Parakeets out the back, minas in the house: Oi yoy, yoy, yoy, yoy]: The birdman of Walthamstow tells Melanie McFadyean how his crusade of rescuing strays has ruined his social life

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Indy Lifestyle Online
ORESTE PIOTTO lives in a small terraced house in Walthamstow in north-east London with 300 birds. He is a waiter in a City restaurant by day and devotes the rest of his time to his birds, many of which he has saved in his capacity as a volunteer with Bird Aid, an organisation devoted to lost or endangered birds.

If you call of an evening you might think he is not there because the lights are out. But he is always there at night. It is just that he sometimes sits in the dark as he does not think the neighbours could stand the noise of his birds squawking and screeching under the influence of electric light.

As he switches on the lights, two 60 watt bulbs hanging from the ceiling, the cacophony begins. There is a noise like a microphone being tested, a piercing whistle.

Oreste speaks fluent English, but retains a strong Italian accent some 15 years after settling here. He apologises for the feathers and bird droppings. 'And this is clean]' he says. 'I had 60 birds in here in the summer, and now there are only 20 so I could actually get the Hoover out.'

Looking after 300 birds ruins a man's social life, says Oreste. 'I don't have a social life as such. But to tell you the truth, I get more pleasure out of birds than human beings.'

Charly, a mina bird, and the most long-standing of his feathered friends, does not like competition for Oreste's affections in any case. He puts his hand into her cage. 'Come on, Charly, who's a pretty girl?' he murmurs as she plays hard to get.

'You are a silly girl,' he says, and she replies, 'No, no, no.' She finally climbs on to his hand, abandoning her pantomime stand-offishness, and says gustily, 'Oi yoy, yoy, yoy, yoy.'

'I've had Charly for six years. Her owners moved house and the bird rejected them, ignored them and hated the cat and the dog. I got a call one night. The bird was in distress, she didn't like anybody, she wasn't feeling right. I brought her home. She really fell in love with me.'

So in love is Charly that when Oreste procured her a mate by mail order, she tried to tear him feather from feather.

The room is filled with sacks of bird seed and there is a big pile of mangoes and plums. Every surface is devoted to the needs of the birds; the minas and pigeons in the living-room and the parakeets, finches, canaries and others in cages in the back garden. Some are strays, others are kept for pleasure, breeding or swapping with other bird enthusiasts. He has no idea how much he spends on his birds. His bank manager, taking a dim view of requests for overdrafts to feed birds, closed his account and he now keeps no financial record of anything.

He goes outside and returns holding a beautiful barn owl with huge staring eyes. It was a tiny fledgling when he first had it and to save its life he fed it mice which he skinned himself. It rears up and heads for the bedroom. 'I used to let the barn owl go upstairs until it got too inquisitive and started to sleep on top of the bedroom door. It's very eerie trying to sleep with someone watching you and moving the head so I said, 'out you go'.'

There are 50 or 60 volunteers involved in Bird Aid, mostly in the South-east. But they help people with damaged or stray birds and animals elsewhere, too. People often try to bring Oreste dogs and cats, but he has put his foot down. No more dogs, too much mess. And only three cats. His current one is obviously bored by the birds as they flutter and dive-bomb around the room.

Bird Aid gets its share of cranks and surprises. 'We get the obscene calls, you know what you can do with your birds et cetera, et cetera. I take no notice. Then the night before last, I get a call. It's the Foreign Office. They've got a ferret and want us to take it away. I heard of moles, but ferrets]' They also get calls for help with goats and sheep that start out as tiny, helpless, adorable, fluffy pets and grow into large, ruminative, social embarrassments.

Bird Aid always manages to find good homes for the birds and animals it takes in, and the volunteers do their utmost to make sure none falls prey to butchery or bestiality. But it is not always easy. 'We got two enormous pigs once, full-grown boars, eight feet long. Really big chunks of bacon.' The head goes straight into the hands. 'What the hell we gonna do about it? I said to myself.'

There was a lot of interest in the pigs. 'Plenty of people were after those bacons.' In the end, they were given to a Scottish vegan farmer.

'Sometimes,' Oreste says, 'these people] I get a call at four in the morning. 'Can you come out? I got a duck in the car park. No, it is not sick.' Come out where? I ask. The man says Somerset. Somerset] I say, why should I come to Somerset. One, I don't drive and I'm in Walthamstow. Two, the bird is not sick. And three, you know what time it is? Goodbye.'

Oreste is not sentimental. He loves hunting but there is an ethic involved: 'You only kill the one you eat.' Apart from Charly, he is not that closely attached to any of his birds. 'I want them to have a bird's life, not a pet's life.'

Conversation is interrupted by Charly, who gives forth piercing calls that go through the ear like a corkscrew. She miaows, barks and neighs. She says something which sounds like, 'I'm not a gay door.' This is probably something to do with the Larry Grayson show, says Oreste. 'She was young when it was on 16 years ago. Larry Grayson used to say something like 'shut the door' and 'what a gay day'.'

The only thing Oreste misses is travelling. 'It's worse than being on drugs. If you're on drugs at least you can go cold turkey.'

For help or advice from Bird Aid with stray or damaged birds ring 081 524 3425 or 081 521 7935.

(Photograph omitted)

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