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Grey Fisher - Bird keeper
Photograph: Daniel Boud

Things you only know if you're a bird keeper

By
Claire Finneran
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.... according to Grey Fisher, Taronga Zoo

The birds are on performance enhancing diets
"They live in flocks but they each get their own diets, because in any group you always have that one who eats a little more – like me with pizza at parties, I always eat more pizza than my fair share – so I want to make sure that doesn’t happen with these guys. They’re like athletes, if you’re underweight or overweight, you’re not gonna perform at your best." 

Carnivorous birds, they’re just like us
"Most of them eat mice, which the zoo breeds then culls, and freeze them and put them in bags. It’s kind of like a frozen dinner – all we have to do is thaw them out. And they also get day-old chicks, which are by products of the human food industry. Because they want hens for egg-laying and for meat, so they cull all the rooster chicks at a day old. We get chicks from that to feed to our birds and other animals. And we’ll use some quail as well, which also comes from the human food industry. Other than the mice, everything is human quality. Actually, the mice would be too if we ate mice, but we tend not to." 

Be a considerate gardener – give little birds a flying chance
"Everything we do has an impact on birds. Bird life in Sydney is changing drastically because of us, because of the things we choose to grow in our backyards. Local honeyeaters are fairly aggressive and so they’ll drive the smaller birds, wrens and finches, out. The best thing we can do is to make sure that when we’re planting natives we’re planting them as they exist in the wild. Grevillea bushes, everyone loves them, they’ve got those big showy flowers – but the wild ones have tiny flowers. Mynas and rainbow lorikeets love these big showy flowers, but then the smaller honeyeaters (who like smaller flowers) don’t have anywhere to feed."

Birds have heaps more tricks than those show-offs, ‘the seals’
"Seal trainers have it easy because seals do things we recognise, they stick out their tongues and wave. Basically, “I see myself in that animal and that makes me enjoy that animal”. Birds aren’t like that. Back in the old days, most bird shows were talking parrots and birds on bicycles but [now] we showcase what they do naturally. There’s no party tricks. We have a black breasted buzzard that opens emu eggs. They do that in the wild. Most people would never see that in their lifetime and they get to see it here!"

The birds are free to go whenever they please
"One of the biggest arguments against zoos is that people don’t like seeing animals in captivity. When you come to one of our shows, you’ll see our animals are not, they can leave anytime they want. Our birds fly – depending on the weather conditions – sometimes, so high they’re just a speck in the sky. Sometimes they’re out over the harbour not over the stage. It’s true freedom, but it’s still in a zoo. We have this amazing opportunity to experience the birds as you would in the wild. It’s all about people having that owl brush the top of their heads with a wing tip as it’s flying over to make them go 'oh my god, that was amazing'."

Owls are superheroes. And monsters
“They have night-time eyesight, super flexibility in their necks, they’ve got the strongest feet of any raptor, they’ve got the most powerful hearing of almost any predator. I just finished raising barn owls and I’m training them for shows. Their names are Banshee and Wraith – they’re both ghost names because another name for a barn owl is ghost owl. They reckon the legend of Banshees in Ireland originated when people saw barn owls. Ghost owls can fly silently, they have a white belly, they don’t hoot like other owls and they have a really harsh screech. Imagine these white things gliding silently at night, screeching – it’s easy to see why people might think it’s a screaming spirit.”

See the bird show for yourself at Taronga Zoo. Or why not spot some native feathered friends on one of the best walks in Sydney.

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