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My Introduction to Softbills
Bob Mann


Having just married and moved into a nice bungalow in a quiet village cul-de-sac, I asked my wife, Pat, if she would mind if I kept a few birds.

I had had numerous birds and animals most of my life but circumstances stopped me keeping them when I moved to Peterborough. Her answer was yes, provided I looked after them properly.

While visiting London Zoo, we saw an orange Cock of the Rock (Rupicola rupicola). It was so beautiful that I said to Pat "if I owned a bird like that you would feel like a King".

In 1969 there weren't so many bird keepers as there are today, but parrots and softbills were slowly coming onto the open market. As more were imported more people were able to take up the hobby. African Greys in those days were about £15, a far cry from today's price.

However, later that year Pat said she had found and paid for a Cock of the Rock for me as an early Christmas present. I don't know how she managed to locate an importer who dealt with such a species but where there's a will!!.

I set about the task of trying to find something about them. I knew of only three birds in the country and one of those was in London Zoo. I managed to glean what information was available at the time and because it would be a freshly imported bird I built an indoor aviary with an ornamental thatched roof in the hall of the bungalow and then Billy arrived.

I don't know why we decided to call him Billy but on opening the box we were surprised to find out that Billy was not the orange Cock of the Rock from the lowlands of the Andes, but the Scarlet Peruvian from higher up. He was the most beautiful thing I had ever seen. My friends were amazed, It was difficult to find picture of these in books but Billy was bright red, silver and black. We decided that we must try and find a hen for him. It took some three or four months, but one Saturday morning the 'phone rang and Jenny had arrived in London. I jumped in the car and picked her up. However, the amount of travelling she had had to go through and the stress was too much for her and she died. The importer agreed to replace her but when our new Jenny arrived we left her with him for two weeks before collecting her.

Unlike Billy, she was a drab plain brown, but to us she was a mate for Billy and beautiful in her own right.

In the weeks that had passed since acquiring Billy, we had constructed a planted aviary, with fast growing Russian Vine or as it is commonly known "mile a minute vine", which definitely lived up to it's name, but it did help house the insects and spiders that they loved. The aviary was constructed over a young horse chestnut tree, approximately 20' long, 15' wide and 10' high. It has a running stream through it and I built a cave with a shelf inside as I was led to believe that these birds nested in low level caves and we were anxious to make him feel at home with his new wife. They also had inside quarters where I would feed them. Their diet was assorted fruits, minced raw meat, cheese and live food, although in those days there weren't such a variety of live food as there is today.

They loved foraging in the soil of the aviary for insects and spiders, which were their favourite. I used to try and find spiders for them when I went to work; this caused a lot of amusements with my mates. I had spent a lot of time one day catching some really large spiders, which I knew Billy and Jenny would appreciate and kept them in a jam jar.

Unfortunately, driving home the inevitable happened. I hadn't put the lid on securely and it tipped over in the car.

I only discovered this when I started scratching on my leg, it was something out of a comedy film, these spiders all over my shoe and leg!! I quickly pulled into a lay-by and jumped out of the car and caught as many as I could. Billy and Jenny were definitely 'short-changed' that day.

These two used to greet me at the aviary door every morning and became very friendly over the following months. They thrived in their new home and we hoped that one day they would go to nest although no one at that time had bred them to our knowledge.

However, one morning Billy didn't greet me at the door as usual. He just sat in the aviary and I knew something was wrong. I walked over to him and picked him off the perch and took him indoors into a warmer temperature. I took Jenny in as well to keep him company. Sadly, we lost both birds.

Maybe with the experienced vets we have today and their extensive knowledge we may have saved them who knows in hindsight we would have done many other things I suppose, and with the experience we have gained over the last thirty odd years things may have turned out differently.

Pat and Myself have never looked back at that dreadful time without a great deal of sadness neither have we stopped learning and still are today. We were never able to replace Billy and Jenny, so it was an end of an era for us.

 
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