1911 Encyclopædia Britannica/Aviary

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AVIARY (from Lat. avis, a bird), called by older writers “volary”, a structure in which birds are kept in a state of captivity. While the habit of keeping birds in cages dates from a very remote period, it is probable that structures worthy of being termed aviaries were first used by the ancient Romans, chiefly for the process of fattening birds for the table. In Varro’s time, 116–127 B.C., aviaries or “ornithones” (from Gr. ὄρνις, ὄρνιθος, bird) were common. These consisted of two kinds, those constructed for pleasure, in which were kept nightingales and other song-birds, and those used entirely for keeping and fattening birds for market or for the tables of their owners. Varro himself had an aviary for song-birds exclusively, while Lucullus combined the two classes, keeping birds both for pleasure and as delicacies for his table. The keeping of birds for pleasure, however, was very rarely indulged in, while it was a common practice with poulterers and others to have large ornithones either in the city or at Sabinum for the fattening of thrushes and other birds for food.

Ornithones consisted merely of four high walls and a roof, and were lighted with a few very small windows, as the birds were considered to pine less if they could not see their free companions outside. Water was introduced by means of pipes, and conducted in narrow channels, and the birds were fed chiefly upon dried figs, carefully peeled, and chewed into a pulp by persons hired to perform this operation.

Turtle-doves were fattened in large numbers for the market on wheat and millet, the latter being moistened with sweet wine; but thrushes were chiefly in request, and Varro mentions one ornithon from which no less than five thousand of these birds were sold for the table in one season.

The habit of keeping birds in aviaries, as we understand the term, for the sake of the pleasure they afford their owners and for studying their habits is, however, of comparatively recent date. The beginning of geographical research in the 15th century brought with it the desire to keep and study at home some of the beautiful forms of bird-life which the explorers came across, and hence it became the custom to erect aviaries for the reception of these creatures. In the 16th century, in the early part of which the canary-bird was introduced into Europe, aviaries were not uncommon features of the gardens of the wealthy, and Bacon refers to them in his essay on gardening (1597). Elizabeth of Bohemia, the daughter of James I. of England, when a child, had an outdoor aviary at Coombe Abbey near Coventry, the back and roof of which were formed of natural rock, in which were kept birds of many species from many countries.

Within recent years the method of keeping birds in large aviaries has received considerable attention, and it is fully recognized that by so doing, not only do we derive great pleasure, but our knowledge of avian habits and mode of living can thereby be very considerably increased.

An aviary may be of almost any size, from the large cage known, on account of its shape, as the “Crystal Palace aviary,” to a structure as large as a church; and the term is sometimes applied to the room of a house with the windows covered with wire-netting; but as a rule it is used for outdoor structures, composed principally of wire-netting supported on a framework of either iron or woodwork. For quite hardy birds little more than this is necessary, providing that protection is given in the form of growing trees and shrubs, rock-work or rough wooden shelters. For many of the delicate species, however, which hail from tropical countries, warmth must be provided during the inclement months of the year, and thus a part at least of an aviary designed for these birds must be in the form of a wooden or brick house which can be shut up in cold weather and artificially warmed.

The ideal aviary, probably, is that which is constructed in two parts, viz. a well-built house for the winter, opening out into a large wire enclosure for use in the summer months. The doors between the two portions may be of wood or glazed. The part intended as the winter home of the birds is best built in brick or stone, as these materials are practically vermin-proof and the temperature in such a building is less variable than that in a thin wooden structure. The floor should be of concrete or brick, and the house should be fitted with an efficient heating apparatus from which the heat is distributed by means of hot-water pipes. Any arrangement which would permit the escape into the aviary of smoke or noxious fumes is to be strongly condemned. Such a house must be well lighted, preferably by means of skylights; but it is a mistake to have the whole roof glazed, at least half of it should be of wood, covered with slates or tiles. Perches consisting of branches of trees with the bark adhering should be fixed up, and, if small birds are to be kept, bundles of bushy twigs should be securely fixed up in corners under the roofs.

The outer part, which will principally be used during the summer, though it will do most birds good to be let out for a few hours on mild winter days also, should be as large as possible, and constructed entirely of wire-netting stretched on a framework of wood or iron. If the latter material is selected, stout gas-piping is both stronger and more easily fitted together than solid iron rods.

If the framework be of wood, this should be creosoted, preferably under pressure, or painted with three coats of good lead paint, the latter preservative also being used if iron is the material selected.

Aviary 1.png

Fig. 1.

The wire-netting used may be of almost any sized mesh, according to the sized birds to be kept, but as a general rule the smallest mesh, such as half or five-eighths of an inch, should be used, as it is practically vermin-proof, and allows of birds of any size being kept. Wire-netting for aviaries should be of the best quality, and well galvanized. The new interlinked type is less durable than the old mesh type, though perhaps it looks somewhat neater when fixed.

Provision must be made for the entire exclusion of such vermin as rats, stoats and weasels, which, if they were to gain access, would commit great havoc amongst the birds. The simplest and most effectual method of doing this is by sinking the wire-netting some 2 ft. into the ground all round the aviary, and then turning it outwards for a distance of another foot as shown in the annexed cut (fig. 1).

The outer part of the aviary should be turfed and planted with evergreen and deciduous shrubs, and be provided with some means of supplying an abundance of pure water for the birds to drink and bathe in; a gravel path should not be forgotten.

Perhaps the most useful type of aviary is that built as above described, but with several compartments, and a passage at the back by which any compartment may be visited without the necessity of passing through and disturbing the birds in other compartments. Fig. 2 represents a ground plan of an aviary of this type divided into four compartments, each with an inner house 10 ft. square, and an outer flight of double that area. The outer flights are intended to be turfed, and planted with shrubs, and the gravel path has a glazed roof above it by which it is kept dry in wet weather. Shallow water-basins are shown, which should be supplied by means of an underground pipe and a cock which can be turned on from outside the aviary; and they must be connected with a properly laid drain by means of a waste plug and an overflow pipe.

An aviary should always be built with a southern or south-eastern aspect, and, where possible, should be sheltered from the north, north-east and north-west by a belt of fir-trees, high wall or bank, to protect the birds from the biting winds from these quarters.

When parrots of any kind are to be kept it is useless to try to grow any kind of vegetation except grass, and even this will be demolished unless the aviary is of considerable size. The larger parrots will, in fact, bite to pieces not only living trees but also the woodwork of their abode, and the only really suitable materials for the construction of an aviary for these birds are brick or stone and iron; and the wire-netting used must be of the stoutest gauge or it will be torn to pieces by their strong bills.

Aviary 2.png

Fig. 2.—Plan of 4-compartment Aviary for Foreign Birds.

The feeding of birds in aviaries is, obviously, a matter of the utmost importance, and, in order that they may have what is most suitable, the aviculturist should find out as much as possible of the wild life of the species he wishes to keep, or if little or nothing is known about their mode of living, as is often the case with rare forms, of nearly related species whose habits and food are probably much the same, and he should endeavour to provide food as nearly as possible resembling that which would be obtained by the birds when wild. It is often, however, impossible to supply precisely the same food as would be obtained by the birds had they their liberty, but a substitute which suits them well can generally be obtained. The majority of the parrot tribe subsist principally upon various nuts, seed and fruit, while some of the smaller parrakeets or paroquets appear to feed almost exclusively upon the seeds of various grasses. Almost all of these are comparatively easy to treat in captivity, the larger ones being fed on maize, sunflower-seed, hemp, dari, oats, canary-seed, nuts and various ripe fruits, while the grass-parrakeets thrive remarkably well on little besides canary-seed and green food, the most suitable of which is grass in flower, chickweed, groundsel and various seed-bearing weeds. But there is another large group of parrots, the Loriidae or brush-tongued parrots, some of the most interesting and brightly coloured of the tribe, which, when wild, subsist principally upon the pollen and nectar of flowers, notably the various species of Eucalyptus, the filamented tongues of these parrots being peculiarly adapted for obtaining this. In captivity these birds have been found to live well upon sweetened milk-sop, which is made by pouring boiling milk upon crumbled bread or biscuit. They frequently learn to eat seed like other parrots, but, if fed exclusively upon this, are apt, especially if deprived of abundance of exercise, to suffer from fits which are usually fatal. Fruit is also readily eaten by the lories and lorikeets, and should always be supplied.

The foreign doves and pigeons form a numerous and beautiful group which are mostly hardy and easily kept and bred in captivity. They are for the most part grain-feeders and require only small corn and seeds, though a certain group, known as the fruit-pigeons, are fed in captivity upon soft fruits, berries, boiled potato and soaked grain.

The various finches and finch-like birds form an exceedingly large group and comprise perhaps the most popular of foreign aviary birds. The weaver-birds of Africa are mostly quite hardy and very easily kept, their food consisting, for the most part, of canary-seed. The males of these birds are, as a rule, gorgeously attired in brilliant colours, some having long flowing tail-feathers during the nuptial season, while in the winter their showy dress is replaced by one of sparrow-like sombreness. The grass-finches of Australasia contain some of the most brilliantly coloured birds, the beautiful grass-finch (Poëphila mirabilis) being resplendent in crimson, green, mauve, blue and yellow. Most of these birds build their nests, and many rear their young, successfully in outdoor aviaries, their food consisting of canary and millet seeds, while flowering grasses provide them with an endless source of pleasure and wholesome food. The same treatment suits the African waxbills, many of which are extremely beautiful, the crimson-eared waxbill or “cordon-bleu” being one of the most lovely and frequently imported. These little birds are somewhat delicate, especially when first imported, and during the winter months require artificial warmth.

There is a very large group of insectivorous and fruit-eating birds very suitable for aviculture, but their mode of living necessarily involves considerable care on the part of the aviculturist in the preparation of their food. Many birds are partially insectivorous, feeding upon insects when these are plentiful, and upon various seeds at other times. Numbers of species again which, when adult, feed almost entirely upon grain, feed their young, especially during the early stages of their existence, upon insects; while others are exclusively insect-eaters at all times of their lives. All of these points must be considered by those who would succeed in keeping and breeding birds in aviaries.

It would be almost an impossibility to keep the purely insectivorous species, were it not for the fact that they can be gradually accustomed to feed on what is known as “insectivorous” or “insectile” food, a composition of which the principal ingredients generally consist of dried ants' cocoons, dried flies, dried powdered meat, preserved yolk of egg,[1] and crumb of bread or biscuit. This is moistened with water or mixed with mashed boiled potato, and forms a diet upon which most of the insectivorous birds thrive. The various ingredients, or the food ready made, can be obtained at almost any bird-fancier's shop. Although it is a good staple diet for these birds, the addition of mealworms, caterpillars, grubs, spiders and so forth is often a necessity, especially for purely insectivorous species.

The fruit-eating species, such as the tanagers and sugar-birds of the New World, require ripe fruit in abundance in addition to a staple diet such as that above described, while for such birds as feed largely upon earth-worms, shredded raw meat is added with advantage.

Many of the waders make very interesting aviary birds, and require a diet similar to that above recommended, with the addition of chopped raw meat, mealworms and any insects that can be obtained.

Birds of prey naturally require a meat diet, which is best given in the form of small, freshly killed mammals and birds, the fur or feathers of which should not be removed, as they aid digestion.

The majority of wild birds, from whatever part of the world they may come, will breed successfully in suitable aviaries providing proper nesting sites are available. Large bundles of brushwood, fixed up in sheltered spots, will afford accommodation for many kinds of birds, while some will readily build in evergreen shrubs if these are grown in their enclosure. Small boxes and baskets, securely fastened to the wall or roof of the sheltered part of an aviary, will be appropriated by such species as naturally build in holes and crevices. Parrots, when wild, lay their eggs in hollow trees, and occasionally in holes in rocks, making no nest,[2] but merely scraping out a slight hollow in which to deposit the eggs. For these birds hollow logs, with small entrance holes near the top, or boxes, varying in size according to the size of the parrots which they are intended for, should be supplied. In providing nesting accommodation for his birds the aviculturist must endeavour to imitate their natural surroundings and supply sites as nearly as possible similar to those which the birds, to whatever order they may belong, would naturally select.

Aviculture is a delightful pastime, but it is also far more than this; it is of considerable scientific importance, for it admits of the living birds being studied in a way that would be quite impossible otherwise. There are hundreds of species of birds, from all parts of the world, the habits of which are almost unknown, but which may be kept without difficulty in suitable aviaries. Many of these birds cannot be studied satisfactorily in a wild state by reason of their shy nature and retiring habits, not to mention their rarity and the impossibility, so far as most people are concerned, of visiting their native haunts. In suitable large aviaries, however, their nesting habits, courtship, display, incubation, moult and so forth can be accurately observed and recorded. The keeping of birds in aviaries is therefore a practice worthy of every encouragement, so long as the aviaries are of sufficient size and suitable design to allow of the birds exhibiting their natural habits; for in a large aviary they will reveal the secrets of their nature as they never would do in a cage or small aviary.  (D. S.-S.) 

  1. It has recently been stated by certain medical men that egg-food in any form is an undesirable diet for birds, owing to its being peculiarly adapted to the multiplication of the bacillus of septicaemia, a disease which is responsible for the death of many newly imported birds. It is a significant fact, however, that insectivorous species, which are those principally fed upon this substance, are not nearly so susceptible to this disease as seed-eating birds which rarely taste egg; and in spite of what has been written concerning its harmfulness, the large majority of aviculturists use it, in both the fresh and the preserved state, with no apparent ill effects, but rather the reverse.
  2. There is, however, one true nest-building parrot, the grey-breasted parrakeet (Myopsittacus monachus), which constructs a huge nest of twigs. The true love-birds (Agapornis) may also be said to build nests, for they line their nest-hole with strips of pliant bark.