It's at this time of year when a devoted bunch of local birders gather their scarves and mittens, grab their binocs and a tally sheet, and head to the wintry outdoors for the annual bird count. Those hardy folks really help track the ups and downs of the local bird population, by species. It got me thinking how my family history is forever entwined in this process.
Years ago, during the lowest point of the Great Depression, my dad's Uncle Bill developed a profound interest in birds. Exotic birds. Despite the heartbreaking economy of the times, Uncle Bill was doing very well running his roofing business. It was based in Jersey City, New Jersey, located across the Hudson River from Manhattan, and not far on the other side from the huge Jersey Meadows wetlands. He didn't lack for work. Perhaps he had an “in” with the local political machine.
The Depression hit the New York/New Jersey economy like a hammer hitting glass. Thousands of men lost their jobs. On every street corner in the City, you would see a man who lost his job selling apples for a nickel trying to support his family. But not Uncle Bill. Some nights after getting home from work, he would page through the monthly National Geographic, and his attention would be taken by an exotic bird in some far-off part of the world. Uncle Bill would get hold of a specialty animal supply house in New York City, and tell them he wanted to purchase the special bird which had caught his fancy. For that, Uncle Bill would leave a deposit of a hundred dollars or more. That was huge money for the Depression years, especially for a bird! Weeks or months later, he would be contacted by the animal supply house. They had his bird, they would say. Uncle Bill would then drive into the City, pay whatever else was needed, and carry his prize home.
Uncle Bill lived in a brick two-story row house in Jersey City. The back yard was tiny by most of our standards. Up against the back of the house he built a line of bird enclosures, which he would keep warm with hay, as well as heat from the house. The birds were safe from predators, too, being off the ground, securely in cages, and all locked up by a novel single device to assure they remained safe.
His flying menagerie grew. At the peak of his collection, he had several dozen exotic birds from South America, Africa, Hawaii, and other distant lands. He took great pride in caring for his birds, and spent time with them every day when he got home from work. Indeed, they were his beloved pets.
Another aspect about Uncle Bill's colorful life was that he enjoyed the refreshments offered at the neighborhood tavern, located just down the street. He was a “regular,” and the life of the party. How much of a partier was he? Well, when Uncle Bill went out every Friday night, he didn't only have five bucks in his wallet. Legend has it he always had ten hundred-dollar bills stashed in his shoe! Again, this was during the Depression!
One summer evening Uncle Bill was well “into the cups,” and came home tipsy. Instead of securing the bird cages when he got home, he must have fumbled around with the locking mechanism, and left them ajar. The next morning after his head had cleared, he went out back to tend to them. To his horror he saw that the cages were all open and empty. Every exotic bird had flown off, likely to the nearby Jersey Meadows.
I don't know if Uncle Bill ever saw any of his prized collection again. But if folks happened to be down in the Meadows doing a bird count back then, they would have had an incredible surprise on their hands!
Joe Ulrich is 62 and retired, living in Warren County, and has had a book published in 2004 entitled "The Dust of Angels," a WWII memoir. In addition, he has served as Chair of the Board of Directors of the American Red Cross Chapter in Warren County.