Big Issue Vendor

Big Issue vendor Richard is the bird man of Exeter

Seller Richard Todd got to know the friendly pigeons on his pitch. And he ended up raising funds to keep his feathered friends well-fed during lockdown
Exeter vendor Richard Todd. Illustration: Illustration: Matthew Brazier

After lockdown began last year a friend invited me to join the Self-Isolating Bird Club [started by Chris Packham during the first lockdown]. I started posting some pictures of birds on my hand and was explaining to the other members how I’d made friends with a pigeon called Sid on my Big Issue pitch. Then there was some sort of glitch and I was locked out of the club for a few days. When I came back everyone was really concerned for me and I had over 1,000 messages. That really had an impact on me. I was so moved, I had tears in my eyes reading some of the comments.

Over the year I’ve just been chatting to people in the club and putting posts up. People were noticing animals in their gardens more in lockdown and some of the birds were starving so I ended up doing some fundraisers on there to get seeds. I raised over £500 and I put out more than two metric tons of seed over the year. I’ve learned that the birds do recognise me. Yes, it’s cupboard love but the trust they give me is real. If they’ve got that trust, they can come up to me and I’m more likely to be able to give them welfare.

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There’s a lot of kindness in the bird club. It was a theme throughout that first lockdown but people were so kind with their donations to my fundraiser. I made it a form of citizen journalism because I wanted them to see where their money was going. Then other people saw me doing it and the staff in the pound shop told me that taxi drivers are now coming in to buy bags of seed. People just seem really grateful because some of them haven’t been out for months on end. They’d probably like to be out there themselves feeding the ducks, so I’m trying to be their eyes if you like.

It all began with Sid. My life had been deteriorating and I found myself on a Big Issue pitch. It was quite a stark reality to begin with. Then I met this pigeon who would come right up to my hand and eat peanuts. It brought me a bit of joy, and made my situation less stark.

I’ve had robins coming to my hand… squirrels, ducks, a family of Canada geese

I’d look forward to going to my pitch because I might see my pigeon. Others joined in and I started to get a few favourites. Then I kind of adopted a swan family with eight cygnets. It was love at first sight I suppose and after a couple of days the mother would swim across the river with all eight cygnets in a line when she saw me. The cygnets squeaking away was the soundtrack to my summer.

Because I had an interest in pigeons I found out about Mary of Exeter, who was a carrier pigeon in World War 2. She was bringing messages back from northern France and was injured three times. She got the Dickin Medal, which is a bit like the Victoria Cross for animals. I found out about this and I was really moved, so I went to see her medal in Exeter Museum.

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But I was thinking, what good is a medal to a pigeon that’s been dead for years? So I had this idea to do the fundraiser as a tribute, because it was 75 years ago last year that she got the Dickin Medal but all the events were cancelled. This inspired me because these birds were bringing me joy but because of the lockdown there was nothing for them to eat.

I’ve had a few golden moments. One of them was with a swan I call Winston. One day I was there with him, he’d had a feed, he’d had a drink, he’d preened himself. And then he went to sleep. So I was just sitting there with this sleeping swan right next to me. I’d always been a bit wary of swans until this point to be honest, but now I’ve got 50 swans coming to me and there’s not one of them I haven’t fed.

Between two of my pigeon-feeding locations there’s a little park that I go to sit. I’ve had robins coming to my hand… squirrels, ducks, a family of Canada geese. My affinity was with Sid, but what strikes me is how connected everything else is. I don’t think it matters what animal it is, being connected to nature is rewarding. When the world is closed you do question what really matters. I’m a country boy so living in the city’s not ideal, but I feel uplifted when I’m connected with creation. It comes down to caring about something other than yourself.

Richard Todd sells The Big Issue in Exeter. He was speaking to Sarah Reid