Thursday, 11 August 2022
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The ‘Bird Man’ of Russell Boulevard

By Jamie Moddelmog
Enterprise correspondent

“That’s kind of his happy sound,” said Mark LaFreniere from the backyard of his Russell Boulevard residence, west of city limits. He was stroking his 10-year-old pigeon, Lucky, who cooed softly.

“I give him all kinds of attention in the morning,” LaFreniere said. “I exercise him. I talk to him like a bird. I massage his wings. They like their feathers on their chest played with. I learned that from a video of a mother bird playing with her baby bird.”

Lucky’s origin story is not significantly different from Harry Potter’s. He showed up on the former firefighter’s doorstep one day as a baby with a cut on his forehead. And he was special.

LaFreniere’s next-door neighbor, Lucinda Childress, had come upon the gnarly scene of a hawk attack gone wrong. The hawk had ambushed a nest of baby pigeons and one baby had survived the predator’s talons, but — with a deep gash on top of his head — didn’t seem like he would live much longer. She knew there was only one man she could turn to: The Bird Man of Russell Boulevard.

“I lived in this house years ago and we had chickens. And I was always fascinated with the chickens,” LaFreniere said. “I think it’s sort of a tragedy that (most people) never get to know about birds, know that they’re very emotional, very smart really.”

A ‘Lucky’ start

LaFreniere’s reputation as a savior of birds was born with one of the smartest types of birds on the planet, the crow. In 2007, he found a dehydrated baby crow in his backyard and decided to nurse it back to health on a diet of fried eggs.

“It was pretty funny. It would just scream at me,” LaFreniere said, wanting to be fed. “I’d come out with (some) fried egg and put it there and it’d gobble up the fried egg.”

And then, he added, “One day he just disappeared … He flew away with some other crows.”

His success with the crow gave Childress confidence that her neighbor could deal with the bloodied baby bird in her yard. But the situation didn’t look good.

“I was kind of challenged in that I didn’t know what to do,” said LaFreniere, a retired 32-year firefighter with no formal training in animal care. “I put some Neosporin on the wound — the big old gash on his head — I gave him some water, I put him in a cage out in the back shed … I thought he’d be dead in the morning.”

The next day, LaFreniere awoke to a bittersweet surprise.

“He was alive! And I was like ‘Oh no … what do I feed him?’”

Through some internet digging, he found a suitable baby-bird formula to feed the injured chick, whom he had dubbed “Lucky.” However, he soon encountered another complication.

“When he was hungry he would just open his mouth and scream. And I’d just drop in the food. I had to do that every three hours,” he said. “My wife didn’t want to have anything to do with feeding the baby bird, or my daughters, who were going to school … So I put him in a cat-carrier box with a towel and brought him to work and set my watch.”

The formula Lucky was being fed every three hours would often stick to his feathers and dry, LaFreniere explained. So he decided to wash him off in the firehouse sink, attracting the attention of his fellow firefighters.

“They were really amused when I gave him a bath in the sink,” he remembered. “That was quite a show.”

However much his coworkers enjoyed it when he bathed the bird, the infant pigeon liked it even more.

“He really likes (bathing). He’ll put his wing(s) out so I can get water underneath them and then after a while … all his feathers puff up and he shakes his feathers like a dog,” he said. “You could tell after I gave a bath he was more relaxed. He would loosen his grip and almost fall over.”

Although LaFreniere had a fun time looking after Lucky, the little guy was a lot of responsibility; LaFreniere was still hoping that he would grow up and fly away with other birds, as his crow had done.

After taking care of him for a while, however, he realized that future was impossible — Lucky was blind.

“When I found that he was blind I thought, ‘Well, what am I gonna do with a blind pigeon?’ I can’t be taking care of a handicapped pigeon for the rest of his life … So I was thinking of all these ways to humanely terminate him.”

Before he could figure out how to put him down, however, one incident changed his perspective.

Lucky had moved on to eating bird seed instead of baby formula, and LaFreniere put food and water out for him in bowls every day, each time in the same position.

“One day I was in a hurry and I wasn’t paying attention and I got (the bowls) mixed up. I came back and there was water all over the cage. He was trying to get food but ‘damn!’ he kept getting water!”

The realization that Lucky could remember the positions of the food and water bowls made LaFreniere reconsider euthanizing him.

“He could remember where his food and water were … so I just didn’t have the heart for it. You know it’s like mother’s care. You take care of them, you get attached to them!”

As much as Mark LaFreniere expected the wild birds he’s rescued to join up with new flocks, the two pigeons he’s had only fly around his yard. Jamie Moddelmog/Enterprise photo

‘Sparky’ joins the flock

So Lucky lived on and a few years later, in January of 2011, he got a brother.

“The last month before I retired, I was parking my car in the back of the station and they said, ‘Hey it’s your lucky day; we have a bird for you!’ Someone had brought in a baby pigeon, and they didn’t know what to do; but they knew I knew what to do.”

The new pigeon was named ‘Sparky’ in honor of the firehouse he came from. Sparky had full eyesight and an aptitude for flight. LaFreniere figured this would translate into his eventual departure into the wild.

“I thought, ‘Oh yeah, there’s pigeons around here, he’ll just meet up with them and take off.’ So he flies with the pigeons for like 20 minutes and then he’s done. He never flew with them again. It was so weird. He’d fly around here … and land my shoulder and talk to me.”

The new pigeon grew very attached to LaFreniere, even accompanying him on drives into town.

“I’d go, ‘I’m going for a ride, you can come if you want’ and I get in the car and he never gets off my shoulder,” he said. “And we’re going down the road and he’s like ‘Well, this is so cool. It’s like I’m flying but I’m not doing anything!’”

Sparky also paid visits to LaFreniere’s parents’ house next door where he showed off his signature attitude.

“There were these figurines on a shelf up by the ceiling.” LaFreniere explained. “He would fly up there and talk to them and strut around, puff his feathers and make all different kind of sounds.”

His flying skills got him out of numerous close calls with the local hawks, who would dive in for sneak attacks, hungry for pigeon blood.

“I couldn’t believe how fast he could fly. (He and the hawk) flew around to the other side of that house there … in two, maybe three seconds at the max,” he said, referring to the house two doors down. “Then a little while later, way up in the sky is my pigeon. And I call him and he comes down … It was amazing.”

Sparky also had a special technique of “flapping like a butterfly” in order to escape predators; that gave LaFreniere confidence in his security. “I didn’t think anything could ever catch him.”

However, Sparky was no Lucky, and one December day in 2016, his luck ran out.

“I brought him in the house and … I was showing him himself in the mirror and he was looking at himself, ya know, like ‘I’m gonna kick your ass’,” LaFreniere said. As the dogs started furiously barking, he took Sparky outside.

LaFreniere had to push him off, but the bird returned. “And I go ‘No, no, no — you can’t come inside’” he explained, grabbing Sparky and tossing him back outside.

A while later, however, LaFreniere saw a pool of feathers by the front door. Then, he said, “I look and there’s another pool of feathers about 20 feet away. And in the middle is a hawk eating my pigeon! Just like that. And he was dead, there was no way I could save him.”

Mark LaFreniere holds a hose for his 10-year-old pigeon, Lucky. “He really likes (bathing). He’ll put his wing(s) out so I can get water underneath them and then after a while … all his feathers puff up and he shakes his feathers like a dog,” LaFreniere said. Jamie Moddelmog/Enterprise photo

‘There’s a connection that’s made’

But LaFreniere didn’t exactly think of it as the death of a pet. To him, his birds are wild animals who just needed some help surviving.

“I look at it like, ‘Hey if its gonna die, its gonna die,’ but let’s give it a try, give it a chance.” he said. “You do what you can.”

Helping the animals is also a mutually beneficial relationship in his eyes, making it worth the extra responsibilities.

“They teach compassion,” LaFreniere said. “When you have to take care of something, a creature that’s totally dependent on you, there’s a connection that’s made where you start having feelings or concerns for that animal. So that can be carried over to other human beings, too.”

Regardless of Lucky’s effect on the human psyche, exercising and bathing and talking to him every day gives Mark LaFreniere something to do and brightens his mornings.

“If they go, they go. If they stay, well it’s fun and games, but it is a little bit more stressful.”

LaFreniere concluded, “But then again, it’s fun in a way. I don’t know, what else would I be doing? I’d be reading a book I guess.”


The Bark Box

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