We’ve heard the story of “The Bird Man of Alcatraz,” by Robert Stroud. Prison folklore has it the Bird Man smuggled bird eggs and fledglings (baby birds) inside his coat into the cell house on “The Rock,” hatched and hand-raised them until they were able to fly free. Other stories claim the Bird Man never had a bird in his cell, only lots of books, pictures and literature on just about every species of bird. Whichever stories are true, the Bird Man of Alcatraz became and remains a legend.
All 33 state prisons in California are home to countless species of birds, reptiles, mammals and insects that fly, crawl or scurry freely throughout each institution. Birds seem to be the predominant creature that prisoners like to feed. Pigeons, seagulls, turkeys, crows, sparrows, blackbirds, hawks, swallows and hummingbirds are among the more popular species flying into prison airspace in search of a free meal. Many birds nest in prison cell houses or roofs, some with a jailhouse bloodline that probably could be traced back decades.
Other creatures such as cats, rabbits, squirrels, rats, mice, moles, skunks and an occasional raccoon find their way onto prison grounds and almost always will be well fed by the prisoners. If this were not enough creatures to entertain the inherently bored prisoner, think again. Also on the list of creatures fed or taken in as pets: butterflies, moths, praying mantis, dragonflies and, yes, even the disgusting prison garbage fly and the ever ubiquitous cockroach. Seriously! Pets!
Did I forget to mention lizards, snakes, salamanders and frogs? All of them have been pets to the convict. I’ve seen as many prisoner-built terrariums as I have birdcages.
Many prison creatures become pets and for the most part, are kept very well and cared for. Prisoners invest vast amounts of time building elaborate birdcages from scratch, replete with replaceable newspaper floors and windows constructed from clear plastic bottles or sandwich wrap from the noontime bag lunches. No prisoner’s birdcage would be complete without a water-drip and feeder made from used shampoo bottles or other empty cosmetic containers. In some prisons (with solid cell doors), birds can be left out of their cages to fly around the cell while the prisoner is at his work assignment.
Lizard and snake terrariums are (usually) made from large, clear plastic peanut, candy or jerky containers prisoners receive in “quarterly packages” from approved vendors. It is not legal to make birdcages or terrariums to facilitate pet-anythings, but it happens in every prison. Most prison staff will turn a blind eye if the cage or terrarium is not causing a distraction or is out in the open “fronting” them off. But, occasionally, birds will be let go, reptiles will be flushed or tossed in the garbage (not by prisoners), and the hunt will go on for new pets.
I’ve witnessed prisoners searching the prison yard for the perfect rocks to strategically place throughout a reptile’s habitat. All stops are pulled to create a terrarium as close to the reptile’s true environment as possible. Plants, sticks and sometimes a small pond made from a coffee jar lid are ensconced within the gravel and rocks. A prisoner in Soledad State prison (in the late 1980s) had four large terrariums holding more than 40 lizards of various species and sizes. It’s no surprise that he was known as “Lizard” to the other convicts.
Feeding pets in prison, or free birds out on the yard, is almost always done with bread or other table scraps brought back to the housing units by the cons. Reptiles are the most difficult prison creatures to feed because they eat live prey. Prisoners have to search the grassy hard areas and cellblock for flies, spiders, moths and other small insects to feed their pet reptilians. Some men hire others to search for and bring back flies and other bugs that are placed in the terrarium to be eaten. An empty mayonnaise jar with a few dozen flies can fetch the catcher up to 2 or 3 bucks in commissary items. Don’t sound like much, but it helps the prisoner who could use some coffee or cosmetics. Hey, it’s a hustle.
Prisoners can and are punished in some prisons for feeding the birds. Disciplinary CDC-115s (rules violation reports) are sometimes issued and good-time credits can be taken depending on the “hearing officer” and how many times you’ve been busted for bird feeding.
The biggest complaint from the non-bird feeders is the amount of bird crap emitted by all the birds fed by dozens of prisoners. Some prison (yard) roadways are thick with bird droppings. If a prisoner is caught feeding birds in certain prisons, they are given a choice of a disciplinary action and possible credit (time) loss or to scrub bird shit off the sidewalks. Their choice.
Some cons come up with clever ways to feed birds in an attempt to avoid disciplinary action if caught. Dropping small pieces of bread while walking from the “chow hall” is one way. The downfall with this method is if a flock of seagulls are on your ass pecking up the bread, they will front you off big-time. Seagulls are brazen and shameless, squawking and squealing so loud it will alert the guards in nearby gun towers of an in-progress bird-feeding violation. Seagulls are the jailhouse snitches of all prison fauna and could care less about a prisoner losing good-time credits.
Antithetical to the seagull’s gluttonous screeching while feeding are the quiet, stealth-like maneuvers of sparrows, blackbirds and other small birds that nervously peck at the crumbs tossed their way, almost inaudibly, as if not to front a convict off.
It’s interesting watching hardened criminals let their tough guy image down, some chancing doing more time, to provide sustenance to prison creatures. It’s been going on for decades and will no doubt continue.
I’m guilty of occasionally feeding birds, but it’s not high on my list of to-do things while in prison. My personal favorite prison creatures to feed were probably the dozens of rabbits prevalent in and around Solano state prison in Vacaville. I fed them apples from my lunch bag and pancakes on Friday mornings. Seriously.