Buzz Alpert is standing in the middle of his barren living room with a snow-white pigeon perched on his shoulder. Flap flap flap flap flap. A smaller white pigeon circles him twice before it decides to land on his head.
Peck peck peck peck peck. One of the pigeons is using its beak to groom Alpert's eyebrows, and birds in the nearby cages are cackling mischievously. In the terrarium a mouse is scurrying about, poking its nose against the glass to get a look at two lime-green lovebirds. Two dogs are woofing and lazily loping through the living room, looking for food or affection. They receive the latter from Alpert, who balances the birds on his shoulder and his head while bending down to pet one of the hounds.
"I think it's important for people to see that these relationships can exist between animals and people," Alpert says.
Downstairs in the basement, in large cages made of plywood and chicken wire, pigeons flap around, waiting for their daily medicine. An inquisitive sea gull is cawing and looking to frighten the cats. And we haven't even gotten to the garage.
If it's relatively quiet outside, you can almost hear Buzz Alpert's garage cooing. As you pass by the five bird feeders outside the garage and poke your head inside, you're greeted with a scene straight out of Hitchcock. Here, hundreds of pigeons walk, fly, and stumble about in what must be Chicago's most highly populated private aviary and bird repair center.
Buzz Alpert doesn't know just how many birds are here. Over the years he's lost count. But he knows each one's personality and medical requirements. Right now, he's trying to catch one of his pigeons to give it its daily medicine. He reaches out and grabs the critter and holds it to his chest. The bird shivers and squirms like a child under a blanket on a cold night. "I can't do it now," he says, letting the bird fly away from him. "He's too scared."
We go back into the basement, where Alpert prepares the medicine, a burnt-orange mush, and takes a little bit of it up in a syringe. He opens a cage and a pigeon flies onto the clothes dryer and waits expectantly. The radio is playing "A Summer Place." Alpert opens the pigeon's beak. "Come on, honey. Come on, sweetheart." He uses the tube to clear the beak of food that's stuck in there. Then he gently pushes a piece of tubing into the bird's beak and down into its esophagus. He feeds the bird, removes the tubing, and lets the bird back into its cage. "There's no hope for her. She'll stay here for the rest of her life, which could be 20 or 25 years," Alpert says.
Buzz Alpert can't take a vacation. Too many birds depend on him. There are birds with broken wings, damaged beaks, and splayed feet who must be taken care of, fed, and medicated every day. Then there are the flocks of pigeons that Alpert wanders around the city for an hour or two every night to feed. And the birds that haven't even met Alpert yet, trapped in abandoned buildings or injured in the streets. If Alpert finds them, he'll bring them back to his house and try to nurse them back to health.
An avian Mother Teresa, or, as he puts it, "the Billy Graham of the bird world," Buzz Alpert is a sales coordinator for the CTA who has become obsessed with saving birds. He and his wife, Jan, are both federally licensed migratory-bird rehabilitators. She used to work in an animal hospital and has taught Buzz about medications so that he can pursue his obsession. It all started with one little lovebird Jan Alpert brought home more than ten years ago; gradually, Alpert's entire house has turned into a kind of bird hospital, with a kitchen cabinet full of different kinds of medications and nutrients and even a bird wheelchair that Alpert fashioned out of an old parachute to mobilize a lame bird. Even Alpert admits that what he does is "a kind of insanity."
"As a child, I always dreamt that I could fly," Alpert says. "I had recurring dreams of flying. Maybe that's what pushed me toward birds."
Buzz Alpert was born in 1938, grew up on the north side, and served in the Marine Corps. He worked for quite a while as a CTA train conductor before becoming a sales coordinator there. As he tells it, he grew up a pretty normal, socially conscious citizen who, like all of us, dreamt of making the world a better place.
He has volunteered at the cancer ward of Children's Memorial Hospital and shoveled walks for the needy, and has a file full of letters to the editor he has written--on issues like civil rights, former secretary of agriculture Earl Butz, the crises in the Middle East, and Japanese fishing nets (which are said to destroy underwater environments). He's written a novel and is working on a second one. It was while he was at home with a spinal injury, writing his first novel, that his wife brought home the lovebird and Buzz Alpert began picking up injured birds in the backyard.
These days, Alpert's social concerns seem to be strictly birdocentric. His concerns for the environment, the sick, the helpless, the homeless, the needy are now all manifested in his bird work.
"Many of my attitudes about civil rights have culminated in a small way in my work with saving birds. In my view, one bird is the same as another. I work as hard to save a sparrow as I would to save an eagle. I'm concerned for all of them. In the middle of the night when it's cold and it's winter, I'll lay awake worrying about the birds, about the animals, about the homeless people.
"I remember in the winter on a bitterly cold night one time when I was downtown and I saw a homeless man lying on the sidewalk and then I saw two pigeons frozen to death, lying over some bread crumbs. They had frozen there, trying to eat. It brought tears to my eyes. It really tore me apart.
"Many times on a winter night, I've gotten up out of a warm bed at three in the morning and shoveled snow and fed the birds and I feel a lot better for it. I really do. It may not make the Empire State Building another story taller and it may not develop the cure for cancer. But I try by example to show that with a small amount of initiative and caring, you can make the world a better place. I would never dream of such a lofty, utopian goal of making heaven on earth, but I think things could be a whole lot nicer."
It is fair to say that Alpert lives a rather ascetic life. If you took away all the cages and animals and birdseed and medicines in Buzz Alpert's house, there would basically be nothing left except for an old green couch and a few spare chairs. He refuses to take any money for the work he does with birds and spends almost everything he makes at the CTA on bird-related items. He recently bought some special bird medicine that goes for about 130 bucks a pint, and he goes through 30 50-pound sacks of seed every two weeks. Feeding his lone sea gull (he calls him "Morris Seagull, my Jewish bird") costs three or four bucks a day.
"I don't mind making sacrifices. I'd live on orange crates if they were clean," Alpert says. "My wife tells me my diet could consist of bread and water and I'd be happy. . . . I'm not a particularly religious person. I don't do what I do in the hopes of being saved. I don't do it for salvation; I do it because I think it's the right thing to do."
With all the birds flapping about in his house, it seems like Alpert would be worried about disease. Not so. "Sure you can get a disease from a pigeon, but it has to be under particular circumstances," Alpert says. "If the droppings are allowed to dry without sunlight for a year and then become dried spores and become airborne and you inhale them and your immune system is in bad shape, you'll get sick. Those conditions aren't around here. If you have birds and you don't take care of them and you don't treat them right and you treat their cage like it's a pigsty, sure it's possible to get a disease. The incidence of disease from pigeons is so small it's immeasurable."
And what about people who fear birds? Alpert says that such fears are unfounded. "We have Alfred Hitchcock to thank for that. I've seen grown men over six feet tall go to the floor when a little lovebird or a robin flies at them. They fall to the floor in fright; it's ridiculous."
There's a good chance you've seen Buzz Alpert outside at night feeding the birds. And over the years, he's endured a fair amount of abuse from passersby who find the sight of a man feeding birds comical. A few times he's almost gotten into fights.
"There's a place downtown where I've been feeding the birds for years, and I've encountered a lot of problems down there," says Alpert. "One time I was in my CTA uniform, my old gray uniform, and there were two well-dressed young men, twice my size, half my age, with their briefcases and their nice suits and their topcoats, and here I am in my scummy gray uniform. And they came up and they frightened the birds away.
"I said, 'Why would you be so mean? Why wouldn't you be kind? Why does it matter to you if the birds eat? Why would you bother them? What's the matter with you?' This one guy came up to me and he was real angry and he said, 'I could maul you!' He was around six-two. I turned sideways and cocked myself ready. I said, 'Make your move.' And I grabbed for something in my belt. He said, 'What do you have?' I said, 'Make your move! Don't talk!' Two of them, they would have killed me. They would have beaten me to a pulp and you wouldn't have known they'd been in a fight. But they backed off. I've had those experiences many times."
Then there was the time Alpert saw a man across the street from him running through a flock of pigeons, scattering them into the sky. Alpert called across to the man, "Oh what a big tough guy you are, frightening a bunch of little birds. Don't you feel great?"
"He tensed," Alpert said. "And his date was walking with him, and he just looked at her and she looked at him and he kind of dropped his head and just walked away."
Another time, Alpert was picking up a sick bird when he was accosted by a man who started screaming at him. "He said, 'What the hell are you gonna do with that bird?' I said, 'I'm going to take it home and inject it with antibiotics and feed it. It's half-starved; I'm going to try and save its life. Each life is irreplaceable.' The guy stood there and he looked at me and he said, 'I'm really sorry.'
"I accepted his handshake. The bird eventually died. It was beyond hope, but that moment taught me that it's hard to reach a lot of people because they're not used to kindness by example. They don't understand it. They don't understand going the extra yard to help something, the moment of inconvenience to say, 'I care.'"
That attitude is especially American, according to Alpert. He says our selfish attitudes make us look away when we see a living thing dying in the streets, whether it's a human being or a sparrow. "We've developed a McDonald's fast-food psychosis. We have developed an attitude that requires satisfaction and gratification instantly. You walk into McDonald's and they slap your burger and they throw it at you and you pay for it and you stuff it in your mouth. . . . It's hard to find sensitivity when everybody wants it now!"
In case you haven't already guessed, Alpert is also a vegetarian. He says he couldn't justify saving birds and eating them. "Every meal for me is a celebration, because I know I'm not killing something," Alpert says. "Every time I eat, I know I'm letting something live." You won't find disposable pens or plastic items in Alpert's household either.
"I don't live in a vacuum," Alpert says. "I always thought it was selfish to look at yourself as a single entity. The world is made up of many people and parts, and they interact. Before men and women walked the earth, the world had kept an environmental balance. Since we have inhabited it, we have been horrendous in our conduct. The animals were here before us, and the way we are behaving as a society today, there's a reasonable chance that they will be here after us if we don't destroy the earth totally. If you can't accept the creatures of the earth and their habitat without destroying them, what does that say about us?"
Alpert has played a part in a number of relatively well publicized events over the past few years. He started a CTA program that uses birth control to lower pigeon populations, and he was instrumental in the saga of Riverside Rosie, the famous Chicago duck who decided to lay her ten eggs 20 feet above the south branch of the Chicago River, atop a planter box at 120 S. Riverside.
Riverside Rosie was a media favorite for a couple of weeks in May 1989, when building security guards were assigned to watch over the bird. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service was also called in; as a migratory bird, Rosie was officially protected. After the eggs hatched, Alpert wanted to remove Rosie and take her to safety. His request was initially rebuffed. "The bozos at Fish and Wildlife were saying 'Let her be,'" Alpert says. "I said, 'Why would you do that? The babies will die! They'll never get to water.' They said the water was right there. I said, 'Yeah. Down a 25-foot cement precipice to a concrete pier.' They said, 'Other birds come down the sides of cliffs to water.' I said, 'Not ducks!' They had no response to that."
So late one night Alpert and his wife stole the birds and brought them home, planning to release them at the Chicago Botanic Garden in Glencoe in the morning. But when Fish and Wildlife discovered the birds missing, they insisted on releasing them themselves--for the TV coverage, says Alpert. Rosie and her brood were taken to the Botanic Garden that afternoon. There they were released, and there, one hopes, they remain.
Almost two years later, Alpert is still angry at the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. He maintains that if it hadn't been for him, Riverside Rosie's babies would have died. "It wasn't an ego contest with me," Alpert says. "I wanted to save the bird."
He chronicled the story and his frustration in an op-ed piece in the Chicago Tribune. "History shall judge us by how we treat those unable to protect themselves from our rules," he wrote. "Jan and I did the best we could to show that Chicago cares . . . even if we were excluded from the most exhilarating moment, the release."
The CTA originally adopted Alpert's plan to use Ornitrol, a birth-control drug developed at Searle Laboratories in Skokie specifically for pigeons, in 1985. Corn treated with the chemical was thrown down for the pigeons to eat. (Seven and a half pounds of it is enough for 100 pigeons; that dosage will keep the female birds sterile for six months.) But in 1986 the CTA stopped the program, a decision Alpert attributes to politics.
"I don't understand why," Alpert said. "It was a humane program. Instead of poisoning them, instead of being cruel and inhumane and unkind, it was a humane way to deal with the problem. Poisoning doesn't work anyway. You take a hundred birds and poison them, and maybe 75 die. Nobody thinks about the fact that the next year, the surviving birds will intensify their birth rate to make up for it. . . . The next year the pest control guy comes back and puts down more poison and kills more poor birds and he laughs all the way to the bank. So what have we done? We've made the pest control guy rich and we've accomplished nothing. We're right back where we started."
According to Alpert, the CTA started to test the Ornitrol-treated corn at the Howard Street station last year, and the Cultural Center recently agreed to start using the drug as well. Alpert recently discussed the program in a letter to the editor in the New York Times.
Alpert has also encountered some problems with a Bannockburn shopping center owner who, he says, was using an inhumane method to get rid of pigeons. "She had her people shooting birds with BB guns. I told her I would expose her unless she stopped. So then she applied these sticky substances to the roof. You're supposed to apply it in beads so the birds can get away. She spread it like cake frosting so these poor birds, they couldn't get away. I was able to pull off some of the birds, but a lot of them died of starvation and rotted up there."
Working as a bird savior is a job that involves a fair amount of danger. It's not just a matter of finding sick birds in the park and carrying them home in a cage; Buzz Alpert tells of daring bird rescues where he has risked life and limb, sneaking into abandoned buildings, climbing up walls, and swinging about with a rope tied to his waist. He describes adventures worthy of a cat burglar or a modern-day Errol Flynn.
"When I hear about birds in trouble, I go to the place and case it, much as a thief would," Alpert says. "I'm a good second-story man. I remember being in an old building downtown by Medinah Temple that was under construction and birds were flying in there and getting trapped. I tied a heavy parachute cord around my waist because the floor was rotting and it fell in on me a couple times. I was crawling between the roof and the ceiling, in this small claustrophobic space, and I was capturing birds and stuffing them in my shirt, crawling out on my hands and knees.
"I decide where to enter, how to get out. Sometimes I have to wait until there's no traffic left. I've had to climb up sides of buildings and climb up door wells and jump down to the other side and wait until it was clear. I've dropped down inside buildings. I'm a very good climber. I've taken a lot of chances. My wife tells me one time I'm going to use up all my nine lives if I'm not careful."
About a year ago, he was climbing to remove trapped pigeons from some netting underneath a CTA bus canopy when he lost his balance and plunged nearly 20 feet down to the pavement. "As I was falling, I remember saying to myself, 'PLF, PLF--do a parachute landing fall,'" Alpert says. "I hit the ground, rolled, didn't have a scratch, not a bruise, not a black-and-blue. But I cracked my hand right off. It was disconnected at the end. My wrist was like ice cubes. It was shattered."
Alpert has had several operations on his hand but still hasn't regained full use of it. He finds it difficult to feed a small bird with it, let alone climb into an abandoned building.
"I always knew the risk," Alpert says. "If I did it again, I'd wear a harness or something. This is one of the worst injuries I've suffered. I don't know if it was worth it, but at least the netting's down. It's just one of those things in life that you have to endure. The most difficult thing about it is it has restricted my work with birds." But if Alpert's next operation is a success, he plans to go right back to jumping into abandoned buildings.
"I'm always in danger of being arrested for breaking and entering," Alpert says. "I would face whatever the law threw at me. I'd say that I never destroyed anything, never took anything. All I wanted to do was save birds."
"Sweetie? Come on, sweetheart. Sweetie?"
Buzz Alpert is nodding his head at his snow-white pigeon, Sweetie, as she moves about in her cage in his living room. She is perhaps his favorite bird. The survivor of a recent hysterectomy, Sweetie goes out with Alpert when he feeds his birds. She stays in the car and sits on his shoulder while he drives.
"Sweetie? Look at that! She's doing a courting dance. She's great."
Day after day, the story of Buzz Alpert continues. He feeds the birds, gives them their medicine, brings home more wounded birds, and releases the ones he's nursed to health. "They've come to depend on me," he says.
"Every time I see a sick bird, I say, 'Oh God, not another one.' There's no light at the end of the tunnel. None. My work will never be done. I just have to keep going. When I get too old to have new birds, my old birds will eventually die off, and I'll be free at last."
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Lloyd DeGrane.