Photo: Lauren Spinella
It all began 12 years ago, when Maglia was walking on Newbury Street on a quiet day. He noticed sparrows looking up at him with their heads cocked and began to feed them. “They're so innocent, the way they look up at you,” said Maglia.
He said while the sparrows gravitated to him, the feeling was mutual: He connected with them because of their “underdog” quality.
“I've always been an underdog, so when I see little birds, I feel bad for them,” he said.
As the youngest of six children in an Italian family, Maglia recalled his parents’ marriage not being a happy one, stirring childhood feelings of being constantly worried and fearful. He said he and his siblings took care of each other, like a flock, coping together with the family’s dysfunction.
In underdog fashion, Maglia came from behind in 1979, at age 25, when he was diagnosed with encephalitis of the brain, and doctors told his family he likely would not survive. When he woke up from a coma and was able to leave the hospital, he recalls nurses and others calling him a “walking miracle.”
After his illness, his sister had been asked to join The Italian Home for Children, a non-profit organization in Jamaica Plain to which he had frequently donated. Maglia's sister insisted that he join instead of her – and he has been involved ever since, serving as president and a board member. The home, once an orphanage, now serves children in need.
“It's just my passion,” said Maglia. “Some of these kids – you never know what's going to happen to them. Maybe because I was scared or nervous as a child, I feel like we have to give back to these kids.”
While he spends his day as a real estate agent at Hammond Realty, he said the kids and birds are always on his mind. In the winters, especially, he worries that the birds will not have enough to eat. He went out each day of the blizzard and fed the Newbury Street flock of about 30 sparrows.
“He doesn't miss a day feeding them, and he is especially attentive in stormy weather,” said his neighbor, Evelyn Estey.
Maglia has been dubbed “the bird man” by locals who are used to his bird-calling whistle. He remembers walking down Newbury Street once with clients, showing them expensive property, as passersby yelled, “Hey, there's the bird man!”
Sometimes, as he's walking through the Prudential Center Shops, he'll hear a bird or two trapped in the ceiling, chirping, and will try to whistle to lure them down.
“Maybe I could get a job with Boston Properties,” he joked.
As for food, he only feeds the birds whole wheat bread. He keeps pieces in a plastic bag in his pocket at all times. Besides his morning walk, there's no other specific time of day for feeding; he just keeps the bread handy and spends a few minutes each day feeding them.
“It's just a habit now,” he said.
Travis Rutzel, manager of the Rock Paper Scissors salon on Newbury, said Maglia’s bird feeding is a daily event that makes his own workday a little brighter.
"It's almost scientific how he has trained these birds by his sound to know who he is and what they will get if they follow him,” Rutzel said. “I think he is definitely a character of Back Bay that makes my workday interesting and more enjoyable.”
Tourists, too, are fascinated by the sparrows’ interactions with Maglia. They stop him and ask for pictures, and he enjoys showing tourists how he attracts the birds. He said he teaches them,“if you're nice to anything and you're good to it, they'll respect you and come to you.”
His friends and family applaud his bird-feeding habit. His mother, now 92, tells him that “they're God's children, and they're hungry in the winter time,” Maglia recounted.
His sister, Carla Foley, said the attention he receives as the ‘bird man’ is not important to him.
“He is trying to prove that kindness, patience, gentleness and caring can bring great reward,” she said.
Maglia isn’t sure what drives him.
“I think I just have a big heart,” he said. “That gets you more sometimes than all the money in the world.”
This article was reported and written under the supervision of Northeastern University journalism instructor Lisa Chedekel, as part of a collaboration between The Boston Globe and Northeastern.