The Secret Life of Gooney Birds

by Jun 25, 2024Around Town, Art & Culture, Southport Oak Island

An anonymous artist spreads smiles and kindness in Southport through her art.

If you are one of the lucky ones, a stroll through Southport will land you one of the most coveted pieces of artwork you may ever own. Gooney Birds are popping up in random places all around town — at mailboxes, against trees, screwed to telephone poles, in the park, at the waterfront, at businesses, at the police station and even in residents’ front yards. The magical birds are free — if you can find one. Perhaps the biggest fascination with the birds is that the artist is a complete secret, even after distributing more than 600 of the crazy-looking, smile-inducing birds painted on scraps of wood.

No one is exactly sure when the first Gooney Bird appeared in Southport, but it was probably in early 2023. The artist saw a picture of a bird that made her smile. She started painting her own birds. She and her friend, Rhonda, who coined the name Gooney Bird, placed them around Southport as random acts of kindness. Other friends of the artist, Kevin and Bonnie Carter, have since been instrumental in helping spread smiles by covertly placing many more Gooney Birds around town.

Gooney Birds Artist

When Rhonda went on an extended trip, Bonnie trolled around town on her golf cart with six or seven Gooneys at a time. “I thought Bonnie was crazy,” Kevin says. But it didn’t take long until Kevin joined the frenzy.

“There is no rhyme or reason to it,” Bonnie says. “If one of us thought it was a cool place, we dropped one. We’ve placed them at the homes of people we know and people we don’t know.”

Kevin, Bonnie, the artist and her husband have discreetly placed the artworks at the mailboxes of newcomers moving into their new home, against a picket fence or near a tree, in the landscaping on a property and on a front porch step. A house with a purple door was gifted a purple Gooney Bird. Another Southport home trimmed in bright yellow adorned with blooming yellow flowers received a yellow Gooney Bird. There was a Gooney Bird at the gazebo at Franklin Park, now being enjoyed by a lucky heir. The fire station has its own bird, and the police station has a thin Blue Line Gooney, appropriately nicknamed Junior Office Taz.

Gooney Birds Display SPT

Local businesses have joined the Gooney craze. One of the first birds was placed at Loco Jo’s Bar and Grill, and several were installed at The Mullet Bar. A custom bird was made for Blue Cow Grille, and several other local businesses also have their own Gooney.

“It’s gone gooney,” Kevin says with a laugh. “In just six weeks in November and December, we distributed over 200 Gooney Birds. The artist and her husband have placed countless others at night and when they are not working at their full-time jobs.”

Gooney Birds can be found nesting well beyond Southport in Wilmington, Burgaw, Shallotte, Charlotte and Myrtle Beach. They have landed across the United States from Ohio to Pennsylvania and Virginia to Florida, many dropped at gas stations and rest areas by friends of the artist and the artist herself on road trips. One auspicious Gooney Bird took a ride in the cockpit of a commercial airplane with a pilot to California. And one of the very first Gooneys is still on a boat traveling the Great Loop, due back to Southport this spring. Gooneys have been left with the artist’s family members in Ohio, who is also helping spread the love.

Gooney Birds Painting

Many Gooney Birds have been gifted under special circumstances. A Gooney Bird landed in the hospital rooms of a cancer patient and a patient undergoing heart surgery. Another migrated to a hospice patient, and one was gifted to a Dosher Hospital volunteer. A Gooney Bird found its way to help Southport EMS find a hard-to-locate home in the event of an emergency. All of these Gooneys generated lots of happy tears.

Kevin says many people in Southport think he is the artist.  “I’m just the go-between, the voice of the anonymous,” he says.

“Amazingly, many recipients want to pay for the artwork,” Kevin says. “I have a tip jar for donations intended for the artist to purchase art supplies and paint. But the artist insists the birds are free. In less than two months, the tip jar accumulated more than $1,400. The artist donated every penny to Paws Place Dog Rescue, Brunswick County Animal Services, Shop with a Cop and a few of the artist’s other favorite charities, Kevin says.

Every Gooney Bird starts with a base coat of paint on scraps of wood donated by a local Southport contractor or retrieved in a dumpster dive by the artist’s husband. The neckline of the bird is painted first, and the delightful face and feathers are hand-painted on the neck. The artist works on about 25 pieces at one time in various stages of design. All are truly original. There is not one like another.

Southport NC Gooney Birds

Each Gooney Bird is signed with a message of love by the anonymous artist.

“It warms my heart and makes me smile every time,” says the artist. “I have always loved the concept of random acts of kindness. Do something nice for others and never expect anything in return. Life is short. Be the reason that someone smiles today.”

May you be lucky enough to find your own magical, mystical, enchanted Gooney Bird, too.

Photography by Katie D Photography