Photo: © Calculated risk: Geoff bought 10 unidentified juvenile flowerpeckers, two of which moulted out to be scarlet-breasted


Geoff Gradwell has been lucky to have kept some unusual and rare species during his time in aviculture. He recalls some encounters that have stuck in his mind


OVER the years I have owned a few unusual birds, but the strangest one by far was a species that came into my possession in 1969. The story starts with a telephone call from an acquaintance of my dad who was a budgerigar exhibitor living about three miles from us. He went to Holland on a regular basis to bring back pet budgies and lovebirds to sell in the UK.

Dad’s friend had been offered three birds at a knockdown price, because the dealer in Holland realised that they were softbills and were too much like hard work. He purchased them and then decided they were not what he wanted, so we were offered all three for the princely sum of £5. These were a yellow-headed blackbird (Xanthocephalus xanthocephalus), a wattled starling (Creatophora cinerea) and a bird that we were told was a “bald crow”. They were all unusual, so we purchased them. The blackbird was sold because it was too aggressive, but the other two birds were kept.

The “crow” was released into a mixed aviary and watched closely for any sign of aggression. A bird that was the size of a British jay could have done some serious damage had it wished to do so, but in the nine years that it was with us you could not wish for a more peaceful creature.

It had a few characteristics that I had never observed in any other species I had kept. It would sweep the aviary floor with its bill in a sideways motion (reminiscent of a flamingo), hunting for insects, but it basically ate anything that was offered. In the aviary, we had a shallow pond and a small waterfall, and the bald crow would spend most of its time in that area. We kept it for nine years until one day we found it dead in the aviary, but because it showed no sign of injury or illness, we assumed that old age had taken its toll.

I forgot about it until the late 1980s when I purchased a West African field guide. As I was browsing through it, I saw a plate of the bird that had died about 15 years previously – it was not a bald crow, but a white-necked rockfowl (Picarthartes gymnocephalus), also known as a yellow-headed picathartes. I made a few enquiries with friends and was informed that a picathartes was virtually unknown in captivity and it was then possibly the only specimen that had ever been kept by a private aviculturalist in the UK.

In the wild, they apparently nest and spend a lot of time in caves near running water, so that would explain its liking for our pond
and waterfall. They say that truth is sometimes stranger than fiction, but this bird started its journey in West Africa, found its way to Holland and was then sold to a person who lived on the south side of the River Tyne. He then sold it to me on the north side of the same river, three miles apart. In 1971, I received a telephone call from a dealer in southern England who thought that he was the fountain of all knowledge regarding birds (I soon realised that he was not.) He had a reputation for being a little unscrupulous if he thought that he could get away with it and offered me an unidentified tanager for a substantial price. I told him I would have it, so he agreed to send it by rail. When the bird arrived, I opened the box to be greeted, not by a tanager, but a female Rhodospingus finch – and I already had four pairs of those.

I contacted him and told him that we would return it a couple of weeks later on our way to the National Exhibition and received profuse apologies for the inconvenience caused. We arrived at his premises on the Friday night to be greeted by a cage full of Rhodospingus finches and I started to think then that he knew exactly what he had sent.

I was slightly annoyed that he would believe that I was so gullible, so when I was offered a cage of small softbills that he could not identify for a ridiculously low price, I bought them. I knew that they were juvenile flowerpeckers, but was not sure of the species because they were virtually identical.

When they moulted into adult plumage, I ended up with five orange-bellied (Dicaeum trigonostigma), two scarlet-backed (D. cruentatum) and three scarlet-breasted flowerpeckers (Prionochilus thoracicus). If he had not tried his luck with the unidentified tanager, I would have told him that they were flowerpeckers and he could have sold them for a lot more than I’d paid!


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


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