Thursday, August 2, 2018

Feeding pigeons with the Bird Lady

Myriad Birds, by Kitagawa Utamaro, 1790 (Metropolitan Museum of Art)

    Video confrontations are a constant of the online world. Jangly images of jarring exchanges, heated words, sometimes violence. 
     We see them all the time. Yet rarely do you watch such an encounter and think, "I KNOW that person!" 
     But when Block Club posted a video of State Rep. Jaime Andrade, Jr. "confronting a pigeon-feeding woman" I immediately suspected I had written about this person, from the title alone. Because really, how many are there? Watching the video, she's a grainy presence, but with that accent, there can be no mistake. 
     Below is my column, from five years ago. To be honest, the pigeon lady wasn't the most eccentric person related to it. I wish I had saved the self-pitying voicemails that Ald. James Cappleman left for me in the dead of night after this ran, but alas I deleted them. They were, in my opinion, unhinged.
     Perhaps the source of his discomfort was clashing with the pigeons' champion. Were I State Rep. Andrade, who seems a nice guy, I would take a moment to pause and reconsider. Pigeons are a nuisance, yes. But does he really want to walk in Ald. Cappleman's footsteps, years behind? Is that wise? 

     Young Kang is not crazy. Yes, she speaks quickly. And yes, she has a heavy accent; she's from South Korea.
     And yes, she feeds pigeons in Uptown, every day, without fail. But she certainly can explain herself, if you take the time to listen.
     "I am a citizen," she says. "I am an American. We have a free country. This is my life. I am a bird lady. I have been doing this a long time. Everybody knows me. All of a sudden, this alderman, he thinks he can overpower everything. . . ."
     That would be James Cappleman, the new alderman of the 46th Ward, who has made a name for himself as a die-hard foe of pigeons, introducing anti-pigeon legislation into the City Council, arranging for his ward's pigeons to be spirited away to Indiana to be killed, even sweeping up after Kang, which led to a supposed scuffle with her last May that left her charged with battery.
     "This is really hurting the community," Cappleman said in December. "It's hurting the businesses. We have to put a stop to it."
     "I don't know what is his problem," says Kang. "I'm doing right because I'm a Christian. These are God's creatures. I have to take care of that. I was proud of that. Every day for years. The other alderman . . ."—that would be Helen Shiller— ". . . I have no problem. The lady says, 'I like birds, too.' All of a sudden, [this] alderman is elected. He is not talking to people. Just like a dictator. All of his guys coming in. They are like gangsters."
     I phoned Shiller to see how she managed to avoid a pigeon crisis in her 24 years as alderman, but she declined to chat. Cappleman was reticent too, though his chief of staff said that Kang has agreed not to feed pigeons and that most in the community do not share her fondness for the birds which, based on my discussions with ward residents, seems true.
     The one voice missing in all this, it seemed to me, is Kang's. So I asked her if I could watch her in action. We met in front of her apartment on North Winthrop. I expected to sit on a park bench with a bag of bread crumbs. "Feed the birds . . . tuppence a bag . . ."
     What I find is more Jason Bourne than Mary Poppins, a clockwork operation that involves driving to specific sites around Uptown—14 locations in all, where she scatters white rice while keeping an eye peeled for the cops, the alderman and his henchmen—whom she believes are following, threatening and harassing her.
     "They know my house," she says.
     Because of that, she has enlisted a silent partner—Ed Gross, 72. "We work together," she says. "He's a retired policeman."
     Ed drives a Prius. In the back is a 100-pound sack of long grain rice—the idea that rice hurts birds is an urban myth. I follow.
     Our first stop is a CTA parking lot by the L station at Wilson Avenue. Ed does the honors— a few dozen pigeons rise into the air from nearby eaves, wheel across the blue sky and swoop down to peck at the rice. The duo goes through 100 pounds every day.
     Kang is 60, married, though her husband is incapacitated. They once lived in Lake Point Tower, owned restaurants and buildings—she owned Daruma in Evanston.
     "I can live comfortably, driving a big car. I don't have to feed birds. I chose this life," she says. "Somebody has got to do it. This is my life. I was living large. Everything changed in my life. I learned a different way. Not material possessions, not shopping anymore. The Bible says to help the poor and animals. That's what I do. Somebody has got to do it." 
     How did she start feeding pigeons?
     "I just [started] coming here, a very convenient neighborhood, very reasonable rent. I have to exercise every day, I see the problem at Wilson and Broadway. I saw 500 birds on the street. I saw a lot of sick birds. I [cleaned up] dead birds. . . . I know there is no natural food, no source. Everywhere you go, the condos. I feel like, 'Oh my God, I have to face this.' So I start doing it."
     What about people who just don't like pigeons? Selfish, she says: "We all have a problem with me, me, me, my, my my. But I know this is not criminal."
     She says she never pushed Cappleman:
     "I never hit him. I never even touched him. That's why the charges were dropped."
     Cappleman's office says charges were dropped because she agreed to stop feeding birds. A vow that, if made, is not being kept.
     "I respect him as an alderman, but I think I'm right. That's a commitment, you take care of birds. It's not like, the alderman hates it, I can stop. They depend on me. They are waiting for me. I feed them. The alderman tells everyone I'm a criminal. They treat me like criminal. What is a criminal? Hey, I take care of God's creatures. That is criminal? All my money and energy. If I am wrong, I still have to do it. I have to save the life. What's wrong with that? If they have to hang me, if they have to kill me, I'm going to die."
     She feeds pigeons for a full hour. I leave glad I'm not the guy determined to stop her.
             —Originally published in the Sun-Times, Feb. 20, 2013


  1. Pigeon feeders are all nuts! I once had one a few doors away from me. He threw 5 pounds of bird seed out of his window into the alley every day. We had hundreds of filthy birds all around us for a couple of years. Everything outside was covered in pigeon shit. Then they were gone, because he died & his body wasn't discovered for weeks. It took months to air out his apartment, as he let the pigeons roost inside. Then we found out, he died on the floor & his fluids seeped into the floor boards. The owner had to have the floor replaced!
    No one around here misses him!

    1. I remember another guy, maybe on North Damen, sitting out covered in pigeons. Rats with wings.

    2. I believe you're referring to the guy in Lincoln Square at Lincoln, Lawrence & Western. He died several years ago, when he was hit by a car, while carrying a load of bird seed at a Home Depot.
      It turned out he had a sister who wouldn't let him live with her & her family, due to his insane pigeon feeding even at home, so he lived in a dump of an apartment.

  2. City Pigeons and squirrels. You either love them or hate them. I put myself on the love side, but not nearly as passionate a love as Mrs. Kang's. But I can certainly sympathize, as I have passionately loved worthless creatures in my day.


  3. She seems like a nice lady, but I have to say that I find her passion a bit...odd. Pigeons need feeding that badly? Is there a pigeon famine in the city? Are they dropping dead of starvation?

  4. I wonder if she is making a segment of the bird population dependent on her and no longer able to fend for their own food needs. Then, when she can no longer feed them, they'll be in trouble.

    On the other hand, they're pigeons, so I find it difficult to care too much. I'd much rather see the money spent on rice going to feed needy people, of which there are plenty.

  5. It has been some years now. Have you checked in with Mrs. Kang?

    1. Don't have to -- she's in Adrande's video, linked above. Still feeding pigeons.

    2. She continues to throw bags of rice and breadcrumbs all over the sidewalk at the Irving Park Blue Line Station. She and her companion arrive there regularly between midnight and 1 am. Last night I was exasperated by her antics and asked her to please stop feeding the pigeons because she was creating a public health hazard and a nuisance and costing taxpayers' money for cleanup of the filth and, oh yeah, breaking the law. She screamed insults and threats at me. Her companion filmed me on his camera as she ranted obscenities, and despite her petite size I felt very unsafe—her companion was a large, imposing man. It was clear from some of what she said that she is not firing on all cylinders. I moved to Irving Park recently and had no idea of her reputation until I got home and tried to contact the alderman's office.

  6. Pigeons are flying rats, would Kang support feeding rats as well? Being kind to animals is wonderful, to a point. Feeding the Canadian geese crapping all over suburbia is not helping them at all and it annoys 99% of the neighbors. Do you swerve to avoid the squirrels that dart in front of you? Don't,they are just rats with better PR and you might hit a child trying to miss that squirrel. Insurance agents in California told me not to swerve away from deer. I might kill myself or incur greater vehicle damage, both of which cost them more money. Makes sense to me.

    1. However, if you don’t avoid the deer you’ll definitely incur vehicle damage & risk injury or death. Was the agent’s name Ned Ryerson?

  7. Wild animals don't need to be fed. If there isn't enough food, they'll exist elsewhere. The pigeon population of Chicago looks quite healthy to me. I doubt there are many looking for greener pastures.

  8. My mother loves to feed the birds in her back yard, though squirrels get most of the generous amount of seeds she gives out. Pigeons have chased off many of the smaller birds that used to benefit. But, an increase in red-tailed hawks are taking advantage of the situation (pigeons are easy prey). Circle of Life.

  9. When I moved to Cleveland in the early Nineties, pigeons and pigeon crap were everywhere. My goofy neighbor and her bird feeder didn't help matters very much. Then the city started putting out pellets that sharply reduced the pigeon population...not poison, just some kind of birth-control in their food supply. The number of pigeons soon dropped sharply. They're nearly gone. For years now, they just haven't been around anymore. I never see them, anywhere. What did the authorities know here that their counterparts don't seem to know about in Chicago?

    Unfortunately, the crow numbers have also diminished, and I miss them. They aren't like pigeons. They are very smart birds, and their sound on a quiet fall morning is a pleasure to hear. But I rarely hear them much anymore.

    Our overall bird population seems to have fallen, as well. We are losing our formerly-lush tree canopy, where they used to nest. And some like to blame the increasing numbers of feral and stray cats. But I'm a kitty guy, so I'm not going there.

  10. the crows and other birds were decimated by west nile virus. they are making a comeback. less trees in Cleveland? this is because the city has been slow to replace the thousands of dangerous trees its been cutting down the last few years. catskill millions of birds

  11. Yes, cats do kill birds, but the numbers appear to be wildly inflated. My neighbors are all kitty people who do their best to trap, neuter and release strays and feral cats, thus reducing the feline population as much as possible. I'm no a bird fanatic, but I am a kitty guy, and have been for almost fifty years, so I will say no more. That stat alone says more than enough

    Cleveland has thousands of dead and dying and diseased trees...if you want one removed, as I do, you get put on a waiting list and wait for YEARS. There are at least three thousand trees on that list...maybe as many as five thousand...because of several different tree diseases and insect infestations. Whole streets have been denuded in my neighborhood. A lot of Americans routinely confuse Ohio and Iowa...soon they won't be able to look at images of either one and tell them apart.

  12. I have a neighbor who has 6 bird feeders, 2 hummingbird feeders, 2 squirrel feeders and 2 dogs to boot all on on a 25 foot city lot. The mess they are making in my yard is atrocious...I'm out there 2-3 x a day to clean up. The pigeons now come everyday because they have have found a place to eat (and roost). The same person throws bird food on the public parkway and front sidewalk...the place is a mess. Now the other problem is that there is a terrible stench coming into my yard from his along with flies, and is now unbearable! I'm not moving...I have lived here for over 20 yrs.


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