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All that and a pack of hickory sticks

Vincent Breslin wishes today was a snow day. Sparse snowflakes drift aimlessly in the air, but the roads are clear and the day is warming up. Beneath an orange safety vest, Breslin is wearing a leather jacket and a sweater. He has a ball cap under his hood and he’s brought hand warmers.

He has work to do.

His handheld stop sign guides schoolchildren across the road four times a day. The bite-sized Hickory Sticks in his pocket feed the birds. 

That’s right: during his shifts, Breslin feeds the birds.

“Give ‘em the grub and no one gets hurt,” he joked.

Vincent Breslin makes sure one Halifax crosswalk is safe for everyone — including the birds. (Anna Mandin)

Breslin has been working as a crossing guard at an intersection beside LeMarchant-St. Thomas Elementary School, a block away from Dalhousie University, for eight years. For seven of those years, he’s been amassing a small crowd of starlings who gather to snatch the “grub” during his shifts. 

Some fly willingly onto his outstretched, Hickory Sticks-laden hand. Others gather at a distance on tree branches and telephone wires, waiting for the opportune moment. He tosses a handful of the sticks onto the pavement and a flurry of starlings swoop down to pluck up their prize.

Some people greet Breslin — a mom biking by asked, “What’s up Vinny?” — and others keep walking, scarcely acknowledging his cheery hellos.

* * * * *

Breslin tries to use the birds as a sort of traffic-calming measure.

He said he used to slow down children who ran ahead of their parents by shouting each letter in the word “stop” and asking them to find words that started with each of the letters. When the kids started getting bored, Breslin turned to feeding the birds to get their attention. Sometimes, he said birds will even land on his head.

Janice Villagomez’s son scampers alongside her as she pushes another child in a stroller. She said she’s passed Breslin ever since her children started going to the elementary school.

Her son is wearing an orange tuque and a puffy blue jacket. He wanders nearby as she speaks. She said Breslin feeding the birds is fun for the kids.  

“It’s crazy that he’s got them trained,” she said.

Has it slowed down her son? His answer is quick — “No.”

Breslin said his method doesn’t slow everyone. But sometimes, he does slow traffic — he said cars will slow down to gawk as he feeds the birds.

When he first started, he said the starlings would bring food to their babies in their nests. Now, they gather at Breslin’s bus stops throughout the school year, waiting for his arrival. 

Vincent Breslin feeds the birds to slow children down at the intersection where he works, a block away from Dalhousie at the other end of LeMarchant Street (Anna Mandin).

* * * * *

Before his days of feeding schoolyard starlings, there was a crow named Major at a call centre in Dartmouth he used to work at. It had a growth on its face and Breslin thought it looked like the leader. So, he decided to feed it Hickory Sticks from his lunch. 

When he switched from the call centre to being a crossing guard, he soon found a replacement: a crow named Magnon, a play on the words of Cro-Magnon, an early human that lived thousands of years ago.

Today, there’s no Magnon in sight. Even the starlings get scarce when big groups of children walk past. But when it’s quiet again, out come the Hickory Sticks.

Coleen Murphy is another local mom. She said Breslin is always in good spirits. She thinks that’s how he attracts the birds — she said he even got her son to hold one.

But much of his charm likely comes from the handfuls of Hickory Sticks in his pockets.

The Nova Scotia Department of Natural Resources and Renewables warns against feeding birds to prevent the spread of avian flu. A BBC Wildlife article said starlings eat invertebrates, seeds and berries. It makes no mention of Hickory Sticks.

Breslin recognized that Hickory Sticks might not be the best for the birds. He refuses to feed them bread because he said it has bubbles that will hurt their stomachs. But Hickory Sticks?

“It’s like going out for a beer,” he suggested.

Will Breslins stop feeding the birds anytime soon? No.

“At my age, it’s the only way I can pick up chicks,” he laughed.

The shift is over. The children have finished crossing the road, and the buses have pulled away. All that’s left is Breslin and the birds. In a final hurrah, he tosses them a generous handful of Hickory Sticks (“Here you go!”) and makes his way down the road. 

He’ll be back tomorrow.


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