Excerpts from the Penguin Millionaire - The Story of Birdland

by Len HILL and Emma WOOD published in 1976.

(Website editor: I first visited Birdland at Bourton-on-the-Water in the Cotswolds in the early eighties. It was there that I saw free-flying macaws for the first time as well as two rather elderly female Lear's Macaws. Birdland was set up in the five acre grounds of a Tudor manor house called Chardwar by Len Hill in June 1957. Both the manor house and the village in which it stood were enchanting. Following Len's death the birdpark moved in 1988 to a nearby location and is well worth a visit if any website visitors are in the area. The two Hyacinthine macaws, Leah and Mac, became famous, particularly through the photograph of them at the entrance of their gothic residence taken by Franz Lazi, which became a trademark for Birdland. Len was determined the macaws should live at liberty and spent considerable time in developing techniques to make this possible as well as demonstrating great dedication and patience.)

Page 37

We give all the birds a name which is used constantly when calling and feeding so that gradually, like a dog, the bird will answer to that name and a relationship can then be built up. This establishment of personality and trust was an essential step in our plans to let the birds fly free. From the start I determined that the birds of Birdland should be at liberty as far as possible, to live unconstrained in a habitat very different from their native one. Now the birds respond when I call, ranging free during the day and coming home to sleep at night.

Such freedom is the result of years of training and constant patience. In the early days we allowed just two birds to go free, the blue and gold macaws Charlie and Ann. As soon as the birds responded to their names we took a piece of wood, two feet long and some two inches in diameter, suitably gnarled for claws to grasp and taught them to recognise then come to this stick, of which more later. We then released these two in the garden where they were later joined by another pair of macaws Jack and Sheba.

Naturally the birds would not remain in the garden at first and we experienced many sleepless nights rounding them up from miles away. There are many distractions in the area of Bourton, any one of which could startle the macaws to take flight. When undisturbed, the birds simply fly around in circles, anti-clockwise. This seems to be some unwritten law of nature, for you may notice that bath-water runs out of the plug-hole in exactly the same way and runner beans twine round their sticks this way too. Any sudden noise, such as a car backfiring or a gunshot, straightaway disturbs the birds into taking flight, always in the direction in which they are facing. Being close to an air base with the constant noise of low-flying aircraft, not to mention lakes at either end of the village which attracted swans in spring, we had hardly a day in those early years when we didn't have to fetch back at least one errant inhabitant.

Macaws are very sensible birds, of immense longevity, and it seems as if real common sense has been inbred in them throughout the ages. The hyacinth macaws Leah and Mac, which are almost our trademark, behaved so well when first set free to join the birds already out that we had little difficulty in finding all of them at the day's end. If either one of the pair was out of the garden then the other would spend the hours flying out to the spot and back, out and back, so that we were able to ascertain, within a certain distance, where the other birds were. Sometimes, if it was foggy, or dark, the liberty macaws might have flown beyond calling distance so that they were more difficult to locate: a macaw can pick up sounds from two miles away, quite easily, but often they flew even beyond this range.

It was on such nights that we had to employ `operation birdlift'. Neighbours obviously thought us mad, setting out at dusk with an old estate car full of poles, food and a trap cage to bring back errant birds, but most people were very helpful in ringing up to let us know that they had sighted the birds.

An essential part of our equipment was that little stick on to which the birds had been trained to fly, in the middle of which had been fixed a screw. We also carried a series of six-foot rods, rather like those used by old-fashioned chimney sweeps which joined onto each other and finally fitted into the thread in the centre of the gnarled stick. By assembling the poles we could `climb' fifty feet or more up trees in search of the birds. The rods would be wiggled, very carefully, through the foliage, until they came to within a yard of so of the macaw. Perched aloft, in an alien landscape, perhaps a bit insecure and certainly somewhat sleepy, the bird would suddenly see a familiar object in front of it, often holding a dainty chocolate morsel. `Hello, there's my little stick' it would think, then hop onto the wooden `perch', to be lowered safely and popped into the trap cage.

Not every rescue was so easy however, as often a bough would break or some other noise disturb the night air, and off the bird would fly to land miles away, possibly in an even more inaccessible place. So we began the whole process again... and again... and again... and many's the time I've been out all     night rounding up the miscreants. Yet we have never lost a bird in the garden's history. Some have been purloined by the unscrupulous, but they are always returned safely. Luckily Birdland is so well known in the area that anyone suddenly producing an unusual bird is very quickly reported back to us and, in the same way, any exotic bird found `out of bounds' as it were is soon back in the garden. It gives me great pleasure to feel that the establishing of mutual confidence between man and bird which has enabled these creatures to fly free is a correct step along the road towards wildlife preservation and conservation.

Birdland stars(Page 116)

The free-flying macaws possibly attract the most attention in the garden, partly by their gaudy plumage and partly because of their distinctive personalities. Charlie and Ann the blue and gold macaws were as described earlier the first of the garden birds to be set at liberty. Originating from the Amazon, these striking birds are extremely gregarious and their piercing yells can be heard all over Birdland.

Charlie and Ann live in an acacia tree, a place seldom visited by the hyacinth macaws, Leah and Mac, who seem to prefer a somewhat grandiose style of Gothic architecture for their home, as shown in the colour photograph opposite page 35. The hyacinths are reputed to be the cleverest and most sensible birds of this family, which is certainly the case with these two. Conceited and exhibitionist, Leah and Mac are also very loyal, both to each other and to me.

I obtained the pair from a zoo, which wished to dispose of them as Leah had bitten a keeper's finger so hard that she had broken a bone. This was a little off-putting but I believed that she would come round with a little affection and, when I went to have a look at the birds, I was introduced to Mac, the more docile of the two, so I decided there and then to purchase them.

Unfortunately, I was quite unable to begin to try to gain the birds' confidence as Leah developed pneumonia as soon as she arrived at Birdland. She had been confined to very dark quarters and, despite the fact that we put her through the usual acclimatisation process, she became very ill, possibly through shock.

Leah refused to eat and seemed determined simply to fade away. Upsetting as this was for us, it was even more unsettling for Mac, as marriages between hyacinth macaws last for years, often a lifetime, and he too became disgruntled. Apart from putting Leah in a warm place I was at loss as to how I might save her. Eventually I asked the advice of my old friend Reg Partridge, the man who has given me more help than anyone else in the bird world. He recommended that I feed her on ash bark, apparently a most nutritious food. It has been proved that, in extremely cold spells, when rabbits cannot obtain any other food from the frozen earth, they exist for long periods on ash bark alone. I fed this to Leah and, amazingly, in three months she was completely recovered. I was almost as grateful as Mac for this and the three of us have since remained devoted friends.

 These two recognise my footsteps even from the other side of the garden and let out their raucous call of recognition. Then they come to find me, tip-toeing along like two old ladies on an outing. As soon as we spy each other we stand and stare to see who will make the first move. `Hello there, hello there,' says Mac with his head on one side, then starts waddling along the ground towards me at a great rate. I extend my foot slightly and he steps on the toe, climbs straight up my leg and on to my shoulder, saying `Ah, ah' and delighting in the attention.

Leah and Mac often accompany me on gate duty for an hour or so until they become bored. As anyone who has seen our `Birdland Story' film will know, these two are always up to mischief, frequently going `out of bounds' as they have such curious natures. They often raid the other birds' food and are not averse to nipping a button from a visitor's coat if it attracts them. Extremely intelligent, they have supremely heightened senses, acting as a built-in early warning system for the rest of the garden's inhabitants. If a predator, such as a buzzard, or even a lone seagull flies over, just a speck in the sky hardly distinguishable to the human eye, then one of the macaws will spot it immediately and let out its deafening alarm call.

Page 142

Occasionally, in the evenings, we have meetings in our lecture hall for talks, film shows or just sociable get-togethers for our Friends of Birdland organisation and other naturalist trusts. But, whatever the occasion, John or I always make sure                that the birds are put away safely for the night before any festivities begin. It's extraordinary how they know when it's time to go to bed. Birds live a much more routine life than we do and, once accustomed to a certain pattern, will never change it.

The macaws, for instance,1ive in converted barrels in the trees, just ordinary beer and wine barrels, exactly the right size for keeping their inhabitants snug and warm. The barrels never need cleaning out by us as birds never make a mess in their own home. In fact, although they may seem messy to people who don't understand them, birds are extremely clean creatures. They always have the sense to `spend a penny' before going on a long flight, and will only mess their cages if they are not let out. I devised an easy method of keeping the macaws safe in their barrels which they could control as much as man. 0ver the entrance hole we placed a sort of miniature portcullis, made of strong wire, which the birds can lift up and down with their beaks. At night time, into their barrels they go and, almost like pulling across the bedroom curtains, they grip the wire in their strong teeth and pull it down, as if to bid goodnight . We simply click a little latch in place to secure this door, then the birds are safe and sound until the latch is opened the next morning.

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 " Naturam expellas furca, tamen usque recurret "

( If you drive out nature with a pitchfork, she will soon find a way back)

Horace (65-8 BC)