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The Real Birdman of Alcatraz Robert Stroud who was portrayed by Burt Lancaster in the 1962 Academy Award–nominated film The Birdman of Alcatraz as a mild-mannered, nature-loving tragic figure, was, in fact, a violent, unpredictable criminal who spent nearly all of his adult life in prison for committing more than one brutal murder. Although probably the most famous inmate ever to live at Alcatraz, Stroud actually began and ended his involvement with birds while at Leavenworth Federal Penitentiary in Kansas, where he was imprisoned for 30 years before serving time at Alcatraz. Held in solitary confinement during most of his time at Leavenworth due to his frequent threats and attacks on other inmates, he developed a keen interest in birds after finding an injured sparrow in the prison recreation yard. Stroud was permitted to breed and raise nearly 300 birds and maintain a research lab inside two adjoining segregation cells, as a way to make productive use of his ample time. As a result of his direct observations and intensive study, he became a leading authority on canaries and their diseases. Though he had come to prison with only a third-grade education, he authored two books on birds, and developed and marketed medicines for various bird ailments. But after several years, prison officials shut down his operation when they discovered that he was using scientific equipment to make whiskey. He died in a prison hospital in 1963, without ever seeing the movie that portrayed him in such a flattering light.

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