The Birdman of Lakeside
by Charles McGuigan
Steve Culler weaves water-softened rush—up, down, back and forth—to create the seat of a ladder back chair. At a work table across the room, Cynthia, his partner of many years, is hand-caning another chair, weaving threads of cane in an intricate pattern. This, after all, is the Cane Connection at the Hub Shopping Center on Lakeside Avenue, where weaving rush and cane is all part of a day’s work.
But Steve weaves more than this. He weaves a story about love and adoption, becoming a mother, and the agony of loss. It all started on the eve of Independence Day last summer.
“We’ve got a staining center in the back of the shopping center,” says Steve. “So I’m walking back there and I see this little bird on the ground. I mean it didn’t have any feathers; it had some quills that would turn into feathers, it had some fluff. It was just laying there, wiggling around and opening and closing its mouth.”
It was a nestling, a couple days old at most, and its skin pink and so translucent you could see its internal organs at work.
Steve hustled back to the shop, grabbed a dustpan and whisk broom, and returned to the baby bird. Gently, he ushered the baby bird with the whisk broom onto the dustpan, then returned to the shop. “We didn’t have much of a sense that we were going to be able to save it,” Steve says. “I mean it was awfully young, and it had a bad foot, it had one toe that wasn’t working right. So we put it on some paper towels and I hustled up a lamp to keep it warm.”
The next step was nutrition. “We weren’t exactly sure how to proceed, but we figured mama bird is gonna feed it worms,” says Steve. “Probably chew them up and spit them into the bird’s mouth. So we went and got some worms and we kind of squashed them up and I sucked them into a clean glue syringe (a tool of his trade) and stuck it in its mouth and kind of squirted it in. After a bit the baby bird opened up and was taking this liquid of squashed up worms.”
All that afternoon, Steve and Cynthia fed the bird as much as it would ingest, and then they took it back to their house in Lakeside. “Cynthia went into the garden and the next door neighbor went into the garden and we’re looking for worms and no one can find worms,” Steve remembers. So, he purchased worms at Fin & Feather. “These were really nice worms, and we squashed them up and slurped it up into the glue syringe and piped it into her mouth,” Steve says. That went on for two days and then they began cutting the worms in small pieces and feeding them to the baby bird with a pair of tweezers. “We probably went through a hundred worms, feeding the baby every two hours, day and night,” says Steve.
That went on for another week, until the small bird began sleeping through the night. “Then we would feed it when it was hungry, and then after a while it declined the worms,” says Steve. In a short time, the bird began eating seeds. “So we figured we were home free,” he says.
In time, the tufts of down and the quills matured into feathers. “Eventually we named it Sparky and it turned out to be a female house sparrow,” says Steve. “We were assured that house sparrows are not protected so that we could actually legally raise this bird.”
Every morning, Steve would place Sparky in a small carry cage, strap it to the pillion of his motorcycle and head off to work. Once inside the Cane Connection, Sparky was released from her temporary cage. “She would hop around and Cynthia had made a kind of play land with twigs and mirrors and plants, right over there,” says Steve, pointing to a corner of the room where a microwave now sits. “She would fly over to a caner and sit on the chair and watch for a while and then fly over and sit on my chair.”
At home, in the evenings, Sparky would climb up Steve’s chest and perch on his shoulder as the man played his guitar. “And then at night time when I was watching TV, she would fly from the dining room where her cage was, hit the floor and then flutter up to the couch,” he says. “She would crawl into my hand and I would pet her head while I was watching TV and she would go to sleep. It was incredible.”
This relationship went on uninterrupted for five months and the ties between man and bird became stronger with each passing day. Then, just before Christmas, Steve rose from bed one morning and looked for Sparky, who was nowhere to be found. In the bottom of the sparrow’s cage there was a small pile of fluff. Nothing else.
“I think a snake must have gotten in the house,” says Steve. “There was no blood trail or anything, and that’s what snakes do, they ingest the bird and spit out the fluff. I was destroyed. I had made this connection with this bird. When I would walk up to this bird it would flap its wings in a way of greeting. It knew that I was the one, I was his mother or something.”
Cynthia remembers the day Steve called her with the bad news. “He was crying,” she says. “He called me up at six in the morning and said, ‘Come and help me look for the bird.’ It was very sad.” As she speaks her eyes water up.
“It rips your guts out,” Steve adds. “And this bird had not only been a pet of mine, it was a pet of the store’s. People were amazed at how this bird would warm up to people.”
For a good two months, Steve was raw and numb with the loss. “It really affected me,” he says. “And so, once I got to feeling better, I started making plans. I was thinking, ‘I’m gonna rob a nest and do it again’, but thankfully I got counselled against that.’”
Instead, six weeks back, he bought one of three cockatiel chicks at Fin &Feather. Steve wanted to take the bird home immediately, but was told that wouldn’t be possible. “It has to be raised up till it doesn’t have to be hand fed anymore,” he says. “I go in every day after work and visit my bird.”
And this new bird is getting to know Steve. “It comes up to the front of the cage when I come into the room and I open the door and it hops on my finger,” he says. “It does feel better.”
These days, when Steve is out and about, he might hear a singular voice coming out of a bush. “Sparky
didn’t talk all that much, but she made some natural sounds,” says Steve Culler. “I now recognize the sound of a house sparrow. I still like to hear it.”