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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