Feeding pigeons with the Bird Lady
BY NEIL STEINBERG firstname.lastname@example.org February 20, 2013 1:38AM
Updated: March 21, 2013 6:27AM
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 harrassing 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.