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Wednesday, June 3, 2009

The Birds of Stateville -- May 20, 2009

In the general population cell houses of Stateville live over a hundred birds. These birds are sparrows; they are small, light gray birds except for the males who have some darker brown and black markings. Birds have lived inside the prison for years, and I assume long before I ever came here. The birds used to be able to travel freely in and out of the prison through large barred windows that are kept open half the year. However, last year the prison administration ordered screens to be put up to get rid of them. Fortunately, this did not work and they are still here in great numbers.

I like the birds of Stateville. Life is very dreary and depressing in prison. Oftentimes, I feel like a zombie, but the birds are amusing, interesting and cheerful. I watch them hop around looking for food or nesting materials. I hear them chirp and sing to each other. They sit and sing from window sills, the gun tower balcony, plumbing or electric pipes.

The courtship rituals of the birds are such I have not seen before, and involve the male bird conducting an elaborate dance around the female while chirping to impress her. If the female is unreceptive, she will peck at the male to go away, but he does not give up easily. Quite surprising is their passionate mating rituals that last a half hour or longer. The female will fly fast and recklessly, being closely followed by the male until landing on the ground where the male will pin the female down and they will peck at each other. Initially you might think they are fighting, but they are not, and occasionally their beaks will lock as if they were French kissing. The birds will flap around on the ground and in different positions until getting up to fly again. Then they repeat this ritual.

Sparrows are resourceful and smarter than one would expect. When thirsty, they will go to a leaking faucet. They turn upside down or hover like a Hummingbird to get a drink. They also will fly through a couple of doors at night to get into the prison shower. Their nests are elaborately made from garbage they find laying about: string, wires, pieces of cloth, broom straws. A scavenging bird finding no food will sometimes beg at the cell bars. I have turned to see a bird on my bars, chirping at me as if he were demanding food. I will always oblige such a courageous bird with a treat. Even when the birds do not beg, I will occasionally throw small pieces of bread, cookie crumbs, or their favorite, doughnuts, on the gallery, to the annoyance of the workers who must clean it up, or end up cleaning the bird droppings.

Today, when I came back from my visit, I noticed gallery workers had devised long poles by tying together broomsticks. They were using them to knock down the bird nests above. A guard was also using the butt of his rifle to knock down nests that were built underneath the balcony on the cell house outer wall. There were nest materials and tiny dead chicks all along the gallery wall. I was sad, and angered by this sight. A gallery worker seemed full of pride as he was pointing out to people the little dead birds. I said to him, "Do you take pleasure in killing baby birds?" He responded that it was not his doing and just his job to clean it up. It was a cruel sight to behold, but then again, the world is a cruel place.

My cellie will occasionally joke that I am the "bird whisperer" because of my fondness of the birds and my low voice. I have contemplated capturing a bird to make my pet. However, the guards would never allow this, and I would have to hide it. Years ago, I could have made a Tweetie bird cage out of Popsicle sticks and placed it in the back corner of my cell. But, I would not have done this. I live in a cage, and although I am fed, I am not happy. I am away from my family and friends, and have had all freedom stripped from me. I would be condemning the bird to a lonely, miserable life--trapped in a cage and unable to fly.


  1. This is very beautiful and sad.

    1. Yes it is. Brings to mind Robert Stroud and Robert Frost.

  2. I was at Lincoln cc and although we didn't have birds we did have a large herd of dear that would come right up to the fence every morning. There was a window I could look out facing the yard and every morning id get up get a cup of coffee and just stare out the window watching them. Helped me forget fir a moment where I was. During yard sometimes theyd stand right by the fence watching us. Almost like they knew we were the ones in cages. We became the zoo attractions for them. Find and hold onto whatever shred of peace and humanity you can find.


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