Tuesday, November 30, 2021

Who’s that looking at me from the courtyard?

By Gillian Macdonald

Being eyeballed by mysterious creatures in a courtyard isn’t something we normally associate with a university, is it? Even today, a small plastic owl stares at the students of Pearce Hall from the branches of a tree in the courtyard. Our plastic friend, however, isn’t the only guest to have looked upon the students from the bushes and trees…

Thanks to one industrious mathematics professor, for almost twenty years between 1971 and 1990, students and staff members alike were serenaded by strange screeching emanating from the Pearce Hall courtyard. The weird and often jungle-like noises were often accompanied with stares from some curious dwellers under the bushes and in the trees.

William Swart’s tenure in the Department of Mathematics at CMU from 1967 to 1986 had some quirky additions to teaching and research. Thanks to his hobby of raising animals, under Swart’s charge, various creatures became residents of the Pearce Hall courtyard. Swart’s animal raising was not limited to CMU grounds; he also reportedly kept three pheasants at the Pleasant Manor Nursing Home on Crapo St., and also raised wild turkeys, grouse, and Arabian horses at his own property. In 1990, CMLife reported on the peacocks roaming in Pearce Hall’s small courtyard. Turns out, the peacocks were part of a longer tradition and what one reporter called an animal menagerie that had existed since 1971.

Professor Swart first introduced animals into the space in 1971. He decided the courtyard should have some sort of purpose. After seeking and being granted permission, Swart put game birds in the courtyard after the 1971 “energy crunch” (CMLife, 25 April 1986). His first charges were pheasants—Ringneck and Lady Amherst—whose feathers were clipped on one wing to keep them from flying away.

Swart originally had around 15 birds in the courtyard, but they started disappearing at an alarming rate. Speaking to CM Life staff reporter Dan Criscenti, Swart recalled the incident and his eventual conclusions. First thinking they were stolen, Swart then discovered remains on top of the feeder leading him to a different conclusion. Since the courtyard was well-lit and smaller, the clipped birds were easy prey for predators like owls. Shutting off the lights at night seemed to take care of the problem.

The birds not only became a staple of life at Pearce Hall but also the butt of many jokes. Signs on the windows at Pearce Hall that advocated for feeding the birds apple cores were often accompanied by recipes for roasted pheasant. Thankfully, no pheasant was ever resigned to this fate. Swart also encouraged students to work on improving the nesting areas in the courtyard or replicate the project in other buildings (CMLife, 5 November 1973). Which begs the question: are there more secret pheasant hideaways anywhere else at CMU?  

It doesn’t seem like it. Swart’s personal project remained in the Pearce Hall courtyard and expanded with the addition of Gigi Golden pheasants later. However, pheasants were not the only creatures who cut loose in the courtyard. In 1985, Swart introduced four peacocks to the population of Pearce Hall for no other reason than to “look at and enjoy.” Students of the industrial education program later built the peacocks a small shelter in 1987. The peacocks were also joined by African Pygmy goats and quail who wandered around the small, enclosed space. With the help of Sydney Watson, chair of health and science, and Sandra Warriner, computer science instructor, Swart fed and took care of the courtyard animals.

Sadly, Professor Swart passed away just last year in July 2020. The legacy of the noisy courtyard, however, lives on among the staff of Pearce Hall, including Patti Cotter in World Languages and Cultures, who passed this story on to others. You do have to wonder, whatever happened to keeping animals in the courtyard?

Digital recreation of what the animal menagerie in Pearce Courtyard possibly looked like (Photo credit: Ben Ackley)