"I have a cockatoo up my tree," Mary Elizabeth Waldorf of Panorama City wrote.
By itself, that bit of news wasn't astonishing. Cockatoos, those large, white, crested birds from Australia and the East Indies, are popular pets. They sometimes exhibit volatile personalities and make a lot of noise. It is reported that quite a few frustrated owners have set their birds free to make new homes in the artificial forests of the city streets. Waldorf had simply picked up a stray.
But there was a desperate tone in her letter. This bird wasn't her pet. It was an intruder in her life and it wasn't treating her very well.
"The first I knew about it was when I heard a terrible bird fight in my backyard," she continued. "Various small birds were divebombing a beautiful cockatoo who was shrieking demoniac sounds. He did not go away. In fact, he started building a nest in a branch of my huge maple tree. Every morning I would find on my back lawn large branches, leaves, huge hunks of bark and solid wood the size of baseballs. All thoughts of making a pet of the creature vanished when I visioned a finger as neatly severed as the branches."
Waldorf, a retired schoolteacher, had observed the routine of the bird's life, quite an unpleasant one at that.
"His hours are punctual," she said. "He rises at 5 a.m. with much ado to visit the neighbors, who call him 'my bird.' He returns to the nest promptly at 5 p.m.--also with much fanfare."
She decided to get help.
"Being an avid animal lover, and wishing to save such a beautiful bird, I have called every animal organization from Actors and Others For Animals to the zoo. They were all very solicitous but said, 'We don't do birds.' "
The only person who tried to help, Waldorf said, was another animal lover named June Matthews, who performs volunteer services for the Wildlife Waystation, the animal refuge in Little Tujunga Canyon. Matthews brought two of her own cockatoos to try to lure the bird down from the tree.
"When that didn't work, she would sit in the cold for hours with nets to try and snare him," Waldorf said.
Eventually, Matthews said, she would have to bring a young man who would climb the tree at night and shoot the bird with a tranquilizer dart.
Waldorf backed off from that because she was afraid the man would fall and hurt himself and she might be sued. She wrote the letter to praise the diligent, if still unsuccessful, efforts of Matthews and the Wildlife Waystation.
But there was also a veiled call for help.
I visited Waldorf some time later.
She is a small, white-haired woman of 73 who uses a walker to get around. She lives alone in a modest house with a well-tended garden on a quiet street east of Van Nuys Boulevard.
She thanked me for coming and then led me to the backyard.
The bird wasn't there. But it had left plenty of evidence behind.
Several maple branches, six to eight feet long and half an inch or more thick, lay on the lawn and on the roof of the house.
"Look at all the dead junk there," Waldorf said. "He was working like crazy at this time yesterday. He probably worked so hard yesterday getting this down that he's taking the day off. He goes upside down and he just goes snip, snip, snip."
The bird's efforts had left a large gap down the middle of the tree.
"I wanted to make friends with the bird," Waldorf said. "I do everything I can. About twilight time I hear him come back and start squawking. I come out and try to talk to him."
She made a bird sound to demonstrate the form of the conversation.
"But that doesn't do anything for him. Somebody has evidently hurt him. He's just mad at the world. He sits up there sometimes and looks down at me with those little beady eyes like some malevolent messenger of doom. I don't think he likes anybody."
A couple of times Waldorf almost gave in to tears.
"I can't live with this every day," she said. "I just don't know what to do. I'm a sucker for animals. Otherwise, I'd call a sharpshooter to shoot him."
She still wanted someone to get the bird.
"I just wish somebody could get that cockatoo and give it a good home," she said.
I left then, having helped no more than any of the others.
I didn't think about the bird for a while. Then Waldorf called.
We chatted about her life. She said she had been a saloon singer when she was young. Before World War II she once toured the Hawaiian Islands in the company of a circus and later sang at a nightclub in Los Angeles where Mary Martin was the jazz singer. Later, she became a music teacher. She taught in the Valley at Fulton and Portola junior high schools until she retired.
Eventually I asked about the bird.
She said the bird was gone.
One day somebody had come to the door asking to go into her yard at night to trap the bird. He wanted it for a pet. But that's not what happened to the bird because Waldorf declined the offer.
"I was kind of afraid to have people climbing my tree at night," she said. "Besides, I liked the bird and I didn't want it snared."
Waldorf was having a change of heart. So was the bird.
"He just disappeared one day," Waldorf said.
In his absence, she has been rethinking their relationship.
"He really was such a pretty bird," she said. "And I think that eventually I might have made friends with him. I'm just sorry the bird is gone, really. I'm missing him."