In the 1980s, the popularity of bird parks in the UK resulted in a substantial number of collections being opened to the public. Most owners did not realise how difficult it is to make a financial success of such a project in a climate which encourages zoo visiting for only four or five months of the year. The life of most of these bird parks, especially the smaller ones, was short. Only the best ones survived, either because they were combined with other attractions or because much of the income is derived from breeding valuable bird species.
One of the latest on the scene was Paultons, situated at Ower, near Romsey, in Hampshire, not far from Southampton. Its emphasis has changed. Formerly the largest collection of waterfowl open to the public in Southeast England, tragedy struck the park. Due to the mindless actions of animal rights activists who liberated mink in the area, one thousand ducks, geese and swans were killed. Because the river runs though the park and its enclosures, it was impossible to protect the waterfowl from these bloodthirsty killers.
Even today, some years later, minks are still being caught. It was necessary to fill in the lakes and to change over to aviary birds. Now soft-bills, hornbills and park birds such as emus, flamingos and cranes predominate. And Paultons has gained a reputation for its breeding successes with a wide range of species. Ninety per cent of the birds bred go to other zoos and collections in the UK and as far away as China, Russia and the United Arab Emirates.
The man who stands at the helm of the bird collection is curator Geoff Masson. Geoff has a lifetime in zoos behind him. He started in the bird department at Dudley zoo then spent more than ten years as assistant curator at Twycross zoo, in the Midlands, coming to Paultons 15 years ago. Birds of prey are a special interest. He formerly bred them on a private basis and is still very much involved, especially with collections in the Arab states, which he visits regularly.
Geoff showed me around the grounds and told me something of their remarkable history. The old estate dates back to the Doomsday Book (a record of all the land in Britain and its ownership.) of 1085. The lad has changed hands only five times since then! More recently, historically speaking, the gardens were designed by Capability Brown, the renowned 18th century landscape gardener. It is into these gardens that the aviaries and ponds have been landscaped. The setting is beautiful, and was ablaze with rhododendrons and azaleas when I was there.
The aviaries nestle among the trees, shrubs and hedges, close to the Japanese garden, fishpond and fountain and the archways, which were originally features. I think Capability Brown would have approved of the way in which the aviaries blend into the surroundings.
It was the Macey family, who bought 140 acres of the estate in 1980, who conceived the idea of a bird park. Today it is very difficult for such an enterprise to survive in the UK without other attractions. Thus, Paultons is now described as a family park and run by Richard and Sara Mancey. The blend of birds and more contrived entertainment must be just right, because the park attracts 450, 000 people every year.
For the visitor who is interested only in the aviaries, the family aspect of the park is not obtrusive except, perhaps, the roars of the dinosaurs! I enjoyed the excellent Romany Museum with the wonderfully ornate wagons, and the Village Life Museum. The mature trees and planting hide the numerous children’s rides and play areas. In total there are more than 40 attractions and plenty for the entire family to enjoy.
But it was, of course, the birds, which left the biggest impression. Every bird park has its characters and here a great horned owl, with its enormous yellow eyes and soft and intricate grey and white plumage, is unforgettable. He displayed to Geoff as we passed. Turkmenian, Bengal Eagle and Bran Owls have bred in the past but only the Barn Owls are encouraged to breed these days (Owls can be hard to place). Their offspring form part of a truly successful reintroduction programme in the UK and have populated locations where the Barn Owl had died out.
Rhinoceros Hornbills are amongst the worlds most distinctive and unlikely-looking birds. There is a magnificent pair here with their shiny black and white plumage, enormous orange and white beaks and orange casques. The hornbill casque reaches its maximum development in this species. Paultons has an excellent hornbill collection, which includes Trumpeters, Wrinkled, Crowned and Von Der Decken’s (breeding pairs).
As hornbill females are walled up in the nest site during incubation and rearing, a nest-box or log with the entrance of the correct size and height is vital for breeding success. Horse manure and hay are among the items provided here which assist the hornbills in making the material, which is plastered over the entrance hole. I was interested to see that nails had been hammered all around the entrance to some hornbill nests. Geoff told me that this makes the task of "mudding up" easier.
Mynahs and starlings are among the other soft-bills that regularly rear young. In a very large planted aviary, which also holds a pair of endangered Mauritius Pink Pigeons, there are four pairs of Greater Hill Mynahs. Mynahs donated by the public have formed pairs of this species which is now rarely imported. Relatively few breeding successes have occurred in the UK, yet at Paultons, two generations have been reared. Green Asian Starlings also breed here and there young have been sent to other zoos.
A notable success is the breeding of Toco Toucans. Because the Tocos have a habit of throwing out the nesting material, Geoff packs sand in the bottom of the nest-box after the second egg has been laid. Later, the eggs are transferred to Bantams due to problems with the parents. With today’s DNA technology, it is possible to sex the chicks as soon as they hatch, by using material within the shell. Because of the shortage of females in the UK, it is vitally important to produce females that are not imprinted and can be used for breeding purposes. Hand-reared Tocos are too aggressive, so, while males can be used for education and in shows, females will be puppet reared.
Puppet-rearing is very work intensive, taking ten to 15 minutes per feed. It has already been carried out, using a mixture of pinkie mice and papaya, fed with a syringe approximately every two hours. For the adults, a food with a low iron content is important; Witte Molen insectivorous food is offered (Deaths from iron-storage disease are, sadly, common in toucans). The importation of wild-caught toucans has virtually ended in the UK, thus, these birds, especially Tocos, are now extremely expensive.
In 1989, the first recorded UK breeding of Dumonti’s Mynah took place in this park. Dumonti’s, from New Guinea, is one of the most handsome of mynahs, with its partly bare orange head and orange bill. The aviary was landscaped with plants, had a running stream and a thermostatically controlled shelter with timed lighting. One of the more recent aviaries is the novel garden aviary. Part of it is designed to replicate and English garden and contains native finches and soft-bills.
What were once wildfowl ponds in the main gardens are now enclosures for large birds such as cranes and storks. An impressive pair of Marabou Storks (standing 1.5m high) share their huge aviary with Night Herons and Guinea Fowl. Marabou are not easy to breed in captivity, thus this is a species which Geoff hopes will rear young in due course.
Sometimes, unusual steps are taken to achieve success. To this end, Geoff often uses bantams to incubae eggs. He prefers them to incubators. They have sat on eggs of such unlikely species as touracos, owls and parrots. Each bantam is placed in a broody box with two eggs. She is removed from the box to a pen for ten minutes each day. The eggs are transferred to an incubator just before they are due to pip. One little bantam, who cost only £2, hatched £2000 of chicks in one season!
Among Geoff’s other aids to breeding success is something which is normally found in an office – a bottle of Tip-Ex! He uses this correction fluid to repair parrot eggs and assured me that it is far superior to nail polish. Indeed, one macaw egg with a poor quality shell was entirely coated in this fluid! It certainly corrected the porousness of the shell – and the macaw hatched. Of course, a close watch must be kept on such eggs at the pipping stage.
Regrettably, it has been necessary to reduce the parrot collection, as parrots have been the targets of thieves here. The more expensive species that were not stolen have thus gone to other collections. Nevertheless, a World Parrot Trust information board is prominently displayed along with a certificate which shows that £3,568 has been donated to the trust to date.
The one thousand plus birds of 250 species on show at Paultons and the excellent way they are displayed, in large and attractive enclosures, form one of the UK’s most interesting bird parks. The accent is firmly on reproduction over the long-term and on cooperating with other major collections. In April 2000, British zoo personnel met in the conference room within the gounds to hold their TAG (Taxon Advisory Group) meetings. Groups included those for large soft-bills, Parrots and Storks, Cranes and Ibis. It seems that Paultons will make a major contribution to the British zoo world for many years to come.