Photo: © PedrozoBrassy-breasted tanager (Tangara desmaresti): a species Geoff has kept and had success with at bird shows


When Geoff Gradwell took a liking to the charismatic members of the tanager family, it was the start of a decades-long adventure with these avian stars, as he got to grips with the challenges of management – and in particular, their diet


I HAVE always had a very keen interest in the tanager family (Tangaridae), especially the smaller species. While they are among the most colourful birds in the world, they can be fascinating and extremely frustrating in equal measure.

The first tanager I owned was a speckled tanager (Tangara guttata) and my experience with this bird shaped my future views towards the entire family. My dad and I, along with a fellow fancier, found ourselves in the summer of 1968 at a well-known importer’s in the Nuneaton area late at night waiting for a shipment of South American birds to be delivered. This was in pre-quarantine days when birds could be purchased on arrival in the UK.

When they arrived, the boxes were opened in an indoor aviary and the birds came out of the boxes in their own time. My dad and the other fancier picked out individuals that were in full colour albeit, understandably, exhausted, but I watched a tattered bird that came out the box. Within a couple of minutes it had bathed to such an extent that it could not fly. I decided that immature speckled tanager was coming home with me.

My reasoning was that if the first instinct of the bird was to clean itself, then it had a strong will to survive. And the theory was proved correct, because over the next few years that bird took best foreign bird awards that went into double figures and was the only survivor of a shed fire. Even though I could have sold him on numerous occasions for up to 10 times his purchase price (which, incidentally, was £2), no amount of money could have persuaded me to sell. He died in my aviary in 1977.

I noticed other fanciers’ experiences with tanagers and the majority of losses concerned adult birds. I decided that I would only obtain immature individuals, because I believed that they were far more adaptable to change, while adult birds actually resented change to the point of premature death. That obsession for immature birds was carried into hummingbirds, sunbirds and most species that I have kept over the years.

Feeding the tanagers caused a few problems for me, but over a couple of years I devised a regime which I applied with success. Although this was time-consuming, it benefited the birds, which should always be the main priority. I personally have never understood fanciers who purchase birds for vast sums of money and then feed them on the cheapest food available.

A lot of tanagers, including some of my own, were lost due to severe digestive problems. I came to the conclusion that any fruit (especially pears) was starting to ferment in the birds’ stomach. Furthermore, a lot of the nectars that the birds had access to were milk-based and if these were fed with orange, this caused the milk to curdle inside the bird.

I decided to exclude any fruit that could possibly ferment and cut out orange completely. The diet I came up with was such a complete success that I bred with birds that had previously shown no inclination to nest. It was also fed to all softbills and seedeaters from that day on, and the difference in the health and vigour of all my birds was almost miraculous.

I made up a concoction of flour, sugar and butter (crumble mix) to which equal measures of finely minced ox-heart and grated carrot and cheese were added. This was fed first thing in the morning and then removed at lunchtime, because I was worried that the ox-heart might go sour. It was then replaced with the same crumble mix to which apple, grape, tomato, cheese, sweetcorn and peas were added.

The interesting thing is that when the birds were on a fruit diet, livefood consumption was immense, but when they were placed on the crumble mix, the livefood intake diminished massively. This led me to believe that there was more than enough food value in the diet they were on. Obviously, when breeding, livefood was taken a lot more, because chicks had to be fed.

In the 1970s, I managed to breed a number of tanagers, namely golden- hooded (T. larvata), blue-necked (T. cyanicollis) and turquoise (T. mexicana). There were near-misses with golden (T. arthus), silver-throated (T. icterocephala) and blue-naped chlorophonia (Chlorophonia cyanea).

The chlorophonias, of which I had three species, namely the blue-naped, yellow-collared (C. flavirostris) and chestnut-breasted (C. pyrrhophyrs), were among the most unpredictable birds that I ever owned. They could look in perfect health one minute and be ill the next. Those were the birds that made me look seriously at the fruit diet that I was using at the time. However, once they were placed on the crumble mix diet they showed the greatest improvement in the shortest time.

I did not keep a lot of the larger tanagers but the ones I did were a challenge in a different way. The fact that, in most cases, they came from a higher altitude meant they required a lot more careful attention. I think the fact that they came from a thinner oxygen area down to sea level caused unseen problems until they had adapted to the conditions. They were also a lot more interested in livefood (which, for them, included small birds) than the smaller tanagers were.

Geoff Gradwell is the secretary of the Scottish Bengalese Fanciers Association.


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