That’s For The Birds!

Although I don’t realize it sometimes, I find myself following some innate rituals that are rooted in my youth. For instance, I have an uncontrollable need to not waste any bread once it reaches the end of the loaf or has gone stale. One of two things would normally occur once this had happened in our house when I was growing up.

 Occasionally, Mom would use the bread in some recipe or other cooking application. It could be that the remaining bread would be dried out in a warm oven until crumbly and then crushed between two towels with a rolling pin to create breadcrumbs to use for breaded pork chops, chicken or even city chicken.

 Sometimes, Mom would make a batch of bread pudding with the leftover bread slices. My dad really liked bread pudding, so Mom would usually only have enough bread to make a portion that would only satisfy my dad. This was perfectly fine for my brother and I since neither of us particularly cared for bread pudding. Dad was more than welcome to have it all for himself, along with any pig’s feet, blood pudding, and peppered bacon that Mom would make.

A way that Mom would, as a last resort, use the scraps of bread would be to feed the birds. This was the only time that I would be asked to assist with the final consumption of the bread. I looked forward to stepping outside of our kitchen, standing on the back porch, and methodically breaking down whole pieces of bread into tiny tidbits for the birds to consume. It was always exciting to have the birds begin to dive-bomb our back or side yard as soon as they realized that there was a treat in store for them. This was especially true in the winter when their food sources were so much sparser. After finishing my chore, I would run back into the warmth of the house and watch from the dining room as each and every piece was carried off to the bird’s winter shelters to be enjoyed, as they shielded themselves from the fierce weather.

 Over half a century later, I still find myself following the same ritual as when I was a mere lad. Today, I stood on my deck and dissected the three remaining pieces of bread from a loaf that had gone stale. I tossed them into my yard, but was disappointed when I failed to immediately attract a bird to the outdoor feast that awaited them. I sadly retreated into the house, glanced out the window and one by one, saw the bread banquet begin to attract the neighborhood’s winged citizens.

 I watched transfixed as the birds flew off with their tiny bits of wheat bread. As they did, I noticed the difference between the birds that I normally see here on the Eastern Shore vs. the Duquesne feathered friends from long ago. Here at the Eastern Shore, it is common to see a wider range of different species versus the birds I recall from my youth. I am fortunate to have the opportunity to see graceful white egrets, large blue herons, seagulls, terns, ducks of all varieties, white and Canadian geese, hummingbirds, finches of many colors, bluebirds, and even an occasional eagle.

 When I lived in Duquesne, the bird population was less “diverse.” It seems that the only type of birds I can recall seeing were robins, common sparrows, wrens, pigeons, a few crows and an occasional burst of color from a cardinal or on very rare occasions, a yellow finch. Back then I was somewhat disinterested in birds, so I’m sure there were probably other types hanging around that I didn’t notice.

 Every once in a while, my friends and I would decide that we wanted to catch a bird and make it a pet. Although I realize today that this was not the best idea, we were kids and didn’t know better. On those occasions, we would set up a trap for the poor helpless bird in the backyard. I came to learn that the type of trap that we set had an actual name, a “dead fall trap.” It sounds really ominous, but was nothing more than an old shoebox, a stick and a piece of string, as well as the ever present piece of bread that acted as bait. I would carefully set-up the trap and patiently wait for what seemed like hours, hidden behind a nearby bush, waiting for some hapless bird to come along and fall for my ruse. On very rare occasions, I’d be able to yank the string that was attached to the stick that was propping up one side of the shoebox in an attempt to catch the poor creature. Usually, they were long gone before the box would fall.

 I can only remember actually trapping a bird on one occasion. I was SO excited and couldn’t wait to tell Mom about my achievement. Unfortunately, Mom didn’t share my passion or excitement for trapping and handling our feathered friends. Instead of praise, my exploits elicited a scolding from Mom and a lecture about the diseases that wild birds carry. Instead of a typical warm and welcoming hunky embrace from my mother, I was barked orders that resulted in my little ward being set free to enjoy life, and to ultimately be able to poop on our lawn furniture if he desired on every pass by flight in retribution for daring to trap him.

Although Duquesne’s “human” population never swelled to the point that it could be called a metro area, walking along South Second Street across from City Hall would have given you a different opinion. Directly across the street from the main entrance to City Hall stands the shell of the Beth Jacob Congregation House Of David Synagogue. I don’t remember much about the synagogue at all; only that it had closed down at some point and had fallen into a terrible state of disrepair. I recall seeing some once beautiful leaded glass windows becoming the target of vandals.

Once the empty structure had been breached by the vandal’s rocks, it became a virtual tenement for hoards and hoards of pigeons. Even before it officially closed its doors, the synagogue, like City Hall, was a virtual magnet for pigeons. I would see them roosting along the roof edges and keeping vigual on the street below for stray bits of food. 

Although I was not able to find any articles regarding the issue, I understand that at one point, pigeon droppings had accumulated inside the synagogue over the years to a knee deep layer on the floor. It had posed such a high health risk that, there was talk of demolishing the building.

Sometime in the past decade or so, Beth Jacob Congregation House of David*, had the leaded glass windows removed from the synagogue and boarded-up all of the openings. I happened across an article publishing in the 1996 or 1998 Pittsburgh Post-Gazette which reported that Duquesne’s Mayor at that time, was trying to champion a project that would convert the synagogue into a public library for the town. Unfortunately, it never came to fruition.

 *Note: Congregation Beth Jacob first organized in Duquesne in 1904. There were a total of 350 members of the congregation when it began on South First St. before it opened the synagogue on South Second St. in 1923. Rabbi, R. A. Hollander; Pres., D. Mandel; Sec, Sam Klein; were the first congregation’s leaders.

 My final recollection that will surely validate that this blog is “For the Birds,” is my brief stint in the Cub Scouts in the late 50’s/early 60’s. There are only four things that I recall vividly from my time as a Cub Scout; the two projects that I made in order to earn a badge, the cool uniform, and finally, the pledge and how to hold my fingers while I recite it.

 I was a member of Cub Scout Troop #3??. My Aunt Fran (Puskaric) was the Den Mother, and we met at her home on Monterey St. which was off of Crawford. I remember being very excited about joining the troop and all the adventures that it would bring. Although I didn’t remain a scout long enough to really take part in all those “adventures,” the time spent as part of the den was a lot of fun. I may have only been part of the group for about 6 months or so. I don’t recall what the exact reason I left the troop, but it was most likely an issue of me getting bored and wanting to do something else. Call it an early form of ADHD!

 As you can tell from my Cub Scout picture, I was pretty excited about the uniform. When I look at my photo, I think I look like one of those perfect little “Arian” child, about to march down the streets of Berlin in some horrible WW2 movie. Obviously, I was really proud of being a scout and of wearing the uniform.

As part of my Aunt Fran’s troop, we did a lot of cool things. In order to earn one of our patches, the whole troop made bowls for our mothers. Aunt Fran had gathered some old 78 rpm records that she no longer wanted. (I wonder if they would have been worth something today?) We then patiently waited while she placed each record into a warm oven in order to soften the disk and make them pliable enough to be shaped into the bowl. I remember how proud we all were of the end result, and how we couldn’t wait to take them home to Mom. I think mine survived for about 6 months before my mother was able to judiciously remove it from the end table in our living room and stash it in some hidden place in our home. Truth be told, it really wasn’t that attractive.

 My favorite project as a cub scout was being able to earn my woodworking badge with a bird house I had crafted. I recall spending time with my dad in the garage and in his basement workshop, building the “perfect” birdhouse. We had to purchase the kit from Helmsteader’s in McKeesport, since they were the “go to” store for all Cub Scout supplies. Once we arrived back home from McKeesport, I tore into the kit and excitedly read the instructions, all the while just aching to grab a hammer. My dad didn’t disappoint, and soon I was hammering away under my dad’s guidance.

 I remember having to patiently start pilot holes for the nails, glue the joints and sand the crap out of the birdhouse once it was assembled. I had been over zealous with the glue bottle and had managed to have runs on the back of the birdhouse. Dad told me to just take my time and try to remove them with sandpaper after they has dried. I sanded that little house until it was as smooth as glass before I submitted it to find out if it was “merit badge worthy.” I am happy to report that it made the grade, inspite of the very visible globs of glue, and I was awarded the “woodworking” certificate which allowed my mom to buy my merit badge at Helmsteader’s.

 Once I earned my badge for the birdhouse, Mom and Dad let me hang it outside to see if any bird would decide to actually build their nest in it. I hung it on the side of the garage and watched patiently the following Spring to see if any bird would take a liking to it. It finally happened and soon a sparrow family called it home. I think that little birdhouse remained in place for as long as I can remember. Whether or not it continued to act as a recluse for birds each Spring is a mystery to me. Like most kids, I lost interest after that first Spring. Just like the 78 rpm bowl I made, somehow those special handcrafted projects seemed to vaporize over the years and the birdhouse was no exception. I have no idea what happened to either item. I’m sure they both met their demise by either falling apart or shattering.

I eagerly look forward to the opportunity to build yet one more little birdhouse with my grandson Jackson. I’m sure that in spite of my best efforts, it too will somehow slip away in years to come. However, just like my Cub Scout project, it will never escape my mind’s eye! The thought that it ever would is just “For the Birds!”





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8 Responses to That’s For The Birds!

  1. Megan says:

    Jackson can’t wait to build a birdhouse with you!

  2. Bob Dougherty Class of '50 St. Joe's; Class of '54 DHS says:

    Several years ago I had the opportunity to speak to a staff member of the orinthology department of the Carnegie (yinzers pronounce it CAR-NA{hard A}-GY; elsewwhere it’s CAR-Na{soft a}-GY) Museum of Natural History. She was was telling me about the drawers and drawers of bird carcasses indigenous to Western PA that are on file at the museum. What I found most fascinating was how she described how the plummage of the birds changed over the decades from bright colors to dark colors and then back to lighter, brighter colors. She explained that the birds plummage like the facades of the buildings in Duquesne were subject to the smoke, soot and grime that came from the mills. The bird carcasses at the museum are laid out side by side and one can see the plummage getting darker and darker year-to-year from the early 20th century and then starting in the late 1980’s, after the mills had shut down, how the plummage started to get lighter and brighter again. I compare it to the Sistine Chapel in Rome where for centuries and centuries, no one really knew about the dazzling, bright colors that lay under the layers and layers of smoke and grime from the thousands and thousands of candles that had burned there day after day, year after year until the laborius restoration project of the 1990’s cleaned away all the dirt.

    As to scouting: I belonged to Scout Troop 310 that was sponsored by St. Joseph’s Church. Our neckerchief colors were red and black. Our weekly scout meetings were held in the basement of the church and, as I recall, they were more free-for-alls than scouting with everyone chasing after one another, yelling, shouting, etc. Eventually order was restored and scouting business was conducted with the emphasis on working on our merit badges. Most scouts earned their way to First Class rank and then dropped out. A few made it Star rank, fewer still to Life and rarely did a scout make it to Eagle rank. Those who did earn Eagle rank were looked upon as if they were gods.
    Some of my fondest scouting memories were from summer camp at Camp Laurel near Rector, PA but my most cherished memory came from having been selected in 1950 to attend the National Scout Jamboree at Valley Forge, PA. I was a member of Jamboree Troop 29 and the Patrol I belonged to was called the Cheyennes, Other membrs of the Patrol were Ernie Galinis, Patrol Leader, Chuck Stoffer, Paul Binashasky, Bill Bornyak, Ernie Camarino, Mark Repco and John Butchko. If I mis-spelled any of the names, I apologize but it has been a long 62 years since I inter-acted with those boys of my youth. Along with troops from throughout W. PA we left Pittsburgh late in the evening and travelled to Philadelphia on the Pennsylvania Railroad. Although I had travelled on a train before on trips from Duquesne to Pittsburgh (Yes, Virginia, there was a time when there was train service out of Duquesne to Pittsburgh in addition to the number 68 street car operated by the Pittsburgh Railway Co.) the train trip to Philadelphia was longest I had ever taken. President Truman and Retired Gen. Eisenhower came to speak to all 47,000 scouts who attended the Jamboree. Do I remember anything they said? Hell No! Just as I don’t remember the names of commencement speakers at high school and college commencements let alone what they said. I still have a lot of my scouting memorabilia and every once in a while i get them out of the box where I have kept throughout my life’s travels and relect back to those “Golden (golden now -not so golden then) Days of Yesteryear” Hi-yo silver, get ’em up Scout!

    Bob Dougherty

    • Bob Chermonitz says:

      Hi Bob. Just re-reading some old posts and came across this one. When you mentioned scouting and the old Duquesne Boy Scout camp in Rector, Pa ( a stones throw or a good hike to Ligonier) you got my attention again. I belonged to Troop 305 in Duquesne Place as a cub scout and then as a boy scout but was far from the best. For a time my dad was the cub master while Mr. Wahly was the boy scout leader. As a cub scout I had several den mothers. One was Mrs. Linn that Jim has mentioned as living in Rehoboth Beach not far from his home in Ocean City, Md. What great times we had at the boy scout camp. I remember us walking to Ligonier down Rt 711 and back a few times and exploring the surrounding mountains. Some older boys caught a rattlesnake and cooked it (tasted like chicken) and all but shamed us into eating some. I have old movies from my grandfather, Doc Green, of the DHS football team training up there, also. Could go on and on. But anyone who was a scout back then and had a chance to spend part of the summer at the camp already knows. Thanks for the memories. Bob

  3. Cathy Cardilla-Gallucci says:

    I remember feeding the birds in our back yard in West Mifflin. I lived in Riverview until I was 10. All our neighbors did the same. It was fun to watch them and marvel at all the trips they would make back and forth in order to feed their young, especially in the spring. Since I retired I have put a bird feeder in my back yard. Besides the birds and I get all kinds, I have a resident squirrel and a few bunnies. So between the birds, squirrel and bunnies every morsel is gone in no time. Of course I also buy wild bird food now to go along with the stale bread. Thanks again……………………………….. You brought back some fun memories.
    By the way Jim………..your grandson is adorable!!!

  4. Jack Schalk says:

    Of scouts and birds………..
    Both items had a wonderous learning site. There was no reason a parent could come up with when we were growing up that would keep us from The Union Woods, except for the warning about the open caves.
    We would walk to this wonderous hilly acreage with its secret spots, like where you could shower in the buff in the sulfur waterfall we knew as SummerFallWinter Spring.
    Every gang had its secret hideout that was built around a firepit that was used for cooking or just to build a fire for the sake of it. Barry Long indoctrinated my cousin Bob Vislay and I to my first site and we all used it often.
    It seems to me now that it was a good hours walk from home to the woods. Down to the slag dump, then down a cliff to the Union RR tracks, then across, and up the other side.
    It was also the site of my first scout jamboree although we arrived by car to an easy to get to location.
    This was where I ate my very first baked potato that I did outdoors. It was still raw!!!
    There was a smattering of wildlife, mostly rabbits and a lot of song birds and these persuaded us that we were indeed in the great outdoors.
    The Union Woods created a love of nature that captures me to this day.

  5. David Marks says:

    I served on the planning commission back in the 1990s. We were permitted to open the doors and look inside the synagogue. It’s true – the bird droppings, feathers, and bird carcasses were about a foot or more deep. The beautiful woodwork, all made to glorify God, was in complete ruin. The building was determined to be a hazardous materials site – no kidding.

    The Swedish Lutheran Church on kennedy Avenue, now the Soul Saving Station, also suffers from bird and bat problems. The belfry inside must be horrendous, as I watch birds and bats make their homes on, in and around the structure.

    Holy Trinity on First Street, Beth Shalom on Second Street and The Soul Saving Station are only three examples of great buildings that have been allowed to go to the birds. Let’s hope that change rings nicely for Duquesne, if not in our lifetime then the future, with God’s purpose in mind. God can house the birds without our help, as Jesus taught!

    • Jim says:

      David, although I am sure your position on the planning commission was full of challenges, I applaude you for stepping up in an effort to bring Duquesne back! Thank you! – Jim

  6. Tom Lane says:

    A vivid bird memory for me, was our neighbor, Mrs Kubany and how every morning after their breakfast she would throw the bread scraps out into the alley that separated the backs of our houses. My bedroom was right there and like clock work, she would come out in her flowered dress and apron, and toss the crumbs and then the swoop of the birds. We used to call those little sparrows, “spitzes”. For years I would awaken to that screen door opening and shutting and then the birds chirping. Sometimes my dad would park the car there and he did not appreciate the gifts the birds left afte their feast. tom

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