Losanjealous Interviews The Birdman of Westwood

The Birdman of WestwoodYes, it’s the Birdman of Westwood! A strange visitor from another planet, with powers and abilities far beyond those of mortal men! Birdman! Who can change the course of mighty rivers, bend steel with his bare hands, and who, disguised as Jason Finley, mild-mannered cognitive psychology researcher at UCLA, fights a never-ending battle for truth, justice and the American Robin!

We caught up with the Birdman of Westwood and chatted over black-oil sunflower seeds on a wooden porch railing.

What sort of childhood catastrophe sparked your interest in birdwatching?

When I was a kid I used to draw this giant bird that walked around upright with a top hat on and I called it the Squawkamole Bird. I also made up a video game I called “Bird’s Quest” in which you were a bird who had to dethrone the three evil parrot kings: Polly-Gon, Polly-Ester, and Polly-Unsaturated.

And how did this trauma impact you as an adult?

After I graduated from UCLA and found myself still there, working and not worrying about classes but still kind of in a rat race, it basically came down to: “screw this, I’m gonna start looking at birds.” I figured I’d learn about the four or five types of birds I thought we’d have on the UCLA campus, and maybe post their info on the web. Little did I know that not only was I wrong about how many types of birds were around, but I would also soon be hooked: a bird junkie.

Sounds like a horrible addiction. How do bird junkies get their fix on?

There’s a sort of Pokemon aspect to birdwatching or “birding” as “birders” call it: you gotta see ’em all. That and it’s awesome on an existential level to discover something new that had been hiding in plain sight. And let me tell you, the bird race beats the rat race.

But Los Angeles can’t be a great place to watch birds.

Yeah, you wouldn’t think so. I sure as hell didn’t. I thought there’d be only a handful of birds at UCLA, and now I’m up to something like fifty on the Birds of Westwood. But get this, there used to be wild land around here, like back before Columbus I guess. Rivers and everything. Some of it’s actually still around too, if you can believe it. Mostly up in the hills and mountains, but also in some few places that have been preserved, like the Sepulveda Basin at the 405 and 101, the Ballona Wetlands in Marina Del Rey, and the Kenneth Hahn State Recreation Area in Culver City. We also have a bunch of parks, which really help. If you start surfing around LA in satellite view on Google Maps you’ll see some of these places as big patches of green or brown that you probably never knew about. So these fragmented bits of habitat still help support a surprising variety of feathered dudes, and they can even act as oases in the concrete desert, resulting in a higher concentration of birds in a small area.

The only birds I’ve spotted in L.A. are pigeons, sparrows and once I had dinner at Gladstones and the waiter wrapped my leftovers in the shape of a swan. What am I doing wrong?

Gladstones leftoversGo to a park or one of the nearby nature trails, or a golf course, cemetery, college campus, or at the very least a residential area with a good amount of trees. And then just listen. REALLY listen. It’s dollars to donuts you’ve been hearing different birds pretty much the whole time but just haven’t ever really noticed them. Also remember to look UP, in the trees.

Up…yes, it makes so much sense now…

Well, in the bushes also. If you want to see MORE birds, go where there’s water. Pond, fake stream, ocean, whatever. Beside that, the other really big thing is this: the early bird sees the bird. Birds are way more active and evident in the morning.

The real secret is to just start paying attention. Which I guess could be expanded into a sort of zen/straightforward life lesson. Once you do that you’ll be noticing new birds in no time. To find out which birds you’re seeing, you can go online to birdsofwestwood.com or one of the sites I’ve got linked from there. Try to remember what the birds you saw looked and sounded like, or better yet take a picture–even a crappy one helps. Eventually you may even want to buy a “field guide” to birds. Who knows, maybe you’ll be the next bird junkie!

If it involves waking up before 9 don’t count on it. But talk to me about some of the local exotic species.

Probably the coolest thing about birding in LA is that all the large parks and exotic plants can support populations of feral exotic birds, like parrots and parakeets. For example, we have flocks of small green loud-chattering Yellow-Chevroned Parakeets across the city. They feed on the fruits from Silk Floss trees, which are the ones with the spiky trunks that I used to joke about my sister having to climbing up as a kid.

I haven’t seen Condors yet, but I’ve got it on good authority that a few of these guys frequent an area near Fire Camp 9 in the Angeles National Forest just north of the 210 at Monrovia east of Pasadena. But only in the Spring. During Winter they’re up in Kern County more. These guys are friggin HUGE. We’re talkin wingspans of TEN FEET. And they’re butt ugly as hell too. But that just makes them even more magnificent. With the help of many humans they’re making the slow and uncertain crawl back from the brink of extinction. I think there are now a little under a hundred of them that have been introduced back into the wild. They continue to make progress but keep meeting serious challenges in re-establishing themselves in the wild. I don’t know if they’ll make it back to stable levels or not, so this is definitely one bird you want to see and maybe be able to tell the grandkids about.

When will birds rise against man and attack us en masse?

For better or worse, primates beat birds to the punch. I’ve long maintained that if we primates hadn’t achieved sentience, developed civilization and technology, and dominated and gone a long way toward destroying the planet, birds would’ve been next to do it. The smartest parrots have what appear to be the most important ingredients for evolution of advanced intelligence and technology: they’re problem-solvers, social, vocal, and they can manipulate the environment with their claws and beaks.

But they probably need a few million more years of evolution, which they may not get if we annihilate them and/or their habitats. I hope they get their chance, because a society of technological and super-smart birds would be totally sweet.

Terror EyesDo you think Terror-Eyes could save us? I mean, wouldn’t you have second thoughts about carrying out an attack on mankind if you ran into one of these em-effers?

I’d either be terrified or think it was hilarious. I think the key feature that sets this apart from those big stupid fake owls is the eyes that look like they’re tracking you. Whether it’s Haunted-Mansion-bust style or what, that seems like it’d do it.

I’m also pretty sure the penguins would go turncoat and help us win the Great Aves-Homo Sapiens War. By the way, what was the saddest part of March of the Penguins for you?

When I sat down and realized how long I’d have to stay sitting in that excruciating Westside Pavillion theater seat. Also, when some of the penguins die.

The Birdman of Westwood prefers Roscoe’s over Zankou.
Visit his site at birdsofwestwood.com