Jail Birds

Lay of the Land
Art by James Wardell

I’D NEVER BEEN a serious bird-watcher—until, that is, I spent nine months in a county jail.

County-jail time is, by some accounts, the “hardest time” one can do. There are a variety of reasons for that dubious claim to fame, but high on my list is prisoners’ lack of access to nature. The building in which I was incarcerated included a recreation yard made of concrete and brick, with a fence-hatched view of only the sky. The cells did not have fully transparent windows; instead they offered six-inch-by-three-foot slices of views of the outdoors. Yet the sight of birds through those narrow slits bolstered my flagging belief in the beauty of the world.

Over the long, dismal months, I was drawn to the window, initially in search of sun and any sign of life, or to hide unexpected tears from a stranger sharing my cell. But as spring approached, the razor-wire fence and surrounding grass began to be populated by birds, which I observed for extended periods. I found myself increasingly energized by my sightings. Perched on a metal stool and peering through the window slits, I took in details I’d never noticed before. Despite years of seeing robins each spring, for example, I didn’t know that their beaks were yellow.

My father assisted in my effort to learn the markings and behaviors of bird species by sending me a novice bird guide. Book in hand (without binoculars, of course), I passed days looking out the window, willing birds to come and visit me. Ruby-red house finches were regular spots of brilliant color in an otherwise gray and gloomy world; their spirited playfulness had me imagining their conversations and laughing out loud. Goldfinches and red-winged blackbirds decorated the razor wire, while kingbirds and mockingbirds required quick study if I wanted to observe them alight, preen, and flit off. House sparrows and chipping sparrows commiserated inside the brick courtyard, capturing moths that mistakenly believed they had found a safe haven. A red-tailed hawk soared above the fray, glinting sun from its tail, a visual reminder of freedom.

Once, a killdeer family joined the tableau. I remember the three fledglings racing along the fence edge as their parents watched—I was so delighted by the sight that I shouted for the women in neighboring cells to look out their windows, breaking my customary silence.

Marcia Weber lives in Dayton, Ohio.”Jail Birds” was her first published piece.


  1. As a former New Yorker finishing his residence on this planet in Helsinki and with meager grasp of the language I also delight in these current dinosaurs who seem to appreciate the attention. Crows, magpies and chicadees are most common here but seagulls, laughing gulls and the occasional hawk also enlivens the scene. Ducks and Canadian geese spend the summer and a swan or two can be spotted. Perhaps there is a New Yorker or two amongst them.

  2. I enjoyed this. I was reminded of a lady who was caught up in a secondhand story of two geese. One was injured and could no longer migrate. Her mate stayed with her until the last possible moment and was among the first to return. The lady stated that if
    he was ever set free seeing these geese was top priority.

  3. Fortunately, birds are still ubiquitous. Their plumage and song can brighten any day, no matter how dreary. I am glad you discovered your fondness for these feathered friends.

  4. Wonderfully written I too feel serene and delighted to sit in my backyard for long hours and look at different species of birds that pay visit all around the year like house sparrows, Raven, Indian rose ring parakeet, feral pigeons, Indian Cuckoo and if I am fortunate enough sometimes I get to see Indian spotted eagle too.

  5. Funny sometimes how a rough patch in life, or even our darkest days can open our eyes to the light; the brighter things, the little things, often, that can help make life worth living. They’re All around us…if you but look for them. I hope your bird watching becomes a life-long passion and a reminder for you.

  6. Wonderful! I taught in prison for a while and had a community garden with my men. They craved being outside in the garden – a craving that I won’t ever completely understand, having never been incarcerated – but know stemmed from their hearts. <3

  7. Lovely written i feel as if i was at the window too.

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