Wrath of the Bird Man


Among the various schizoid tendencies evident in Berkeley life is the battle between the town’s self-conscious live-and-let-live creed and the habit of instructing fellow citizens about how they ought to behave. The laissez-faire creed honors panhandlers, naked pedestrians, tree sitters, borderline and full-blown mental cases and a panoply of other truth- and attention-seekers; the knee-jerk impulse to correct targets every manner of real and imagined infraction, public and private.

Today’s case in point: I took the dog down to the marina early in the afternoon. The weather was showery and there were few people around. As I usually do when the park is deserted, I let the dog run across the southeast meadow unleashed; he romps the quarter-mile or to the official off-leash area, stopping fifteen or twenty times along the way to check on ground-squirrel excavations.

This afternoon, an older woman walking a young black Lab preceded me across the open area As she walked along, she was intercepted by a long-haired, bearded man of middle age who was holding something up and shouting at her. When I got closer, I heard him yell, “Your dog should be on a leash! This is an extremely rare bird that a dog just killed!” And then, as I neared him, he turned on his heel and marched straight at me, thrusting the bird carcass toward me. “You have to leash your dog!” he shouted. “This bird was just killed by dogs.”

The guy (pictured above, in an actual action photo) was wearing a cap, and he had a dark green-and-black-plaid jacket on, and from a distance I wondered if he was some sort of park volunteer. So I said, “On whose authority?”

“What?” he asked.

“On whose authority do I need to put my dog on a leash?”

“On my authority — as a citizen!” he shouted.

OK: letter of the law, he was right. The place we were, dogs are supposed to be leashed. But like I said, with no one around, I let him run and follow the municipal code by picking up after him if he takes a dump. And I do keep an eye on whether he harasses birds, and although he occasionally will take a run at one of the big herons and egrets who show up to hunt in the meadow themselves, he has shown no interest in smaller birds like the unfortunate one the Unofficial Nature Warden was holding aloft. I told the man that as I walked on. I must have been a little too dismissive.

“This is not your property!” he screamed, stepping toward me. “This is not your fucking backyard!”

I looked at him for a moment, then remembered I had my camera. “Wait a minute–I want to take your picture,” I said. When I took the camera out, turned it on, and pointed it toward him, he threw the dead bird at my feet and turned and walked away. I noticed then that he had a plastic bag in which he was carrying his own camera. I told him I wanted him to come back and tell me about the bird, but he stalked off, saying that if he had to take his camera out and snap my picture, then the incident would become a matter for the police. He didn’t stop walking.

I looked at the bird. I couldn’t tell what kind it was. It could have been a shore bird, or it might have been one of the killdeer who settle down in the meadow after dark. It was impossible to tell what did it in, though there are feral cats around and other small predators that would be more likely to dispatch birds than dogs would. In fact, in all the times I’ve been down to the park, I’ve only seen one dog chase small birds, and it wasn’t close to catching anything, let alone killing it.

But protecting the birds down there wasn’t what the Unofficial Nature Warden was trying to do, anyway. He was just bearing witness to his sense of grievance about other park users flouting the rules. And for just a little extra spice in his existence, he might get off on bullying and intimidating the dog walkers he encounters. Several other people I met today said they’ve encountered him before and reported he was just as angry and confrontational as he was today.

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8 Replies to “Wrath of the Bird Man”

  1. We have a few “individuals” who roam the streets of Astoria. One is a math genius who is also paranoid. I hear tale that on a good day he will regale you with theorems. But most days he just stares you down trying to make sure you aren’t going to steal anything from his cart. He’s harmless and frankly brings a sort of character to the place that seems to be missing the in burbs. 😀

  2. BA: I didn’t get the impression the Unofficial Nature Warden was “grieving” for anything. The word I would use for his act is “bullying.”
    Marie: Yep–carry your camera with you at all times.
    I’ve often thought that it would be a great impromptu “art” project to simply snap the pictures of passers-by as I walk up the street. Seems a little bit too in your face, though, and the expressions I want to capture would change if people saw a camera pointing their way.

  3. Wende: You know, most of the time I feel the *least* I can do is tolerate them, and usually feel responsible to do a bit more (part of Walt Whitman’s prescription for living in the introduction to “Leaves of Grass” is “give alms to all who ask”). But what kills me here, but not enough to stop me from living here for 30 years, is the seeming hyper-vigilance about correcting others’ behavior–famously, even to the level of having strangers approach parents on the street to tell them what they’re doing wrong with their kids. It’s mostly comical, but taken too far, it’s disturbing and even infuriating (and yes! I’ve been guilty of this myself).

  4. At it’s very heart, this is the same mental energy that fuels Road Rage. Instead of flinging dead birds at your feet, imagine this individual tailgating you at 75 miles an hour in a 2 ton pickup truck.

  5. Get that man an order of buffalo wings! I like buffalo wings.
    At any rate, the road rage parallel is a good one. Don’t argue with crazy people. Even (especially) in Berkeley they could be packing heat.

  6. I do have my camera with me at almost all times but I would never think to use it in this situation. I get very self-conscious whenever I aim it at a person. Pretty cool that the wind left his sails at the thought of having his picture taken. Game, set, and match, Dan. Wonder what he’s going to do the next time he sees you.

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