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Aviary design really hasn't changed very much since the Ming Dynasty, when the Chinese used the aviaries for pheasants in their formal gardens. We still use the basic six sided box or cube with variations on this theme. Although materials have most certainly changed, and the shape has most certainly appeared in a variety of forms, the aviary is just the start of the containment. For obvious reasons it must have six sides; anything less and the birds have a nasty habit of leaving! I'd like to discuss not so much the material, location, or shape of the aviary, but the aviary itself from the birds' point of view.
Most aviaries are designed first and foremost for the human keeper and secondarily for the birds. We hear a great deal about convenience and health and safety. These factors are very important but more for our own needs and not always the birds'. We do not hear very much about what is a stable environment for the birds. We seem to have a bad habit of putting birds into a small containment. Irrespective of the size of the aviary it is a small containment compared with what they are accustomed to in their natural habitat. The aviary is also reasonably bare in comparison to the natural environment.
On many occasions I have heard people say this male Goffin or that male Sulphur Crested is a killer. I have to wonder at the environment that may cause this behaviour. How would we fare, as humans, if with our spouses we were shut in a room that is 10 X 10? This becomes our whole world with only a chair at each end of the room and we are not allowed to escape. Our food is passed to us through a small hatch in the doorway. I have to wonder how long it would take before one of the partners becomes so frustrated or angered that he or she kills the other. It is almost too easy to envision that type of behaviour given the environmental situation. Yet, we still blame the bird for its irrational behaviour rather than take some of the blame onto our own shoulders.
We, in all good intent, give our birds a small square box, a couple of perches, and a dish of food and water, then expect them to live out their lives in contentment. In this type of situation it is not so very surprising that things don't work out as planned. When this happens we are quick to blame the bird or birds.
As I stated earlier the aviary construction has not changed a great deal over time. We have done very little to alter the inside environment of the aviary. That leads us to the purpose of this paper. It is my hope that you, the reader, and anyone you wish to share these thoughts with, will start thinking of the living environment and address the situation.
There are many ways we can improve on what is already in place. Some are quite elaborate and others are fairly simple and straight forward. In either case the effects are of a positive nature.
One such method that has been used very successfully by the Owl Foundation located in Vineland is the modular structure. Mrs. McKeever has set up aviaries that join one another on a modular basis. Under this set up you can have square sections which are joined together with passage ways or an overhead flight way. The set up has worked very well for the Owl Foundation. It has been able to keep several species of Owls that have a tendency, especially during the winter months, to kill each other. The Saw-whet owl comes to mind as being prone to this behaviour.
It is my belief that this style of aviary setup can also be used with psittacines. This design allows the birds to have different areas in which to escape, if the need arises, but at the same time they are kept in a reproductive environment.
By utilizing the modular design the birds are not always stuck side by side all day every day. If the hens are nesting the males have room to disappear and when the hen emerges from the nest she can in turn move some distance from her mate. This is the pattern that often occurs in the wild.
We, of course, cannot duplicate the expanse of the natural habitat. The aviary is our constraint. We can, however, give the illusion of space.
Not everyone is able to effectively use the modular units. For some this is simply not an option. Understanding this, there are several other ways of creating similar effects. Here in Canada, we obviously have the constraints of severe winters and it would be prohibitive to try to heat an aviary of this size. Often a large percentage of our birds are housed in barns or in basements where space is at a premium. There is also the cost factor to consider. It's all very well to present wonderful idealistic scenarios, but cost is a factor that must not be forgotten. And so, if the pocket won't allow an aviary of the dimensions I have discussed thus far, there are several simpler methods which can be done on a smaller scale. One of the methods used at the Toronto Zoo is baffles. This system is used with Cranes and Storks, who don't take very kindly to being crowded together during the winter months. Once again that is a requirement as these birds can not tolerate our winters.
The baffles in these areas worked very well. They allowed the birds to have sight barriers between themselves enabling them to get away visually from one another. It is also very helpful with the keepers having to go into these areas to clean and feed. These skittish birds quite frequently try to climb the walls and end up damaging themselves. The use of baffles lessened this tendency considerably.
The use of baffles does not have to be solely for ground birds. We can use baffles on any species of bird, passerines or psittacines. With the Cranes burlap baffles were used. Obviously, that would not be the most suitable material for the parrots. Materials of a more impervious nature such as fibre glass, perspex, or steel come to mind. They can be hung strategically in the aviary to make these sight barriers. When hanging these barriers, you may want to keep in mind that creating a smaller box in the corner IS NOT desirable. Should this happen and a bird is pursued by another it is very likely that one will get trapped in the small cube created by the baffle. Therefore, the baffle must be hung in a position so as to allow birds an exit on at least three sides. Remember the baffle is not a containment or trap, it is only a sight barrier. Of course, planting can always be used as a baffle. This may not be overly practical with some of the psittacines as they are more than likely to reduce it to a pile of sawdust in a very short time. If the birds are not of a destructive nature the plantings do work very well as sight baffles. They also help the birds in feeling more at home, more in their natural setting.
Another method that has been used quite successfully is the use of smaller flights accessible from a larger central flight. This set up seems to work very well for someone wanting to house several species, or a group of a single species of breeding pairs together. In this kind of configuration you can have a large flight area with several small flights coming off it with the common wall between the two of a solid nature. This wall must have bob holes in it. This allows the birds to commune in the larger flight area. Yet when they do pair up and are looking for a nest site they can go through the bob holes into the smaller flights. These smaller flights are provided with a nest box area.
When designing these types of structures it is always necessary to keep in mind that we do need visual contact with the birds. Also keep in mind that invariably when a bird is not feeling well it will try to hide. No one wants to have a sick and possibly dying bird hidden behind the baffle.
One of the methods that I have used with good success is a strategically placed mirror outside the aviary. With this method you can glance into it and see what is behind the baffle. I have also had good success using this method with open nesting birds by putting the mirror above the nest. This allows some observation of the nest area, eggs and chicks without actually poking around the nest.
In conclusion, we all have to give more thought to the housing of our birds. As time moves on birds will become more and more difficult to obtain. Now is the time to start looking at the captive environment in which our birds live. There is something we can do to help prevent the deaths of our birds through fighting.
Take a moment, seriously look into the housing situation. Not only is losing a bird in this manner distressful to the owner, it will eventually play a part in the disappearance of certain species from aviculture.
Don't put off until tomorrow what you can do today. Today give your birds OPTIONS!
George Rason is a native of England who immigrated to Canada in May 1966. He and his wife presently reside close to their two children in the Sunderland, Ontario area. The quiet country setting is ideal for continuing their avicultural endeavors. His family has been involved in Aviculture for many years. In fact, George is the third generation to actively pursue this pastime.
George became an employee of the Metro Toronto Zoo in 1973. He retired in May 1994 after holding the position of Curator of Birds for ten years. This, however, is far from the end of birds for George. He is presently working at expanding his own collection.