Archive for the ‘Birds and Pigeons’ Category

I once wrote about Sir Oliver, The Lambs’ mascot parrot. In 1900, Sir Oliver was a matinée idol who had a habit of going off script and speaking out of line on stage. When he wasn’t performing, he spent his time startling customers with his “fowl” language in a bird shop on Broadway. I have to wonder if Sir Oliver was the parrot who also starred in this drama…

Madion Square Park

Madison Square Park in 1893. NYPL digital collections.

“Help! Help! Murder! Police!”

The loud cries for help pierced the early morning stillness in Madison Square Park, nearly startling Policeman Betts out of his shoes as he walked his beat near the Hoffman House Hotel on Broadway and 25th Street.

As a police officer with what was then called the 19th Police Precinct – otherwise known as the notorious Tenderloin District – Betts was exposed to a heavy dose of crime every day.

This district, which covered roughly 23rd Street to 42nd Street between 5th and 6th Avenues, was the most crime-ridden section of the city — and possibly of the country. Hundreds of brothels, saloons, and gambling parlors lined the streets. Graft and corruption among the police was rampant.

According to newspaper accounts from the early 1900s, Betts had assisted on dangerous door-busting raids of gambling and opium dens, made heroic rescues when the Hoffman House caught fire, and dealt with all kinds of vice on a daily basis. But he’d apparently never heard a screech for help quite like this.

Captain Alexander Williams, Tenderloin District

The Tenderloin area reportedly got its nickname when Alexander “Clubber” Williams took command of what was then the 29th Precinct in 1876. He cheerfully noted that he was looking forward to getting some “tenderloin” after working many years for “chuck steak” on the Lower East Side. Captain Williams retired in 1895 a millionaire.

“They’re killing me! Quick, quick!”

Hearing the second cry for help, Policeman Betts rapped his nightstick on the asphalt to signal the three other policemen patrolling the area that their immediate help was needed. From each corner of Madison Square Park, the four police officers made a systematic search toward the center of the park, gripping their nightsticks tightly in preparation for striking a few blows on the assailants.

Unable to find any trace of a crime in progress, Policeman Betts and his fellow officers retreated to their posts.

Tenderloin Station House

The station house for the 29th Precinct at 137-139 West 30th Street was designed by NYPD sergeant and official architect Nathaniel D. Bush in 1869. By 1898, the station (now re-numbered the 19th Precinct) was overcrowded and had insufficient dormitory quarters for the patrolmen. In 1903, Commissioner William McAdoo seized upon the city-owned building next door to create more dormitory space. Today this is the site of a Courtyard Marriott.

“Rubbah! Rubbah! Rubbah-neck!” The voice was still loud, but this time there was a mocking cadence.

Betts rapped again to signal to the others that they were needed again. This time they converged to a bench where the voice seemed to be coming from. They look up and saw the culprit on the branches of a maple tree.

“Polly wants a cracker!”

It is not known from whose cage the green parrot escaped. But he (or she) remained in the park for a while, where he amused the children and kept the tramps awake at night with his loud outbursts. One homeless man said he heard a man on Fourth Avenue was willing to pay $2 for the bird, and so began a challenge to catch the parrot.

Hoffman House Hotel

Policeman Betts’ regular post was at the Hoffman House Hotel on Broadway at 25th Street, which was built in 1864 on land once occupied by the Isaac Varian farm and homestead. In its first year, the hotel served as headquarters for General Winfield Scott and Benjamin F. Butler, who had been sent to New York to help quell the draft riots. The Hoffman House and the adjoining Albermarle Hotel were demolished in 1915 to make way for a 16-story office building.

It was believed that someone eventually caught and sold the bird, and used the money to buy alcohol.

Tenderloin Police Station

In April and May 1905, the city secured four lots on the south side of 30th Street, across from the old station house, on land once occupied by the James A. Stewart farm. The property contained an old wooden house and a wooden structure that served as a carpenter’s shop and an African-American church. The existing buildings were demolished to provide a site for the new Tenderloin Station, aka, The Fortress.

Sparrow birdhouses at Union Square Park

New York City residents gather around an elaborate sparrow birdhouse at Union Square, shown here in this 1860s illustration. From the Collection of the Author

There was a time when residents of New York City could not stroll through one of the city’s many parks without confronting what The New York Times called “the creeping and crawling abomination known as the inch worm.” The parks were infested with the tiny worms, which not only devoured tree leaves and shrubbery but had a nasty habit of swinging from branches and crawling down people’s shirt collars.

Having heard that the house sparrows of European cities were helping to control insect infestations, a group of prominent New Yorkers, including dry goods merchant Alfred Edwards, imported eight pairs of sparrows from England in 1850.

Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library

The Brooklyn Institute began as the Brooklyn Apprentices’ Library, founded by Augustus Graham in 1823 and incorporated in 1824. The first building, shown here, was on the corner of Henry and Cranberry streets. The cornerstone was laid by the Marquis de Lafayette on July 4, 1825.

These pairs were brought to the Brooklyn Institute, where they were cared for and housed in a large cage during the winter months. The sparrows were released in the spring of 1851, but they all died before they were able to breed.

In 1853, Nicholas Pike, the director of the Brooklyn Institute, traveled to Liverpool to collect more insect-eating birds. He purchased about 100 house sparrows and song birds, and shipped them back to New York on board the Cunard steamship Europa. After 11 days at sea, half of the birds were released at the Narrows tidal straight, while the other half were taken to Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn.

Nicholas Pike, the director of the Brooklyn Institute

Colonel Nicholas Pike was a soldier, author, and naturalist. He was also a distant relative of Captain Zebulon R. Pike, for whom Pike’s Peak in Colorado is named. He died from paralysis in 1905 at St. Vincent’s Hospital in New York at the age of 87.

These 50 birds were originally kept in the cemetery’s bell tower, but they didn’t seem to thrive there, so Brooklyn Institute trustee-librarian John Hooper brought them to his house for the winter. In the spring of 1853, the birds were released into the cemetery, where a man was employed to take care of them.

This second wave of sparrows thrived in their new surroundings at Green-Wood Cemetery, and over the years, several more shipments of sparrows were delivered and released in the cemetery as well as in Central Park. While some considered the sparrows to be a loud nuisance, others were pleased that the birds were feeding on insects and inchworms.

Brooklyn Institute, Washington Street

In 1843, the Apprentices’ Library received a charter as the Brooklyn Institute. In 1848 the Institute moved to a new building at 182-184 Washington Street, between Tillary and Concord Streets (near today’s Korean War Veterans Plaza). This building was damaged by fire in 1890 and sold to the New York and Brooklyn Bridge in September 1891 to be demolished for bridge extension purposes. Brooklyn Museum

On April 14, 1866, about a dozen English sparrows arrived in Union Square at 14th Street and Broadway. It was thought that the birds had come from either Stuyvesant Square or from a private house at the corner of Fifth and 29th Street.

But other sources report that Director William Conklin of the Central Park menagerie had freed 18 pairs of sparrows in the spring of 1865, with 6 pairs going to the Trinity churchyard, 6 pairs to Washington Square Park, and 6 pairs to Union Square. At the time, Conklin said he thought he was opening a fountain of blessings on the country.

Green-Wood Cemetery bell tower. Brooklyn

The first 50 sparrows from England were kept in the Green-Wood Cemetery clock-bell tower in 1853. The cemetery was founded in 1838 and is today a National Historic Landmark. New York Public Library Digital Collection

The Sparrow Cop of Union Square

The sparrows at Union Square were under the watch of Policeman John T. Shaw, who was also in charge of the grounds. Policeman Shaw had been appointed to New York’s police department on April 19, 1856, and was attached to the 18th Patrol District station house at 319 Second Avenue, near East 22nd Street. Back then, each ward of the city had a patrol district of the same number. In addition to the main station house, the patrol district of the 18th Ward also had day stations at Union Square, Stuyvesant Square, and Madison Square.

Union Square 1849

Union Square was originally a portion of the estate of Elias Brevoort, who sold 22 acres to John Smith, a free African-American and leather dresser, for 340 pounds in 1762. Upon Smith’s death, his executors sold the land for 950 pounds to Henry Spingler, a shop keeper and farmer, on February 29, 1788. It is said that Spingler’s homestead was located at the southeast corner of 14th Street and University Place and his barn was at the southwest corner of 14th and Fifth Avenue. The property, originally called Union Place, was made a public place in 1815 and improved as Union Square in 1832. This illustration depicts Union Square in about 1849.NYPL Digital Collection

According to Policeman Shaw, who kept a record of the birds’ activities, the newly arrived male sparrows immediately began fighting with some wrens who had occupied a little wooden house in the trees. In 14 minutes, the wrens were gone and two pairs of sparrows had moved in. Five weeks later, 9 baby sparrows arrived. By the fall of 1867, there were about 600 sparrows in Union Square. A year later, Policeman Shaw had about 1,500 birds under his wing.

When the first group of sparrows arrived at Union Square in 1866, there was but one small birdhouse in the square. By that summer, 100 more “single-family” birdhouses appeared. A year later, some very elaborate and large multifamily sparrow apartments starting showing up in Union Square, Madison Square, and other parks.

These expensive homes had little wooden signs that read “Sparrows’ Hotel,” “Sparrows’ Pavilion,” and “Sparrows’ Chinese Pagoda.” Soon, an entire village appeared in the treetops, including a Sparrows’ Doctor Shop, Sparrows’ Restaurant, and Sparrows’ Station House. Although the birds frequented all the parks in the city, they seemed to make Union Square their headquarters.

Birdhouses at Madison Square Park

Although Union Square was sparrow headquarters, some birds also chose to live at the elaborate birdhouses at Madison Square Park.

The miniature palaces were a gift of a well-known New York physician, and were painted and adorned by his daughters, Laura and Blanche. The hotel reportedly had 8 rooms, the house had 5, and the pavilion boasted 50 apartments. There was also a rustic thatched cottage that housed 36 pairs of birds. But even with close to 160 birdhouses in 1868, that still wasn’t enough, and solicitations were taken for more sparrow hotels of greater dimensions.

In 1875, for example, New York Alderman John H. Zindel offered a resolution instructing the Board of City Works to furnish and put up 50 birdhouses in the City Hall Park, and to furnish two bins of ground food for the sparrows. Funds for the houses and food – not to exceed $50 — was appropriated from the Contingent Fund.

Inside the homes were nests made of hair, grass, cotton, and feathers, all laid on a foundation of courser materials like twigs and straw. The sparrows would not allow any other kind of bird to move in – they would attack and expel intruders with great fury. They were not even hospitable to their own kind, allowing homeless neighbors to freeze to death in winter rather than inviting them inside.

Church of the Puritans, Union Square

In July 1867 a large red parrot escaped and came into Union Square. The news was transmitted to sparrow headquarters, and in three minutes the intruder was attacked by an army of sparrows. It was driven from tree to tree and finally driven to the flagstaff of Dr. George Barrell Cheever’s Church of the Puritans, shown here, on the southwest corner of E. 15th Street and Union Square West. The church was constructed in 1846; next door was the Spingler Institute for Young Ladies. In later years this was the site of Tiffany’s, and today it’s the site of the Spingler Building and a Skechers store and HSBC bank.

In addition to inchworms, the sparrows also ate yellow caterpillars, grasshoppers, earth worms, and other insects. They would also pick from the oats that fell from the horses’ feed bags. In winter, Policeman Shaw fed them cracked rice — they went through two barrels in the winter of 1867. He also put some short pieces of plank wood in the fountain so that they could drink and bathe.

The city also encouraged people to feed the birds and provide them with water in the winter. In 1870, The New York Times published instructions for providing water:

“Water should be placed in milk pans or other shallow broad-bottomed vessels, wherein it should be poured three or four inches deep, with little bits of blocks or boards floating on the surface, on which the birds will light and easily satisfy their wants.”


Too Much of a Good Thing

By the late 1870s, New Yorkers were up in arms over the prolific birds, which had all but chased away the native songbirds. Some suggested tearing down the cozy little homes or shooting the birds. At one time the Department of Agriculture was so exasperated over the prolific flocks that a campaign was sponsored to poison the little birds.

In 1884, a committee of the American Union of Ornithologists declared the sparrow a nuisance, thief, and murderer, and recommended it be exterminated. In 1886, a New York State statute was passed making it illegal to feed or shelter the birds — the penalty was up to a year in prison and a fine up to $1,000. And in 1900, the Lacey Act — a Congressional law that addresses illegal wildlife trade to protect species at risk and bars importing species found to be injurious to the United States — prohibited importing English sparrows.

Despite all efforts to eliminate the sparrow from America, the bird survived and thrived. In September 1960, the year the Department of the Interior removed the bird from the list of banned species — The New York Times declared that the 100-year war on the sparrow had ended, and that, for better or worse, it was one of the most abundant of North American birds.

On November 11, 1935, a blue peacock decided to make his escape from who knows where and lead numerous grown men on a four-hour chase through the streets of New York.

Peacock New York City

In August 2011, a peacock flew the coop from the Central Park Zoo and spent the night on a fifth-floor ledge at 858 Fifth Ave. The peacock in this story made the reverse trip.

It’s a plane! It’s a bird! It’s a peacock!

Imagine walking down Fifth Avenue in Manhattan on a Monday morning and seeing a peacock flying overhead. Nowadays, you might just shrug it off and continue walking to keep up with the crowd. Or maybe you’d stop briefly to take a selfie with your smart phone and share it on Twitter. A few of you might capture the incident on video, like they did in 2012 when a peacock escaped from the John Browne High School in Queens.

Unfortunately, there were no personal cameras and video recorders when this event actually took place almost 80 years ago, but news reports from The New York Times and Cortland Standard tell a colorful story.

At 9:10 a.m. on that Monday morning, a woman on West 58th Street called the West 47th Street police station to report a large buzzard on her windowsill. Patrolmen William Burke, John Duffy, and John Leonhardt were dispatched to the building with orders to make the buzzard go away…

47th Street Police Station

The old 47th Street Police Station in 1939.

The three leading policemen in this story were assigned to what was then the 18th Precinct on West 47th Street in the Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. This station house was built in 1860, and over the course of a century, was known as the 26th, 9th, 18th, and 16th precincts as well as Traffic Station D.

Due to its proximity to the theater district, the station house was quite busy making arrests and headlines. According to national news reports, Mae West was a frequent customer – she was reportedly arrested in 1926 for appearing in her play “Sex,” and in 1928, she and four cast members of the play “Pleasure Man” were arrested when detectives and uniformed policemen from the station raided the show on opening night. A large crowd followed the police as they drove Miss West and her cast to the station for questioning. They were reportedly each released on $500 bail and were to be arraigned on charges of performing in an indecent play.

After the police station was demolished in 1962, the city transferred the property to the Fire Department as a potential site for a firehouse, but nothing ever materialized. In the 1970s, Ramon Aponte, a native of Puerto Rico who had lived nearby since 1950, organized a group of concerned citizens that helped transform the lot into a playground. Today it is called the Ramon Aponte Park.

40 West 58th Street

40 West 58th Street, 1916

“The Buzzard”

By the time the patrolmen got to 58th Street, the buzzard had miraculously turned into a peacock and flown away. They looked up and saw that it was perched on the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home at 40 West 58th Street. The men made their way to the roof and tried to approach the bird, but the peacock kept its distance…

The five-story building at 40 West 58th Street was known as the Plaza Funeral Home from about 1930 to 1968. Prior to that, the building served as a showroom for the New York and Brooklyn Casket Company, and earlier, as a luxury clubhouse for New York’s Coterie Club. The building had elevator service to all floors.

Coterie Club ballroom

The ballroom of the Coterie Club.

The Coterie Club was organized in 1916 by several prominent Daughters of the American Revolution. Its mission was to provide superior accommodations and service for single, well-to-do women who were visiting the city and needed assistance procuring hotel rooms, theater tickets, taxi services, and more. The club provided a ballroom, dining room and lounging rooms for afternoon or evening entertainment, and services such as social secretaries, chaperones, and personal shoppers. This club was very active from 1916-1918.

Starting in 1965, builder Sheldon H. Solow began to secretly purchase 14 buildings on 57th and 58th Street, including the Plaza Funeral Home (he recorded the buyers under different names in order to fly below the real estate development radar). These buildings were demolished in the fall of 1968 to make room for the luxury 50-story Solow Building at 9 West 57th Street.

Solow Building

The Solow Building at 9 W. 37th St.

From the roof of the Plaza Funeral Home, the peacock flew to the roof of the Wyndham Hotel at 42 West 58th Street. The three policemen headed to that roof also, but again the peacock flew the coop.

By this time, the policemen were just hoping the large bird would fly over to the Savoy Hotel on the east side Fifth Avenue so that they could turn the job over to the East 51st Street police station.

After departing the Wyndham roof, the peacock flew around the nine-story Bergdorf-Goodman building on Fifth Avenue. Down on the street, a large crowd of people stood gaping and cheering on the feathered fugitive as it circled a few times around the gilded rooster weather vane on top of the Heckscher Building.

Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion

Before Edwin Goodman and Herman Bergdorf moved their department store to the corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street in 1928, the site was occupied by the huge Cornelius Vanderbilt II mansion, designed in 1893 by George B. Post and his teacher, Richard Morris Hunt. The Gilded Age Era website has some great interior photos and information about the mansion.

The Heckscher Building

Augustus Heckscher Sr. came to the United States from Germany in 1867 and began making a fortune in various mining operations. In 1913, he bought the old Frederick Stevens and William Whitney mansion at the southwest corner of Fifth Avenue and 57th Street and constructed a three-story building of offices and shops.

Stevens and Whitney mansion

In 1875 Frederick W. Stevens commissioned architect George Harney to design a mansion for him and his family at 2 West 57th Street. After Frederick died, his widow sold the property to Oliver Payne who in turn gave it to his sister Flora and her husband, William C. Whitney.

A few years later he announced plans for a tall office building in the form of a simple slab on a plain base, but with some French Renaissance detailing. By the time construction began in 1920, the design had changed to conform to a new zoning law requiring setbacks with skyscrapers.

In the 1930’s Heckscher lost the building through foreclosure. Then in 1942, the weather vane was removed, apparently as scrap for the war effort. Philippine dictator Ferdinand Marcos secretly bought the building in 1981, and in 1983, management renamed it the Crown Building.

Back to our illustrious peacock…

Apparently realizing that the rooster was not going to pay him any attention, the peacock soared over to Chickering Hall at 29 West 57th Street, where he perched for a brief time on a window sill on the 13th floor.

Alas, there were no chicks to be found at Chickering Hall, so it was time for the peacock to move on again.

Crown Building Heckscher Building

The 25-story Crown Building rises in a series of setbacks culminating in a fancy copper pyramidal roof.

By now, the streets were thronged with spectators. There were also 12 photographers, 10 reporters, three agents from the ASPCA, and two keepers from the Central Park Zoo on hand to witness the flying spectacle. The peacock did not disappoint. Spotting a nice cornice on the 15th floor of the Plaza Hotel, he took flight again.

The peacock obviously enjoyed the view from the Plaza Hotel, because he stayed up there for about an hour. The officers tried to reach him by entering Room 1571 (the peacock hunters interrupted the occupant, who was eating a late breakfast) and opening the window. They slowly made their way along the narrow edge (I find this hard to believe, but it was reported in the news) and tossed pellets at the bird to scare it off, but that also failed.

Chickering Hall

Chickering Hall was built in 1924, just four years after a fire destroyed two houses on the site and killed five people, including the famous animal trainer, Dr. Martin Potter. In its early years, the building was home to the American Piano Company. By the time the high-flying peacock paid a visit, the building was, quite appropriately, being leased by The Curtiss Flying Service.

Finally around noon, there came a raucous cry from the new bird sanctuary in the southeast corner of Central Park (the Hallett Nature Sanctuary). The peacock spread his magnificent wings and swooped down across the pond toward four peahens in waiting.

Captain Ronald Cheyne-Stout, director of menageries for the New York City Park Department, said he was delighted that the peacock had landed there. Ironically, the only other peacock at the sanctuary had died two weeks before, so the new male would fit in very well. As long as his wings were clipped twice a year, he wouldn’t be able to fly away.

Plaza Hotel, New York

The 18-story Plaza Hotel at Fifth Avenue and Central Park South opened its doors on October 1, 1907. Although numerous birds, including owls, falcons, and pelicans, once lived at the Plaza with a princess, this was the first time a peacock visited the grand hotel.

The director said they would certainly return the bird if anyone could prove ownership, and added, “The ASPCA can’t take him because there is nothing cruel about where he is now.”