The Bird Man of Montrose: Finding Nature in the Heart of the City
He’s there every morning. Portly, bald, in long shorts, flip-flops, and untucked shirt, Sid, who looks to be in his sixties, is always out on the street before practically anyone else. Settled in a lawn chair at the open garage of his Montrose townhouse, he is invariably clutching an open can of Miller beer. As people pass by he smiles pleasantly, before resuming his stare into the middle distance. He looks like a child waiting for a fireworks display.
In Montrose, people engage each other. They praise each other’s gardens and address each other’s dogs. And because it is Montrose, people walk, in the process often finding that behind the most battered fences or blankest garage doors live extraordinarily big lives. In the case of Sid, it is a life as high as the oak boughs, and as broad as the network of telephone wires overhanging the streets. It is also a life hidden in plain sight, like the mockingbird hidden and happy in a tangle of muscadine grapes.
How long has Sid been positioning himself like this? At least a decade. And all those years he has remained strikingly self-contained: congenial enough when passersby say hello, but not overly talky, never desperate to trap someone in conversation, as you might expect from the sort of man who occupies a lawn chair facing the sidewalk all day. In fact, he seems happiest contemplating some alternative world.
To the right of Sid’s lawn chair a slender oak rises. Around it in a small courtyard are pleasingly arranged pavers, egg-shaped rocks, and monkey grass. On the left side, invisible from the street, a huge breaker of pink-blossomed oleander bushes shelters a sea of ferns. In the middle of the ferns sits a high hunk of granite, its surface as flat as a pagan altar.
”That’s where my buddies come,” Sid says from his chair, nodding to the granite.
“Squirrels,” Sid says. “They visit every day and I feed them. I know every one of them and they all know me. ”
Sid has lived in his townhouse since 2004. He moved to Houston from Tyler, where his family raised pigs and chickens. He loved the rural environment, but there were no jobs to be found. So he went to work at a printing press on Clay Street, moving into the Upstairs Downstairs garden apartments on Bomar Street. At Upstairs Downstairs – that was really its name – Sid’s conscientiousness caught the eye of the building manager. When the manager retired, he handed his job over to Sid. For more than two decades Sid ran the place. His position allowed him to learn the life stories behind every door. It was telenovela-caliber drama every day, and Sid still daydreams of writing a book about it, each chapter corresponding to an apartment number. When Upstairs Downstairs was razed in 2004, Sid moved to his townhouse.
Now he knows the creatures in front of his garage as well as he ever knew the humans at Upstairs Downstairs. Their characters are as fully realized, he says. And they rely on him no less than his tenants did.
“They wait for me to feed them every day,” Sid says. “The doves come down first. They’re waiting for me when I open the door in the morning, and they march me down the street to the corner, where I sprinkle their food.”
But they only get 30 minutes.
“See that bird in the oak tree?” Sid says. In the leaves is the heart-shaped silhouette of a dove. “I call him Mr. Bully. He sits there all day. But he doesn’t let anyone else do it.”
When the other doves have eaten as much as Mr. Bully deems fitting, he stalks through their midst and flaps his wings until they fly away. Then it’s the squirrels’ turn. Sid, slowed down by gout, shuffles to the rosy granite rock in the ferns and tosses a handful of birdseed interspersed with sunflower seeds. A squirrel who has been monitoring him closely from the oleander sidles down onto the rock and begins to nibble. He’s a tougher customer than the doves, though.
“See this?” Sid says, leaning back in the lawn chair to grab a white metal pole from inside the garage. “This is my tapping stick. That squirrel, Buddy, doesn’t respect boundaries. He knows there are peanuts inside the garage, and sometimes tries to sneak around me to get to the bag. So I do this,” Sid taps the cement energetically, “and he gets the message.”
But it’s not just Buddy. “It’s a whole family,” Sid explains. “They used to live in the hole in that tree, next door and watch for me to come out the door. But the one who comes every day is Buddy. Well, I named him Buddy. Then one day ‘he’ came down for his peanut and I said, ‘Buddy has tits!’ She’d just had some babies.” Sid had already named her, however, so he just changed the spelling, in the French manner, to Buddie. She still comes every day, still looks him right in the eye for her breakfast.
At 6:45 in the morning, a newspaper waits at Sid’s door. An early-rising neighbor pulls out in a car. But otherwise the neighborhood hasn’t awakened.
Then there’s a rushing sound. The black form of a bird dips from the sky. A moment later, there’s another. Then another, from a different direction. One by one, doves flutter into Sid’s oak tree. In a moment, there are nine of them. Arraying themselves in the leaves, they all face one way. The morning is growing noisy. Roof pigeons chuckle, and up and down the street sparrows are starting to twitter. But the doves hold their silence.
Over at the altar rock, there is a rustling. A squirrel wiggles down an oleander branch – and this creature is not silent. He makes a peevish nagging sound at no one in particular. Then another squirrel, with only half a tail, ambles down the branch to join the first, and nags back.
The doves sit patiently. Some of them have been here for 20 minutes now, and Sid is nowhere to be seen. But they don’t give up. They don’t leave.
The squirrels have no such forbearance. With no Sid in sight, the one with the half tail stalks away. But the big one – is that Buddie? – clasps an oleander bough, and springs from it to a branch of the oak tree. From there, it jumps onto a shrub, and then onto a bench.
By now, the whole block is moving. Doves swoop directly into the street, massing in a crowd next to Sid’s curb. The oak’s dark interior shifts with birds. The squirrel bobs its tail, vexed. And finally Sid’s garage door rises. A hand with a wedding ring on it holding a Miller appears, followed by the rest of Sid. He has a red bucket.
He hadn’t been kidding about the march of the doves. Without a word, he walks toward the sidewalk. In the street, two-dozen birds hasten him along as if they were federal marshals escorting a high-value captive off a plane.
“They have me trained, don’t they?” Sid says, tossing seed as he walks. Then he assumes his place in the lawn chair.
The marching birds swarm the sidewalk, picking carefully. Buddie, sprinting to the alter rock, scarfs up what she finds and leaps into the driveway facing Sid.
“What do you want? More?” With effort, Sid pries himself from his chair, vanishes to the garage, then flings something onto the rock.
“Peanuts,” he explains “I give them one at a time. ”
Buddie turns away discreetly to gnaw. She is one happy squirrel.
But happiness fades. Peanut gone, Buddie leaps back to the driveway and plants herself inches away from Sid’s feet. She presses paws to chest as if pained. Then she rises up, squirrel to man, and glares.
“Dessert,” Sid says indulgently, and tosses one more nut toward the rock.
Later in the morning, Sid comes out again to feed a cardinal couple that only approaches when the doves have gone. Picky as a pair of old aristocrats, they only deign to eat sunflower seeds. One time, when a different cardinal came to visit, Sid tried feeding her humble birdseed. She turned up her beak in disgust and flew off forever.
But the old couple knows Sid will pamper them. They stand outside the garage, waiting for him to finish his coffee inside. So devoted are they, that sometimes when Sid drives home from a nearby store they fly beside his car.
The cardinals know, too, that while they’re eating, Mr. Bully, for his own reasons, will keep the hoi polloi from Sid’s sidewalk. The street, though – that’s another matter.
”Here come the gangsters,” Sid says.
An ostentatiously puffed pigeon and his companion emerge from behind a parked car, waddling in the middle of the street. They look like a mid-level mob boss and his wife on the boardwalk, showing off expensive clothes. Beaks fixed straight ahead, they appear unmoved by the birdseed on the sidewalk. Still, for two birds coincidentally strolling past a neighbor’s block party they walk very slowly, and the big one hunches fiercely.
The gangsters gone, the cardinals fed, Sid’s morning work is done. Pushing up from his lawn chair, he turns slowly toward the garage. He will be back, though, late in the night.
“That’s when the screech owl comes,” Sid says. Close to midnight, the bird lands on a telephone pole at the nearest intersection. Surveying the darkness, he then glides to the streetlight across from Sid’s home. The owl likes the light there, Sid says, because it illuminates the bugs he swoops down to eat. Then the owl flies to the lamp on Sid’s front doorway.
Sid offers him nothing. The owl seems to expect nothing back. Silent and thoughtful, the two sit side by side and, together, watch the night.