PORTLAND, Maine — He didn’t know it at the time, but when a crate tumbled off the back of a truck moving through Chelsea, Mass., more than 40 years ago, it was a defining moment for Starr Sarabia.
Then 9, he implored his father to pull over and check the crate out. Now known around Maine’s largest city as the “Bird Man” or “Pigeon Caller,” Sarabia on that day made the first of what would be many special connections with birds.
“Inside was a beautiful Java bantam hen,” Sarabia recalled. “The truck had been bringing chickens to slaughter.”
Sarabia’s father let him take the lucky fowl home. The young boy housebroke it, taught it to sleep in his bed like a cat and play with the family dog. Named Annie Bell, the hen lived until she too reached the age of 9 — three times the average chicken’s lifespan and certainly longer than the other poultry aboard that truck in Chelsea.
Fast forward about 30 years to 2003. Sarabia had just moved from his home in Salem, Mass., to Portland on a whim. He’d been in a rut and needed a change of scenery, and a friend had suggested the Pine Tree State. But when Sarabia took the leap and moved, he found himself homesick.
“When I first saw [Congress Square Park], it reminded me of a park in Salem,” he said. “I just sat down on the benches there and it helped me with my homesickness.”
The first locals to welcome the forlorn newcomer to the square wore feathers. They were a different shade than his unlikely pet from decades before, but once again, Sarabia was warmed by the surprise affection he felt from a bird. Only this time, there were many.
“That’s when I learned that the pigeons here were friendly,” he said. “The birds would approach me. Before I knew it, they just trusted me. They opened their hearts to me. They just started climbing up on my hands and climbing up on my shoulders.”
Sarabia, who is now celebrating his ninth year working the switchboard at Mercy Hospital, began visiting the park pigeons every day, offering them seed or bread crumbs. Today, crowds of bystanders often gather to watch as the pigeons playfully land on his red baseball cap or ride on the handlebars of his bicycle as he rolls figure eights around the square.
If he has them handy and any gathering fans ask, he’ll hand out 4-by-6 photos of himself, arms outstretched and lined with pigeons.
“The tourists love it,” Sarabia laughed. “I can’t tell you how many fridges I’m on.”
The birds, many of whom he’s named and recognizes, warble at him, and he babytalks back.
“I care for them,” he said. “I cry when they die, I celebrate them when there’s a new squab around.”
Sarabia tries to spread the enthusiasm with others in the little concrete park.
“Every time he [fed the pigeons], they’d come up to me, too,” said Debra Brazier, a former coworker who over the years has occasionally joined Sarabia in the square. “He loves his pigeons.”
Sometimes he gets scolded by passers-by who consider the wild birds unsanitary, he said, and every so often a police officer will remind him that, technically, feeding the pigeons is against the law. But Sarabia said he’s never been arrested for the crime and is more often cheered by strangers.
“He’s not hurting anybody,” Brazier said. “He’s a good person. What would you rather have? A guy feeding the birds or a guy dealing drugs?”
Sarabia, who is also eager to welcome the larger seagulls to what often become feathery lunch parties in the square, notes that pigeons are less likely to carry diseases than dogs or cats.
“People tend to look at them unfavorably,” he said. “People dismiss them as scavengers or call them ‘rats with wings.’ I would never call any city bird ‘rats with wings.’ I see them like angels. They’re angels of the urban sky.”