Growing up in the 1960s, my first awareness of the notorious maximum-security federal penitentiary on Alcatraz Island was via the 1962 movie, Birdman of Alcatraz. This film, based on the 1955 book of the same name by Thomas Gaddis, was a highly fictionalized account of the life of Robert F. Stroud. Stroud was a convicted murderer and self-educated ornithologist who kept, reared, and studied birds during his incarceration at the federal penitentiary at Leavenworth, Kansas. He was later transferred to Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, but he never owned or studied birds while on Alcatraz. Nonetheless, the so-called Birdman of Alcatraz remains, along with Al Capone, one of the most enduringly memorable convicts ever to be housed on the island.
But while “Birdman” Stroud never studied birds on The Rock, it turns out that the island we call Alcatraz has a longstanding connection with birds that began before human habitation and continues today.
Island of The Sea Birds, Pre-1850
In 1775, a Spaniard named Juan Manuel de Ayala sailed around San Francisco Bay, exploring and charting the area. He gave one of the islands in the bay the name “La Isla de Los Alcatraces,” or “island of the sea birds,” due to the many gulls and other waterfowl that wheeled above the island. At that time, there were no permanent manmade structures on the island, and it was barren but for the birds.
Human Impacts 1850-1963
The first permanent structures built on the island in recorded history were for navigational and defense purposes. Both were built in the 1850s. In 1854, the first lighthouse on the West Coast of the U.S. was built here. In 1859, the U.S. Army completed a defensive fort on the island, the largest west of the Mississippi. According to the National Park Service, the dynamiting involved in building the fortress created steep cliffs and tide pools that, over time, became favorable avian habitat.
The U.S. military began using Alcatraz as a retraining and disciplinary facility in 1860. Military detainees were used as laborers; they built most of the structures you see on the island today. They also built and tended gardens on the island. After the military left and Alcatraz was transformed into America’s first maximum-security federal penitentiary in 1934, prisoners continued tending and expanding the gardens, resulting in additional habitat for waterfowl.
Birds on Their Own
After the prison closed in 1963, the birds began to return to the island in earnest. As structures fell into disrepair and no humans were around to disturb them, a greater variety of waterfowl began to call Alcatraz home. The gardens ran wild, with some plants outcompeting others and forming dense pockets of overgrowth ideal for nesting.
The island remained essentially uninhabited and in a state of decay from 1963 until 1969, when Native American tribes took it over in what was to become a successful protest movement against the U.S. government. This 18-month occupation made history in the relations between the national government and the tribes, but did little to disturb the birds.
Birds on Alcatraz Today
Alcatraz Island became a national recreation area in 1972, shortly after the Native American occupation. In the intervening years, man has returned to the island, but with a very different sensitivity to the birds. Alcatraz was designated a National Historic Landmark in 1986. Today, it is managed by the National Park Service as part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. The bird population, including pigeon guillemots, Western gulls, California gulls, black-crowned night herons, snowy egrets, pelagic cormorants, and Brandt’s cormorants, is estimated at over 5,000 individuals. Nesting sites for each of these species are recognized and protected around the island. Visitors are asked to refrain from disturbing the nesting birds and access is restricted to some of the sensitive nesting areas during certain times of the year.
For more information about the bird life on Alcatraz Island, refer to the National Park Service website. Its page on Seabirds of Alcatraz is at http://www.nps.gov/alca/learn/nature/seabirds.htm , which includes a link to a PDF brochure.