Bird flu hasn’t stopped me smiling

On February 4th 2021 I was perched of the side of the Sierra Negra mountains in Cape Verde collecting biometric data of red billed tropic birds and deploying GPS trackers. I was blissfully unaware of the events occurring back at Pensthorpe. I knew there were still cases of avian influenza being reported daily in the UK so I kept an eye out from afar; that evening I saw the devastating news of the outbreak. My initial reaction was accompanied with relief that I was currently not working at Pensthorpe as I knew birds would have to be culled to help prevent the spread of the disease and although I understand it is necessary, I know I would not have been comfortable with it.


In this sort of work it is very difficult not to have favourites, my problem in this scenario is that I have many favourites. Any individual that is a little unique or has a noticeable personality catches my attention and once you notice these individuals in the sea of ducks you do feel like you have a bond. Therefore, as soon as I heard the news about the outbreak at Pensthorpe I immediately started to work out who had been moved into which epidemiological unit when the housing order was announced. Who was I going to lose? The partially blind white cheeked pintail, the friendly smew, Hattie the Eurasian crane, the fulvous whistling ducks who would walk in single file and sneak up on me in the dark, or the emperor geese?


I soon found out the outbreak occurred in one of the off-show bird aviaries. Oh dear. Although my first though was, this is not good, in reality I would have thought that wherever the outbreak had been. The problem was I knew the emperor geese were near the outbreak, it was likely they were either dead or going to be culled. If you ever met the emperor geese you will understand what devastating news this was, they often joined the flamingo talks and would be sad if I didn’t call them over. They loved getting attention from people, particularly if it involved food, nibbling fingers, pecking at the red dot on Reserve Warden David’s wellies, boot laces, or worms. Everywhere I went within the area they roamed the emperor geese were sure to be following. At this point I began to receive less information from my colleagues at Pensthorpe, I desperately hoped it was just because they were devastated, but, as I suspected, it was because they did not want to ruin my trip to Cape Verde.


A year on and I can look back on my memories of the emperor geese and all the other birds that were lost with fondness. The connections I make with the collection animals at Pensthorpe are special as they aren’t something you can do with wild birds that are temporarily in your care, so I have learnt to make the most of it. Although the emperor geese are gone it has been great to see all the other birds thriving over the past year. As always the smew with their friendly nature were a pleasure to work with, it was great to be able to see the fulvous whistling ducks’ antics whilst volunteering at Watatunga once we had transferred our remaining ducks there, flamingo BAK who hatched in 2021 has developed a unique personality and it is fascinating to watch his social interactions, and Hattie and Merry the Eurasian cranes switched partners which turned out to be a great decision as both pairs benefitted from the swap, so watching Hattie’s behaviour with the new Mrs Hattie has been very entertaining as well as educational.


Although we may be a little scarred by our experience with the avian influenza outbreak, it has made us appreciate the birds we have a little more and has redoubled our determination to encourage others to appreciate these amazing creatures just as much as we do. To date there has been a horrifying 273 cases of avian influenza in captive bird populations in England since the initial outbreaks in October 2021. Although the threat of bird flu still hangs over us all, and I guess it now always will, I am looking forward to the new year with confidence and cannot wait for the experiences it will bring. Just being amongst the nature at Pensthorpe will always bring a smile to my face.

Aviculture Warden Claudia