Tuesday, March 8, 2011

'Bird Man of Gramercy Park' in middle of flap as dozens of baby finches found dead or dazed

BY Kerry Burke and Bill Hutchinson
National Arts Club President Aldon James shows off his rose-colored glasses and his beautiful Quaker Parrot named Martina.

Dozens of baby finches were either disoriented or dead when found Sunday morning.
Dozens of baby finche

Feathers were ruffled in Gramercy Park Monday over the discovery of dozens of baby finches dumped in the hoity-toity green space.

The birds, measuring about 2 inches long, were either disoriented or dead when found Sunday morning in and around the private 2-acre park.

"It's disturbing. A severe case of animal cruelty," said Lisa Anastasi, 50, a Gramercy Park fashion designer who stumbled across the Hitchcock-like scene.

"I was walking my beagle, Rebel, and he was lunging at a dead bird. Then I realized they were everywhere," said Anastasi.

An email circulating Monday pointed the finger at Aldon James, the self-described "Bird Man of Gramercy Park" and eccentric president of the National Arts Club on Gramercy Park South.

Rockland County bird breeder Pierre Brooks told the Daily News that James bought more than 50 Australian zebra finches from him last week at $1 apiece - but doubted he was responsible for the dumping.

"Aldon James is a very responsible person. I don't think he would do something like that," Brooks said.

James, who has had disputes with some neighbors and is locked in a feud with members of the club board, said he was being wrongly accused by enemies.

He also gave conflicting statements about the birds Monday - denying he had bought any finches before later confirming he got about "four dozen" from Brooks.

"The rumor that I released these birds in the park is not true. I did not release these birds," said James, adding that he led a team of National Arts Club staffers and neighbors who rescued some of the creatures.

He said he even found new homes for the abandoned finches, which had orange bands attached to their legs, suggesting they were raised in captivity.

Asked to show a News reporter the birds he got from Brooks, James pointed to a Victorian cage in the club lobby that contained about 13 finches.

He said the rest were upstairs, but would not allow the reporter to see them.

"I don't know how they got in the park," said James, calling it "an Agatha Christie mystery."

The ASPCA launched a probe into the discovery, said spokeswoman Emily Schneider.

5:15:42 AM
Mar 8, 2011

Did one of the two ace, crackerjack reporters notice if the birds in the cage at the Arts Club had the same orange bands? Did the birds sold to Alton James have those orange bands? The birds are traceable, the truth will be revealed.
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Louis Anthony

5:52:13 AM
Mar 8, 2011

Guilt written all over his face. Where exactly are the birds upstairs? The bar? The kitchen? This is one sick man who is a disgrace to a great Club.
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6:40:42 AM
Mar 8, 2011

Bird lover, my eye. More like a sadist. Pierre Brooks, the former owner of 33rd and Bird, has sold birds to Aldon for years. He has also had his shops closed down all over the state and beyond for selling illegal birds and keeping them in filthy conditions. He and Aldon have that in common. I'll bet Pierre doesn't even have a license to sell birds anymore. Whenever Aldon needs to get rid of his sick birds for awhile because of OSHA or the Dept of Health, Pierre hides them in his dark garage until things cool off. He knows Aldon poured those birds out of the window in some insane stunt, and yet he'd sell him more birds in a minute. This is a good argument for a national animal abuser's registry so that the mentally ill and the criminal can no longer have access to animals.
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Shaniqua Goldstein

The latest on the Aldom James Saga of the National Arts Club and his birds

Gramercy Park's dead bird mystery

By Sabina Mollot

The mysterious release of dozens of birds and the deaths of the some of them has shocked and angered the Gramercy Park community, where the birds, all zebra finches have been found.

Over the weekend, the exotic birds were released into Gramercy Park during a downpour with high winds. Some of them did not survive the harsh weather and fingers have since been pointed directly at O. Aldon James, president of the National Arts Club.

James, who owns many birds, has denied that he released those birds and has said he doesn't know who did, but according to an e-mail being circulated around the neighborhood, it was James who released them.

According to the e-mail, which included photos of one of the dead birds found on the sidewalk, a bag of dead birds was found just three blocks from the National Arts Club. Some of the birds were banded.

In response to the appearance of the birds, neighbors made frantic calls to 311 and the ASPCA.

"These little guys looked as though they had been dumped straight into the park as they were in a small collection at the southwest corner of the park directly across from the National Arts Club," said Sandra Kisiel, a Gramercy Park resident and regular bird watcher. "Mind you, we did not see anyone dump them - they simply had all the appearance of having been and it is typical of escapees or those dumped to stay in approximate area of caged site."

Kisiel said that she and her husband had been walking in Gramercy Park on Sunday morning looking for spring migratory birds and noted "an extremely unusual exotic bird." After watching it a while, "We heard other similar calls. Within five minutes, we located approximately 18-19 other birds with the same markings."

After going home and looking them up, the couple discovered their species. The finches, she noted, are a popular captive bird in the United States, but none have established known escapee colonies anywhere.

Meanwhile, the dealer who said he sold the birds to James, Pierre Brooks, defended his client, saying the bird release was probably an accident that occurred while changing the birds' cage from a smaller one to a larger one.

"He was just relocating the birds," said Brooks, adding, "Someone is just trying to make drama out of this."

Brooks said he has worked with the club for six years, caring for the birds he has sold to James, and said he has never seen any signs of mistreatment of the exotic pets.

"Some people are just anti-National Arts Club and are trying to start a story."

Such a theory would certainly not be implausible as the club president has managed to ruffle some feathers lately, according to published reports that he yelled at club members during a meeting and refused to discuss recent allegations of his hoarding flea market finds in the club's apartments. There's also the reported rental of some of those club apartments to James' associates at well-below market prices.

O. Aldon James' twin brother John James, who is also a club administrator, has been the target of some controversy as of late, as well. As Town & Village reported last week, two women went to the police after they said John frightened them by screaming at them at the club. According to one person who asked to remain anonymous, that behavior isn't surprising, as John has been known to go around the club with a camera, get in people's faces and snap pictures of them as an intimidation tactic.

As for the birds' well-being, around 30 of them have been returned to the club, according to a NAC employee there on Monday, although he was unable to locate the cage of the birds from where he had said he'd seen it earlier on the ground floor. One other large birdcage with a small group of tweeting birds was located in the rear of the lobby.

Several people had helped retrieve the finches on Sunday, said the employee, who added that some of the birds appeared sickly, and some of those people helping had implied they might keep them. He didn't believe the released birds were pets being kept by the club, though. An employee at The Players, which is next door to NAC, also said he saw some people, including at least one person from National Arts, gathering birds from a courtyard between the two clubs' front doors on Sunday. O. Aldon James has not denied that club members had tried to help gather the birds.

The NAC employee added that he had seen one of the birds dead on Parks Avenue South, while a woman strolling past Gramercy Park said she believed some of the surviving birds had taken up shelter in front of her own building on 27th Street.

Kisiel said the species of the finches she had found around the park were birds commonly found in Australia, and said that she believed the park would not be okay as a habitat for those that survived. They need seed and water to survive as well as appropriate weather, and the cold downpour on Sunday was definitely not appropriate weather. The fact that there are no escapee colonies is a definite cue that they cannot survive for long periods out of captivity.

When asked about the incident, police at the 13th Precinct said it wouldn't be illegal for someone to release his or her own birds.

However, that would contradict what the State Department of Environmental Conservation told a DNAinfo reporter earlier this week, which is that the release of these birds was in violation of Environmental Conservation Law 11-0507, which requires that people get permission to release wildlife. The DEC is now looking into the issue as well as the ASPCA, which, according to spokesperson Bret Hopman, has launched an "active investigation."

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