Niagara Gazette

December 30, 2013

Birdman travels to falls to feed birds, squirrels

By Michele DeLuca michele.deluca@niagara-gazette.com
Niagara Gazette

Niagara Gazette — John Hoffman is the kind of guy that children’s stories are made of.

Standing among the trees with his hands outstretched, he whistles a cheerful unnamed tune like a Disney character, and the animals come. The birds fly right into his hands and the squirrels run to him at top speed from all quarters, sitting up on their haunches, like sweet-faced storybook creatures.

He’s been coming up to Niagara Falls all the way from West Seneca a least a couple times a week for the past 15 years. Just to feed the wild animals. Why Niagara Falls? “Because it’s beautiful here,” he says, simply.

Tourists from all over the world stop to watch him, entranced. He shares seeds and nuts generously. During a park excursion at the end of the busy tourist season this autumn, he gave a handful of seeds to a young teenage boy from England and smiled in satisfaction when a little black-and-white chickadee came an sat upon the boy’s hand. Hoffman noted that some have told him that having a wild bird land in their palm is even better than seeing the mighty falls.   

He’s rather surprised anyone would be interested in his story. He’s just a retired Bethlehem Steel worker with a simple love for animals.   

But, his favorite activity is not always as simple as it sounds.

Two winters ago, he crashed his car on black ice coming home from the Falls, so he doesn’t get to visit as often as he likes. Whenever he can borrow his wife’s car, he makes the 30-mile trek out to Niagara Falls.

And, wildlife being wild, the creatures don’t always respond politely. Last winter, standing in the park parking lot, he watched as a tentative female cardinal made her way to partake of his offerings. While she was eating, a hawk swooped down and grabbed her. John swung his cap at the predator and the bird dropped his intended meal, but the cardinal could not be saved. 

“She died in my hands,” he said, shaking his head at the memory.

Beyond the wild drama, there’s the rising cost of seed and peanuts. He goes through as many as 9 pounds of peanuts each visit. And about that amount of wild bird seed.

But, he thinks its worth the cost, and he has the full support of his wife, Eleni, who loves that he feeds the wildlife.

“I feel like it’s his time to meditate,” Eleni said. “While he’s feeding the animals, I think he feels a sense of peace and tranquility when he does it and I think the animals feel it.” 

“It’s a rare and beautiful thing to see nowadays,” she added. “You don’t see a lot of people doing it.”

Most Tuesdays and Saturdays, he begins his visit by walking across the border to feed the Canadian creatures, including red fox and raccoons. Then, he walks back to the American side, and continues feeding birds and squirrels for as long as his supply holds, typically about four hours or so. Like a mailman, he does the job in all kinds of weather.

Some have told him that wildlife shouldn’t have to depend upon humans to eat, but he likes that they do. 

“As long as I’m living, they’re going to eat well,” he said. 

When reminded he’s not going to live forever, he smiles and says he has a 22-month-old son, John Jr., who he hopes will take his place one day.

In the afterlife, he plans to do more of the same. “I’m thinking in the next world I’ll be taking care of animals there, too,” he said. “That’s my mission.”