Meet Oakland's Birdman — before he's gone

May 4, 2016

 

In Oakland, just past Jack London Square, there’s a zone along the water that’s a little wild. It’s past the new condos and great restaurants, past the wholesale produce warehouses that open for business before dawn, and down the channel from Lake Merritt’s newly landscaped park. It’s an in-between space. But change is coming from both sides.

 

Right now, the old Embarcadero bridge connects Lake Merritt and the bay. From it, you can see the tents of a longstanding homeless encampment. You can also see geese; not the Canadian breed that are all around the lake but a bigger, more swan-like variety — a flock of them live here.

The estuary is being redesigned as a park, and the land nearby is being developed with over 3,000 new housing units. On the 11th, the old bridge will be closed down for reconstruction. Drivers will just take a detour route, but for the people who live there it’s the end of an era. Especially for someone known as the Birdman.

How the Birdman got his name

   

The geese eating grass all around the estuary — they’re his. For over a decade, he lived under this bridge and cared for a flock of up to 40 of them. They come when he calls for them.

Birdman’s given name is Taig; he says he hasn’t used his last name in decades. When I go to meet him he’s sitting in a chair that leans against the overpass — basically, his front yard, overlooking the water. He’s in his late 50s and skinny. A red bandana peaks out from a newsboy cap tilted low on his face. It takes him a while to smile and show his missing teeth.

When Birdman lived here full-time he had this place set up like a home — with rugs, a new coat of paint, even a new foundation. These days, the area is still his, marked by chain-link fencing decorated with little sculptures.

It becomes immediately clear that I came at a bad time. “I’m kind of traumatized,” he tells me. “I just killed a bird.” He tells me he had arrived here to find that the bird’s beak was broken, so it couldn’t eat. “He didn’t go easy either,” he says.

It was the first time Birdman had to kill one of his birds. He curses and squints out at the estuary for a few more minutes before gathering back his attention. He jokes that he should get used to saying goodbye to them, anyway.

Birdman has named all of the birds — Gulliver, Bix, Cleopatra. They’re the size of toddlers and waddle up to us with butts like overstuffed diapers. Their eyes are beautiful and paranoid. Birdman can get them talking — they mimic him mimicking their hisses and babbles and squawks.

 

Credit Liza Veale

  It took him and the birds years to grow accustomed to each other. Birdman came to this spot for the same reason most of the other homeless people do: “it’s a tweaker culture out here.” Meaning, people do speed at this encampment. Back when he arrived, there were about a dozen geese that hung around because the “tweakers” would feed them white bread at night.

The birds got in the habit of holding a gigantic shriekathon in the middle of the night in order to get fed. Birdman wanted to break the habit so he could sleep. He had to yell at the tweakers, “don’t do it or you’ll never be free of it!”

And, instead he’d feed the geese during the day — scavenged rice and produce. And from there he started noticing other problems the birds had. Oil was constantly getting into the water, for example, and the birds would lick it off themselves. So Birdman started bringing them fresh water. He even tried cleaning them by chasing the birds around with a spray bottle of diluted detergent.

After a few years, the birds returned his affection. And Birdman grew attached. He became their caretaker, so more and more of them survived. During nesting season he couldn’t bear to see the mothers lose their babies so he’d defend the eggs from predators like other birds and possums.

“I used to throw rocks at them with a slingshot,” he remembers, “I was crazy about it, stupid.” And after a while, the neighbors didn’t call him Taig anymore. They called him the Birdman.

“A kind of love”

“When you live with animals but don’t exploit them it’s a totally different relationship,” he says. “I learned a whole bunch. They have tremendous love for humans because they’ve been around us. So, they give themselves to us. It's like oh wow, when you realize that's a kind of love.”

Except for a few relationships in his life, Birdman doesn’t feel much affinity for humans or the built world. He wasn’t forced to live outside; he comes from some money. In upstate New York his dad was a doctor, his mom didn’t work. Both drank a lot. And he was bullied by six older siblings. He says as a kid, he’d head for the woods and camp out.

“I don't like our civilization, I don't believe in it,” he says. “And I was kind of idealistic, like, we should try and live as if the world was as we wanted it to be.”

As an adult, he tried to do that with other people for a while. He came to the Bay Area and got into partying. He formed a co-op with some friends and started an underground techno venue. “It was a more wild and free and communal attempt at living,” he says, but after five years, he wanted out of the party business. “I just became disappointed with people's ability to sustain it beyond the party, you know? It's shallow and hollow and it's not actually taking care or loving the earth or loving critters or anything.”

Credit Liza Veale

So he left what he calls “the ego circus” and went to nature. He stayed in a hollowed-out redwood tree for two years in Big Sur, living off the land. Eventually he came back. He was lonely. But, he found that his friendships were different.

“All of a sudden they don’t know if they can really trust you in their house,” he says. He had dropped out too far.

“I underestimated the rift,” he says about moving outdoors. “It’s everything they’re afraid of — dropping out of life, not being anybody anymore. It becomes almost an irrevocable decision. Like, screw you. I like the down-and-out people better.”

So he moved under the bridge. He became militant about scavenging his livelihood, surviving without money. And he got heavy into tweaking, trading things he found for drugs.

“It was wonderful the first five years or so that I was here,” he says. “I had total freedom. Stay up all night playing drums with friends. Get up at dawn and go dumpstering on your bike.”

Birdman likes experimenting with boundaries: wild and civilized, human and animal, criminal and legitimate, healthy and insane. He remembers the early years on the estuary like he’d gotten away with a prize. “You’re getting everything you need, you’re kinda like ‘yeah, I’m dirty and I’m stoned but I don’t need to talk to you either.’”

That’s not his lifestyle anymore though. He gave up the drugs a long time ago. And three years ago he moved indoors, into a dormitory-style SRO he says is run by a slumlord. He’s been walking 40 minutes to the estuary to feed the birds.

Then, a year and a half ago, he got word from his estranged family that his mother had died. He says he was surprised to learn that she left an inheritance for him and his sisters.

“I can do whatever I want now.” He’s ready to move away from the city. Yet, he hasn’t — because of the birds.

What happens now

“I’ve almost become suicidal about these guys,” he says. “I can’t abandon them. I’ve been here for three years thinking I should do something else but this is what means most to me.”

Credit Liza Veale

But Birdman will have to abandon them. In a few days this whole area will be a construction zone. He doesn’t know how they’ll survive it but he knows there’s not much he can do about that anymore. After 13 years, they’ll have to be on their own.

Birdman feels a responsibility to the geese because, he says, when we domesticated them for food, we bred the migration instinct out of the bird and made it dependent on us.

“It doesn’t have its own nature any more. Its nature is to be used by somebody else and so it can’t survive on its own.”

But the geese were able to survive here off this bit of the city, not punished for having nowhere else to be. And so was Birdman. Both of them just scavenging off the modern world that made them. For both he and the birds, being wild is no longer a choice.