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birds.8_small.gif (8817 bytes)There are thousands of places worldwide where you can see captive birds. They include almost all the zoos, as well as scores of bird gardens, parks, country homes, and specialist collections. Between them they hold well over a thousand species and subspecies of birds (in Britain the National Federation of Zoological Gardens lists 1,005 species among its member zoos). Altogether there are probably more than 180,000 individual birds in collections – a fairly substantial number. Less than half of the species breed regularly, which means that many of the remaining five hundred species will probably rely upon wild caught birds to sustain their numbers in captivity. This may be a disheartening statistic, but it conceals the fact that most of the species that do breed, breed well; and things are improving for many of the rest.

Britain’s best known bird collections are the various centres of the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust which keep the best and most complete collections of waterfowl in the world. The Trust’s centre at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire is the only place on Earth where you can see all six species of flamingo (four breeding well). The Trust also provides essential protected wintering areas for vast numbers of migrating waterfowl in Britain, and their work with endangered species – captive breeding and reintroducing birds into the wild – has been hugely successful, and highly influential.

Other specialist collections include several falconry centres which breed birds of prey. They will usually mount falconry displays for visitors, and several have put their falconry techniques to good effect in reintroduction programmes. A number of bird gardens have large and successful collections of tropical birds. Among the best are the World Pheasant Association collection at Childe Beale near Reading, Bird World at Famhain in Surrey, Harewood Bird Gardens near Leeds, and Paradise Park at Hale in Comwall.

Critics of zoos will often make an exception for places like Slimbridge and Childe Beale. Yet these are just as much zoos in the strict dictionary definition, as places like Bristol or London Zoos.


Birds have always been important exhibits in zoos, and traditionally the more showy and brilliant the plumage, the better the exhibit, so far as zoo directors were concerned. Other birds that have found favour in zoos have often been those with ‘anthropomorphic’ features – birds that strut or shuffle around on two legs like cranes or storks or penguins; birds that have huge forward-facing eyes like owls; and birds that can actually talk, like parrots and mynahs. These have all become regular exhibits in zoos, and none more so than the parrots which seem to combine everything that a zoo visitor wants to see. Yet parrots worldwide are now an alarmingly threatened group of birds, and ironically their very attractiveness is often the cause of their decline as trappers mine the forest populations to satisfy the desires of collectors. Over 150 parrot species are kept in Britain, many in populations only in single figures; and although many, like the macaws, breed well, others like the African grey parrot are dreadfully difficult to breed. Good zoos will need to pay more attention to the breeding of their parrots; at present it is often easier and cheaper just to buy parrots from a dealer, but no zoo should keep animals that it cannot hope to breed.

Waterfowl and flamingos

Every public park has its duck pond, often with an assortment of ducks for the public to admire and feed. In zoos waterfowl are popular exhibits, helped by the fact that a number of different and colourful species can all be kept on the same pond, and they can often be used to fill in vacant corners and empty aviaries. In order to breed waterfowl however, a degree of commitment is necessary. Many duck species will interbreed, so these species often need to be aviary bred. Geese often need a large pen for each pair in order to form pair bonds, and nest rearing is often so difficult to manage that it is usually easier to incubate the eggs and hand-rear the chicks. This requires trained staff and good equipment – more than many zoos might have.

A number of zoos devote space to endangered waterfowl. Jersey Zoo has bred Meller’s duck (an endangered mallard from Madagascar), and white winged wood-duck from S. E. Asia, and waterfowl form an important part of  a great many collections all around the world.

Only in recent years have flamingos been kept in the sort of single species flocks that now seem to prevail at many zoos. Most zoos are now making real efforts to provide nesting areas, and to adjust their flocks to the best sex ratios and age structures. Flamingos will rarely lay eggs in small flocks, and some zoos are experimenting with mirrors to create the illusion of a larger flock. Unless such flocks are built up, the chances of establishing sustaining populations in Europe seem unlikely.

Tropical birds

Large free flight bird houses feature in many of the good zoos. At Chester Zoo in the north of England a huge tropical house contains palms, ponds and waterfalls, and is home to weaver birds and brightly coloured starlings.   The delicacy and desirability of tropical birds has always meant large and often illegal importations of birds, and although good zoos are now more selective about the birds they keep, they do often benefit indirectly from the illegal trade when birds are deposited with them by customs officers. There are to date very few sustained breeding schemes for popular tropical birds other than some parrots and pheasants, and zoos would do well to address this, not only for the benefit of the birds, but also to keep their bird houses well stocked up into the next century.

Birds of prey

birds.9.gif (60660 bytes)There are one hundred and nine different species of hawks, falcons, eagles, vultures, owls, and other birds of prey in zoos; but despite some large impressive aviaries,not many collections are successful in hatching and rearing birds of prey. Many zoos have had some recent success with Andean condors due to a dedicated programme of incubation and hand rearing, but most of the smaller species, and even the owls often breed best in secluded aviaries, out of sight of humans and other birds. The hugely endangered Californian Condors in San Diego never see human beings, and are hand reared from ‘condor gloves’.This tends to mean that specialist collections have much more success in breeding raptors than the zoos, who cannot provide this sort of accommodation.

Some zoos now mount falconry displays, and these can be both entertaining and educational, particularly shows which includes naturalistic behaviour and a well informed commentary.


birds.10.gif (61644 bytes)Most zoos keep penguins, but not many zoos keep them well. Like most of the birds in zoos, a substantial degree of commitment is needed to breed penguins. Humboldt’s penguins, for example, need sandy burrows to lay their eggs, and a quiet off-show area to rear the chicks. Hand rearing of young chicks is often essential because although wild birds will feed their young fish from their crops, it is difficult in zoos to repeat this. This is because without the long swim and walk back from the sea, the fish does not have long enough to predigest. Where zoos are committed to breeding, they can be very successful. In Britain, Chester Zoo, Penscynor, and Whipsnade hatch about sixty chicks a year between them; but few of the remaining zoos with Humboldt’s penguins manage to rear any.

Of the more rarely seen penguins in zoos, nowhere has more success than Edinburgh Zoo which annually hatches around thirty gentoos and usually a small clutch of rockhoppers and king penguins. Edinburgh Zoo’s new penguin pool, opened in 1992, is probably the best place to see penguins in Europe.


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Editor: Jon Clarke    Research: John and Sue Ironmonger, Ray Heaton, and the readers of goodzoos.com   Illustrations by G.L.Grandy. Thanks to John Ironmonger for the original idea of GoodZoos.com.

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