Backyard Chirper

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Birds Give Hardened Prisoners New Life

Any birder can attest to the fact that there’s nothing more calming and peaceful than heading outside in the cool, dewy morning to spy the fascinating ritual of birds.

Birding is a notoriously therapeutic hobby that takes you out of the hustle and bustle of your world and places you squarely in the bird’s world. A world of foraging, playful songs and acrobatic flights.

That’s why it’s no surprise that owning a bird offers a similar therapeutic escape from the stress of everyday life. An inspiring Radiolab story I wrote about a few weeks ago (which you can hear below in case you missed it) emphasized the symbiotic relationship between people and birds.

The same type of bird that was the star of the Radiolab story is also prominently featured in a new article published yesterday documenting the same effect birds have on people. In a South African prison replete with tattooed murderers and gangsters, baby African Grey Parrots are bringing out the paternal instinct in incarcerated men.

The program, which has prisoners raise the chicks until they’re old enough to be sold as pets, was started in 1997 to help reform the roughest criminals.

The images described in the piece are inspiring and downright endearing. You have men who are doing hard time in prison blowing on porridge to feed to the chicks, acting heartbroken when they have to give one of their “babies” away and nuzzling the birds with kisses.

Not surprisingly, the program is a huge success with hundreds of inmates waiting to adopt one of these intelligent birds. More importantly, the level of violence is decreasing.

The inmates get a tremendous sense of accomplishment whenever they successfully raise a baby chick and sometimes get letters from the new owners thanking them.

Here is murderer Bernard Mitchell’s take on the birds:

“They touch you,” said Mitchell. “I didn’t have this kind of gentleness. I was a very aggressive person before, I was involved in a lot of stabbings, a lot of things. I had a very bad reputation in prison.”

This could be a powerful program to extend across all ranges of society to help bolster compassion, commitment and caring, because birds always seem to bring out the best in people.

Timothy Martinez Jr. is a writer and freelance journalist. His work has been published in The Times-Picayune in New Orleans, Remapping Debate in New York City and other publications. He’s been a bird lover since he was young and currently lives in New Orleans, L.A.

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