Gracias for bringing us these observations, Olga!

Anonymous said...

Leave it to Ms. Echeveria, writer, photographer to remind us of the beauty in simplicity. I hope Mr. Tom gets to read about himself. Favorite parts: the photos and the title.