On Today’s Alcatraz, Feathered ‘Friends’ Replace Jailbirds


Off in the distance and without warning, a cannon on an old wooden ship boomed twice. Hundreds of frightened, squawking gulls swarmed overhead, and white bird droppings rained from the sky.

“There was carnage out here,” says Andy DeMars, who greets visitors to Alcatraz Island. “The birds were incredibly spooked. All the tourists were running into the bathrooms, running for cover anywhere they could.”

Most tourists who step off the Blue & Gold Fleet ferry onto the island expect to learn about the former federal lockup that once held Al “Scarface” Capone, George “Machine Gun” Kelly and Robert Stroud, the “Birdman of Alcatraz.”


Few of the 1.2 million people who visit the site each year realize it is a sanctuary to thousands of birds that have overrun the prison’s abandoned buildings. The relationship between man and bird isn’t always pretty.

During nesting season, from early February to September, the stench of guano hangs in the air. Most camera-toting tourists escape from Alcatraz unscathed, but a few unlucky ones go home with a true San Francisco souvenir--what park rangers call the “white badge of courage.”

It’s also not uncommon for mother gulls to swoop down and occasionally kick anyone who comes too close to their chicks.

The situation isn’t exactly a real-life version of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” but it can be annoying to employees and the 4,200 tourists who visit Alcatraz each summer day.

When he sailed into San Francisco Bay in 1775, explorer Juan Manuel de Ayala named Alcatraz La Isla de los Alcatraces, Spanish for “Island of the Pelicans.” .

Today there are few pelicans on the island, which is inhabited by more than 2,000 breeding birds made up of seven different colonial species.

The western gull and black-crowned night heron are the most common, said biologist Daphne Hatch, who oversees research of the island’s birds. Only the Farallon Islands have more western gulls in Northern California, she said.

When Alcatraz was a federal prison, most birds nested on the rocky cliffs on the west side of the island facing the Golden Gate Bridge. Although guards didn’t go out of their way to hurt birds, they didn’t hesitate to destroy troublesome nests either.

“We didn’t [care] about the feathered birds. We just cared about the jailbirds,” says Frank Heaney, the youngest guard to serve at Alcatraz.

Since the prison’s closure in 1963, the number of birds living on Alcatraz has steadily grown, with the biggest proliferation occurring in the last four years, officials say.

The presence of birds is obvious. White droppings are splattered on every part of the island--cement walkways, plants, buildings and even on a new sign intended to educate tourists about the birds.

Most uncovered benches are covered with guano and are rarely used by tourists during nesting season. Many visitors don’t seem to mind.

“I hope they don’t change anything,” said Jaime Tarin of El Paso, Texas. “I like it the way it is. This is nature. It’s natural.”

Officials have no intention of trying to reduce the bird population. The National Park Service enforced the protection of Alcatraz wildlife when it took over the island in 1972.

Brian O’Neill, superintendent of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area, downplayed the issue and says the influx of birds is a perfect opportunity for tourists to learn more about the island’s wildlife.

“It’s a wonderful story about how the birds have recaptured Alcatraz,” O’Neill says. “There aren’t too many other places where you can see this many birds up so close.”

Officials say a management plan is in the works. Beginning next season, park rangers expect to do a better job of cleaning picnic tables and removing nests from walkways, roofs and near other areas set aside for tourists.

“Part of our job is to protect the wildlife that’s here,” says Naomi Torres, who supervises park rangers on Alcatraz. “The big dilemma facing the park service is how do we balance the needs of tourists and the wildlife?”

As for the occasional contact between man and bird, there may be no easy solution. Employees and park rangers complain that they’re usually the ones targeted because mother gulls actually recognize their uniforms and faces.

“Sometimes they just dive at you and sometimes they let something out,” says Eddie Krause, who distributes audio tape tours at the prison cellblock. “Their aim is very good. I suspect if they miss it’s probably because they’re warning you.”