For the Birds

Alcatraz is "Hellcatraz" No Longer

The harsh, rocky island of Alcatraz rises from San Francisco Bay. As recently as 1963, this was the site of Alcatraz Federal Penitentiary, which its desperate inmates aptly referred to as “Hellcatraz.” Men like “Machine Gun” Kelly, Al Capone and Robert “The Birdman of Alcatraz” Stroud spent many bleak hours in cells measuring six feet by nine feet. But since Alcatraz’ decommissioning as a federal prison, birds have seen their opportunity and are nesting there in ever-growing numbers.

The vegetation on Alcatraz, which provides nesting cover for bird colonies, has naturalized from the gardens planted by prison guards. Brett Carre, an interpretive ranger and natural resource specialist, says that the extensive ivy and mirror bush growth has allowed Black-Crowned Night Herons to nest on the island. Snowy Egrets, Brandt’s Cormorants, Pigeon Guillemots and Pelagic Cormorants also spend time there.

According to Daphne Hatch, the park’s wildlife biologist, in 1998 Alcatraz provided sanctuary for about 240 Black-Crowned Night Heron and 15 Snowy Egret nests (up from just three the previous year).

Also counted in 1998 were 510 Western Gull nests. “Since coming to Alcatraz, I’ve developed more and more of an appreciation for the gulls,” Carre says. “They are intelligent birds, and can pick my face out of a crowd of 200 people, sounding their alarm cry to other gulls. Their concern is that I occasionally need to move their nests out of harm’s way on the road.”

It’s fitting that bird colonies are returning in strength to the rocky retreat. One early observer, Edwin Bryant, wrote in 1846 that the small islands in the bay were “white, as if covered with snow, from the deposits upon them of bird manure. Tens of thousands of wild geese, ducks, gulls and other waterfowl were perched upon them, or sporting in the waters of the bay.”

This rebirth as a bird sanctuary is all the more remarkable, considering that as many as 4,900 tourists visit the island by ferry on any given day. Park scientists are going to great lengths to ensure that birds and people can successfully share this island. They barricade the north and south ends of Alcatraz for six months of the year to protect the breeding colonies, which should ultimately delight visitors as much as the remains of the famous prison.