Photo: Laura Keens.  One man’s achievements: Bernard has an impressive egg collection numbering 60,000, as well as a collection of stuffed birds and skins. He is pictured here in his library that contains about 8,000 ornithological books

 

Last week, Bernard Sayers recalled his early years in birdkeeping. Here he describes his ground-breaking owl loan project and urges birdkeepers: become a collector and help to preserve your hobby. All photos by Laura Keens

 

I DISCUSSED my owl-loaning idea with potential caretakers and the response was enthusiastic, so I started the programme. During the following years, I spent much time making shipping crates, driving to airports at all hours, taking owls to quarantine facilities and dealing with mountains of paperwork and permits.

It brought results: at the peak, I had more than 150 pairs of owls out on breeding loan. Alas! How naïve I was. A few of the recipients behaved impeccably and complied with the loan agreement, but most did not. In many cases, I never heard of the owls again. Once again, my attempt to make a beneficial impact in the field of aviculture had failed.

My best success has been with the southern boobook owl (Ninox boobook). In 1972, I received four birds of three bloodlines and these bred for the first time in 1974. The Avicultural Society awarded me a medal for the first UK breeding. I have bred this lovely owl every year since, rearing a total of more than 200 – all parent-reared. By careful management of the gene pool, I have sent out many genetically strong pairs. Indeed, much of the population in European collections descend from my four founder birds.

The value of ‘discards’

Throughout my life, I have striven to make a positive contribution to aviculture. For nearly half a century, I have been involved in an associated activity of which I am very proud. During visits to natural history museums, I was fascinated by the exhibits and fully recognised their value as a reference resource. Counter to this, I am appalled by the destruction of wildlife that has provided this material. Captive birds and eggs that fail to hatch are also valuable reference material that is usually discarded. Surely it should be preserved?

In the early 1970s, I suggested to Dr Colin Harrison, then curator of the Oological Department (for eggs) at the Natural History Museum (NHM), that the museum should make use of material discarded by aviculturists. He explained that they already did so on a limited scale, but did not have sufficient staff to do more.

So, in 1972, I started my reference collections of bird skins and, most importantly, eggs. I circulated requests to all my friends in zoos and with private collections for eggs that failed to hatch and birds that died in good condition that would otherwise be discarded. I would drive long distances to collect these.

A collection with a future

Limitations of space and time for preparation restricted the size of my skin collection, but I now have about 50 cases of mounted birds and a few hundred skins. But the egg collection extends to more than 60,000, representing 2,000 species and subspecies. Many of these are rare or even absent from the major UK museum collections.

I have quite a comprehensive collection of parrot eggs, which, in many cases, would be difficult to collect from the wild.
I have more than 500 crane eggs, lacking only one species. Most species and subspecies of pheasant, duck and goose are represented. I have all species of pelican and swan – and many more. I am proud of the fact that these collections have been assembled without destroying a single viable egg or killing a bird – and nothing has been taken from the wild.

The egg collection of the NHM is one of the biggest and best in the world, and about ten times the size of mine, which is the second best in the UK. To ensure its long-term preservation, it is formally bequeathed to University Museum of Zoology Cambridge (Cambridge Natural History Museum to the locals), which is one of the best in the country and maintained by the University of Cambridge. My collections will be of lasting value to authors, students and researchers. So eventually, my perseverance was rewarded and I found my raison d’être. Perhaps my reference collections will be of use for many centuries to come!

Now, I come to the punchline of this article. I would ask breeders of non-domesticated birds never to discard potential reference material. Form a relationship with a university or a museum, do as I did, and start your own collection. If you do, you will learn a lot, derive a great deal of satisfaction and leave a valuable legacy to science. ■

 

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