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Jo'Burg Days: Fischer's And Cocktails

...I acquired a collection of Fischer’s Lovebirds which I’d been told, were easy to breed and much in demand as pets...

Barbara Durlacher recalls how she entered the bird business.

Many years ago I had a weekend job as the switchboard operator in what was then called The Gold Mine Museum, in southern Johannesburg. This interesting museum was established on the grounds of one of Johannesburg’s earliest mines, and much of the original infrastructure remains, including the pre-fabricated corrugated iron miner’s cottages and the mine headgear.

The little cottages are filled with period clothes, furniture and artefacts and a few carriages are kept in the stables, as a reminder of the fragile methods of transport in days past. Today the museum is much changed and improved but is more popular than ever, especially with tourists and families wanting a day out, as a large funfair forms part of the complex.

The reception and ticket offices and the main switchboard were also in a larger corrugated iron house, with a wide veranda stretching along the three sides of the building. Like all the houses of the period, the edges of the veranda were lined with “blikkies,” metal containers of all sizes; from paraffin tins to old buckets with holes in them, all planted with slips of whatever had taken the owner’s fancy to be carefully nursed to maturity. The motley collection could never be called beautiful or of any special interest, but in the harsh and dusty conditions of life on one of the earliest goldmines of the Witwatersrand, the plants provided small spots of greenery and eventually, if the nurturing had been successful, in many cases, occasional splashes of colour to relieve the drabness.

Also to be found everywhere on the Reef were the all pervading eucalyptus trees which had been introduced from Australia and planted in a myriad of plantations across most of the Highveld. Acting as windbreaks and destined for use in the mines where the straight, fast-growing timber became the essential pit-props for shoring-up the tunnels, this tree is today regarded as an alien invader. They denude the soil of nutrients, dry up the water courses and spread fires as their oil-laden leaves and the fine mist of oily particles which the leaves exude on a hot day or during a forest fire instantly ignite in the presence of an open flame, causing huge fireballs which can leap 20 – 30 feet into virgin forest, starting new wild-fires and making a conflagration almost impossible to control. In true old-timer tradition, the Gold Mine Museum, as I knew it, had plenty of gum or eucalyptus trees, and the sound of their leaves rustling and ceaselessly moving even on a still day, will always remind me of the time I spent there.

Another sound that was even more prevalent in and around the area where I worked, was the calls of a large number of yellow cockatiels. They were housed in a large wire-mesh aviary on the veranda not far from my window. There must have been about 30 or 40 of these charming birds in the cage and it was becoming distinctly overcrowded as clearly they were habituated to life in the aviary and bred prolifically.

Not long after I had begun to work at the Museum, I had a fancy to own a pair of the lemon yellow and white birds with their charming little crests, and with the permission of the authorities, one of the security guards managed to catch two of them despite the flutter it caused when he made the attempt. I took them home and obtained a large cage which I hung on my front porch with plenty of fresh air, sun and shade and many attractive trees and bushes alive with garden birds for their diversion.

I found my new acquisitions enchanting, as during their lives at the Museum they had learnt to imitate the various rings of the mining cage signalling to the operator to let the men down into the mine or bring them to the surface. Intermittently throughout the day, the birds “rang dem bells” in exact imitation of the noise they were so accustomed to hearing.

Then one day one of my birds laid an egg and this prompted me to go into breeding birds on a larger scale. Employing the services of a handyman friend, a much larger aviary was constructed in the garden and at first singly, and then in larger numbers, I acquired a collection of Fischer’s Lovebirds which I’d been told, were easy to breed and much in demand as pets.

The idea with many of the cage birds with whom we are familiar, from the small budgies and canaries, cockatiels and lovebirds up to the more unusual and beautiful Grass Parakeets and Cockatoos, is to breed them and, with selective cross-breeding, to obtain specialised coloured plumage.

At the time I had the Fischers Lovebirds, achieving a very dark, almost a navy blue was all the rage, and the prices offered for the first person to accomplish this would be sure to sell it, or its offspring, for an extremely high price. Bear in mind that the natural colouring of these birds is a green body with lime green underparts, a bright red beak, a dark eye circled with white, with a black patch on the top of the head, and the forehead, and cheeks and throat a bright orange shading to yellow on the breast and nape of the neck. The only hint of blue is on the tail feathers which can vary from a deep steel-blue to a soft black, and you will have some idea of the difficulties of selective cross-breeding to produce a deep navy blue while retaining the dark eye, as albinism (pink eye) is not permitted.

I can’t remember what the going rate was for a dark-blue Fischers at that time, but I do know that the race was on for a specialist breeder to produce a very dark blue without any contrasting colour in the magnificent and a great deal more expensive blue, yellow and red-tailed Amazon Mackaw. There are many sky-blue birds of this species on the market known as Hyacinth Macaws, but true to form and always seeking the unattainable, breeders were after an even darker hue – some of them even aspiring to a navy, or marine blue as a true rarity. If anyone were to reach such heights of genetic cross-breeding, opinion was that a single bird would be worth in the region of R40 000 to R60 000 (approx. £3000 to £5000). This was an astonishing figure, considering that a reasonable small car could be bought at that time for less than R100 000 (approx. £8000).

One day, while watching the activity in the aviary, I noticed one of the females holding up her wing and, as I thought, catching mites or fleas in her ‘armpit’. When she flew back to the nest, I noticed she had blood on her beak, but being a complete amateur, I did not take much notice until after further observation I realised she was taking pieces of her own flesh back to the nest to feed her young, in place of the protein which was absent in their diet. After making enquiries of other bird fanciers I made additions of mashed hard-boiled eggs, and Pro-Nutro, a protein-rich baby food developed in South Africa.

Made from maize, skim-milk powder, groundnut flour, soya flour, and fish protein concentrate with added vitamins this certainly seemed to do the trick and there were no further demonstrations of incipient cannibalism in the aviary. The birds thrived and continued to breed for many years, although I never managed to achieve the navy blue form. This was just as well, as not long afterwards I gave up the bird business and left the area, selling the stock to another fancier with more time and energy to continue the quest.

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