For a young Cirl Bunting, the upheaval begins at about six days old, when they are whisked from their Devon nests by skilled human hands – the first of several pairs of hands they will come to know over the coming weeks. Along with their siblings, the young birds are ‘processed’ by qualified staff, who weigh them and take highly personal measurements before attaching four very fetching rings of varying colours to their legs. This may not be the most dignified start to life for a Cirl Bunting, but at six days they are surprisingly ugly little things anyway, and have a remarkable tolerance! When the production line is over, they are packed into tight containers that mimic the nest, then sealed in carry cases and covered to keep them cool and calm on the long journey ahead; the trip from Devon usually takes three hours, but on the rare occasion it coincides with bank holidays it can be considerably longer!
We welcome all new arrivals to the rearing facility by putting them into a brooder – one for each brood – which keeps the temperature at a stable level. This can be controlled so that we can keep it similar to what they would experience in the nest, although we reduce the heat as the birds grow. They are then fed every two hours from six in the morning until midnight. It’s not a job for someone who needs regular lie-ins! The birds are up at first light and hungry after a night without food, so we need to be there to provide it! We feed them a generic zoo-food called ‘Diet A’, which contains all the necessary vitamins and minerals a young bird needs – a bit like Weetabix for animals! This is soaked in water and squashed into a mushy consistency, so it can be readily mixed with boiled egg and banana. The banana is there to make the mix slightly sticky, so that small Cirl Bunting sized balls can be rolled ready for meal times. The chicks are fed with plastic tweezers, and beg for food at this stage. The whole environment needs to be very sterile, as disease outbreaks can cause fatalities and can spread very easily. As a result, the area is cleaned after every feed, using veterinary wipes, called F10 wipes, which are specially formulated to kill bacteria without being corrosive or harmful to the birds. All of the equipment is soaked in F10 solution as well, and we use F10 gel to clean our hands. These birds don’t realise what thorough attention is lavished upon them!
The chicks start to fledge six to eight days after arrival. We can tell when they are ready as they jump out of the plastic containers and run around inside the brooders causing mischief! They are very alert at this stage, and very aware of their surroundings. They can become difficult to feed as a result, mainly due to their inquisitive nature and desire to leave the brooder in favour of the outside world. We can then move them into the canary cages, which provide a bit more space for our growing youngsters. The change can be very scary for them, so we put lots of greenery and foliage in with them so that they can hide. It usually takes a half day or more for them to regain their confidence in their new surroundings, and during this time we have to be very quiet and patient during the feeds, as they take some time to regain their appetite.
With more spacious accommodation on offer, they are now able to flap, perch and develop their muscles. All of this means that they need a new diet, so we add seed to the mix, which will be their main food source as adult buntings. Wild Cirl Bunting chicks get most of what they need from insects that their parents find, so we also offer some protein in the form of crickets and mealworms. Some take quickly to the new regime and develop quickly, but no two broods are the same, so we have to keep an eye on their growth. Usually they stay in the cages for a week to ten days, and they start to feed for themselves towards the end of this period, taking seed from the small trays provided. Eventually they become completely independent, and become more wary of us, viewing us as a potential predator. This is just what we need if these birds are going to survive on their own, but it seems a shame when they don’t want to know you anymore! How quickly they grow up!
At this point they are ready to be moved to the final stage of rearing – the aviaries. Each brood stays together during the whole process, so each aviary will contain a family group. They are initially put into a canary cage within the aviary, just to get them used to the size of their new living quarters. A day later we allow them the run of the whole structure, which contains large branches and foliage. This is both to give them an exciting adventure playground to test out their new found flying skills, but also gives them cover when predators threaten. From these confined houses they can learn the sights and sounds of the outdoor world before being subject to it themselves – a process known as ‘soft release’. They spend up to a week in the aviaries, and we provide food twice a day here. At the end of this final week, a small panel is removed at the front of the aviary which allows them to escape into the Cornish countryside!
We don’t totally abandon them though. The aviaries are left open for nervous or ill birds to return to seek shelter if they need, and we still put food down for a while after the release. And the field team are on hand to monitor them in their new lives as wild birds. This is what I have been doing in Cornwall for the past five years. It is encouraging to see the population develop, especially when some of the birds I reared in 2006 are still breeding and are now great-great-great-grandparents! I am very proud to be part of this project and pleased to know that I helped in bringing the Cirl Bunting back to Cornwall.