Crime Library: Criminal Minds and Methods

Jail Birds: The Story of Robert Stroud

Jail Birds

Over the years, while Robert served out his sentence he took advantage of some of the privileges offered to him. He received various art supplies and began learning how to write and paint with the assistance of correspondence teachers. He also began to create greeting cards, on which he displayed his artwork that he gave to his mother to sell. The proceeds from the cards were intended to financially help his aging mother.

However, it was in June 1920 that Robert undertook another hobby that would change the course of his life. Following a severe thunderstorm, Robert stumbled across the remains of a nest full of three live baby sparrows in the exercise yard. The nest had been destroyed when the storms winds snapped a branch of a tree on which it rested.

Robert took the birds back to his cell and cared for them by constructing a makeshift nest and providing them food. It wasnt long before he began to bond with the feathered animals. Robert began to check out every book available on the subject of birds that the prison library offered. He learned how to care for his birds and also how to train them to do tricks. The birds brought Robert great comfort, satisfaction and meaning into his otherwise purposeless life.

Robert also devised an ingenious plan to breed the birds for a profit. He quickly abandoned his greeting card hobby and decided to focus most of his time on breeding the canaries. Before long the birds began to grow in numbers.

The warden was impressed by Roberts enthusiasm with the birds. The inmate seemed to have a new lease on life. Overall, the isolation ward had gone from one of the most dangerous to the most docile, since the introduction of the birds. The warden decided to allow Robert to have some of the equipment necessary to make birdcages, thus facilitating his business adventure and his love for birds.

The warden also conducted tours of the isolation ward, which included Roberts cell. The visitors that passed through were offered a chance to buy one of Roberts canaries, which many agreed to. Before long, Robert had established a lucrative business, of which the proceeds went to his mother new equipment and food for the birds.

Roberts interests were not only financially motivated. He had a genuine love for the animals and was curious to learn as much about them as possible. Over the years, he studied the birds with intense fascination and would note his observations in a notebook. He also began to experiment with various breeding techniques and nutritional diets that aided in the propagation of the species.

Eventually his experiments became more and more advanced. Using makeshift materials and help from the prison laboratories, Robert began to take cultures of bird disease germs and study them. He also studied the anatomy of birds through dissection. His canary population began to steadily increase and by 1927 he had well over 150 birds nesting in his cell. Roberts discoveries made from his canaries would later lead to breakthrough research that would have a significant impact on bird lovers worldwide.

During the spring of 1927, one of Roberts worst fears became a realization. While he tended to his birds, he noticed that some of them appeared sickly. Over the course of several weeks, the sickly birds began to die from a mysterious illness that he believed was a form of a septic fever. The disease began to kill his beloved birds.

Gaddis stated that Robert frantically began experimenting with various solution mixtures containing oxidized salts buffered by effervescing acids in an attempt to develop a cure. In less than two days he came up with a solution that seemed to kill the disease, without serious harm to the birds. Robert conducted experiments on the germ cultures, with the help of the prison lab and observed that there were three forms of the disease that ravaged his birds. It was the first discovery of its kind.

Roberts discoveries and bird cure led to recognition in one of the most prestigious bird magazines of the time known as the Roller Canary Journal, as well as other periodicals. During the late 1920s, Robert gained national recognition for his informative and breakthrough articles. Throughout the years he continued to send all recent information and discoveries he made to journals in an effort to save birds throughout the country.

Robert felt as if he had paid his debt to society, based on his recent accomplishments. He had educated himself and had significantly contributed to the scientific field of ornithology. In 1928, he decided to issue a petition for Executive Clemency in the hopes of being restored back to society. There was so much research with birds he wanted to conduct on the outside, but it would never be. President Calvin Coolidge failed to comply with the prisoners request. Yet, Robert failed to give up.

In 1929, Robert made several more important breakthroughs during his study of birds. According to Gaddis, some of his discoveries included a cure for many bird diseases that were classified in the hemorrhagic septicemia group, a treatment for typhoid-like diseases in canaries and the source of a common canary infection. Roberts scientific endeavors earned him great respect in the scientific community, as well as with bird-breeders and canary owners alike. One owner of prized canaries named Della May Jones was particularly impressed, yet intrigued by the mysterious bird doctor.

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