Remembering the famous ‘Bird Girl’ of Syracuse University

Mary Jo Zawalski aka "Bird Girl"

Mary Jo Zawalski was also known as "Bird Girl" when she was a student at Syracuse University.

To say the famous Bird Girl of Syracuse University is a creative person would be an understatement.

Mary Jo Zawalski — or, as she was better known during her undergraduate studies in ceramics at SU from 2002 to 2006, “Bird Girl” — was well known across the campus for her quirky appearance, especially for clipping odd objects to the top of her head. Usually it was a plastic bird, but she was also spotted with other fake animals and even a plastic waffle once.

“All the birds I wear on my head are paper trained. Unfortunately, the alligator is not,” Zawalski told student newspaper the Daily Orange in 2005.

Any student that attended Syracuse University with at least one year of overlap with Zawalski’s time there knows about Bird Girl. When she was a freshman, she lived in the same residence hall as I did (Flint Hall on top of Mount Olympus) and I often saw her in the dining hall. I would’ve asked her about her headpieces eventually (just like how people tend to ask me about my hearing loss eventually), but the DO ran a feature story on her during our second semester on campus. (And she probably never asked about that deaf DJ on campus because the DO did a feature story on me, too.)

“I want to be visually interesting, instead of beautiful,” the Texas native told the DO in 2003. She explained that she started wearing birds in her hair (and plastic sandwiches, hamburger buns, etc.) as a way to express her pun-filled sense of humor and to gauge new friends. Obviously, if you don’t get the bun-in-her-hair joke or what she means when she’s “flipping the bird,” then she probably doesn’t want to hang out with you.

And a little Google research finds that Zawalski has been doing pretty awesome since she graduated from Syracuse. She got a masters’ degree in Clinical Art Therapy from Long Island University in 2009, speaks Spanish, some Hindi, and works on the Therapeutic Activities staff at an acute psychiatric hospital outside New York City.

In an interview with an acupuncture therapy blogger last year, she makes being an art therapist sound like an emotionally and psychologically exhausting job, but incredibly rewarding from both interaction with staff and patients. “I get to color with crayons and sidewalk chalk at work!” she exclaims. “Oh, and I get to dance and hula hoop too!!!”

And I assume she still wears the birds in her hair — at least that’s what’s she wearing in her default picture on Facebook still. Oh, Bird Girl. Don’t ever change.

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Acton, Massachusetts: Fun facts about my hometown

Acton, Massachusetts: The hometown of Steve Carell, Big Bird, and DeafGeoff.

Acton, Massachusetts: Home of Steve Carell, Big Bird, and DeafGeoff.

Though I was born in California (my excuse for wearing Pacific Sunwear clothing all through my teen years), I grew up in Acton, Massachusetts, a small suburb of Boston. I went to school there for my K-12 years before leaving to attend Syracuse University and staying in the Central New York city after graduation. Although most acquaintances from those years living in Acton I only keep in touch with via Facebook (don’t we all?) I still go back several times a year to see family and my closest friends. So I thought it might be fun to share some fun facts about my hometown.

  • Acton is 21 miles west/northwest of Boston and 10 miles from Lowell, in Middlesex County. The town is essentially divided into five parts: North Acton, West Acton, Acton Center, East Acton, and South Acton.
  • The hilarious Steve Carell, perhaps best known for his role as Michael Scott on “The Office,” grew up in South Acton. He attended private school in the bordering town of Concord, MA, but his childhood home is just a stone’s throw away from mine. The “40-Year-Old Virgin” star told New York Magazine that the hardest, oddest job he ever had before making it big was sorting mail in Acton and then going out on a route as a rural mail carrier.
  • Acton-Boxborough Regional High School’s sports teams are known as “the Colonials.”
  • Tom Barrasso, who played goalie for the Colonials in the early ’80s, went straight from A-B High School to play in the NHL, skipping college. He won back-to-back Stanley Cups in 1991 and 1992 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
  • The ABRHS football team won the Eastern Massachusetts Division 2 state championships four years in a row, from 2001 to 2004. They also had a 52-game winning streak during that period.
  • The first American to die in the Revolutionary War was from Acton. Captain Isaac Davis died leading Acton’s Minutemen at the Battle of Concord & Lexington, the first conflict of the American Revolution between the Colonists and the British, on April 19, 1775. Actors re-enact the battle every year on the anniversary.
  • The anniversary, observed on the third Monday of every April, is known as Patriots Day. No other state in the union celebrates it, but Massachusetts (and Maine) takes the day off to remember the beginning of its escape from England’s tyranny (as the U.S. History teachers love to describe it). They also use the holiday to watch the Boston Marathon.
  • Caroll Spinney, the puppeteer who created “Sesame Street” characters Big Bird and Oscar the Grouch, is from Acton. I met him at a signing for his book “The Wisdom of Big Bird” once. Sweet guy.
  • The town is 20 square miles and has a little more than 20,000 residents despite a huge chunk of it being forests or conservation lands (Acton Arboretum, Nagog Hill, Nashoba Brook, etc).
  • My favorite meal of all time is in Acton at a pizza-and-sub shop called T.C. Lando’s — they make a sandwich/torpedo/hoagie called a “Budster” (first photo on this page) which consists of chicken fingers, bacon, BBQ sauce and cheese in a sub. Delicious, and I have yet to find any other place that can make the same combination as tasty.
  • Acton was named the 16th Best Place To Live among small towns in the country by Money Magazine in 2009 and in 2011.

Acton. It’s a pretty nice place. Stop by sometime.

Tell them Large Marge Geoff “DeafGeoff” Herbert sent you.