Recalling ‘Jewish Bird Lady’ of The Bronx

Rubbing his palms together and with a big smile on his face, the local TV weather forecaster seems all excited about the first winter freeze expected to hit the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
This combination of wintry weather report and the birds at my patio feeder remind me of an unusual experience I had as a youth, growing up in the University Heights area of The Bronx during the ’40s.
The meet-up place in our neighborhood for getting a game together or planning activities was the southeast corner of 181st Street and Grand Avenue. A street light pole and a postal department mail storage box next to it made it an ideal location to sit on or lean against.
As I was waiting there by myself one cold wintry day, my friend Paul came out of his apartment building nearby and asked, “What’s up?”
“Nuthin’,” I said, to which he replied, “Do you want to meet the Jewish Bird Lady?” Jokingly, I asked, “Does she talk or chirp?
“Both!” he answered.
As we walked up the stairs to the second floor, I remembered having seen a thin, elderly white- haired lady feeding pigeons and other birds outside at various times and wondered if she was ”The Bird Lady.”
Paul’s apartment was on the left, but he rang the bell on the right. Introducing me to that same bird-feeding lady I had seen, we entered the apartment. She greeted us in Yiddish, which really wasn’t unusual in my neighborhood.
There was a living room with two bedrooms. The bedroom door on the left was closed. We entered the one on the right. Paul quickly closed the door behind us and, except for an awful smell, the room looked like a Walt Disney movie.
Birds of various colors were flying in and out of the open windows on the right, which faced the churchyard next door. The half-opened windows not only allowed birds to enter and leave at will, but also allowed some of the church tree’s thin, outstretched branches to reach into the room. Bird poop was here and there.
The room felt cold, but was probably warmer than the outside temperature. The stench was getting to me. I was afraid I might have an asthma attack, but I had to check out the two dressers against the wall. They were the only pieces of furniture in the room.
There were a few birds’ nests both on top of the dressers and in many of the open drawers. Some, but not all, of the nests contained eggs. I remember that there were blue eggs and also speckled eggs, but no baby chicks as I had imagined there might be.
As if what I had seen (and smelled) wasn’t unusual enough, I believe that I could hear the “Bird Lady” softly chirping and “talking” to the birds, who seemed to be chirping back. Who would have expected such an experience could occur, let alone in an apartment building, in The Bronx?
Fast-forward to September 2013, when I was a National Park Service volunteer for a month at Gateway National Recreation Area on Staten Island, New York.
On one of my days off, I visited my old neighborhood in The Bronx, which I hardly recognized. My old apartment building was still there, but Paul’s apartment building was gone, as well as the church next door.
In their place was the Grand Playground, but unlike many New York City neighborhood playgrounds, this one had many trees and plants growing, just where the churchyard had been. There was one especially large old tree with branches stretching way out to the sides.
It looked strangely familiar, especially with all the birds flying around. Some things never change.

Leave a Reply