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The Changing Face of Aviculture in Australia: Comments from a "Professional Critic"

Joseph M. Forshaw


When looking at aviculture in Australia, it is important to note that it is focussed primarily on native species, and this contrasts markedly with the situation in Northern Hemisphere countries. We probably share this feature with South America and South Africa, though I suspect that in the latter a paucity of native parrot species probably is reflected in the much stronger interest in foreign species.

I have been an aviculturist for half a century, keeping mainly Australian parrots, grassfinches, pigeons or doves and quail, together with occasional pairs of foreign grassfinches and three commonly held foreign parrots ­ Kakarikis, Rose-ringed or Indian Ringnecked Parrots, and Plum-headed Parrots. This is the record of a typical Australian aviculturist, though perhaps I am more devoted to native pigeons or doves than are my colleagues. The pre-eminence of native species is a key feature I wish to emphasise.

This preference for native species is a consequence of tradition and a longstanding prohibition on importation of live birds, though I am strongly of the opinion that the significance of the latter is nowhere near as great as has been claimed. Australia is the 'Land of Parrots', having more variety in its native species than any other country, with a number of genera, notably Platycercus and its relatives, occurring nowhere else. Additionally, our native grassfinches include a number of species which are, and always have been, extremely popular in aviculture. Australian aviculture developed in this atmosphere, and indeed I often have described my schoolboy days in country towns of New South Wales as 'growing up inside an aviary without wire'. Prior to the 1960s, most native parrots and grassfinches were readily available from bird dealers, who in turn were supplied by licenced trappers, and in one state ­ Western Australia ­ the trapping of certain species, including Western Rosellas Platycercus icterotis, Port Lincoln or Twenty-eight Parrots Barnardius zonarius, and Red-capped Parrots Purpureicephalus spurius, continues to be licenced. In the absence of comprehensive wildlife protection legislation, unlicenced trapping of common species for personal use, but not for commercial trade, was fairly widespread. As a schoolboy, my weekends were not devoted to surfing the internet, or skateboarding in the local shopping plaza, but were spent trapping Zebra Finches Taeniopygia guttata and Red-rumped Parrots Psephotus haematonotus in market gardens on the riverbanks.

I suspect that at some time everybody here has been asked the question: "How did you become interested in birds?" For me the response is simple ­ it was the Red-browed Grassfinch Neochmia temporalis. An early childhood memory is of my father catching one of these birds, which had found its way into his tool-shed. It was placed in a makeshift cage, and, during the hour or so before it found an escape hole, I was captivated by its beauty. Even today, the Red-browed Finch remains one of my favourite birds, and I am delighted that it is an abundant resident on our property.

These remarks are not motivated by any nostalgic desire, but are intended to explain the deep-rooted affinity between Australian aviculturists and native species. A number of foreign species have always featured in Australian aviculture, especially the African grassfinches, which have been bred very successfully in Australia over many generations, largely because of the ready availability of termites, which are the favoured food when rearing chicks. Foreign parrots were less prevalent in past years, with only a small number of species featuring commonly in collections.

Perhaps it is true to say that Australian aviculture developed in isolation, which to some extent was enforced by quarantine restrictions, but for the most part there was little interest among traditional aviculturists in non-native species, and that was reinforced by the often prohibitive prices of the less common foreign birds. Of course, there was some demand for exotic species, as evidenced by intermittent smuggling and lobbying against import restrictions, but I think that it is fair to say that these demands were motivated to a large extent by commercial interests rather than a desire to assist the advancement of Australian aviculture. This is not meant to be a derogatory criticism, for commercial interests do have a legitimate role, but in this instance it would be inaccurate to infer that there had arisen a widespread demand for species hitherto unavailable.

Another aspect to be considered is that prior to the 1980's avicultural practices in Australia were traditional, in that breeding was left to the birds! There was little interference, and even hand-rearing was carried out on only a limited scale. Consequently, breeding success was mixed, but in general was sufficient to satisfy the marketplace and there was maintained an even balance between supply and demand.

Overall, I believe that it could be said that up until the 1980's aviculture in Australia remained principally a hobby activity focussed on native species. There were two elements ­ the serious 'breeder' who concentrated primarily on parrots and, to a lesser extent, native or foreign grassfinches, and members of show societies, frequently termed 'fanciers', who were interested mainly in canaries, budgerigars and mutations of grassfinches, notably Zebra Finches. Events in the 1980's brought about dramatic changes to Australian aviculture, and the consequences, many of which were detrimental, remain with us today.

The first development was the advent of what I like to term 'manipulative' or 'hands-on' aviculture. This involved intense husbandry and there can be no doubt that it represented a very significant advancement in aviculture, especially in the treatment of diseases. Another important benefit from increased veterinary involvement was the more widespread availability of surgical sexing. Commercial products in the form of medications, vitamins and mineral additions, artificial diets and hand-rearing formulae came on to the market. Altogether, aviculture took on a new professional approach, with the most notable results being significantly increased productivity and success with a wider variety of species, many of which had been considered 'difficult' to maintain in captivity; eg. the smaller Glossopsitta lorikeets.

If there is a downside to the practice of manipulative aviculture it is in the downgrading of the scientific value of breeding results involving handrearing and in the impact on the balance between supply and demand. I utilise handrearing only as a means of avoiding nesting failure through desertion, death of a parent, or some other unforeseen problem. I need to be able to relate data from captive breeding to the wild situation, and that cannot be done when eggs are artificially incubated or chicks handreared.

During the past decade there has been in Australia an oversupply of some species, and the resultant depressed market has caused much consternation in the avicultural community. Increased breeding successes have probably contributed to this situation, but in my opinion, the major factor has been legal and illegal importation, which has brought into Australian aviculture an unwelcome entrepreneurial element.

Always I have opposed importation of parrots to Australia because of the serious risk posed to both wild and captive populations. Nevertheless, I was prepared to concede defeat of my position when the legal import of certain species was approved in the late 1980's. Reasons given for approval were that it would prevent the introduction of diseases and would counteract illicit importation. Of course, it did neither but what was not foreseen was the deleterious impact on the local market. In hindsight, I must say that the legal importation process was ill conceived and poorly administered. The selection of species for import was wrong, and there was no market research to determine the levels of demand. It was presumed that Australian aviculturists would outbid each other in a frenzied effort to purchase these new species and their progeny, even at the exorbitant prices being quoted. A study of the history and structure of Australian aviculture would have revealed how flawed were these expectations, and it should not have come as a surprise when the demand proved to be fleeting. A downward spiral of pricing set in and very quickly spread through the entire market. Demand fell away dramatically, and this was most evident at the lower end of the market, where are concentrated the bulk of hobby aviculturists who keep the more common native species. These aviculturists make up the very fabric of Australian aviculture and they voted with their feet ­ they left in droves.

Is Australian aviculture in crisis? I suspect that it is, but I am reluctant to accept, as do some of my colleagues, that it has been fatally wounded. Recovery will be slow and painful, but we must refocus on the fundamentals and give back to the hobby aviculturist the incentives and support that they have enjoyed in the past.

 


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