Exotic Pheasants at Waddesdon Manor
Reading Time: 6 minutes
Waddesdon Manor is a grand country house with gardens in Buckinghamshire, England. It was built in the style of a French château and is open to the public with ornate Victorian aviaries — the only historic aviaries still being used in Britain.
Baron Ferdinand de Rothschild commissioned the construction of the manor house and landscaped gardens. He had a keen interest in birds and the natural world. He kept flamingos, parrots, African cranes, ibises, and exotic pheasants. Some of the smaller birds from his collection are still present in the aviaries at Waddesdon today. Ferdinand’s sister, Alice, would go to feed the birds twice a day and they’d fly to her with great enthusiasm. The birds had a floor layer of sand or gravel, with trees and perches to sit on, as they do today. They have inner chambers with central heating, heated to 20 degrees Celsius, which keeps them warm all year round.
It was the 1970s when the work of the aviary keepers became focused on conservation and breeding. Today, Waddesdon’s breeding program focuses on threatened or endangered species and has been carefully designed so that, combined with education and research, it helps to conserve the rarest species. The keepers work with zoos across Europe to create and support viable captive populations, to ensure the survival of the species.
Meet the keeper
I met Gavin Harrison, Assistant Curator, who cares for the birds and is involved in the conservation work. “We’re members of the European Association of Zoos and Aquaria (EAZA),” he explains. “We work with them primarily, and some other organizations, to breed and conserve vulnerable species. Our pheasants are the Palawan peacock-pheasant, the Rothschild peacock-pheasant, and the Bornean peacock-pheasant. They’re all threatened in the wild to various degrees.”
A colorful bird hops up to the edge of the aviary and spreads his wings on the ground to sun himself. “That’s a green-naped pheasant pigeon,” says Gavin. “It’s one of the biggest pigeons in the world.”
As we walk around the aviaries, Gavin points out a Rothschild’s mynah, a collared hill-partridge, and the pheasants we’ve come to see, who keep disappearing into the undergrowth. “We keep the aviaries densely planted because it’s good for their welfare and encourages them to breed,” he explains. “Diet is important too. A high level of protein can be really important for successful breeding. We give them live insects. I feed ours locusts, crickets, mealworms, and wax moth larvae. I also feed them a commercial pheasant breeding pellet and a commercial insectivorous mix. The birds eat the plants in the aviaries and I give them some green foods like Chinese cabbage, diced, and finely grated carrot. A wide and varied diet works well for them, and the protein element is important for egg-laying.”
We see a blue-crowned laughingthrush, a bleeding-heart pigeon, and a spectacled laughingthrush. “We have six different species of laughingthrushes,” says Gavin. “We’ve been involved in the EAZA Silent Forest Campaign to address the loss of birds in South East Asia, raising funds for education and awareness, and supporting projects in Indonesia for the breeding of threatened species. Species decline is a problem throughout the world, though. It’s happening in Europe, too.”
There’s a Socorro dove in the aviaries. This species is extinct in the wild, but there’s a reintroduction program afoot to reintroduce these birds to their homeland, the remote island of Socorro, off the west coast of Mexico.
EAZA coordinates the breeding programs and some birds that are bred here do get released into the wild or sent onto breeding programs in their native countries. Then their offspring are released in the wild. This helps maintain genetic diversity for the survival of the species.
“We try to explain to people who are trapping the wild birds for singing competitions or the pet trade, that if they drive them to extinction, there won’t be any for their competitions, or to see in the wild,” says Gavin. “But it’s a global problem, and a constant battle.”
“Some of the pheasants are more difficult to breed than others. We’ve had success with the Palawan peacock-pheasant. Our breeding pair have had eight of their own young, which is good, given as they only lay two eggs a year. They have also incubated eggs laid by our Rothschild’s peacock-pheasants, who are not such successful parents. The good parenting practices of the Palawan peacock-pheasants has helped both breeds to thrive in our care.
“The breeding to the Bornean peacock-pheasant has been less successful so far but we remain optimistic. Our female is quite old for breeding and is currently laying soft-shelled eggs, this species only lays one egg in a clutch. Some pheasant species lay 12-15 eggs in a clutch, so it’s a big contrast. I haven’t given up on the pair we have yet, but if the breeding attempts continue to fail, I’ll introduce a younger female next year.
“The female pheasants are pretty much on their own when it comes to rearing young,” he continues. “The males don’t help — they’re more interested in female attention than in youngsters. In the wild, some pheasants will kill the chicks if they believe they belong to another male. But peacock-pheasants are more docile, and because they’re in captivity, the young are usually their own anyway.”
The aviary keepers cooperate with EAZA zoos and World Pheasant Association members to bring in new bloodlines, which keep the populations healthy. Gavin leads me to the off-show aviaries where more breeding birds are found. “The planting is denser here,” he explains, “because the birds don’t need to be visible for visitors.”
Gavin lives in the manor grounds, which is just as well when they have to hand-rear a chick. “We do prefer the adult birds to rear their own young,” he explains, “but sometimes it’s necessary to take an egg or a chick into an incubator. When we’re hand-rearing, we work on rotation because some chicks need feeding every hour-and-a-half between 6 am and 10 pm.”
Gavin leads me into the incubation room where there are young pheasants in various stages of development. Two Rothschild’s peacock-pheasants are inside the brooder and we peer inside, as they scuttle warily to the farthest corner. “I manage the studbook for the Rothschild’s peacock-pheasants,” says Gavin.
Back outside, he also shows us the breeding pheasants, including the older female Bornean peacock-pheasant, who looks quite startled when we step insider her aviary.
“We’d quite like to keep Malayan peacock-pheasants, because I also manage this species studbook and we have the knowledge and expertise to breed them,” says Gavin.
“We now have 11 Rothschild’s peacock-pheasants and can contact other EAZA holders through the live database of all species in breeding programs in European Zoos. We can see what’s available for breeding at a glance, which is really useful.”
Originally published in the April/May 2020 issue of Backyard Poultry and regularly vetted for accuracy.