Jeffrey Alan Pearce, who drowned earlier this month in the Willamette River, was known by many around Corvallis simply as “Bird Man.”
The 45-year-old unhoused man loved birds and other animals from the time he was a kid, wrangling ducks and walking them on leashes, according to his family.
His friends say he led a chaotic life at times, but he had “a heart of gold” when he wasn’t battling personal demons. Even after falling on hard times, there was one constant in his life — the birds.
Reports of Pearce’s death drew hundreds of sympathetic comments on social media. Judging by those sentiments, Bird Man and his feathered friends were beloved in Corvallis. He seems to have touched a lot of lives in his time.
Raised in Napa County in California, Pearce grew up on Lake Berryessa. He and his mom would raise baby ducks and release them to the lake to bolster the population, according to Marcia Macholz, Pearce’s sister who lives in Fairfield, California.
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“He’s always been this bird guy,” Macholz said. “It started with the ducks.”
Pearce would video chat or call Macholz whenever he could, she said, noting that he seemed to be doing fine when they last spoke, although he had an admittedly rough life on the streets. She said he’d been living in a tent and trying to get housing — no easy task with a loud flock of birds in tow.
The birds came to Pearce in various ways throughout the years. Some were given to him by people who realized they couldn’t handle their pets, others he bought or found online, Macholz said.
Since his death, it’s not clear where all the birds went. Some landed with family and friends.
It’s also not clear how Pearce died. Benton County Sheriff’s Office marine deputies reportedly found Pearce’s body in the Willamette River near downtown Corvallis at around 5 pm Sept. 2, nine days after his 45th birthday. The cause was determined to be drowning, but the circumstances are unknown.
Macholz believes Pearce had a seizure, fell into the Willamette and drowned, based on what she said witnesses saw from a distance. She said his death must have been medically-related because he was a good swimmer.
Pearce was cremated and some of his ashes will be spread at Lake Berryessa in Napa County, she said.
In the days before his death, Pearce was staying at the Mens Shelter, one of the facilities under Unity Shelter. Shawn Collins, Unity Shelter executive director, said Pearce — and sometimes a few of his birds — would periodically stay there and was well known by some staff.
He was a “pretty sweet and gentle guy who loved his birds,” Collins said, noting Pearce appeared to be doing well. “I was very sad to learn of his passing.”
Since 2020, Collins counts 27 Unity Shelter clients who have died, but he believes that’s an undercount. He and other social service providers have pulled together to ask Corvallis and Benton County governments to help the homeless population through a “rolling moratorium” on camp sweeps.
While the idea is not yet concrete, Collins envisions well-publicized, temporary bans on sweeps at rotating locations. That way, the sweeps that do occur wouldn’t be random and homeless individuals would know they have a safe place to relocate. The idea is aimed at reducing harm to the homeless.
“He was homeless for about a month before he passed away,” Kimb Brown, a friend of Pearce, said.
Brown coordinated a memorial for Pearce on Tuesday, Sept. 20 in the parking lot of First Christian Church downtown. A pair of photo collages showed Pearce with numerous birds over his lifetime and bags of birdseed.
The last person to have contact with Pearce said he was in good spirits the day he died, Brown said. But he was having problems from not taking diabetes medication, she said, adding that he had not yet connected with a new supply of medication from the Benton County Health Department.
“Bird Man always took care of his birds,” Chris Gray said during the memorial. “He rescued birds that people would give him — people with houses, people with lots of money. When Animal Control took a bird away from someone who was mistreating them, they gave it to him. And he nursed them back to health.
When deputies found Pearce, there were no indications of violence, according to Detective Sgt. David Iverson, who said his body had been in the water for several hours. A toxicology report is pending.
Anyone with information about Pearce’s death is asked to contact Iverson at 541-766-0139.
Cody Mann covers Benton County and the cities of Corvallis and Philomath. He can be contacted at 541-812-6113 or Cody.Mann@lee.net. Follow him on Twitter via @News_Mann_.