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The Birdman of Alcatraz

Dear Bird Folks,

I was recently in San Francisco and took a trip out to Alcatraz. During the tour they showed us the cell that once housed the famous Birdman of Alcatraz, but they never really explained why he was given that name. Have you ever been to Alcatraz? Do you know how the Birdman got his name?

– Tom, Hamden, CT


No, Tom,

I’ve never been to Alcatraz (but I’m sure a few people would like to send me there). I know they give daily tours, but I think it would be cool if they turned the old prison into a hotel. It could be called “The Original Hard Rock Hotel.” (Get it?) But instead of displaying musical instruments played by famous rock stars, they could exhibit license plates made by Alcatraz’s legendary inmates, who included Al Capone, Machine Gun Kelly and Whitey Bulger. (Yes, the same Whitey they just put back in jail.) What many people don’t know is that Alcatraz is also a great birding location. If the new hotel catered to birders, they wouldn’t even have to fix it up. Decaying, rusted old prison cells are good enough for birders to sleep in. In fact, most traveling birders don’t even stay in places that nice. Really.

The word Alcatraz is derived from the Spanish word “alcatraces,” meaning seabird. Over the years, thousands of seabirds have nested on The Rock. You might think being sent to live in the middle of a bird colony would be a dream come true for someone called “Birdman.” But by the time he arrived, all the nesting colonies were gone. Also, Robert Stroud (the Birdman of Alcatraz) wasn’t really a bird watcher. He raised birds and kept them in cages. What? Birds in cages? I’m glad they put him in jail.

The problems for Robert Stroud started in 1909, when he killed a guy over a woman and money (that has to be a first). He was sent to prison in Washington State, but didn’t stay there for too long. It seems the future Birdman had a bit of an attitude problem and kept stabbing his fellow inmates, so they sent him to a more serious prison in Leavenworth, KS. The Leavenworth experience was even less positive for Stroud, and it didn’t take him long to fatally stab one of the prison guards. (Again, with the stabbing.) In order to keep Stroud from stabbing anybody else, the warden moved him to solitary confinement, where he spent the next thirty years. How did a crazed killer become interested in birds, you ask? The story goes that Stroud found a nest of baby sparrows that a storm had blown into the exercise yard. Stroud saved and raised the babies and soon became interested in studying them. He eventually asked the warden if could have a few pet canaries in his cell, and for some reason the warden agreed. I guess the warden thought caring for the little birds would help cut down on all the stabbings, and it probably did. (See, birds make everything better.)

In a short time Stroud’s “few” pet canaries turned into hundreds (funny how that works). He was eventually given permission to set up a breeding lab in the empty cells next to him so he could study the habits and physiology of the birds. These studies ultimately led to two books that he wrote about caring for canaries. Stroud also invented, manufactured and marketed his own medicine for treating ailing canaries. The once psychotic killer was now a gentleman spending his days tending to the needs of tiny birds. The warden was so impressed with Stroud’s turnaround that he often brought prison guests past the Birdman’s cell, where the visitors were encouraged to buy one of his canaries, and many of them did. Can you imagine walking out of a prison carrying a canary in a cage? Stroud had turned the United States Penitentiary in Leavenworth into Woolworths or an early PetSmart.

Between selling his books, medicine and birds, Stroud became a very successful entrepreneur, and this didn’t sit well with some officials. They didn’t like the idea of a convicted murderer running a business from prison. Slowly Stroud’s bird privileges were taken away and he protested. His protests reached the ears of J. Edgar Hoover, who supported Stroud because Hoover had purchased one of Stroud’s canaries for his mother (or at least for someone dressed up like his mother). Eventually, the whole canary thing became too much for the folks at Leavenworth and one day Robert Stroud awoke to find that he was being shipped off to the ominous prison on Alcatraz. Dun, dun, dun, dun!

Here’s where the weird story of Robert Stroud takes an even weirder twist. Alcatraz was the most sinister of all America’s prisons and the hardcore officials that ran The Rock were not about to let any inmate move in with a collection of pet canaries. The famous Birdman of Alcatraz never had a single bird the entire seventeen years he was at Alcatraz. Robert Stroud was actually the “Birdman of Leavenworth,” while in Alcatraz he was just prisoner # 594. Hollywood did it to us again, Tom.

Robert Stroud died in 1963, which was also the same year that Alcatraz, the penitentiary, closed. Since its closure the breeding birds have returned (real birds, not caged canaries). Any birders visiting San Francisco in the spring should make it a point to visit The Rock. In between the history, the fog and the smell of sourdough bread drifting over from the city, you will see thousands of nesting birds that are totally glad to have their island back. And the best part is that none of these birds will be in cages.