Craig Brown says all he wanted was to feed birds so he and his mother could watch cardinals and blue jays in the back yard of their Bloomington home.
But neighbors say Brown's hobby brought more than songbirds to their street. Ducks and crows massed in the yard. Deer snacked on neighbors' gardens, and neighbors claim the mouse and squirrel population jumped. Off and on over five years, Brown sparred with the city and neighbors over his bird feeding. One neighbor videotaped the wildlife in the back yard to support allegations that Brown was breaking the law.
On Sept. 1, Brown faces a jury trial on a misdemeanor charge of violating Bloomington's city code on feeding wildlife. He says he is willing to pay a fine, but does not want a misdemeanor on his record. Bloomington officials say if Brown pleads guilty, pays a fine and doesn't violate the law again for a year, the misdemeanor would disappear from the record.
In the age of the Internet, Brown says, there's no guarantee his name would ever be cleared.
"I don't want to plead guilty to a misdemeanor for something so silly," he said. "I just want it to go away."
About six people have run afoul of Bloomington's wildlife ordinance since it was rewritten in 2008, said City Attorney Sandra Johnson. The code prohibits feeding of wild animals on the ground or at a height of less than 5 feet above ground. Bird feeders are fine, as long as they hold birdseed and meet the height requirement.
Johnson said illegal feeding attracts rodents that get into homes and damage fences, and draws deer living in nearby parks to the feed, where they pose a risk to drivers and damage gardens.
Others cited by the city paid a $125 fine and promised not to do it again, Johnson said. But Brown, who said he was shocked to be charged 10 months after he claims to have stopped feeding, hired an attorney. A judge denied Brown's claim that the code is vague, and last week Brown asked for a jury trial.
Brown, 54, is a computer consultant and moved in with his mother in 1998 after his father died. He got interested in feeding birds around 2003-04.
"It was something my mom and I could enjoy together," he said. "Once, we counted 16 cardinals out here."
He started with a couple of feeders and a birdbath. Neighbors first complained about five years ago, saying he was scattering food for wildlife on the ground. Brown said he talked with a city inspector and switched to having only feeders in trees. Since then, he said, any food on the ground inadvertently spilled from feeders.
In 2009 he was cited for having a large number of waterfowl in the yard. There were maybe 15 ducks in the yard, Brown said. "I didn't like it, but I didn't know how to prevent it," he said. He paid a fine.
Brown's home is near Nine Mile Creek and a marsh, and he says wildlife live in the area regardless of whether he feeds them. But unhappy neighbors videotaped masses of birds and squirrels in Brown's back yard. In February 2010, a neighbor told the city that Brown was still scattering food on the ground, but doing so before dawn. Animal Control paid a visit, and in a police report said "a large area" of seed was scattered on fresh snow.
Brown says he never admitted to ground feeding. But he decided the hassles of having feeders outweighed the enjoyment, and he replaced them with three thistle feeders hung high in a tree. He removed those last week.
Brown said he thought the issue was closed until New Year's Eve, when he got a notice saying he was charged with unlawful feeding of wildlife. Saying he was "totally shocked," he hired an attorney.
Many of his neighbors have signed a petition asking Bloomington to enforce its wildlife code. Johnson said neighbors claim Brown still occasionally feeds wildlife illegally, a charge he denies.
Although a misdemeanor carries a possible 90-day jail term, Johnson said Brown's worries that he could go to jail are ridiculous.
"The way to get himself out of trouble is to talk to someone at the court," she said. "If he's willing to plead, he can pay the fine."
Brown admits that at first he wasn't cooperative, believing he could do what he wanted in his own yard. But he said he's learned his lesson.
"I just don't want [a misdemeanor] on the record," he said.
Mary Jane Smetanka • 612-673-7380