Here's What's Up With The 'Bird Lady' Statue In Kansas City's Brookside Neighborhood | KCUR

Here's What's Up With The 'Bird Lady' Statue In Kansas City's Brookside Neighborhood

Jan 19, 2017

Many people pass by the unmarked statue of a woman at 52nd Street and Brookside Boulevard, every day perhaps without ever noticing the bird shenanigans taking place.

Around the base of the statue, which sits just off to the side of the popular Harry Wiggins Trolley Track Trail, there is a collection of small gifted birds. And the way that the statue is decorated with these birds seems to mysteriously change over time.

Back in August, we recruited some people in the neighborhood to start documenting the statue. We had them take pictures, and make notes of any changes. Artist and writer Flannery Cashill was one of the people on assignment.

"I started going twice a week," says Cashill. "And I didn't notice a ton of changes except there would be these kind of spooky poltergeist things."

The birds at the base of the statue get moved around, new ones arrive, some disappear, sometimes they're stacked on top of one another.
Credit Flannery Cashill

Poltergeist things like sometimes new birds would arrive, while others birds would disappear. Sometimes the birds would move around, or get stacked on top of each other. Different birds rotate in and out of the small bowl she holds in her hand.

And sometimes the statue herself would be decorated in different ways. She'd have a crown of flowers one week, a colorful lei around her neck the next, and recently someone put a knitted bracelet around her wrist. So what was going on here? KCUR's podcast Question Quest set out to find the answer.

Exploring the history

We decided first to dig into the history of the statue and the area, to figure out where the statue came from and to see if there was any connection to birds.

Turns out, it was more of a connection to dolphins than to birds. Before this statue was here, there had been a fountain of a boy and a dolphin.

Real estate developer J.C. Nichols purchased this statue in Venice and gave it to the Country Side Homes Association in 1928. It used to sit at 52nd and Brookside Boulevard. The fountain was vandalized and eventually removed.
Credit Kansas City Public Library / Missouri Valley Special Collections

Real estate developer J.C. Nichols purchased the fountain in Venice, and gave it to the Country Side Homes Association in 1928. It was one of the many examples of the types of beautification efforts Nichols was doing south of the Country Club Plaza, in neighborhoods like Mission Hills and Brookside, that gave them the signature looks that they have today.

Along Brookside Boulevard, the Country Club Trolley Line used to move passengers and freight from Westport to 85th and Prospect Avenue. The Trolley would have run right past where the fountain stood. The trolleys stopped running in 1957, and according to the Kansas City Parks Department, at some point before 1962 the fountain was vandalized and then removed.

We reached out to the Kansas City Area Transit Authority, who owns the property around the statue. The Country Side Homes Association, the Central Methodist Church, Shepherd's Center, and other neighbors to find out where the statue came from.

Everybody knew about the statue, and the fact that birds were being left there, but nobody could recall how it got there, or why birds were being left there.

But then, a KCUR listener called in and gave us the scoop. Margaret Sonnenberg, who was once part of the Country Side Homes Association board, confirmed that the statue was purchased and installed as part of a beautification effort in collaboration with the KCATA in the early 1980's. The statue is of the Greek goddess Hebe, who is the goddess of youth according to Greek mythology.

"That area had become quite deteriorated," says Sonnenberg. "And they were hoping to preserve the area, and wanted to work with the neighborhoods and business along the route, in hopes, I think possibly, of someday having it become a streetcar again or trolley car again."

The rebirth of the trolley line along Brookside Boulevard did not happen; instead the area was developed into the Henry Wiggins Trolley Trail. The KCATA continues to manage the property around the area, taking care of landscaping and maintenance, but they say they are not responsible for the decorating or moving of any birds around the statue.

Ok. Now that part is solved, but where are these birds coming from?

Is it a neighborhood prank? Part of a pagan ritual or shrine? Are the birds being left in remembrance of someone? Like as an alter? Is it the act of a group of different people or an individual?

We made origami birds, dipped in wax to waterproof them, and took them to the statue as offering. On each bird carried a message, written respectfully, for whoever who is behind the bird shenanigans, to please get in touch and talk.

We never got a response.

Meanwhile, KCUR producer Sylvia Maria Gross was also on assignment documenting the statue over time. One morning while on a run, she took some photos of the statue and posted them on Facebook.

"I thought maybe I would get some more tips or something like that. Or people would be like, yeah, what is that," she says. But she got more than that.

Her neighbor and History Chicks podcaster Beckett Graham solved, or rather ruined the big mystery. It is — drum roll please — A geocache.

"Yes, it's called 'Put A Bird On It,'" says Graham. "And in order to claim it, which means you found it or whatever, usually you just open the box, find the logbooks," she says. "This one is very little, but in order to claim it you have to leave a bird."

But there is still some mystery

Put A Bird On It isn't active any more. It's been archived and doesn't show up on geocaching maps but there still seems to be consistent activity around the statue — meaning not everybody who is leaving birds or decorating the sculpture is doing it because of geo-caching.

"I just assumed people had already been putting figurines there, and somebody placed a geocache at that location." says Chris Ronan, with geocaching.com. Ronan lives in Seattle but is originally from Kansas City.

Ronan has been to several thousand geocache sites around the world, but he remembers visiting the statue in 2014.

"I distinctly remember finding it in the morning, and just being like, wow. This is a wild statue here with all these figurines around. Kind of one of those quintessential geocaching experiences, because I never would've seen that statue and seen those birds if it wasn't for that cache."

Ronan says it's important for geocachers and non-geocachers to try to maintain a level of respect. There are specific rules, but essentially, you don't want to ruin the adventure for others. And even he admits though geo-caching could be part of the bird lady's appeal, there could be something more going on here.

"Maybe it's a chicken and egg thing. I don't know if the geo-cache was first or if the people were already putting figurines there beforehand," says Ronan. 

Suzanne Hogan is a reporter, producer and announcer for KCUR 89.3 and co-host of the podcast Question Quest.