Retirement really is for the bird
Vito the macaw enjoyed busy modeling career in his day
WEIRTON — On this Labor Day holiday weekend, Vito Czernek continues to find retirement to his liking, his working days behind him.
His life of leisure combines things he relishes most — flying, eating grapes, nuts and seeds, people watching, listening to classical music, fresh air and sunshine and moonlight and monitoring life around him in the midst of three cats named Christopher, Junior and Ava.
And, of course, he enjoys the continued camaraderie of his live-in companion — Jean Czernek of Weirton.
“See how calm he is?” she gestures toward the blue and gold macaw she bought more than 30 years ago, a silent, content observer of the interview unfolding on the porch between a stranger and his longtime owner.
“When I got him, he was screaming — miserable,” Czernek recalled of his behavior exhibited for a good full month back all those decades ago.
Ninety-nine percent of the people population, Czernek asserts, should never have macaws, long-tailed, often colorful, New World parrots with a natural wing span of more than 2 feet.
“They (such would-be owners) don’t know what they’re doing. These are very smart animals. They have to be trained right and get the attention they need,” she said.
Such was the ultimate outcome apparently for Vito, whom Czernek bought from a nurse when she used to live in Manhattan.
“I got him in 1986,” she explained, noting Vito already had his name and didn’t see reason to change it. He was 2 or 3 years old then, which makes him middle-aged now.
“They live about 80 years, and when I got him he was a mess,” she said.
Czernek describes herself as an animal person, someone who’s always been a bird person, too. “All birds graviate toward me,” she said. As an example of the latter, she said she could be in a pet store and a bird no one else could control would immediately cotton to her.
She once had two yellow-naped Amazons, “the little pirate birds, very hard to handle.” That included one a New York store owner insisted she take. “Get this devil out of my store,” he had said of the trouble-making bird she adopted for free after it perched on her shoulder, “and started kissing me.”
Vito also bonded with Czernek, who grew up in the area, graduating from Follansbee High School and then the College of Steubenville with a degree in English in 1969. She taught one year at Catholic Central High School in Steubenville, followed up with a summer spent in Europe.
By 1972, she moved to Manhattan “to be in a city with culture, tons of people — you know, the opposite of middle America.”
“I was always interested in business so I taught a couple semesters up there,” she said. “I didn’t like that and eventually became corporate management for Avon. I managed 400 commercial reps in midtown Manhattan, and then I started my own retail business — Finicky,” she said of what offers “upper-end ladies goods” — hand bags, lingerie, gifts and her own line of silk products, for example. “I started that in 1985, moved about 90 miles upstate in 1994 and got into real estate under a real estate company and moved back here in 2011 basically to retire,” she said, noting she has been a volunteer at the Heinz History Center and loves to travel, a passion interrupted because of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“People call me a bird whisperer like a dog whisperer,” she said. “It’s something they know, and they’re highly intelligent. If they’re miserable because they’re not compatible with the owner, they pull their feathers out,” she added.
Vito doesn’t do tricks, and Czernek isn’t about to go that route or attire him in costume. “Let the bird be the bird,” she says. “He’s not going to run around with the shopping cart.”
He can speak up to 200 words and “used to curse a little.”
Vito became “the most fabulous bird,” Czernek said of his transformation from unhappy to happy– and a wage-earner to boot, with a successful modeling career that took flight unexpectedly, beginning around 2005. Czernek said she sold a house to a woman whose dog was a model and thought Vito was a natural. “She said ‘my agent would go crazy over him.'” Her contact information was passed along to the agent, and the gigs began.
“He’s done national ad campaigns,” Czernek said of Vito’s work for Baby Phat, MAC cosmetics and shoots with musicians Steve Winwood and for Town and Country, Harper’s Bazaar and Vibe magazines.
“He loved working as a model — loved it,” Czernek said of Vito, who lived the high life. But one year, he had to pay taxes, too. “The one year when he did multiple jobs, my accountant said, I’ve never had to do animal modeling as part of your taxes before, so that was one year where you make more than $600 or something and was supposed to pay taxes,” she said.
His first earning came when there was a wedding party in central park having photos taken. Czernek said she was approached and asked if Vito could be part of the picture.
Czernek said even on her trips to the bank, Vito would attract attention. “He’d stand in line with me, and he’d give the teller my deposit and the cash and everything.”
The two would participate at St. John the Divine Church in New York when it had its annual Blessing of the Animals, a huge event in October.
“Vito gets along with everybody. It’s how you train these birds.
“I was vice president of the Manhattan bird club, and we had a huge amount of members and big guests came in, and a professional bird expert brought me on stage with Vito and said, ‘I’ve never seen a macaw like this –calm, perfect,'” she said.
“They scream all the time when they’re not happy. He never screams. He loves people, especially seniors.”
“We were known in Manhattan because a bird has to be out all the time. He is not clipped,” she said of her fullflighted friend. Doormen on Park Avenue addressed him by name. Vito loved cab rides, walks in Central Park, rides in elevators, concerts, museum visits, the opera, you name it. “He used to go to everything,” she said.
“There’s no animal that he can’t get along with. Dogs are fine. He lives with cats, and everybody gets along, no problem.
“He is just the perfect bird,” she gushes.
“He is a total people person.”
But Vito is retired here, “because there’s no jobs here,” she said.
But he has been with Czernek on speaking engagements and presentations, including as part of a local class offered through the Academy of Lifelong Learning, for example. “I’ll do lectures for groups, which he likes,” she said, adding that if conditions improve in the future, she would be available and can be contacted through her e-mail at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(Kiaski can be contacted at email@example.com.)