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Leeds Castle Bird Gardens

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This critique last updated:  Feb 2008

Visitor Reviews

This review reprinted from ZOO! Magazine with kind permission.
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Another bird collection, which is steeped in history, (see also Paultons Bird Bardens) is also situated in the South of England; it is midway between London and Dover. Leeds Castle, in Kent, has been described as the most beautiful castle in the world. Encircled by a moat and set in green and rolling countryside, the castle is a major tourist attraction.

For bird lovers, there is more than the historic buildings to delight the eye, more than the geese, ducks and swans which roam freely throughout the grounds and swim on the moat. There is the bird garden.

Known as “The Aviary”, it follows the avicultural tradition set by the Hon. Lady Baillie. An American heiress, she owned the castle until her death in 1974. It is now owned by the Leeds Castle Foundation. Australian Parakeets were the focus of the collection started by Lady Baillie in 1957. I visited her aviaries in the early 70’s – but could not have envisaged that her long wooden flights, typical of the era, would be replaced by possibly the most elegantly designed aviaries in the country. They are distinctive, indeed unique, yet functional. The roof of each one is hexagonal, capped by a stainless-steel shield and ball. Although the concept is modern, it fits well into the castle atmosphere. The aviaries opened in 1988, with 48 enclosures.

The area is quite small, but compact and very attractive. It has as much of interest as many larger bird parks which are more time-consuming to visit because of the distance between aviaries. Its compactness makes it easy to walk around several times. On my visit, I could see the birds in sunshine and bathing in the rain!

My most vivid memory is of a magnificent pair of Toco Toucans bathing in wet foliage. The aviary is heavily planted. The vividness of the Toucan’s bills against the green leaves evoked the abience of the tropics – except that there was no stream rising after the rain!

This collection is noted for its success in breeding Tocos. The species was first hand-reared there in 1992. Then a problem had to be overcome. The aviaries are on a military flight path. The disturbance from aircraft caused the female to break her eggs. Egg-loss ceased when the nest-box was replaced with a deeper one, sharply angled at 45 degrees. The female could no longer jump straight down onto the eggs. The first parent-reared young fledged in 1995 – a notable achievement as two young left the nest.

To stimulate interest in the nest-box, every year the entrance of both pairs is covered with cork tiles before egg-laying commences in May. This year one pair took only half an hour to enter the nest. The other pair had to be encouraged by making a hole with a screwdriver. One female laid three eggs during the third week in May. Two chicks hatched but, sadly, one died at the age of seven weeks. Cameras in the nest-box revealed that the male helps to incubate.

The cameras and monitors are a new attraction this year. The monitors enable visitors to see what is happening inside the nests of some of the rarer species. This opens up a whole new area of information and interest for the visitor. What can be more fascinating than to watch hole-nesting birds feeding and brooding their chicks? The monitors are located inside the new information point near the entrance to the bird garden. Visitors can watch nesting pairs of toucans, Crowned and Von der Decken’s Hornbills (both with chicks by July), Queen of Bavaria’s Conures and Bali Starlings. The names of the species are displayed on the monitor. A member of staff is in attendance to answer questions about the birds on show.

This is an excellent way to encourage contact between visitors and staff. Curator Laura Gardner sometimes mans this point. Laura has gained a reputation in the British zoo world as an excellent aviculturalist. She has looked after the birds in this collection for more than a decade, starting as a keeper.

Although there are no off-show exhibit aviaries, the breeding results of the birds in her care are consistently good. This is partly because she strives for good results and partly because most of the aviaries are well planted, thus providing cover for breeding birds. The soft-bill aviaries are attractively planted inside and out. Clematis climbing over the exterior of some added a touch of pale pink magic. The lush planting sets the scene for birds from the tropics such as Amethyst Starlings, with their iridescent purple plumage, and the Yellow-throated Laughing Thrush, with its blue head and pale yellow breast. Laura runs the EEP (European Endangered Specie Programme) for this handsome bird.

Hornbills are a speciality. The first UK breeding of the Crowned and Von der Decken’s (two of the smaller African species) occurred here. A second generation nesting for the latter species was taking place. Parrots are also well represented, making up about one quarter of the species exhibited. They include various species of Amazons, including Cubans, Macaws including Hyacinthines, Hawk-headed Parrots and Keas. Te rear part of the aviary for a colony of Patagonian Conures is simulated river-bank – the nesting location of wild Patagonians. They burrow into sandstone cliffs.

To see Crowned Cranes dancing is to witness one of the most flamboyant displays in the avian world. And here they were dancing in the rain! With their crests like golden fans, red wattles and snow-white wings, they are surely the most elegant of all cranes. They breed every year.

Other birds receiving admiring glances were a magnificent pair of Red-billed Blue Magpies, with their long tails and colourful bill and feet, a group of elegant Parrots (making use of thick rope perches) and a pair of Peruvian Thick-knees with their big yellow eyes and long legs.

The policy at Leeds Castle aviaries is that the birds are not there only to be look good. They should be active, happy and productive. The aim has certainly been met.

Of all the aviaries in the UK, there are none more historic than those at Waddeson Manor. In 1874 Baron Ferdinand de Rothchild bought the site, a treeless hill, near Aylesbury, Buckinghamshire. He built a Renaissance style chateau and created beautiful gardens with panoramic views. In the gardens he constructed, also in Renaissance style, imposing aviaries, with a grotto in the centre. The aviaries were restored and stocked during the 1960s and have been in use ever since. The ornate, white-painted iron-framework of the aviaries contrasts with the spacious lawn in front of them.

The planted enclosures contain such birds as soft-bills, including Bali Starlings, Triangular-spotted Pigeons, thrushes and pheasants. Off-exhibit breeding aviaries house, in addition, various parrot species.

The aviaries can be viewed in a few minutes but, combined with the formal gardens, spacious grounds and the manor itself, they can make a pleasing day out.


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