Around this time of year, Birdcamp is usually a cacophony of chirps, squawks, and screams. Feathers flap and bits of food are flicked out of cages. Birds strut and check one another out.
A store and boarding facility for birds in Manhattan, for many winged pets, it’s the ideal home away from home if you have traveling owners who can afford sleepaway camp.
But just days before Thanksgiving, the small, railroad-style space on East 53rd Street was unexpectedly quiet. The cages, more than 50 of them, were empty. Camp was closed, a first in over 18 years.
The bird people of New York are shaken. It’s one thing to lose mom-and-pop stores to A.T.M.’s and chain drugstores. For many of them, Birdcamp is irreplaceable.
Leslee Snyder, 62, a writer in Williamsburg, was overcome with panic when she received a group email from Birdcamp stating that its owner would be taking a hiatus. She was just about to make plans for Christmas.
“The bottom of my stomach fell out,” Ms. Snyder said. “Not many people will take a Macaw. They’re loud, can draw blood, and they’re messy.” Josie, her bird, has been a camper for 12 years. “I didn’t know what my husband and I were going to do.”
Lawrence Shapiro, 54, a biochemistry professor at Columbia University and owner of an African gray parrot named Inga, said Birdcamp was a New York institution. After receiving the news about the closure, he swapped 25 emails about the situation with the artist Cindy Sherman, another bird owner. “Now we’re all scrambling for an alternative,” Mr. Shapiro said. “Inga’s been at Birdcamp since they opened. She loves being there.”
Ms. Sherman helped Mr. Shapiro find a veterinarian on west 87th Street that would board Inga. Housing for birds is not easy to find, and if you find it, it’s usually expensive. Birdcamp costs between $22 and $50 per day depending upon the size of the bird. Food and care are included; toys and accouterments are extra.
Veterinarians who board birds are rare and tend to have less room and can be more expensive than Birdcamp. Birds must undergo blood work, a full medical evaluation and a battery of tests to rule out diseases before they are accepted, according to various bird owners and vets.
There is also the Center For Avian & Exotic Medicine, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, which boards between 20 and 25 birds and can cost up to $39 per night, depending upon the size and weight of the bird. The Center was completely booked over Thanksgiving Day weekend. (It is also where Josie, Ms. Snyder’s macaw, will be spending Christmas.)
According to bird owners, there are a lot of birds in the city and not enough boarding options for them. Justin Marshall, 47, a writer and editorial consultant in Crown Heights, Brooklyn, was at Birdcamp in October to pick up his Quaker parrot, Chicken, when he heard the news about the store’s closure directly from its co-owner, Rosalee Gibson.
His first impulse was panic. “ Birds are tough,” Mr. Marshall said. “They are the ‘special needs case’ of the pet world. Most people can’t tolerate 20 to 40 aves” (what bird people call birds) “imitating doorbells,” he continued. “Chicken’s not doing archery and white water rafting, but when I pick him up they’re able to tell me what kind of experience he had, how he spent his time, who he socialized with, and if he ate all his vegetables.”
Birdcamp’s closure, it seems, had been a long time coming.
Ms. Gibson, 75, is a small, soft-spoken woman who resembles Judi Dench right down to her cropped white hair. In 2001, she moved to New York from Dublin, Georgia, to help out her son, Brian Gibson, who had just opened Birdcamp. The plan was for her to work in the city a few months, max.
The months turned into years. “I didn’t think I’d stay; it just happened,” Ms. Gibson said. “Brian loved the birds and store, but is autistic and has terrible anxiety. It became too much for him to handle.”
Mr. Gibson, 51, a self-educated ornithologist, decided to leave the store in the hands of Ms. Gibson in 2014 and relocate to Maine to live near his older brother, Mark.
“The store was a big part of my identity,” Mr. Gibson said from Maine. “I spent over a decade caring for the birds. It was a grand achievement and made me feel part of the city and community,” he continued. “When we had the right staff there was a nice feeling of balance. The birds were well cared for and that felt good. Then we lost some staff and had a hard time replacing them. I became anxious. That got worse. I lost my confidence.”
In Brian’s absence, Ms. Gibson opens and closes Birdcamp, does the accounting and oversees deliveries, along with three employees who work sporadically. She enjoys the work, but it has become too much for her to do alone as well, she said.
“The birds know where they are when they get here, and they start talking when they do,” she said. “I can’t imagine letting this go, but I’m burned out.”
Birdcamp is a niche business, which is why many customers are struggling to find alternatives. Some are postponing their travel plans.
After learning the news, Mr. Marshall shortened his trip. Lois Pitula, 71, a laboratory specialist at Stuyvesant High School, canceled a vacation. She is contemplating doing the same with her college reunion in March unless she can find a solution for Max, her African gray parrot.
“I have a trip for Europe scheduled for the summer, so I will have to face reality and come up with a solution by then,” she said.
Ms. Gibson would like to keep Birdcamp open but “if Brian doesn’t come back it would take another bird person to be here and I haven’t been able to find anyone who can do this,” she said.
“I would love to come back,” Mr. Gibson said, “but I’m not able to grasp what it takes to live in New York financially. I miss the birds and the people, and I have a visual attraction to the city, but it causes too much anxiety.”
Birdcamp clients are like family, Ms. Gibson said. “We know the customers as well as we know the birds,” she explained. “But since I stopped boarding, I’m finally sleeping at night.”
Customers remain sad but hopeful.
“I foolishly cling to the idea that they might start boarding again,” Ms. Pitula said. “But I am afraid that is just a foolish fantasy.”