Photo: Tony Tilford. King bird-of-paradise: Geoff was lucky enough to get hold of a juvenile bird for his collection
In the 1970s, Geoff Gradwell’s collection of tropical hummingbirds, honeycreepers and tanagers was getting larger by the minute, but there was still several mysterious species at the top of his list: the elusive birds-of-paradise
MANY years ago, like a lot of other birdkeepers, I used to browse through books looking at birds that one day I may be fortunate to own. No matter which publication I picked up, I always found myself returning to those fascinating, gaudy and mysterious creatures: the birds-of-paradise. I thought if I was very lucky, I might see one in a bird garden or zoo, but never imagined that one day I would be the proud owner of three different species.
The story starts in 1971 when I received a telephone call from an importer/friend Mike Clifford. He informed me that he had imported a small number of Wilson’s bird-of-paradise (Diphyllodes respublica) and knew I would be interested. (As an aside, 90 per cent of all the hummingbirds, honeycreepers and tanagers I ever owned came from Mike. He is the best importer I have ever dealt with, because he was an aviculturist first and an importer second. That is the greatest tribute I can pay him.)
I arrived at Mike’s premises in the West Midlands, only to find out that two prominent exhibitors from the West Country were already there. They had first pick and took what seemed an age to select the best-coloured, best-conditioned bird. Then it was my turn. If I remember correctly, there were half-a-dozen males. Five were in full colour and one immature. I have stated in previous articles that if given the choice, I always pick the juvenile because, in my experience, they are far easier to establish in captivity. In addition, there is no sure way to determine the age of an adult.
I left Mike’s that night with my immature bird-of-paradise and I was probably the proudest person in the world. After a while, rumours started to emerge that even though I had been given the chance of five adult Wilson’s I had picked a scruffy juvenile, so I obviously did not have a clue what I was doing. All I can say is that in the following two years my youngster, which by then was in full colour, was exhibited four times against the West Country bird and mine took best in show every time.
During the period that the Wilson’s was in my possession, I also obtained a trio of red bird-of-paradise (Paradisaea rubra) from Mike. Although their reputation is of a delicate tropical bird, they were among the easiest birds to maintain that I have owned. They ate anything that was offered (mashed Sunday lunch leftovers being a particular favourite) and roosted outside all year round, even though they had access to a heated shelter. Yet again, they were all juveniles.
In 1980, I was informed that a well-known European zoo had recently received an importation of birds from New Guinea, including three king bird-of-paradise (Cicinnurus regius) and they were willing to dispose of one. I made enquiries and found out that they had received an adult pair and a juvenile. The younger bird was surplus to requirement, but the only problem was that they could not sell it due to some local regulation. However, they could exchange it without a problem. I asked what they were looking for and they had apparently heard of the collection of hummingbirds that I owned at the time. A couple of them would seal the deal.
I informed them that would not happen and after a lot of haggling, they then said they were looking for pairs of European Union (EU)-bred lories, because they had lost a lot of imported ones due to disease. I happened to know a person in the UK who was selling all his birds, including breeding pairs of yellowish-streaked lories (Chalcopsitta scintillata) and black lories (C. atra). I purchased both pairs for the princely sum of £40 per pair, contacted the zoo and, to my surprise, they told me that they were happy to exchange those lories for the juvenile bird-of-paradise.
The problem now was how to get the lories delivered into mainland Europe and my bird-of-paradise back to the UK. Luck was on my side when I contacted a local haulage company that informed me they had a delivery in a couple of weeks in the same city where the zoo was situated. If the driver was happy to take the birds and bring mine back, then they had no problem. So for two pairs of lories, which cost me £80 and £20 to the driver, I eventually received my king bird-of-paradise.
My better half, who incidentally loves the birds as much as I do, has often said that the crazy things we do for a hobby, we would not entertain for a living.
Geoff Gradwell is the secretary of the Scottish Bengalese Fanciers Association.
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