The man and the macaw
Joe Porowski has never looked for an animal, but they always find him. A community grieves for
the loss of Bloomington’s bird, Charlie.
By: Audrey Vonderahe
They whistled in the air as they fell, spiraling toward the ground with no deliberate speed. The
feathers settled beneath the cage like a soft blanket.
Pluck by pluck, Charlie Bird stripped himself of color: candy apple red, dolphin tank turquoise,
gecko green. His first owner had died, and the second could not properly care for him. Birds
don’t cry. They pluck.
Now, patches of gray fuzz sprouted on his small head and neck, his soft underbelly as pink as a
supermarket chicken. He looked like hell.
That was 2004, the year he met Joe.
Joe Porowski grew up like most Northern Indiana kids. He played baseball and football. He
played basketball, not very well. The family had pets, none particularly memorable. But he
always loved animals.
He dropped out of IU, got married for a few years and became a carpenter.
For a while he lived in a house set 40 acres back from civilization on a dead-end road, with a
good-sized lake out front. He liked the beauty of the countryside, and he kind of liked being a
Then a stray yellow dog crossed the drawbridge one day and showed up on Joe’s doorstep.
It wasn’t long before Joe did what he usually does: make friends with an animal he feels sorry
He strapped Max into a life vest and coaxed him into his two-seater kayak. Joe cut the still water
with his oar and the man and the dog glided along the lake. They went everywhere together, did
Then Max died, like all dogs do. Joe moved into town. He didn’t want any friends, at least for a
while, and he didn’t want any pets.
Joe has never gone looking for an animal. But they always find him. Injured fawns. Ducks. Stray
dogs, skinny cats.
In 2004, Joe was working as a carpenter building fences to keep deer out of peoples’ yards.
“The Bird” started showing up to work with one of Joe’s coworkers, who had reluctantly inherited
him when his first owner died.
No one knew what to do with The Bird. All Joe knew was that he felt sorry for the bird with no
This went on for two years: The Bird came to work with Joe’s coworker, with a progressively
declining feather count. So Joe agreed to take him for a while, to see if he couldn’t get him to
grow back a few feathers and then pass him along to a permanent owner.
Max had been gone just a few months. Joe didn’t want more heartache. After six months with
Joe, “The Bird” grew back his feathers. He grew into a new name, too: Charlie Bird.
The good ones always find Joe.
Now Joe sips water from a recycled Ball jar and taps his foot. The sound of a rubber sole hitting
a hard floor echoes through the corridor of his long, quiet house on Maple Street. Sometimes
Charlie would scream so loud that Joe’s eardrums rattled, but Joe got used to it.
The house is filled with pictures of the two, and fridge magnets with the likeness of the bird, and
paintings of Charlie from nieces and nephews and even professional artists. And pistachios,
Charlie’s favorite snack.
The porch is Charlie’s room – two perches, a little box, toys. Everything a bird could need or
want – Joe gave it to him.
“There’s nothing like that bird.”
Joe saved the bird’s life more than a few times. Once, Charlie was stolen from the backyard by
a kid who thought he was abandoned.
He managed to track the bird down through word-of-mouth from neighbors, all of whom had
come to care for him.
Joe walked into a house where two women sat on a torn-up couch smoking cigarettes and
watching television, not knowing one of their sons had stolen Joe’s bird. He wasn’t too irate until
he smelled the burnt tobacco. The smoke was offensive to Joe, but could be deadly to Charlie.
Then the kid walked in, bird in hand. And Joe lost it.
“You stole my fucking bird, and now I’m pissed.”
“I thought he was in trouble, sir.”
He was not in trouble. Far from it.
Every morning right when Joe woke up, he got Charlie’s breakfast ready: some fruit and nuts,
and bread with peanut butter to make his daily medication go down smooth. He rough-housed
with the bird – he got down on the ground and played like a little kid despite nearing 70. He
bathed him every weekend, because he knew the jungle-native bird was hot-blooded.
Joe recognized in that moment, in the midst of obtrusive cigarette smoke and a well-meaning
teenage thief, just how attached he was to Charlie.
But their relationship was, at times, complex. And the last time Charlie bit Joe, he was almost
Joe shrieked when the macaw dug in beneath his flesh, exposing a hard, white bone. He threw
the bird to the ground. Charlie knew immediately that he had bitten the hand that fed him. He
laid there, noiseless and still.
They were at the body shop, checking on Joe’s truck. There had been no provocation. All Joe
had done since he took in the bird was care for him more than anyone would reasonably expect.
Joe’s blood soaked clean through a towel. A first aid kit was no use. A friend said he ought to
get to the emergency room. But first, Joe picked up Charlie off the ground and took him home.
Then he drove himself to Bloomington Hospital, gushing blood onto the steering wheel of his
“Sir, can you tell me what happened?” the triage nurse asked.
“My bird bit me,” Joe said. “I’m hurt bad.”
This was a vast understatement. Green-winged macaws can bite with a force of 2000 psi. A
lion bite is 600 psi. Charlie Bird’s beak was a can opener with the strength of an alligator.
Joe sat in the ER lobby for 18 minutes, and then, he got up and left. He went home to ice his
thumb and to attend to more important business – the bird.
He walked into Charlie’s room. The bird seemed to know he was in for it. Joe looked into the
bird’s small black eyes and spoke directly.
“I do everything I can for you, I’ve saved your life a few times, and now this? If you ever do that
to me again, you’ll have to find another place to live.”
Charlie did not reply. And it did not happen again.
The thing about bird ownership – it’s harder than people think. It’s like having a perpetual
3-year-old child who can live until they’re 80. They scream when they want something. They
poop wherever and whenever they want.
Joe had no idea how to take care of Charlie. He learned quickly that if he left Charlie alone at
home for more than a few hours, he would begin to pluck his feathers again. So everywhere Joe
went, Charlie went, too.
Kayaking. Biking. Hiking. To the farmer’s market. The Lotus Festival. In the car. Anywhere and
everywhere that anyone would least expect a bird to go.
The caveat is this – Charlie Bird could not fly. He spent 20 years before Joe in a cage.
The world is unlimited to birds, those whose instinct is to take flight. Green-winged macaws like
Charlie Bird have streamlined bodies adept for skipping between trees in dense forests.
Flying is automatic for them. Their slender bodies and tails gliding each thin slice through the
air. Their outstretched wings do not flap deeply – they flutter, duck and weave. They look like
Boeing 767s, if they were painted by a toddler attempting to reinvent the rainbow.
But not Charlie. He did not seem to know how.
Joe invented a solution. He built a handmade perch and affixed it to the back of his bicycle.
Using exotic hardwoods and wild grape vines, Joe carefully whittled four bike perches, a kayak
perch, and a paddleboard perch.
The vine was the only material that would hold Charlie’s claws because its texture closely
resembles a tree branch. It’s the kind of thing Joe could only learn from trial and error. Charlie
slipped off the early model perches more than once.
The wooden T-shaped perch ran parallel to Joe and rose just above his helmeted head. That’s
when people on the street started to notice them, riding in tandem – the man and the macaw.
“Nice to meet you, I’m Joe Porowski. I’m here to learn about birds.”
After about three years with Charlie, Joe consulted a bird expert in Mitchell, Indiana. He heard
about her from a friend. She had 200 birds, and seemed neurotic as hell, but she knew a thing
“Oh, you’re that asshole from Bloomington. I have a copy of the paper in my desk and I’ve
always wanted to meet you.”
“You’ve always wanted to meet me?”
“Yeah, to tell you what a jerk you are.”
She thought Joe was neglecting Charlie’s true needs, using him to catapult himself to a kind of
small-town fame. But really, Joe never asked for this. He stayed with the woman in Mitchell for
six hours, learning everything there is to know about taking care of a macaw. He wanted to do
right by his bird.
As soon as they saw the pair, people would rush toward them to get photographs. It happened
at the Bloomington Farmer’s Market, on bike trails, at Lake Monroe. It happened with college
students, young children and basketball players like famed IU-alum Cody Zeller. It happened
wherever and whenever, and Joe couldn’t stop it.
He didn’t want to stop it, either. Charlie carried joy with him in his wings.
They went to elementary schools and parks. Folks at the retirement home loved Charlie. Kids
adored him. Charlie loved them all back.
When the bird bobbed up and down to Mitch Rice’s music at the Famer’s Market, kids flocked to
him. Mitch changed the words to the song “Rockin’ Robin.”
All the little birds on Jaybird Street
Love to hear Charlie go tweet tweet tweet
Rockin’ Charlie. Tweet. Tweet. Tweet.
Charlie loved the cameras; he loved the attention.
A campaign for pedestrian bike safety featured Joe and Charlie as the cover stars. Joe stands
in a white T-shirt with a bicycle logo centered on his chest, hands on his hips. Charlie Bird sits
pretty on the perch.
It reads: “Charlie doesn’t fly through stop signs. Neither should you.”
Soon came posters on the back of Indiana University buses. A TV station in Terre Haute called
Joe for a segment on Charlie Bird, the first of many. Then came Channel 11 in Louisville. Charlie
was known outside of Indiana. Joe was shocked.
A lot of people, like the lady from Mitchell, chided Joe for his newfound popularity without
knowing just how strong Joe and Charlie’s bond was, and just how much Charlie enjoyed it.
“He would’ve died a long time ago without the attention,” Joe said.
This was a bird who had torn out every soft feather his beak could reach – all because he was
Some couldn’t fathom that Joe brought this biting, flying, unpredictable creature around a bunch
of little kids.
A man approached Joe at the Farmer’s Market.
“You are out of your fucking mind, man.” Joe knows the man meant well, but he was wrong.
Charlie loved kids, and kids loved him, too.
Charlie and Joe met Nick Bauer at the Farmer’s Market, too. He became a good friend, and is
the photographer who has captured the pair more extensively than anyone else.
Nick rode behind Joe’s bike, with Charlie atop his perch, almost every weekend. From that point
of view he could see the gasps, hear people say “Look at that!” He could see the bond between
Joe and the bird. A bond that just worked.
Mitch Rice remembers when he and Kid Kazooey, another local Bloomington musician, dressed
up as a pirate band for a performance at the market, joined by Charlie as resident exotic outlaw
Charlie flew onto Mitch’s shoulder. He was fine at first, but then started to fuss in his ear. He got
really loud, then went in for the bite.
Mitch kept playing, bleeding all down his face. No hard feelings.
Joe and Mitch decided to do something about the flying thing. He had owned the bird for about
five years now. How hard could it be for Charlie to learn?
Snow blanketed the ground in one of the first big storms of December. Joe and Mitch decided to
go tubing down a big hill, and of course, Charlie came too.
Charlie perched on a stick in Joe’s outstretched hand, while Mitch filmed the attempt.
“Are you ready?”
The pair slid down the hill. Friction stuck Joe’s black innertube firmly to the ground as gravity
pulled him down down down toward the white dusted trees at the base of the hill.
Charlie – with an assist from the tube’s velocity – outstretched his royal-blue-tipped wings and
closed his eyes. His scaled black feet and claws gripped the branch, then, for a moment, let go.
His beak fell ajar at the sublime feeling of flying. His wings flapped and he took off toward the
Joe and Mitch were stunned. They started laughing – partly in relief, mostly in awe.
“WOW!” Joe said. “HOLY MOLY!”
How must it have felt to tap that vast power, a power that only those ethereal beings have, a
power that humans have tried to acquire since the Wright brothers’ Flyer One took off at Kitty
Joe was proud of his friend. Then, concern started to set in.
“Come back, Charlie!”
Birds in the wild have a built-in defense mechanism – they hide symptoms of illnesses. They
know that predators are always waiting to capitalize on moments of weakness.
Joe had a feeling Charlie was sick when he stopped eating. His local vet had quit, so he went to
one in Indianapolis. They gave him some meds and told Joe his bird would be better soon.
But a few days later, Charlie waddled pitifully across the floor of his room in Joe’s home and
collapsed, slipping right into a coma.
Joe thought that was it. He called friends and asked if they wanted to see the bird one more
He also called the lady from Mitchell, who had become his friend. She referred Joe to a
specialist in Louisville. Joe had saved this bird’s life before; he believed could do it again.
“You have a very sick bird, sir,” the vet told Joe.
Charlie had a mysterious avian virus that spread to his nervous system. He couldn’t perch on
Joe’s hand anymore, his foot would just flop over, and Joe had to put it back.
Charlie would recover, the Louisville vet told Joe, but he would need to be on medication for the
rest of his life. Which could be 40 more years.
Birds are expensive. To pay for the medication, Joe set out to write a children’s book about
Charlie. He’d wanted to do it for years, but didn’t know how to start.
He found Sarah Milward, who was married to a good friend from work, to write it.
Charlie Bird Loves Bloomington is the story of a quirky town through its favorite macaw’s eyes.
Sarah didn’t need to fictionalize much of the story.
Bloomington is not a mythical place far far away. It’s a real place, where a 5-year-old can hold a
macaw on their finger on Saturday morning at the Farmer’s Market and watch him bob up and
down to Jackson Five remixes. Try doing that in a zoo.
Joe thought they’d be lucky to make $20. Sarah thought the book would be a hit.
They printed 1,000 copies and funded the book in a 30-day Kickstarter. The goal was $2,500.
They surpassed their goal in 10 days. Joe was astounded. All of Charlie’s medical care was
This town wanted to keep him around.
Mitch Rice, who nearly lost an ear to Charlie, used to feed the bird pistachios from his lips.
Charlie would bend down and gently take the nut.
Mitch loved Dr. Doolittle as a kid. He thinks bonds between humans and animals can be as
deep and complex as those between humans.
It’s what we would call fate, or karma, or something from some other dimension that we can’t
see. In physics, Mitch explains, we say that it happens when our waves are in harmony.
The selfless energy went both ways: man gave to bird; bird gave to man. Charlie Bird brought
Joe into society, away from that house in the woods. Joe gave Charlie his freedom, and friends,
How we end up together is a mystery science has yet to solve. How Joe and Charlie ended up
together is a curious tale of fate.
We emit those waves that draw soulmates close, if you believe in that sort of thing.
In Joe Porowski’s will, the Charlie clause gives simple instructions. The bird will stay in
Bloomington, with a friend who will take good care of him. Joe expected Charlie to outlive him.
That weekend was the Lotus Festival. They went to the Farmer’s Market, too. Lake Monroe on
Sunday. And to work on Monday.
Monday afternoon, Charlie went for his usual fly to the corner of Maple Street and came back
panting. It wasn’t hot.
Tuesday morning. Charlie didn’t want to eat, and without food, Joe couldn’t get him to take his
Wednesday morning, October 4. The morning light broke through the many windows in Joe’s
home. Charlie Bird was sitting there, awake already, staring at his owner.
Just sitting there. Just staring.
Joe gently picked up his bird, who collapsed in his arms. And he knew things weren’t good.
Call Louisville. Ring ring ring. Busy line. Hang up the phone, put it down. Stare at your bird, look
at him real good. Study the red, green, blue. Hold on. Remember the sad grey tufts and the
bare skin. Remember the first snowy flight. Know this is the end.
Joe Porowski scratched Charlie Bird’s little head. He swaddled the creature in his arms.
What an adventure it had been.