By Malcolm Ellis
First Published in The Avicultural Magazine Vol. 117 No. 3
Copyright © 2011 Avicultural Society, Published with Permission

The idea of Special Interest Groups - groups of keepers and breeders of particular species or families of birds, each with a coordinator to put the keepers and breeders in contact with one another to exchange information and birds; with the aim of forming the maximum possible number of unrelated breeding pairs and establishing self-sustaining captive-breeding populations - was first suggested by Andrew Owen and supported by, if I remember rightly, other members such as Geoff Masson and Nigel Hewston who were present at the Avicultural Society meeting held at Waddesdon Manor on March 31st 2007. With the EU (European Union) ban on the importation of birds about to become permanent, it was vital to establish self-sustaining populations of as many different species as possible, and the idea received the unanimous support of the Avicultural Society. Within a few weeks Andrew produced a list of Special Interest Groups and coordinators, which he forwarded to me for publication in the magazine (see the inside back cover of Vol.113, No.1, 2007). I also arranged for the list to be posted on the society's website ( and sent copies of it to the Foreign Bird League (FBL) and the weekly publication Cage & Aviary Birds (at the time published by IPC Media and published now by the Kelsey Publishing Group).

Andrew was rather disappointed by the initial response (as were, I think, many of the other coordinators). Andrew heard from only one person regarding the Fairy Bluebird Irena puella and, more surprisingly, did not hear from any keepers of the Chestnut-backed Thrush Zoothera dohertyi. He was contacted by a few laughingthrush keepers and through his own enquiries and word of mouth, succeeded in locating about 250 laughingthrushes of some 23 species. Andrew was concerned that a lot of the birds had not been DNA sexed and urged all those with species which are not sexually dimorphic, to get their birds sexed. Towards the end of 2009, the total number of species remained at 23, but the number of laughingthrushes had been revised upwards and the known population was put at 459 birds.

In 2009, the groups received a welcome boost and considerable publicity amongst the wider bird keeping fraternity, when Nick West of Cage & Aviary Birds interviewed the various coordinators and based on these interviews, wrote a series of articles featuring each of the Special Interest Groups in turn. I am sure members will find these articles of great interest if we can get permission to reproduce them in the magazine. Nick wrote not just about the importance of the Special Interest Groups succeeding in establishing self-sustaining captive-breeding populations and how this might be achieved, but also touched upon the careers of the coordinators. I learned, for example, that John Ellis got his first job aged 16 working at Chester Zoo and went on to work with birds in the USA, France and Jersey, and left Chessington Zoo for London Zoo (where he is now Senior Curator of Higher Vertebrates at both London and Whipsnade) in 2000. John continues to coordinate the Special Interest Group for toucans, toucanets and ara├žaris, as well as having recently taken over the society's website and established our presence on Facebook. Geoff Masson, Livestock Manager at Paultons Park, previously worked at Dudley Zoo and Twycross Zoo and Laura Gardner, Curator of Birds at Leeds Castle Aviary, whose interest in the Blue-crowned Laughingthrush Dryonastes courtoisi has taken her to China, previously worked at the zoo in Jersey (what is now the Durrell Wildlife Conservation Trust) and Birdworld, near Farnham, Surrey. Not all of the coordinators are members of the zoo community - another of the coordinators is a Post Office manager living in Kent and another has for many years worked for DEFRA's (the Department for Environment, Food & Rural Affairs') State Veterinary Service.

On the day the first article appeared (and before I had a chance to read it) I received a phone call from a keeper who has bred Pekin Robins Leiothrix lutea and Silver-eared Mesias Leiothrix argentauris L. argentauris, who asked what I needed to know about breeding these? Later I received a call from a lady looking for a mate for her Snowy-crowned Robin-Chat Cossypha niveicapilla, a man breeding Violet Turacos Musophaga violacea and Emerald Doves Chalcophaps indica and a caller seeking a male Toco Toucan Ramphastos toco. He had a female but had lost his previous male with iron storage disease. I hope he got the diet right before he managed to find a new male. I also got a phone call from Dick Jaquest, who was trying to locate a female Lilac-breasted Roller Coracias caudatus. He was obviously successful because at our recent gathering at Paultons Park he told me he has bred nine, all of them parent-reared and has written an article about breeding this species and taken some wonderful photographs.

There have been a few changes since the original list of Special Interest Groups was drawn-up. Early on Philip Schofield came on board and took on the Special Interest Group for seed-eating pigeons and doves and more recently Chris Dunn offered to set up a Special Interest Group for the keepers and breeders of Pekin Robins. Because of his increased responsibilities on becoming Curator of Birds at Chester Zoo, Andrew Owen is no longer so heavily involved with the Special Interest Groups. He will, however, run the group for the Sumatran Laughingthrush Garrulax bicolor, for which he is also European Studbook (ESB) holder. The Special Interest Group for the laughingthrushes (except for the Blue-crowned and Sumatran) is now in the hands of lan Edmans, Curator of Birds at The Rothschild Collection, Waddesdon Manor, and Simon Matthews, Senior Aviary Keeper at Waddesdon. lan fears for the long-term survival of many of the species of laughingthrushes in UK collections. In some cases because of the low numbers remaining and in other cases because although there are more birds, the populations are ageing, with few young birds being bred.

Ian and Simon are also jointly coordinating the Special Interest Group for the Fairy Bluebird. It is now an EAZA (European Association of Zoos and Aquaria) monitored species and, Ian believes, that the captive population should be safe. There are an increasing number of private breeders keeping this species here in the UK, as well as in Europe, where it is now bred regularly in increasing numbers. lan believes there is little point in continuing with the niltava groups, as there are now only three holders of Rufous-bellied Niltavas Niltava sundara in the UK. He fears that unless this species has a couple of good breeding seasons soon, it may well disappear from UK aviculture.

Jamie Graham, Corncrake Release Programme Manager and Deputy Team Leader, HUB/Park Birds, ZSL Whipsnade Zoo and European Studbook (ESB) holder for the Chestnut-backed Thrush, has agreed to continue to act as coordinator of the Avicultural Society Special Interest Group for this increasingly widely kept Indonesian species.

There are, of course, quite a number of species and families missing from the list - the Orange-headed Thrush Zoothera citrinaZ. citrina, some of the other thrushes and the majority of seed-eating species, for instance, are all missing from the list, as are the Lilac-breasted Roller and Blue-bellied Roller Coracias cyanogasterC. cyanogaster. This is not the result of an oversight, but because nobody has come forward and offered to act as a coordinator for these species. At the recent Council Meeting we discussed the possibility of setting up a Special Interest Group for waders (Avocet Recurvirostra avosetta and plovers/lapwings, etc.), but cannot take this forward until we can find someone willing to coordinate such a group. Members of the turaco family we tend to leave to the International Turaco Society (ITS) and other groups such as waterfowl, pheasants, parrots, owls and birds of prey, are better taken care of by the various specialist societies.

It would be pleasing to be able to say that the Special Interest Groups have been a great success, but while coordinators have been able to put a number of breeders looking for a spare male or female in touch with one another, there is no denying that the response has been disappointing. As our previous Hon. Secretary and Treasurer Paul Boulden pointed out to me, breeders tend to turn to the Special Interest Groups only when they need a bird to make up a pair and have been unable to obtain it from their usual contacts. Also, I think it should not be forgotten that in the case of many of these species, there are not as many birds about as there used to be - or we may imagine there are.

The formation of the Special Interest Groups remains a great idea and such groups are crucial if we are going to build-up healthy, self-sustaining captive-breeding populations of as many species as possible. However, if they are to succeed and achieve their full potential it is vital that everybody gives them their fullest support. This should begin with all those who keep species for which there are Special Interest Groups, contacting the appropriate coordinator or coordinators and letting them know which species they keep, how many and of which sex, and the number they breed each year. This information will, of course, remain strictly confidential and will not be disclosed without the breeder's permission.

If there is a species or group of birds for which you feel you would like to set up a Special Interest Group and act as the coordinator, we would be pleased to hear from you. There is, of course, no reason why these groups should not eventually become European (rather than UK) Special Interest Groups. There are lots of interesting birds being bred in Europe.

Hopefully, breeders will be persuaded to write describing their successfully breeding methods and this information can be collated and used to come up with successful breeding protocols.