EVERETT, Wash. — Patrick Cooper goes to the Everett waterfront daily to see his friends.
There’s Honey and Skidplate and dozens of other winged moochers.
The birds swarm in for a handout from the man with the bushy white beard.
What’s up with that?
Cooper, 74, is their Santa Claus. His bag is filled with bread, not toys. Instead of a red hat, he wears a camo “Ducks Unlimited” cap.
He’s a fixture at the roadside park on near where the Sound meets the mouth of the Snohomish River.
He’s The Birdman of Everett. The Seagull Guy. Or you can call him Cooper.
The back of his silver van has a stockpile of stale bread not fit for human consumption. It excites his feathered flock as much as it does him.
Cooper makes a quacking sound as he greets the birds. Then he talks to them like people.
“Want to come over and get some, Skidplate?” he asks a duck.
The duck wobbles over with a skittish gait.
“When he comes in to land, he crashes on his chest. There’s something wrong with his leg and he can’t get it to go,” Cooper said with fatherly concern. “He’s like a skid plate and he scoots along.”
Skidplate stuffs his bill with bread.
“It just gives me a sense of pleasure, I can’t explain it,” Cooper said. “The only expectation they have is that I’m going to feed them.”
Some eat out of his hand. Some land on his head. Others prefer to breeze by for a midflight snack and eat on the fly.
He estimates he serves at least 150 birds a day with six loaves of bread.
First pigeons, then crows, ducks, seagulls, and then all at once.
“The mallards will fill up their craw, then go back down to the water, and then they come back again,” he said. “One seagull squawks and gets real loud and calls the rest of the seagulls over here.”
It’s a bit Alfred Hitchcock-y at times, when word in the sky gets out the bread man has arrived. The birds’ chirp-cheep-shriek raucous drowns out the traffic noise as the frenzy of wings intensifies.
Cooper spreads the bread around to the diverse congregation.
A crow walks over. “That guy is real friendly,” Cooper ?said.
?He throws a crusty wedge. The crow digs in. A sea of pigeons surrounds his feet, plucking at the crusty ground.
“I read pigeons were Charles Darwin’s favorite bird,” he said.
Ducks are Cooper’s favorite fowl.
“I slaughtered them when I was young. I went duck hunting all the time. Pigeons, too,” he said. “This is better than killing them.”
It’s his way of making amends.
But not everyone agrees with his means of atonement. Feeding waterfowl is frowned upon by a number of scientists and cities.
The city of Everett website says: “Please do not feed ducks, geese, squirrels and other small creatures. Doing so trains wildlife to rely on humans for support and to give up their natural food sources.”
Lynnwood also advises against it: “Feeding waterfowl a steady diet of ‘human food’ like bread, popcorn or other starchy foods can actually make them sick because of the lack of nourishment in these foods. It may be fun to feed the birds down at the local beach or pond, but it’s really not good for the birds or the water quality of our local waterways.”
National Geographic has a section in its blog for educators to teach students why bread feedings are just plain bad for a duck’s foraging skills and diet.
Birdman Cooper acknowledges that, to some extent.
“I try to give them grain bread,” Cooper said. “I feed them white bread, too, but I try not to.”
Only a select few get names.
“I call one of them ‘Honey.’ She’s a little mallard hen that’s kind of albino-looking. She’s been around here for years.”
She’s his favorite.
“I’ve had them hop inside the van and just want to hang out. Then they want to stay. I can’t get them out,” he said. “Sometimes I just drive down here and don’t feed them, I just watch them.”
Cooper claims they know where he lives.
“These same birds follow me home, that’s the truth,” he said. “As a crow flies, it’s a mile over there to where I live. Some I can tell really well because they got special marks on them.”
Cooper, who has three grown sons, lives alone.
He worked as a lumberjack, tugboat cook in Alaska and long-haul trucker.
“I got in a wreck in a logging truck in 1974. My brakes went out. I got all busted up,” he said. “I broke my neck, broke my shoulder blade, broke five ribs, dislocated this elbow and it went around backward. I had head injury trauma. I had a hard time putting sentences together and thinking. I was in the hospital for a month. I used to be smarter. I went a little crazy.”
He was living in Aberdeen, but needed to be closer to medical therapy in Seattle.
“So I moved back to Everett, my wife and I. Then I ended up getting divorced,” he said. “I worked in a pawn shop from ’92 until I quit working way back in 2000 and started doing this.”
The birds became his work.
“Why? I’ve got nothing left to do in life anymore,” he said. “I started feeding them, and I just kept up feeding them.”
He spends about $30 a month on bread he gets for dirt cheap from the bargain bin at the Franz Bakery Outlet Store.
“I’m not a bread eater,” Cooper said. “I just give it to these guys.”
He carries an open loaf in the crook of his arm and tosses slices like a Frisbee. A frenzy erupts when it hits the ground.
“They go wild,” he said.
The spectacle attracts spectators. People often stop to watch the birds and The Birdman.
“I’ve never seen that many seagulls together,” said Jill Bhear of Tulalip, whose hobby is photographing birds. She brought a pocket of Froot Loops to lure the birds, but didn’t have to dip into her stash.
She took the cap off her camera and got the shot.
“If you want a seagull picture, this is the place to come,” she said.
Information from: The Daily Herald, http://www.heraldnet.com