The bird watchers know where to look. Look up. Look into the trees. Across the ravine. Elysian Park has always been a spot for bird watchers — those kooky folks with binoculars, floppy hats and vests bearing lots of pockets who are perpetually looking up. Lately, they have something other than red-tailed hawks and western bluebirds to look for. Nowadays, you might catch a glimpse of an anachronistic fowl. An archaeopteryx. A bald eagle. An ivory-billed woodpecker and even an Argentavis magnificens. That last one sounds like a bird out of Harry Potter, but its 25-foot wingspan is (or was — it’s been extinct since the Miocene era) a fact of nature. Replicas of every one of these birds were built, hung and hidden by the Bird Man of Elysian Park — known only by his first name, Leo. In the past he’s sculpted characters and set pieces for Tim Burton and Dr. Seuss. On his own time, he’s a bird watcher. One day, he came across some long, bent PVC pipes that had been dumped along a trail. Their shapes made him think of birds. He went home and constructed a California condor. When it was done, he returned and attached it to the end of one of those long pipes and fixed the pipe into the ground. He put it up in the garden at Elysian’s Park Road entrance. By the next morning, it had been destroyed: Someone had bent the pipe in half and broken the condor’s wing.
But the idea had taken hold. He needed to hang his condor higher, using a ladder and a block and tackle. He had to make the rest of them harder to see. He put them up only in snags — dead trees — surrounded by living foliage.
Why a pteranodon? Why an Arkansas woodpecker? Why birds that have no place in this time or this state?
“I always wanted to see a pteranodon,” he says. “I was reading all the articles about the new woodpecker; it would be cool if we had one here. Down at Grace E. Simons Lodge they have a fake creek. Perfect place for a fake eagle with a fake trout in its fake talons.”
Elysian Park, the second-largest park in Los Angeles, is composed of 600 acres bordering Dodger Stadium and the infamous Chavez Ravine. In recent years, with the upscale swing of the surrounding neighborhoods of Echo Park and Silver Lake, the chaparral and palm trees on the flats have given way to green grass, picnic tables and modular playgrounds. Still, the hills retain much of their rough, gangbanger charm. Dirt hiking trails wind through the eucalyptus and wild mustard. Dog walkers abound. “There are more purebred Labradoodles and Weimaraners than mutts, and more families than there once were out for nature walks. Cadets from the police academy jog through the park, and on most days you can hear them across the hill at target practice. On a recent early-morning walk, I spotted new graffiti on a rock face, a plethora of empty beer cans and a used condom hanging in a bush (go figure) and flapping in the breeze. There are eight birds throughout the park. Even though the Bird Man puts them up in broad daylight, none of them is easy to spot. As yet, no one has complained. When the Bird Man came to fix the archaeopteryx, a man who lives nearby saw him take his ladder off his truck and head into the trees. The man followed him.
“You the Bird Man?” he asked.
“Who wants to know?”
“Can I help?”
For a long time, the Bird Man didn’t care if people found his birds or not. But park regulars, who have seen most of his creations, point them out to newcomers. They act as touchstones and talismans. There is a grove where, on Sundays, people are often seen praying. The Bird Man has put up his tribute, a large, black “bird of pray” made of plywood framed in aluminum. The next bird, his ninth creation, will be the first to be fully dimensional, complete with “special effects.” He will say only that it was inspired by the word “lodge.”
Elysian Park 835 Academy Rd., L.A., (323) 221-4695