‘I’ve started, so I’ll finish’ was not a phrase in the vocabulary of BILL NAYLOR’s one-time boss Digby, for whom tropical houses were places of perpetual potential, inhabited by distinctly non-tropical residents

BIRD park owner Digby Pugh always had several projects on the go. But few were finished and his bird park was in a permanent state of partial completion.

Digby was impressed with how some zoos had placed public viewing windows in food-preparation facilities. People are amazed at the variety of food provided for birds in captivity and viewing windows are still popular with the public. But birdkeeping staff vary in their response to an audience who hardly glance at aviaries but are fascinated by bananas being sliced.

I found some birdkeepers hated being watched and muttered and glared, sometimes violently attacking the fruit they are dicing. Others enjoyed the attention and hammed it up, tossing fruit in the air like cocktail barmen and taking a bow when a dish of diced fruit had been prepared.

Digby installed a large viewing window in the wall of a building he planned to convert into a food preparation room and put in large fluorescent lights. As he juggled and shelved projects, this new room still remained the seed store. Members of the public who peered into the viewing window would usually find Joshua, Digby’s oldest, scruffiest and laziest birdkeeper, perched on a pile of birdseed sacks, a rolled-up cigarette hanging from his bottom lip, staring back at them with a toothless smile.

As he was seated under what appeared to be a spotlight, the viewers waited in anticipation for the show to start. It went something like this: Joshua would slowly finish his cigarette, scratch his nether regions, hoist a sack of seed on his back, and exit the room. Not exactly compulsive viewing. Digby’s top priority was to transform a large overgrown Victorian palm house into “The Jungle Experience”. The only exhibit so far was a newly constructed flamingo pond, excavated by an over- enthusiastic Digby on his new digger. Unfortunately, on entering their new pond the pink birds were forced to extend their wings and do a frantic dog paddle, since the pond was deep enough to accommodate dolphins.

Digby fantasised about the palm house being a display of free-flying toucans, turacos, pittas, fruit pigeons, crowned pigeons and condors. (Digby had a thing about condors.) Chester Zoo had just brought out a range of zoo signs with hand-painted illustrations of birds and other animals, complete with the scientific name and map of their country of origin. They were popular and a number of zoos adopted them for their collections. Digby bought signs for birds he planned to acquire.

But “The Jungle Experience” would become yet another stalled project. Three times daily sprinklers reproduced torrential rain in the palm house and nobody knew how to turn them off. When the sun appeared, the temperature soared. For some reason this surprised Digby. “The heat is overpowering in this place,” he’d say. “It’s like a greenhouse.”

Ventilation meant opening the apex of the roof which was jammed slightly ajar with rambling plants. Even if the roof was made operable and meshed over, there was still the issue of winter heating. This relied on radiators fed from an ancient boiler, which would have cost a fortune to run, and when operating moved around the cellar like a Dalek. Nature continued to nurture the palm house. Despite the “tropical bird” signs, the only birds were native interlopers. The flamingo pellets attracted blackbirds, starlings and squirrels, and they pulled in collared doves, robins, hedge sparrows and wrens. Crows, despite their intelligence, never figured out the bird entrance was in the roof and peered in at ground level, frustrated they’d been barred.

Other birds treated the palm house as their second home. Blue tits, spotted flycatchers, whitethroats and song thrushes nested in jasmine and other abundant climbing plants. A pair of moorhens (probably released in there) eventually had to be evicted. They nested near the flamingo pond and became aggressively territorial, constantly chasing the flamingos from the water.

Joshua was relieved “The Jungle Experience” wouldn’t become fully operational. It meant he could potter around in the palm house, growing his tomatoes and tending his chickens (which he had convinced Digby were junglefowl).

The few members who ventured inside “The Jungle Experience” without machetes had to scramble through the dense thicket covering the overgrown pathway. They might discover Joshua, spread-eagled on his deckchair, snoozing in his grey underwear. Or even spot a bird: “Oh look! That tropical bird is similar to our British blackbird!”

Exhausted visitors after almost being strangled by a variety of Triffid-like plants, and drenched by the sprinklers, would eventually reach the other end of the palm house and be confronted by a sign: WE HOPE YOU HAVE ENJOYED THE JUNGLE EXPERIENCE. TO EXIT, PLEASE RETURN TO THE ENTRANCE.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.

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