Sunday, February 27, 2011

#255: Someday I'll Fly Away

I used to own two aviaries full of budgies, lovebirds and other assorted parrot type birds back in the 1980s and I loved it. In fact I miss my budgies no end, they’d sing and they’d be a constant source of amusement for me, especially as they’d puzzle out certain members of my family with relative ease. As soon as my interest in the birds became serious I began to hunt down books – the best amongst them being Ernest Harts brilliant – and still useful – tome on budgies. Seek it out if you can. I was given my copy by the next door neighbour and I’ve still go it. But one book I wanted to find and never did, until yesterday, was Stroud’s Digest On The Diseases Of Birds.

First published in 1943 it soon became a much sought after book, if only because it was, and still is, considered to be one of the best books of it’s type. Meticulously researched, well written and lavishly illustrated, some of the treatments have since been improved upon, but the book is still worth finding because of the way that Stroud demonstrates how to identify various diseases. The book now sells anywhere from $10 for a shit copy to $350 for a 1st edition – this copy, in brilliant condition, is the second edition from 1964. Vets still use this book, as does any serious bird fancier and breeder. It’s virtually a bible on keeping, raising and breeding birds in captivity. What makes this even more amazing is that Robert Stroud wrote this while in solitary confinement in Alcatraz – yes, Robert Stroud was the famous Birdman Of Alcatraz, as immortalised in celluloid by none other than Burt Lancaster.

Stroud wasn’t a nice man at times, and that’s about a great an understatement as saying Hitler did a few things wrong. Stroud, on one hand, was a murderer and wasn’t really the benign man that Lancaster would have had the world believe, but then the movie was released during Stroud’s lifetime and more than one person was fighting for his release. He was incarcerated in 1909 for twelve years for killing a man who beat his then girlfriend in 1908. While he was in jail he then assaulted other inmates, ultimately killing a guard in 1916, leading to a death sentence which was commuted to life and he served his sentence in solitary confinement. As such he spent 54 years totally isolated with only guards to speak to. He found comfort, and solace, in birds, which would visit him and which he would study.

The irony is that Stroud was labelled the Birdman Of Alcatraz, when the reality is that he wrote this book, conducted his studies and owned an aviary at Leavenworth. I guess the Birdman Of Leavenworth doesn’t have quite the same ring, and Alcatraz was more notorious, and better known. The truth is that Stroud wasn’t allowed to keep his birds at Alcatraz and he fought the transfer as much as he could. The publisher of his first book, Diseases Of Canaries, did what most publishers did and ripped him off – after all, he was in jail for life, so who could he complain to? The publisher did complain to the warden of Leavenworth who then made plans to move Stroud, until Stroud found a loophole to keep him at Leavenworth. In 1942 Stroud was transferred and his birds were removed from him. He died in 1963, a year before this book was published.

Stroud is a classic example of a life wasted. Jails have always been full of three kinds of people – idiots who think they’re smart, average people and absolute geniuses. Carl Panzram is another classic example. Anyone who has read his writings would agree that he was incredibly articulate and intelligent, yet he was a complete psychopath who murdered people for reason other than to work through his rage towards the world at large and thought nothing of raping, sodomizing and murdering anyone who came near him, including animals. Ironically Panzram was at Leavenworth at the same time as Stroud. There’s been many studies as to what makes people who display above average intelligence turn to homicide, and it seems the higher the IQ the more sadistic the murderer. These mysteries will be with us until the second coming I guess.

Still, Stroud left the world with a legacy that most people never will – although he found lasting fame as the Birdman Of Alcatraz, Stroud has a far more enduring legacy, this book, written and illustrated from memory, by a man who couldn’t control his rage, yet was able to at least work his brain to create a book that is still vital nearly eighty years after it was first published. Oh, and Stroud did have the last giggle, after his transfer from Leavenworth the authorities there discovered that the aviary that he possessed and had worked so hard to keep, actually disguised a still. Yes, Stroud had found a way to turn birdshit into booze, God love him, the murderous pisshead.


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