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Aviaries can be really depressing.
Concrete and wire boxes with beautifully coloured prisoners longing for the chance to fly…like the rather plain sparrows and blackbirds that taunt them from the outside...day in...day out.
The worst example of a depressed bird I can remember was in the old Dunedin Aviary in the Botanical Gardens. (Or was it Feilding?…I dunno…they are hard to tell apart). Anyway, inside a big cage was a small cage - the type you could have in your lounge with a budgie or cockatoo sitting in it. Inside the small cage sat a large bird on it’s perch with the door open. Again, I can’t remember what kind of bird it was…I just remember its depression. Sitting…staring out…too scared to leave it’s home of decades for the larger, but possibly less secure cage.
Pass the Prozac…
Palmerston North’s Esplanade Aviary is one of these old fashioned places. It has existed in its present form, with a few modifications, since 1954. Some of the cages have been “modernised” with water features and plants, but many of them haven’t and are little more than cells. This isn’t a criticism - I figure this is just the way we were. It’s a historical thing, like smoking in pubs and comb-overs.
The existing aviary was designed in 1954 and run by bird enthusiast George Russell, then an Esplanade gardener. He became Palmy’s aviary keeper, a role he, and the council, eventually passed on to his son Peter.
Peter developed the first native bird enclosures in 1992 - they were opened in 1993 and housed Kaka and Tui…in the days - not so long ago - when Tui in the city were novel.
In 1994 Peter went to the council with another idea. He was a member of conservation group Ducks Unlimited and had come across Whio on the Manganui o te Ao River on the slopes of Mount Ruapehu. He suggested the aviary develop Blue Duck and Brown Teal enclosures. He’s obviously pretty persuasive because the enclosures were opened soon after.
Things moved pretty fast as far as Peter and Whio were concerned. With the PNCC’s blessing, Peter volunteered to become Ducks Unlimited’s captive Whio breeder and in 1997 he joined the Blue Duck Recovery Group as its Captive Breeding Coordinator.
The skills from his dad and his years working at the Esplanade Aviary complemented the in-the-wild experience of the other group members. He knew how to make baby birds.
This isn’t as easy as making chickens - Whio are tricky critters. But through trial and error Peter and his team – zoos, wildlife parks and volunteers from all corners of the country - have developed working methods of breeding, feeding, then toughening the birds up for release.
Anthony Behrens doesn’t know much about metal but that
doesn’t stop him having an opinion on this offering from
Palmy band Chastisement.
Peter Russell releases the first of six young Whio into a temporary pond at the Esplanade Aviary.
Cover image: Peter Russell and a Sun Parakeet at Palmerston North’s Explanade Aviary.
All photos: Anthony Behrens
Anthony Behrens has a chat with bird man Peter Russell and meets some
of his special guests.
I went to visit Peter at his office behind the aviary the other day and wandered around what can only be described as a work yard. The place was deserted. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it didn’t look like the hub of state-of-the-art conservation technology. A place where one of the world’s rarest birds is being coaxed out of near extinction.
The area acts as a garden depot for the greater Esplanade and is a jumble of tools, sheds and glasshouses. I figured out where Peter worked when I peeked into a prefab and saw what at first looked like a pie warmer - but turned out to be an egg incubator. It was sharing a table with paper work and general office clutter.
I walked around the block, thinking that he must be at lunch, but when I arrived back Peter and one of his workmates had just pulled up in a ute - with six young Whio on the back. They’d been bred in Christchurch and were on the way up to Turangi for some “hardening”.
Hardening is a key phase in the life of a captive-bred Whio. Until the breeders discovered that hardening was necessary and do-able, the survival rate in the wild was negligible. They could breed all the birds they wanted, but they would often die of hunger and exhaustion before they even had to face the stoats.
Whio live and feed in fast water. They eat the bugs that live on the surface of rocks situated in rapids and shallow fast-moving water. The original captive bred birds just didn’t have the fitness to feed themselves and you can imagine the results. Freshly released juveniles would starve and get washed down stream. Until the recovery crew realised that they could train - or harden them - in protected areas before sending them out to fend for themselves. It seems obvious now, but this simple adaptation has meant that a bird in rapid (pun intended) decline is now making a comeback in heavily fortified (with stoat traps) areas around the country.
To help the hardening process, DoC and Genesis Energy have partnered up to make a purpose-built white-water race at the Tongariro National Trout Centre near Turangi. It’s quite an engineering feat. The Whio I was about to share a pool with were to be the first to visit a new facility that owes more to New Zealand Rowing’s elite training centre in the Waikato than any aviary I’ve ever visited.
Peter invited me into the small enclosure out the back of the aviary as he released the young birds into its shallow pool. I took a few photos, then went and interviewed him before taking a tour of the aviary. Later in the afternoon I went back into the cage by myself and sat with the birds for 20 minutes. They looked a bit worried for about thirty seconds then returned to business. Preening, swimming and trying to eat a piece of shredded office paper that was floating in the pool. Some slept. They all had a feed of the special pellets developed by Massey University, pellets that look like rabbit food, but are actually highly specialised meal originally developed for Campbell Island Teal then Brown Teal. The formula changes when breeding season starts.
Massey’s duck pellets aren’t the end of the co-operation between academia and Peter, a hands-on practitioner. The Esplanade’s grotty little aviary is about to get a 5.3 million dollar makeover. After prompting from the local Rotary group, the PNCC has partnered with Massey University Vet School to build a hardening facility of it’s own. The Wildbase Recovery Centre is designed to not only make hanging out with caged birds a whole lot less miserable, but Massey will use the centre to let injured birds regain fitness after surgery or treatment at the school across the river. Even the budgies at the redeveloped aviary will have a purpose. When there’s a new intake of students the budgies take a short trip to Massey for some practice - what better way to train a young vet in bird handling techniques than with a bunch of compliant budgies?
The current facilities at Massey aren’t much more sophisticated than Peter’s work-yard. Operations take place on a table that doubles as a feeding platform. Like Peter’s room, office clutter co-exists with important conservation work. Massey is busy upgrading its on-campus native bird treatment centre while plans for the Wildbase Recovery Centre progress.
As well as the new recovery areas, the Whio and Brown Teal enclosures will be expanded and Peter thinks he’ll probably give himself the privilege of getting some good breeders in to celebrate. His present ducks don’t really get along - they are happy together, but there’s no romance. You can lead Whio to water, but you can’t make them mate. He tends to give the happy Whio couples to other breeders so they don’t get disheartened.
It was a privilege to sit with the young Whio swimming around my feet. From a distance they look grey, but close up, they are beautifully coloured and textured.
Thanks to Peter and the six ducks, I’ve changed my view of aviaries. What I’d always thought of as a place of sadness came alive the other day. The vision of one man - with a lot of help from his father - and the adaptability of the Palmerston North City Council and Massey University has given New Zealand a good chance of saving an amazing bird from extinction.
Boot camp: Click the photograph to visit the Whio Forever website to read about the opening of the Tongariro National Trout Centre’s Whio hardening facility, where the ducks in this story became media stars.
Comfort stop: Two of the young Whio rest up at the Esplanade on their way to life in the wild.
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