Green-crowned brilliant (above): the rich umber throat indicates that this is an immature bird, probably a male © Prosicky


These jewel-coloured flower-kissers captured the heart of the youthful GEOFF GRADWELL and he has remained smitten 

Of all the birds that I have kept over the years the two families which have given me the most pleasure and success, both from an exhibition point of view and being able to establish difficult species, are sunbirds and hummingbirds. But if I had to choose one it would be the hummingbirds.

My fascination with these birds started in the late 1960s when I was able to observe some at a show I was competing at. I made my mind up to research the family so that I might have a better chance to establish them if I was ever lucky enough to own any. Over the next few months, I read and reread any and all literature I could get my hands on; 80 per cent seemed to be totally irrelevant to what I was hoping to achieve, but the other 20 per cent was (and to this day still is) mentally stored and became my building blocks to keeping and establishing hummingbirds.

Converted greenhouses

In the early 1970s I was given the opportunity to purchase a few hummingbirds and decided that I must have somewhere suitable to house them. Luckily, my dad knew someone connected to a teacher training college and after a short discussion I was given the opportunity to house the birds in two 9m (30ft) greenhouses which were full of tropical plants. The greenhouses were situated in a courtyard which had 12.2-15.25m (40-50ft) walls on all four sides, so security was not an issue.

Another potential problem was anticipated by finding the geological area that each bird came from (temperature, altitude, temperate or tropical) because in the past I have witnessed many hummingbirds being lost when birds that came from dry, cool conditions high in the Andes were unable to adapt to the high, moist temperatures that the owner assumed they needed. These situations reinforced for me that it was imperative that every bird needed to be researched before purchase.

Easy for starters

I decided that I would concentrate on what were then considered the easier-to-establish species, even though I believed then, and still do today, that anyone who considers that any hummingbird is simple to establish should be considered deluded. I purchased a sparkling violetear (Colibri coruscans) and a tourmaline sunangel (Heliangelus exortis). These birds were fed on a diet consisting of a protein powder called Super Hydramin which was manufactured in the USA, torula yeast, Minamino compound, granulated bee pollen and cane sugar.

There were a couple of other products, namely Stimulite and Gevral, which other fanciers used, but I found that Super Hydramin suited my birds best and that was all that mattered. They also had access to unlimited fruit flies but I found that if the birds took a real liking for the nectar offered, the intake of fruit flies decreased dramatically. 

When I kept my first hummingbirds there were two or three other fanciers who were specialising in these birds, but I soon found out that anyone who had a different opinion to theirs was not accepted. Some friends of mine did not help by letting these experts know that if they required a lesson in keeping hummingbirds, there was a teenager in the North-East who would be happy to oblige (said without my knowledge, I hasten to add). 

Share and share alike?

I spoke to one of the fanciers in question a few years ago, shortly before he died. He admitted that their behaviour had been totally unacceptable and that if they had been less dictatorial and shared information a lot of the more difficult hummingbirds could have been established with a lot less distress, both to the keeper and the bird.

I decided to keep the two hummingbirds that I had purchased separate for a couple of weeks until I knew that they had settled and were feeding well; also when I had made my mind up whether to keep them at home or take advantage of the two greenhouses. I finally decided to keep the greenhouses up my sleeve for something more exotic and delicate that may appear in the future. After a few weeks, I tried to introduce the violetear and sunangel together in a large indoor enclosure, but found the latter so aggressive that they had to be separated almost immediately.

As a matter of interest, the sunangel was introduced into an outside aviary of assorted softbills that summer and persecuted a golden-fronted leafbird (Chloropsis aurifrons) to such an extent that the leafbird, which must have been 10 times the size of the sunangel, had to be removed, or I am certain it would have perished. 

Sweet life with a mango

A few months later I had the opportunity to purchase a black-throated mango hummingbird (Anthracothorax nigricollis) and a green-fronted lancebill (Doryfera ludovicae). This proved to be one of the best decisions that I ever made because both birds were a pleasure to keep, problem free to establish, non aggressive and virtually unbeatable in the show cage. I would exhibit the lancebill at one exhibition and take the top award, leave her (it was a female) at home for the next exhibition and take the best in show with the mango.

Over the next year or so a few more hummingbirds were added to the collection, which included a green-crowned brilliant (Heliodoxa jacula), green-crowned woodnymph (Thalurania colombica fannyi) and long-tailed sylph (Aglaiocercus kingii). The mango, lancebill and sylph were able to live together in relative harmony but the others had to be kept separately because they were so belligerent. After keeping these birds at home for a year or so I decided that I would look for more exotic hummingbirds and make use of the greenhouses – and that is another story.

Geoff Gradwell’s entry on the NCA’s Roll of Honour cites his knowledge of softbills and nectar feeders (especially hummingbirds) by which he found ways to establish birds that were previously impossible to keep.

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