A plea for wildfowl
A conservation challenge, from the British Watetrfowl Association
In the space of a few generations many species of wildfowl have all but disappeared from captivity, and this does not reflect well on our management techniques. We need to act now to prevent some species disappearing from captivity completely along with the knowledge of their proper husbandry.
Some would argue that this does not matter and will have no impact on wild populations and indeed, for most, this may be the case. Rightly or wrongly, our forebears went to great lengths, and in some cases significant personal risk, to collect founding stock from around the world to enhance their menageries, impress friends and satisfy the Victorian fashion of collecting anything and everything. At that time, the impact and pressure on wild populations by collecting flora and fauna was disregarded. In subsequent generations, with significantly increasing human populations and our consumption of natural resources, it became apparent that some wild populations could no longer sustain the additional pressures caused by the continued capture of wild specimens. Forward-looking individuals questioned the exploitation of our natural resources and the ethical considerations.
With the adoption of CITES and the subsequent restrictions on trade in wild fauna, we need to conserve the stock that our forebears provided us with or lose the opportunity to work with some species completely. The experience gained in aviculture has been of great benefit to conservation where habitats are under threat. So do we risk losing knowledge about a species that will become threatened in the future?
Numerous clubs and societies have been formed over the years to help individuals share knowledge and improve management techniques to assist with the maintenance of viable populations. Indeed the Avicultural Society that is still in existence today is one of, if not the oldest society in existence, having been formed in 1894. One of the fundamental aims of this society was to circulate information to members by the ‘penny post’, recognising that members lived too far apart to hold meetings, the normal way of sharing information at the time. The Avicultural Society still tries to cater for a membership that maintains any avian species in captivity and produces informative magazines and arranges
various social events so that members can exchange ideas and management techniques.
In more recent times, groups have been formed to satisfy the specific interest of keeping ducks, geese and swans (wildfowl) in captivity. Possibly the most famous wildfowl-specific organisation is the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust (WWT) that was originally known as the Wildfowl Trust, founded by Sir Peter Scott. In the early days the Wildfowl Trust maintained the largest captive collection of wildfowl in the world and a visit to their headquarters at Slimbridge would provide an opportunity to study the numerous different species of wildfowl. Understandably WWT has, over the years, evolved into a very successful conservation body with a focus on habitat protection and now primarily maintains key species that help fulfill this goal. The conservation of many species that WWT would previously have helped conserve in captivity now falls to some zoos and wildlife parks, and primarily with private individuals.
This changing emphasis on how we keep birds sees a new flow of information. Social media, such as Facebook is readily accessible to anyone wishing to connect with other breeders. WWT and other zoological establishments continue to offer breeding, housing and rearing advice on a daily basis to private individuals. In the UK, the British Waterfowl Association (BWA) is a leading organisation that helps individuals work together to conserve the legacy that our forbears have left. Improving welfare standards and promoting the protection of habitats continues to be a key focus. Membership provides individuals with access to a pool of knowledge that is readily shared at various social events held during the year. County representatives help support the grassroots membership; also there are regular magazines, a Breeder Directory and access to an informative website.
Maintaining wildfowl as a hobby in the UK is still very popular. With the diverse range of species available it is possible for the hobbyist to find a species that will thrive in a wide range of facilities that might range from a substantial lake to a small artificial pool. Most available species have been maintained in captivity over numerous generations and adapt very well to being enclosed and given the right facilities will breed readily. Indeed, some species breed so successfully in captivity that this may even be one of the reasons why some species lose popularity. This may appear to be a contradiction of terms but the basic principles of supply and demand determine the price and there is often a reluctance to buy on a falling market. This may then leave the hobbyist with limited resources or space to either stop keeping that species or no longer let them breed in subsequent seasons. Without studbook facilities, the longterm viability of a species relies on many breeders all producing small numbers of offspring to provide the best opportunity of maintaining a genetically viable population.
Today there are various feed manufacturers that produce specific waterfowl diets, indeed there are not just generic waterfowl diets; it is now possible to get diets for specific groups of waterfowl. Again this greatly improves the chances of breeding a given species and with the improved diets, species that were only rarely breed in the past are now being produced with relative ease. It gives hobbyists a greater chance of breeding what were once very challenging species and this then also impacts the value of such species and makes them more readily available.
With successive generations of waterfowl becoming easier to breed, we have seen a remarkable levelling of prices. Many of the more challenging species also happen to be some of the more spectacular. Twenty years ago these were rarely produced and consequently commanded substantial values that kept them out of the reach of most aviculturists. Significant wealth or brilliant avicultural skills were the only way that these rarer species could be obtained.
In recent times we have seen the price differential between the common and rare wildfowl significantly narrowed and the
We need to act now to prevent some species disappearing from captivity completely
rarer species now fall into a range that makes them available to most aviculturists. To illustrate, take a pair of Harlequin Ducks – Histrionius histrionicus. Twentyfive years ago these changed hands for around £10k. That was a fortune - you could buy a house for this. Today it is possible to buy a pair for not much over £1,000; that makes them affordable to a higher proportion of aviculturists. This has had a notable and possibly detrimental impact on many of the once considered common species of wildfowl. Indeed, many of the species that were once rare now significantly outnumber some of the once common species. Many of the Arctic or seaducks are very spectacular and these once rare birds are now being consistently produced by many breeders, making them readily available. While still expensive, they now have a cost that is affordable to many. Instead of taking many breeding seasons to perhaps be in a position to obtain these, it is now possible to move from a collection of the beginner species to those that were once very rare and expensive in a season or two. Obviously we are all free to dispose of our income as we see fit, but by moving from recognised beginner species to the mega species we are forgetting about the intermediate species, and these are now becoming very rare and in some cases no longer available. As aviculturists we often justify our hobby by referring to our skills of breeding birds in captivity that might one day help with the conservation of a species in the wild, as was the case in the past with the Ne Ne or Hawaiian Goose – Branta sandvicensis.
Today’s captive populations may not be good enough to re-introduce to the wild, but they exist in captivity to perpetuate the skillset and as a source of inspiration. They also exist to help prevent future illegal collection.
Once common species
The list of once common species that have now almost disappeared from captive collections is difficult to define and varies from country to country. For instance, where apart from WWT might you see large groups of Sharp-winged Teal – Anas flavirostris oxyptera or Chilean Pintail - Anas georgica spinicauda? East Indian Grey Teal – Anas gibberifrons are commonly kept in the US but how many are there here? Sadly the list is very long and we need to actively seek out examples of these species and really make an effort to breed them and encourage fellow hobbyists to also keep them too. Where numbers become low, care must be taken to ensure that the remaining stock does not suffer from inbreeding. This will be difficult, but when buying stock we should try to get birds that are unrelated, or buy a related pair and then try and locate other breeders and arrange an exchange. The BWA produces an annual Breeder Directory and also has a For Sale and Wanted section on the website. These are good places to try and locate unrelated stock.
Many of the species that are in decline do not compare with Mandarins – Aix galericulata, Carolinas – Aix sponsa, Harlequin - Histrionius histrionicus or King Eider – Somateria spectabilis in terms of stunning plumage but most species have other attributes that can be equally appealing to the observant aviculturist. Please consider including one or two of the less popular species in your collection and work with them so that we can ensure that they are available for future generations.
* Roger Cattermole, author of this article, has been involved with the breeding many different species of wildfowl for much of his life. He has a private collection, Norfolk Wildfowl. He says: “My aim is to create gardens that have a different dimension with the wildfowl that creates a more environmentally complete picture. There are many waterfowl collections and even more stunning gardens but there are very few instances where the two are combined.” MORE: http://norfolkwildfowl.co.uk/ * Find out more about the British Waterfowl Association at www.waterfowl.org.uk
A male Mandarin
ABOVE: A pair of African Pygmy Geese LEFT: A male Indian Pygmy Goose BELOW: A Javan Whistling Duck
A Spectacled Eider chased by a Mandarin