The Birdman (Guest Blog by Randall Radic)

Randall Radic is a former priest who served time for fraudulently remortgaging his church and rectory and spending hundreds of thousands on a luxury lifestyle. By helping convict a rapist murderer who had confessed to him, Randall was released early.

Virtually every stereotypically "grizzled" city newspaper columnist has made reference to how tough the pigeons of his city are.  Rats with wings, vermin, there's lots of colorful vernacular used to describe the notorious difficulty of getting rid of birds.  They're prolific and unmovingly territorial, and, yes, they do seem pretty tough, surviving mostly on trash and garbage, enduring all kinds of abuse from the humans who inhabit their cities with them.

     Pigeons, or rock doves (Columbidae for you science types), exist pretty much everywhere humans are.  That includes prisons, where the relationships between these feral birds and the men and women they're caged with can be quite unique.  There is an old, sometimes brutal symbiotic relationship between these two species of much maligned, and forgotten, souls.

     Every prison has a Birdman, one of these eccentric types who feeds the birds, sometimes claiming ownership over a flock of pigeons or seagulls that are ubiquitous at any prison around the world.  You'll see him standing in the recreation yard, maybe throwing scraps of bread to the local birds, or even acting as an impromptu veterinarian who untangles twine from a pigeon's foot or nurses injured baby pigeons back to life.  The Birdman-type comes in all shapes and sizes and colors, with the common denominator being that each appears to be crazy, or eccentric at best. Where I was housed was no different.

Randall Radic outside court
    He's an older convict with a limping gait and long blond hair that the birds seem to recognize easily.  And he talks to the birds.  The first time I saw him with the birds out there next to the basketball court, he was sitting Indian style, with a couple of pigeons on each knee and one perched on his shoulder like an ugly cockatoo.  And he was chattering at them.  I thought he was batshit crazy.  He waived a hello to me, but I was a bit too embarrassed to say anything back.  I mean, he was carrying on conversations with the birds that were engulfing him.

     It was crazier that the birds seemed to be listening.  I recall that Birdman was scolding a particular pigeon.  "Terry!  Come over here!"  I quickly stepped away to finish my workout.  Later, I told my friend Dave, who is as non-crazy as they come, and he replied, "Oh yeah, he's probably talking to Terry Dactyl -- Terry gets in weird moods when he won't come up to the front and eat."

     "Oh," I said.  "Of course."  Everyone had some Avian Flu or something.  They're all crazy.  Dave laughed.  "You haven't seen him with them?  Anything with wings, they all wait up by the metal detector for him every morning.  Pigeons, starlings, sparrows, seagulls -- even a crow sometimes."

     It was true.  I went out the next morning, and as soon as the sun came up, the Birdman appeared at the Rec Gate, mesh gym bag over his shoulder, and before he could even get through the metal detector, about 30 pigeons came parachuting down to him, flapping and squeaking.  Another few dozen others circled above, and a squadron of noisy little black birds -- starlings, I later learned -- landed on the razor wire.  Indeed, even a swarm of tiny sparrows zoomed in to join the festivities.

     I couldn't help but snicker when several cornrowed, tattooed gangsta types passing through the gate began cringing and swatting at the air as they hurried through the chaos, cursing and sputtering.  Not everyone is a nature freak, apparently.  Birdman yelled after them, "Don't worry!  They won't hurt you!  I'll protect you!"  The sarcasm in his voice was barely discernable, and the gangbangers missed it.  "Protect me?" one of the men snarled.  "Muthafucka, I ain't afraid of them fuckin' birds!"  Birdman's replay was so sincere-sounding, I had to laugh out loud: "Oh, I'm sorry, sir -- I thought you were afraid of being attacked, the way you were ducking.  My mistake.  But don't fear, these aren't attack pigeons."

     The gangstas stomped away, suspecting that they had been insulted somehow, and Birdman went along his merry way.  The 100 or so creatures with him floated around him, some of them racing ahead to the regular feeding spot, already jockeying for position, flapping, squealing, chirping in a frenzy.  Feeding time.

     Birdman was already speaking to the flock, saying good morning to individual birds by name, asking after one's sore foot, like he was greeting old friends at dinner.  I watched him pull out a giant plastic bag of food: rice, Ramen Noodle soup, oatmeal.  Easily several pounds of it.

     The birds went ballistic -- Birdman seemed to disappear in a haze of feathers as he attempted to toss handfuls of the food on the ground, with pigeons landing on his arms and shoulders and kinds of other birds diving at his feet.  A wild swarm developed in seconds, with several dozen pigeons piling up so that only their tails, pointing straight up, were visible.  A gang of starlings were frantically crowd surging over the pigeons and diving down into the mosh pit.  The noise from the seagulls was annoyingly oppressive: a dozen or so angrily darted into the scrum, trying for a mouthful of food but repelled by the sheer volume of the smaller birds.

     Birdman then pulled out a bag of Spanish peanuts.  The sound of the plastic reignited the frenzy, and this time, the birds went bonkers.  Within seconds, 10 to 15 pigeons dove onto Birdman, clinging to his arms, shoulders, and even his chest.  Another 3 or 4 wrestled their way onto the bag at his hip and the whole mass shifted in a wave where Birdman held out a palm full of peanuts.  The pigeons dove into Birdman's hand, piling up three high, climbing over each other to get a peanut.

     After several minutes of this mayhem, I watched the Birdman turn his attention to individual animals.  I watched in awe as he called them -- each by name -- and that particular pigeon flew up into his hand, waiting to be fed.

   These are feral animals.  As far as I can tell, out of the 100 to 120 pigeons who appeared to inhabit the prison (they never seemed to leave, except in a hawk's grasp), there were maybe two or three that appeared to have even been domesticated (as evident by numbered bands around their legs).  The rest were obviously feral.  I found it bizarre.  When the feeding was over, some birds stayed to peck at whatever miniscule scraps of food that could be found in the dirt, but most of the birds, from four different species, followed Birdman across the yard, squealing and "face-flapping" him all the way.

     So, while newspaper writers from various cities and states might feel as if they have the most hardened, grizzled pigeons, I'm a firm believer that they don't.  Prison does.  And we have the Birdman, too.  I'm sure that our prison pigeons would put even the pigeons of New York City's Central Park to shame.

Randall Radic is an advocate for Prison Education and the reinstatement of Pell Grants for Prisoners. He writes about prison education at www.prisoneducation.com and prison law at www.prisonlawblog.com.

Click here for the previous guest blog: Fleecing an Oligarch

Blog I wrote about prisoners saving a pigeon.

Shaun Attwood

3 comments:

A1 Bail Bonds said...

Nature is a funny thing but when one can find a way to connect with it even in jail that's great.

Jon said...

its pet therapy

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