Antique birdhouse big enough for Big Bird is stolen. Brokenhearted family wants it back

Stacey Rustigian and her little cousin Hillary Hawkins are pictured in front of the family’s birdhouse at her grandparents’ home about 25 years ago, she estimates.
Stacey Rustigian and her little cousin Hillary Hawkins are pictured in front of the family’s birdhouse at her grandparents’ home about 25 years ago, she estimates.

Those who stole an antique, nearly 8-foot-tall birdhouse from the yard of a Modesto home are in the doghouse with the family that owns it. And if the thieves are caught, they might also be in the jailhouse and courthouse.

Lin Thornton went to the Modesto Police Department on Tuesday morning, reporting the theft of the yellow structure, which he estimated weighs 250 to 300 pounds. The birdhouse has been in his family for more than 60 years, and since 2000 sat in a shady spot in the front yard of his Dustin Court home.

Ceres resident Thornton hasn’t lived in the home since 2014, though — no one resides there now — but he said kind neighbors keep an eye on his place. Still, no one witnessed the theft or immediately noticed the birdhouse’s absence. Thornton and a neighbor figured that it happened sometime during the last week of August, and that it would have taken three or four people to wrestle the structure into a pickup or van.

At the police station, Thornton was asked by a community service officer the value of the stolen birdhouse. “I said it’s priceless, you couldn’t buy it.”

The structure was at the Madera Zoo when it opened in 1912, said Thornton’s niece, Fresno resident Stacey Rustigian. When it closed sometime in the 1950s, Thornton said in a phone interview Tuesday, the birdhouse became the property of Madera County Superior Court Judge Stanley Murray.

“He knew my mother loved birds and had a big aviary, so he gave it to her ... with a parrot,” he said. The story goes that another parrot, named Polly, lived in the mesh-sided birdhouse when it was at the zoo. Polly and the zoo’s alligator, Galahad, are immortalized in a Madera historical marker dedicated by the fraternal organization E Clampus Vitas.

Thornton’s mother and father, Hazel and Leonard, had the birdhouse the rest of their lives, taking it to their Manteca home after retiring, Lin Thornton said. When they “went to heaven,” his dad in 1996 and his mom two years later, the birdhouse passed to him because his sister had no way of taking care of it.

If it hadn’t been stolen, it now would be with Rustigian, who is offering a $500 reward for its return. “Stacey called me up about it and was going to take it home with her,” Thornton said. “She was all happy about that, and the next week it was gone.”

He said he and his niece are “brokenhearted” about losing the piece of family history. “It makes me tear up because of the history, it’s so sad. My mother just loved birds, she would sit out there and talk to them. I’m so sad,” Thornton added, choking up.

He and his niece said the birdhouse has no rot and is in fairly good shape. It has a shingle roof. “My dad took good care of it,” Thornton said.

Rustigian asks that anyone with information on the theft contact her at 559-283-6014 or

Deke has been an editor and reporter with The Modesto Bee since 1995. He currently does breaking-news, education and human-interest reporting. A Beyer High grad, he studied geology and journalism at UC Davis and CSU Sacramento.