For the Birds Radio Program: Criminal Birders

Original Air Date: March 9, 1987

Laura talks about some famous criminal cases involving bird watchers. (3:55) date confirmed

Audio missing


Criminal Birders

(Recording of a Prothonotary Warbler)

I never met a birder I didn’t like. But apparently at least a few bird-watchers have led less than exemplary lives. For example, the Prothonotary Warbler you just heard singing is known as the bird that ratted on a spy. In 1949, Alger Hiss was accused of treason. He was a former State Department employee who was suspected of passing secret documents to Whittaker Chambers, a Communist agent. Although Hiss insisted that he didn’t know Chambers, Chambers claimed to know Hiss intimately. Under questioning, Chambers recalled that Hiss and his wife were ardent bird watchers, and that on one occasion Hiss was very excited about having seen a rare Prothonotary Warbler along the Potomac.

Congressman John McDowell, himself a birder who had seen a Prothonotary in Arlington, matched sightings with Hiss at the congressional hearing, and then used Hiss’s boasts to determine that Hiss was guilty of perjury–the only way Chambers could have known about Hiss’s warbler was if Hiss told Chambers about it. Roger Tory Peterson, already famous for his Field Guide, was asked by an FBI agent to identify a picture of Hiss–Peterson didn’t know him personally, but did remember seeing him birding occasionally.

Another active birder, Nathan J. Leopold, was convicted of kidnapping and murdering a 14-year-old Chicago boy in 1923. The only evidence the police had connecting him to the crime was a pair of eyeglasses found at the scene. Leopold explained that they fell out of his pocket when he tripped trying to get a shot at a Wilson’s Phalarope, but when the police asked him to demonstrate, no matter how often Leopold tripped, he couldn’t get the glasses to fall out of his pocket. Then the police found even more damning evidence, and Leopold confessed. Clarence Darrow’s persuasive defense got him off with a life sentence instead of death, and he was paroled after 33 years. He spent the rest of his life in Puerto Rico, administrating a leper hospital and compiling a Checklist of the Birds of Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands.

Agatha Christie herself understood the dark side of bird-watchers– she made Hercule Poirot’s final and most dreadful adversary a birder. But not all bird watchers are criminal–one noted ornithologist was himself the victim of a chemist’s murderous impulses. Dr. George Parkman, a prominent ornithologist and wealthy member of one of Boston’s most eminent families, funded John James Audubon–Audubon even named a subspecies of the House Wren for Parkman. And Parkman gave Harvard the ground on which to build its medical school, and provided a chair of anatomy. But apparently Dr. Parkman was a bit too generous–he made several loans to a Dr. John White Webster, professor of chemistry and mineralogy at Harvard. White stole back the mineral cabinets that he had given Parkman as security on his loans, and then, when Parkman started pressing him for payment, White murdered him and stuffed his body in a bricked-in vault below his office. A belated confession failed to save White from the gallows–apparently the criminal justice system has no mercy for people who murder birders. Agatha Christie even had to kill her finest detective when he took revenge on an evil birder.

(Recording of a Prothonotary Warbler)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”