Jailbird Seeks Salvation Through Birding

By Marc Davis


Two-Fisted Birdwatcher is proud to post its second guest essay by Marc Davis. Marc is a prolific writer; a novelist, journalist, artist and two-fisted observer of all things, including movies that make a point.

When was the last time you saw a two-fisted birdwatcher as the protagonist of a movie? If you said 48 years ago, you’d be right.

The birdwatcher was Burt Lancaster in the 1962 film, “Birdman of Alcatraz,” the almost true story of Robert Stroud, a nasty guy serving life for a murder, who then doubles down with a second homicide of a sadistic screw.

Stroud is a loner, a tough and mean-spirited thug with homicidal impulses who is miraculously transformed when a bird flies into his cell.  What ensues from this chance human-aviary meeting is a profound change in the once incorrigibly combative prisoner.

Alcatraz. The ultimate jailbird cage.
Alcatraz. The ultimate jailbird cage.

During the course of the 147 minute film – and through the decades in his real life – Stroud becomes an expert ornithologist, studying bird diseases and becoming one of the most knowledgeable of the world’s laymen in this area.

Lancaster handles the birds with an exquisite delicacy, cradling the fragile, trembling little creatures in his massive hands, the same hands with which he stabbed to death the guard who irked him. He feeds them like a loving mother with an eye dropper.  He constructs bird cages with scraps of wood.   He builds a bird hospital in his solitary cell, formulates remedies for common and exotic bird diseases and sells them successfully through an outside partner.

When dealing with birds, Stroud is angelic, but his demonic truculence persists in his dealings with the various wardens who come and go.  Along with his birding, Stroud has written a secret expose of prison abuses.  Warden Karl Malden discovers it and Stroud falls into what seems like an inextricable jam. All of his privileges are withdrawn.

But eventually, as often happens in movies and occasionally in real life, Stroud does something noble, and dangerous, which redeems him with prison authorities – he helps squelch a prison riot. Eventually, he is released from prison after decades of confinement – a two-fisted killer and amateur ornithologist who sought and found salvation in birding.

One Response to “Jailbird Seeks Salvation Through Birding”

  1. sue z smith says:

    One of my all time favorite movies!

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