THE MIRACLE OF SURVIVAL by Jocelyn Yeomans
“I can see it now.” Although it is over 50 years ago, the image is still as fresh to me as it was then. Smoke billowing through the roof of the aviary.
My brother had a passion for breeding budgies, or excuse me – budgerigars. No breeder worth his salt would ever refer to the common abbreviated name.
Bob started this when he was 16 and with the help my Dad constructed his first aviary on a narrow balcony of our apartment. He only had two birds at the time. Blueboy who was a white wing cobalt and Silver who just like her name, pure white. He also wanted them to breed to see what colours the babies would be. Not necessarily taking after the parents, sometimes there could be a throwback. It was so exciting to see the young chicks, four in total, and to watch their progress. There are rather scraggy-looking at first but my bro just loved them. Mum of course had the honour of naming them.
When we moved to a house with a huge garden, it was then time to seriously get into the bird breeding. Still with the initial couple, Blueboy and Silver, and their offsprings, more birds were gradually acquired. All sorts of colours. White wing species, all sorts of colours – purples, mauves, blue, green, grey - along with albinos, lutinos and rainbows. When a breeder in the town had a serious illness, he approached Bob and my parents to acquire some of his stock. He had some real beauties and Bob was in heaven.
The aviary had to be enlarged to accommodate all the birds as we now had 50. It was very well designed. A flight cage which could be divided into two sections. Necessary when the breeding season arrived and ensuring ‘who went with who’. It is quite a process and I don’t remember all the aspects of it all. I was the clean up girl and mucking out the cages. I was schooled very carefully about going near the nesting boxes when they had residents. I used to sing a little song to keep them calm, or so I hoped.
The inside of the aviary was specifically designed so that pairs could go out together without mixing with others. This was a series of corridors with trap doors with a hinge to close and open the door. It took a lot of patience to get the birds in and out and back into their respective cage.
The winters are not that harsh in the south of England where we lived, but there were some nights when it was necessary to provide a little heat into the aviary. This was done with a paraffin heater which gave off no smell and not toxic for the birds. Plus it was only ever put on a very low level.
It was during one of the cold snaps that the incident occurred which has stay with me for so long.
We had a cocker spaniel called Julie, short for Jeweljade Pineridge. I real pedigree as her name implies. She was an albino and had just one brown spot on her tail and another on one of her paws, and of course the red eyes. She loved the budgies and had on one occasion even carried one in her mouth.
Whenever there was a sick bird, it was removed from the aviary and moved into the house for special care. We had Freddy who we called a runner. This was because he couldn’t perch on his feet. Flat footed. There was no cure and as he was being picked on by the other birds, separation was necessary. Mum would let him out of his cage and play ball with him on the dining room table. Each one of them having a matchstick to hit the ping pong ball. He became very adept at this. When he flew around he would head for the window and manage to attach himself to the curtains. Then using his claws was able to maneover all around the curtains and peer out at the garden. Needless to say, the curtains became a bit scratched up but we weren’t that bothered. Good to know that Freddy had some freedom and enjoyment.
Most of the time the dining room door was closed when Freddy was out of his cage and flying around but accidents do happen. In this particular case the door hadn’t quite latched. Freddy must have dropped to the floor, as he often did, and wandered over to the door and went walkies down the hall. None of us were aware of this until Julie came bounding into the lounge and dropped Freddie onto my Mum’s lap out of her mouth. Cockers have such soft mouths and there was not a mark on Freddy. In fact it seemed like the pair of them had a real good romp together first.
Julie also played a big part in the night of the incident.
It must have been around 4 in the morning. Dawn hadn’t quite broken. Julie was pacing and whining. First at Mum and Dad’s bedroom door, then my brother’s and finally mine.. At first none of us took much notice and shooed her away. She was quite persistent . I was the only one who didn’t close their bedroom door. When she finally tugged at my blankets, I knew I had to get up and settle her down. Maybe an urgent pee or something. As I rose, I glanced out of the window and stopped dead in my tracks. There was a billow of smoke coming through the aviary roof.
` Shouting at the top of voice that there was a fire, I ran with Mum, Bob and Julie hot on my heels.
“Get the birds out, open the traps” shouted Bob. No time to consider the patience of the birds going down the corridors and keeping separate. It was just a case of getting every one of them out into the flight cages.
Mum and I opened all the traps and doors as fast as we could while Bob went into the aviary. First thing he did was to remove the paraffin heater where the smoke was billowing around. Then leaving the main door open to get as much air into the inside, he encouraged the birds to leave their cages and go down the corridors towards the doors leading to the flight cages. Some were a little hesitant and probably scared. We had no idea how long the smoke had been accumulating. There were a couple of birds who were lying down on the floor of their cages. Bob scooped them up and put into another cage and placed it outside. Mum quickly took the cage to the house.
Satisfied that all the birds were now out of the aviary and that it was just smoke, no fire, we took stock of what happened. Nothing more could be done right now until all the smoke had dissipated. By now it was almost 5 in the morning and the sun was coming up. Might be just enough to take the chill off the air.
Suddenly Mum stiffened and cried out. “Where’s Silver and Blueboy?”. How she knew just by looking at 50 birds that the pair was not among them I still don’t know. Bob didn’t wait to question and went back into the aviary.
Bob never bred Silver and Blueboy with any other bird. He remained true to his first pair. They now had another brood and the chicks were just a few days old. Again just four.
As Bob gently opened the nesting box, there was Silver sitting on top of her babies, her wings spread as far as possible. Blueboy was also alongside with his wings spread across Silver. Very carefully Bob picked up the family and turned to see Mum with a cardboard box at the ready. Covering them with a light cloth to protect from the cold, we returned to the house.
There were a couple of casualties with the first load of birds we had taken to the house, but the others recovered and were able to return to the aviary. Using fans to clear out the smoke and wiping down all the boxes took up most of the day. By evening, all was restored and the birds were back inside the main aviary. Of course, all the breeding for specific colours went to pot. It would be some months before we found out just ‘who went with who’.
In the meantime, Silver and Blueboy would stay in the house. As Freddy had passed away some months ago, the dining room was set up just for them and the four chicks.
Later that day when we reviewed what had taken place, we were all awestruck with the miracle of survival. Not only would Silver not leave her chicks, Blueboy wouldn’t leave her. I am not sure birds or animals or even humans would have the courage to stay. It will always stay in my mind how protective both birds were.
To this day I can still remember seeing the smoke billowing over the aviary and the feeling of dread I first felt. But never dreamt I would witness such a miracle that we only lost a couple of birds, and that we didn’t lose our perfect pair.
Julie of course was treated as the hero she was. That in itself was a miracle that she knew. As I mentioned, we had a huge garden. It ran a good 100 feet down to the bottom and the aviary was placed about midway. Being wintertime, all the windows in the house were closed, so the smell of smoke probably would not have been picked up. Except by animals who have other senses that we have long ago forgotten how to use.
No matter how it came about, to me it will always be a miracle. One I am glad I experienced and most of all that even after all these years ‘I can still see it now’.