Wings and a Prayer | Miscellany | Chicago Reader

Wings and a Prayer 

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By Carl Kozlowski

Wendell Hansen proclaims, "I'm just like Billy Graham, traveling around preaching the gospel and welcoming people up to receive Christ at altar calls." But Billy Graham doesn't spread the good word with 27 different kinds of trained birds, from cockatoos to canaries, which do everything from ride bicycles to shoot baskets to squawk "Jesus loves you!"--all in the name of the Lord.

The birds take up a barn-size garage as well as a room in the ranch house Hansen shares with his wife, Eunice, in Noblesville, Indiana. While the house is far enough down a side road that you can't hear any traffic, the birds' bizarre calls shatter the silence of the inky black nights. It's a sound Hansen's grown to love in 53 years of the Bible Bird Show.

Hansen, who's 89, sports an upturned mustache and meets me wearing a tie patterned with extravagantly colorful birds, one of his workers perched on his head. He received his first bird after performing a wedding in Minneapolis in 1946. The bride's mother gave Hansen's first wife a canary from the brood she was raising, and soon the Hansens were training it to climb a ladder (dubbed "Jacob's ladder" in the shows) and ride a bicycle to the joyous strains of church hymns.

"My wife would start playing songs and the canary would burst out singing. We got more canaries and trained them to sing along, and soon we started getting calls from other churches asking to see the canary choir," recalls Hansen. "Newspapers started coming, and then a Minneapolis radio station offered us a free weekly show if we used our canary choir."

Hansen later bought the station, and a media empire was born. In all, he owned seven religious radio stations throughout the midwest and one TV channel, broadcasting his message to the masses. But people wanted to see more than canaries singing. It was time to start buying more birds.

Hansen found them in catalogs, bird shows, and pet stores all over the country. He taught parrots to bark, meow, and wolf whistle and macaws to "drive" a toy truck. He eventually averaged 18 bird acts in a 45-minute show, always incorporating his message of bringing people to Jesus.

Hansen, whose first wife died in childbirth, met Eunice in 1956 on a date set up by friends while he was running a radio station in Peru, Indiana. They eventually raised two children. Their son lives in the house next door and helps Hansen whenever he can, driving to churches throughout Indiana in his father's van, an ornately painted number with "Wendell Hansen's Bible Bird Show" emblazoned on the side.

"The birds came with Wendell, so it was a package deal," says Eunice, who accompanies Hansen on the organ. "It takes a lot of work."

At the shows Eunice kicks things off by introducing the birds. One of them singsongs, "And now, presenting...Dr. Hansen!" Hansen's sermon of God's love plays off the birds' antics. When one knocks on a tiny door, he asks, "Is that Jesus?" A parrot wolf whistles, and he responds in mock horror, "Hey, hey, none of that!" During an informal performance in his garage, Hansen asked me to light a prop house on fire. The roof aflame, a macaw hopped onto a tiny fire truck and started pushing, banging its beak into a button that set off a siren. Arriving at the house, the macaw tore open the front door and another parrot jumped out, squawking. The message, Hansen says, is to have faith. To further illustrate his point, he pulls out his trick Bible, which shoots out flames to show the fire of faith instilled by the Holy Spirit.

"A lot of people will come to see the shows who don't ordinarily go to church," says Hansen. "It helps when the press pays attention, and we get lots of stories out here with headlines like 'Flocking to His Ministry.'"

Hansen keeps clippings in an elaborate portfolio: a 1955 Life magazine cover with one of his birds flying through a flaming hoop, pieces from tabloids like the Examiner ("They cover religion more than the other tabloids," he says), and countless headlines from daily newspapers throughout the nation. He brushes off some of the smaller stories, joking like a veteran, "If it's not on the front page, it's not worth anything."

Not all has been idyllic for Wendell's feathered faithful. A few of his exotic birds have flown the coop over the years. There was also an unfortunate incident with an ostrich decades ago in Racine, Wisconsin. It haunts Hansen to this day.

"We stopped at a school there where the kids had never seen an ostrich before," he says. "The teacher asked if she could keep it for a week, and when we came back it was dead. An ostrich will eat anything, and the kids gave it all the wrong foods. The worst part was they fed him Popsicles, and the sticks got tangled in his stomach. If they'd left him alone, he'd have ground the sticks up. But instead they wanted to pump his stomach, and with the first shot of water, he keeled over dead. We still keep his head on the wall over there in the kitchen."

That was nothing compared to the tragedy that struck as Hansen drove to a gig in 1951. The birds' trailer caught fire on the highway and all 27 of his birds died in the flames. Hansen suffered burns to his scalp trying to rescue them. He methodically acquired and trained new birds until the show was back on the road.

"People ask me when I'm going to retire, and I tell them when there isn't another soul left to save," he says. "People need my birds. The Lord needs my birds."

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Nathan Mandell.

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