For the last 20 winters, Eva Sanford has awakened early each morning, lugged her 10-pound bag of wild bird seed into her back yard, and fed the birds. Hundreds of birds.
Last week, the Prince George's County Health Department told her to stop. It cited animal control ordinances and said the birds had become a nuisance to her Brentwood neighbors.
For the 80-year-old Sanford, who lives alone and is under a doctor's care for a heart ailment, life's greatest joy is tossing birdseed or breadcrumbs to grackles and sparrows that flock to her garden.
Sometimes there are as many as 75 to 100 birds feeding for hours in her backyard. She has bird feeders hanging from her trees and each morning she fills the bird bath with warm water.
But neighbors have complained that too many birds have gathered at her house. The feathered friends, especially pigeons, have left their droppings and have become a health hazard. All of which has led to the Brentwood battle of the birds.
"One neighbor picked up a rock and threw it at a bird in her presence," said fellow bird feeder and neighbor Doris Merritt. "I feel like she's a humanitarian. She feeds the blue jays, the redbirds, the blackbirds, and the little ones that wear the caps -- the titmouses."
Sanford's neighbors said that when told to stop feeding the birds, she was so upset that she considered moving from her little house in Brentwood.
"I called the [local] chief of police for help" Sanford said, "and he said there was no law against feeding the birds. I want to feed the helpless creatures and provide nourishment for them. They can't eat anything out there while it's frozen."
"It's a damn mess," said George Ent, a neighbor. "We have them all over the place. I was in the town council 16 years ago and we had a problem with her then."
Sanford's house, at 3413 41st Ave., is a crowded menagerie of three dogs inside and birds in the back yard. "She's a vegetarian," said one neighbor. "She buys meat for her dogs and vegetables for herself."
Every morning Sanford comes outside at about 7:30. She fills the feeders hanging from the trees she planted decades ago. She sprinkles birdseed on the ground, and also fills a metal can with lukewarm water. "I have to go out there in the cold mornings and put hot water in the pan to thaw it out," she said yesterday.
The neighbor who complained to the county health department, James Bollinger, said yesterday he was disturbed about the number of pigeons Sanford was attracting. "There are flocks of them. I had called the Health Department already about it because the situation was getting pretty bad. I went out this morning, she was still throwing stuff out there . . . Something has to be done about that."
Late last week, Sanford received a letter from Keith M. Marshall, chief of the division of Zoonosis Control in the Health Department. (Zoonosis is the term for the study of communicable diseases between animals and humans.)
Marshall's letter discussed the possible health hazard of "pigeon droppings and odor" and the nuisance factor caused by an "excessive number of pigeons allegedly being fed by you."
The letter cited several diseases that could result from feeding the pigeons. It commended Sanford for her compassion for wildlife. "However, in your case, your kindness and concern for wildlife has caused upsetment re health and nuisance to a human . . ."
The letter suggested that if she wanted to continue feeding the birds, she should do so away from "any populated area where humans might be adversely affected."
A neighbor said yesterday that it would be difficult for Sanford to feed the birds elsewhere because of her physical condition. Sanford recently hobbled down to a nearby American Legion Hall to distribute bread crumbs but said the neighbors still harass her.
Reached yesterday, health official Marshall confirmed that a letter had been sent to Sanford. He also said that further action by the county might be necessary if Sanford refused to stop feeding the birds.
"By law, the birds are protected," Marshall said. "However, if they constitute a health hazard, special permission can be given to exterminate them."
Some of the neighbors on the street say they are siding with Sanford in the battle of the birds. Others said they wanted to control her feeding habits. Sanford said that some neighbors were getting ready to join her. "A woman down the street is getting her bird feeders ready, and she has a big bag of bird seed waiting to go."
Yesterday Sanford wrote a letter to County Executive Lawrence Hogan declaring that she had no intention of following the county's edict. On the other hand, she said, she did not wish to lose any friends in the neighborhood. o"It's my hope to continue my relationship with both the neighbors and the birds," she said, "to live and let live."