The title The Painted Bird
comes from a scene in the book. The protagonist
meets a boy who lives in the woods and captures birds, especially crow
s, which he then paints with bright colors and releases. When the birds then try to rejoin their flocks they are pecked to death because they look so strange.
These events in the book are based upon a real-life person: a brain-damaged boy named Aleksander Tracz who lived across the street from Kosinski when he was a child. Neighbors remember that the boy's favorite pasttime and greatest talent was to capture birds and then release them, sometimes after painting them with lime wash. No one ever witnessed the birds then being pecked to death, but the idea that they would be is ingrained deeply in Polish folklore, and references to this belief can be found in books dating back to the middle ages.
The obvious analogy is of course that the little boy in the story is persecuted by his own people just because he is a different color (he has dark hair and eyes while most of the peasants have light coloring).
For those who found the brutality of the peasants in the book hard to believe, take heart. The truth is that Jerzy Kosinski and his family were sheltered and protected by a village of Polish peasants, who risked their lives to hide the family for the duration of the war. The Painted Bird is a well-written, sometimes brilliant book, but it is a work of fiction.
Source: Sloan, James Park. Jerzy Kosinski: A Biography (c)1996 Penguin Books, New York, New York