Let me run this scenario past you and let's see how many of you can relate to it! You're relaxing at home having just fed and watered your birds and are looking forward to watching that evening movie or maybe to seeing 'Warnie' bowl that unplayable delivery. You sink into the couch and eye that cold amber tube with relish when there is a knock at the door. Mumbling to yourself you open the door to see someone standing there with a shoebox in his or her hand. "They tell me you're the birdman around here, can you do something with this?" "This" usually turns out to be some wild bird in varying stages of disrepair or something that should have been left with its mother!
With the standard reply of "Leave it with me mate, I'll see what I can do," you now become the proud owner of the contents of the box. You look into the box and it either contains a young 'something' that the cat/children 'found' or else something adult that lost out to the cat/children/car. You shake your head and think that you should be called the birdbrain rather than the birdman!! Bet there are a lot of you out there nodding your head in agreement with this by now. The odd thing is that no matter how damaged or 'past it' the bird is we always try to do what we can for the individual - whether that is the administration of medicines or simply making them warm until the inevitable occurs. The response of many people is simply to dispatch the unlucky bird, but that is not true of the majority of bird keepers - usually to the cost of a significant portion of their sanity!
Too often we hear of the evils inherent with the keeping of birds in captivity, of the battle between the various Wildlife authorities and those 'nasty' aviculturists. But many lose sight of the fact that it is these very same aviculturists that save countless thousands of wild birds every year in Australia alone. The expertise that they have accumulated over untold years of bird keeping is something that no degree or TAFE course can teach. It would often be far easier and convenient for them to simply hand the shoebox back and forget all about it - but very few would opt to adopt that course of action. Why, you may ask? I guess the answer to that varies from person to person but the underlying theme would seem to be that these people share a love of all birds - be it a beautiful sun conure or a bedraggled baby masked plover! Most of us that have kept parrots have been forced, at one time or another, to hand rear babies for a host of reasons.
It is a simple step from hand rearing baby parrots to force feeding baby wild birds - thank goodness for that ubiquitous crop needle! As well as this acquired dexterity with the old 'needle' most of us tend to keep pretty up to date with trends in aviculture and eagerly read all that we can lay our hands on. This trait also allows us to adapt our techniques from captive birds to wild ones. Basically, what I am trying valiantly to get out is that, aviculturists have the potential to offer much to the captive husbandry of a number of threatened species - and not just those commonly kept in aviculture. Let's examine the case of the humble masked plover, Vanellus miles. Yes, that pint sized bird with the parental instincts of a homicidal maniac!!
Whilst visiting Bendigo a number of years ago I was taken around several aviaries and was stunned to see that people actually had the masked plover lurking about in their cages. Here in Tasmania the masked plover is a very common species and can be encountered in any paddock throughout the state. Summoning upon my courage I asked why they bothered and was told, with a laugh, about how many I had seen in the distance between Melbourne and Bendigo. I had no idea! When I shrugged I was told stories about the impact of foxes upon ground nesting birds and their scarcity in areas where they SHOULD have been common. After this I kept a plover tally and saw exactly 8 in 3000kms - not very good odds I should think!! I shudder to think what the impact of foxes would be on these birds and the Ground Parrot population in Tasmania.
By watching these people hand rearing these birds I was able to take this information home with me to use on plovers that were 'left on my own doorstep'. I had never even thought about how you reared these guys successfully. So, in case you might need it one day, here it is. For the first 2-3 days the baby plover needs to be force-fed and a crop needle is of little use because of the nature of the food. Take a 2-5ml syringe and cut yourself a small, 2cm, length of tubing (the softer the better) to poke down the bird's throat. Mix up a solution of one of the many brands of insectivore mix available on the market (Vetafarm and Womboroo, to name but two), mash up a small quantity of good quality canned dog food (Pal for mine). Add these two together, heat as you would for any baby parrot and squirt a small quantity down the chick's throat. I do this 3 times a day. As well as this appetizing mix you can also decapitate a few mealworms and poke these down the bird's throat with a pair of BLUNT forceps or your fingers - if they are dainty enough! The birds are rapid learners and will feed themselves avidly in a few days - especially on ANY invertebrate that you find. Slugs, squashed snails, earthworms and maggots are devoured with relish. Makes you wonder how mainland farmers get rid of their 'paddock pests' without an army of plovers about!
Your baby plover must be kept warm and I simply suspend a 40watt red light globe in an aluminium box so that they can huddle next to it when cold or move away when they are too hot. What happens if the light bulb blows during the night? Simply, the baby plover emits such a high-pitched 'cheep' that is IMPOSSIBLE to sleep through! Why a red light globe? Supposedly birds don't see too well in red light so it doesn't keep them awake and disturb their natural sleep/wake rhythm. Skeptical? Well, try rearing quail in a box with a clear light globe and one with a red light globe. The ones in the clear light will grow faster up to a certain point then they will start to die off at a higher rate than your red light chicks. Try it!! As your plover matures you can put it onto a diet of insects, your dog food mashed up with insectivore mix and a mixture of hard boiled egg mashed up with egg and biscuit AND the ubiquitous insectivore mix. This diet has been used to rear several plovers, magpies, Tasmanian native hens and Tawny frogmouths. Be warned that if you ever have to rear baby frogmouths that they emit a rather incessant, highly unpleasant 'noise' that will try the patience of any sane person let alone a bird person!
Baby Plover with heat source. Baby Plover exploring.
Mention has already been made about the learning curve that aviculturists undergo during their years with various aviary species. Such is also true in their dealings with wild birds. For example in the dim dark past, when I was a boy, the accepted method for rearing insectivorous species was to use minced meat of some description and egg. I can still remember the frustration of rearing a nest of Grey butcherbirds (Give me a break, I was young then!!) to almost independence and watching as they died, one after another, with a heavy scour. Yes, the addition of mince to their diet was the fatal flaw as their body could not cope with the protein in this form and it was far too 'rich' for them. As a raptor expert later told me minced meat is only suitable for humans rather than for any feathered friends! So we learn and keep a can of Pal on hand for any emergency that might arise!
Whilst on this vein it would be prudent for those intending to undertake hand raising raptors or frogmouths to ensure that they have access to a supply of mice and/or small rats. Now I am not advocating that you should head to the nearest pet shop and purchase every poor white mouse in stock and sacrifice him or her to your bird - I'm sure that would be unethical! However, most Universities have an animal breeding facility where you can usually purchase a 'block' of deceased mice for your charges for a nominal fee. Just one word of warning, check that the mice have been euthanased with carbon dioxide rather than an inhalation anaesthetic overdose, like Halothane or Fluothane. I have seen a very dopey frogmouth after having been force-fed anaesthetized mice - if you've ever smelt these anaesthetics I bet you would never want to consume them either!! The addition of mice and small rats to the diet of these birds allows them to form fur pellets as they would in the wild.
To finish with I would like to relate to you an example of how the so-called 'wildlife experts' are often unwilling to act upon the advice of the humble aviculturist - with potentially devastating consequences. As a young man a wildlife park employed me as a birdkeeper under the 'experienced eye' of the 'wildlife expert'. The park was to receive 6 baby pelicans from South Australia - the ones that would perish because of the drying up of the lake that they were hatched on. After 24 hours of flights and enclosure in tiny packaging boxes they arrived at Bicheno on Tasmania's East Coast. I arrived with my bucket of fish to feed these, by now, near starving pelicans. At this point our 'expert' arrived and grabbed the fish and proceeded to relate how these baby pelicans had to be trained from day one to accept fish from humans. He then proceeded to tap each pelican on the beak with a fish in an attempt to make it eat.
Now any good bird person knows that baby birds usually require a little 'encouragement' to feed, or at least to be fed in a manner that their parents might do. After 30 minutes of this amazing scene with 6 bewildered pelicans wondering what the hell this strange person was attempting to get them to do I decided enough was enough. I asked our general manager if I could 'play' with the pelicans too! Having actually seen pelicans being fed by their parents I realised that it was not a pretty sight - and had never witnessed a parent pelican tapping its young on the beak with a fish! So, I grabbed a fish and a pelican and proceeded to shove my entire arm into its bill. Just like mother used to do it - the result was instant pandemonium with squawking, begging pelicans being fed by everyone that was assembled. Funny sight to see people in suits covered in fish scales and pelican drool and obviously relishing the experience. Our 'expert' had stormed off and my days were numbered!
It was some years after this that I was watching a documentary on the feral cat problem in Australia and watched as a bearded gentleman wearing a cat on his head proceeded to outline his thoughts on conservation. One statement that this forthright gentleman, Dr. John Wamsley, made has always stayed in my mind as a sad but unfortunately apt, quotation. It went something along the lines of if you ever want to save a species from extinction then keep the wildlife authorities as far away from them as you can!! Dr. John could certainly not be accused of being a moderate but there are elements of truth in what he says. As wildlife agencies elsewhere recognise the wealth of talent and expertise that exists in the avicultural world it is to be hoped that some shreds of this will filter through to their Australian (Tasmanian!!) counterparts. Let's hope the Naretha Bluebonnet, Northiella haematogaster naretha, work was the start of a far more enlightened approach to wildlife cooperation and not just an isolated 'experiment'.
Whilst on the subject of the Wildlife Authorities, always ensure that you notify them of the protected birds that you are called upon to help. This covers you in case a lightening raid finds you with a box of something you shouldn't have! If you have the time you might also consider becoming a wildlife carer for there are a lot of well meaning people out there that would benefit from the input of any experienced aviculturist.
There can be little as satisfying as watching your hand reared baby plover taking its first steps towards freedom as you usher it into the 'environment' with a sigh of relief. Just beware that your kindness will not protect you from attack next breeding season!!
Written by Marcus Pollard - Copyright remains with the author.