Navigating our way through Union, Maine to a coastal destination recently, my wife Mary and I looked up at an intersection and were startled to see a sparrow pop out of a street sign. The sign was a gable roofed duplex birdhouse with a hole and perch at each end. Routed into the weathered wooden side and emblazoned in bright yellow was the name of the road. Our surprise grew into delight when we realized that every street in this town of about 2,500 just 35 minutes southeast of Augusta, was indentified in this way. Sometimes the birdhouses were supplemented with standard reflective green signs nearby, but other corners had birdhouses alone. We grew used to seeing finches, sparrows and wrens at road crossings. Straw and other nest materials often hung out of the holes. At quiet junctures, I could hear the vibrant chirping sound of life inside. We spent less than thirty minutes passing through Union, but the bird-box signs made it one of the most memorable moments of a weeklong trip.
Union has had birdhouse street signs since the 1970s, I discovered in a phone conversation a few days later with assistant Union town clerk Helen Zahn. They were the brainchild of the late Robert Heald, a public spirited citizen who ran a local factory and served as fire chief and state representative among other duties. When he made the first forty-five boxes, each was a different length depending on the street name. Over the decades, locals have developed affection for the signs, she said. It makes the town distinctive. Many residents have birdhouse signs at the end of their driveways, Zahn noted. Her box hosts bluebirds.
Today the signs are maintained by a former resident who visits for long weekends in spring and fall to fix, replace and cleanout the bird boxes, according to town manager Jay Feyler. For many years, citizens at town meeting have appropriated $2,000 for materials to support the project. The labor is volunteer, but the Feyler suspects that the individual who does the work contributes even more funds than the town. Although some are missing, the state requires reflective metal street markers, so the birdhouses share space with traditional signs. Some residents would prefer the birdhouses alone, but the standard nameplates are easier to see at night for visitors and emergency responders.
It doesn’t take much to bring a hint of magic, something intriguing and joyful to an ordinary place. You wouldn’t think that a piece of commonplace infrastructure like street signs could attract attention, let alone bring people pleasure. But a even dull necessity can become a means of creative expression with a bit of skill and imagination. I know this for a fact. A little bird told me.