Meet Malibu: Richard Stern, Malibu Bird Man

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Richard Stern (left) with his bird friend, William

A Malibu scientist whose hobby is birds has some local birds literally eating right out of his hand. Richard Stern, who’s lived in Malibu for more than 20 years, develops mathematical statistical models for financial applications in the risk management field. He also works developing computer codes to implement those models. As a highly technical person, Stern said it’s not birdbrained to have a bird as a friend. In fact, the former UCLA statistics professor believes birds are very smart creatures with personality. 

Stern is currently the principal scientist at a financial services company. He spends a lot of his spare time watching and feeding birds. He calls it his “hobby and passion.” Crows, jays, ravens and magpies (all corvids) are favorites. However, there are no magpies in Malibu, according to Stern. He became interested in corvids at age 12 when, he said, he became “close friends” with a scrub jay. 

 “I was sitting outside eating peanuts,” Stern recalled. “I noticed a scrub jay in the trees nearby. I held out a peanut and the bird came right to my hand. That was the beginning.”

The Malibu resident is especially interested in corvids (members of the crow family) that are abundant in the area. 

“Corvids because they’re so intelligent; if you extend friendship to them, they will return it,” he described. “I may be attributing more human emotions to it, but that’s the impression I have. Crows, actually all corvids, will recognize humans for two reasons. They need to recognize potential threats—people who could hurt them—and they also recognize people who are kind to them. As far as the crows are concerned, where I feed them, every crow within a half-mile knows me. Whenever I walk around outside they’ll flock to me.”

It’s rare to have a bird feed directly from your hand, but Stern has done so many times. An award-winning statistics professor at UCLA for more than 25 years, Stern said he became friendly with a scrub jay he named “William.” The bird would eat straight from his hand, which amazed his students. Stern had thousands of students during his tenure at the university and many saw him make daily contact with William the bird over a nine-year period. One student was able to take an amazing photo of William eating from Stern’s palm—this before digital cameras were available, much less cell phone cameras. Stern reminisced, “Every day I was at UCLA he would wait for me.” When asked if William the bird waited for Stern because he had food or because the bird liked Stern, he chuckled, “I like to think the latter, but the food may have had something to do with it. I really loved that bird. It’s been a long time since I’ve seen him. I still miss him.”

Stern saw William and fed him for nine years until the bird one day disappeared. 

The professor now feeds scrub jays daily in his yard. 

“I’ve also fed ravens in my yard, although they seem to have vanished,” he said. “I haven’t seen them in a few months. I hope they’ll be back.” That might be due to the Woolsey Fire, which destroyed thousands of acres of wildlife habitat.

A few years ago, Stern was feeding a group of roughly 100 ravens on Stunt Road. They’re carnivores, so Stern brought them meat and nuts. The birds apparently like cheese, too. He had a steady schedule with the flock on his way to work and the birds knew to wait for his breakfast handouts. 

“They lined up on the telephone lines and would wait for me and then come down for food,” he said. “The corvids are remarkable birds. They are the most intelligent of all birds. Next to humans and dolphins, the raven may be the most intelligent creature on this planet. There are lots of videos demonstrating them making and using tools. They can recognize people, which they do in my case. In my opinion crows, ravens and jays have enormous amounts of personality.

“People locally here call scrub jays blue jays because they’re blue, but the blue jay is not found in California. They’re an eastern/Midwestern bird,” the physics PhD explained, adding, “The jays certainly return friendship—as you can see from the picture of William.”  

Meet Malibu is an occasional feature series profiling interesting members of our community who either work or live (or both!) here in Malibu.

If you know someone in town you think belongs in the series, let us know by sending an email to editorial@malibutimes.com.