BILL SMITH has a bittern in his backyard. Found in a paddock near Te Kauwhata, it had had the end of its wing shot off and was unable to fly.
It’s the third bittern Bill has treated at his Waikato property, where he operates the Avian Wildlife Rehabilitation Trust. Bitterns are nationally endangered; the population is no more than 2000, and possibly as few as 500.
The first two birds brought to Bill died, but there’s hope for this one.
“Hamilton Zoo said they’d provide him with a home – if I can get him to eat. In the past they’ve tried with bitterns, but were unsuccessful.”
Bill heard that bitterns are partial to mice. “It turns out mice are their favourite food. This guy initially wasn’t eating so I threw in some mice, and away he went.”
But he needs to eat the mice from a stainless steel dish, says the zoo.
“So I put a stainless steel dish in with him, with two mice near the dish, and one in it, and he ate all the close ones. Then he got the one in the dish.”
The morning we visited, Bill is chuffed because the bittern, probably one of last year’s chicks, had scoffed the lot, all from the dish.
“He wasn’t in terribly good condition when he came in, but he’s eating six or eight mice a day now and putting on weight.”
Because of his injury the bird could never be released.
“Dogs would get him straight away. If he is put into an aviary by himself, he’ll probably be fine.”
Bill says he has to consider the final outcome for any bird that comes in.
“Is it releasable? If not, I have an obligation to euthanise it. Obviously that’s not an option for the bittern, when there are so few around.”
Going to Hamilton Zoo is a perfect solution, for all parties.
Bill and his wife Pauline came to Gordonton three years ago, from Hamilton. He has built an outside aviary, where the bittern is currently residing, and a temperature controlled treatment room with all his gear. Monday to Friday he works as a wealth advisor for KiwiBank.
He got into bird rescue kind of by accident.
“I took a course at Massey University on avian health. A neighbour was working for the SPCA, and one day she brought me a bird they were going to euthanise, saying I’ve got a job for you.”
That was around 2004 and the birds kept arriving, as word spread.
“That first one was a young plover, and I found out later they are not easy to rear. But he got better and was released.”
Fully permitted by Department of Conservation, he’s worked on thousands of birds since then. Last year he treated around 470 – not including ducklings.
“Kaka, tui, kereru, moreporks, shags, shining and long-tailed cuckoos and harriers, as well as introduced birds such as starlings and thrushes. It’s quite diverse really.”
Over a cup of tea, inside conversation is a tad difficult due to loud and persistent screams coming from a room next door – specially adapted, this is where he keeps some of his collection of Australian parrots and a few others.
The chap making all the noise is Oscar, a splendid cockatoo, who wants to be with his favourite person. He is brought out to sit with us.
“You’re going to have to be good,” Bill warns, stroking the bird who positively purrs with the attention.
Oscar is a rescue bird.
“He had been fed a diet of chocolate chip biscuits, sunflower seeds, potato chips – these guys love anything nice and fatty. People so often feed the wrong diet to birds.
“He ended up almost twice normal size and started eating his own fat, ripping it out of his legs.”
Vets couldn’t handle the bird, and had resorted to spraying him with antiseptic. Bill soon sorted him out. “We got him on a good diet and he’s now a happy boy.”
They see all sorts at the centre, he says.
“I had a tui with clipped wings. Someone obviously wanted to keep it around, maybe they had it in a cage, but it got out. It couldn’t fly, and a cat got it.”
For a wild bird, this is virtually a death sentence: “It was too late by the time I saw it; it died three days later.”
The bittern was also a victim of a hunter not identifying their target. “It’s shocking what people do.”
Sometimes it is self-induced – today he has a tui who is feeling sorry for itself after a bit of over-indulging at Hamilton Gardens.
“I think he was just drunk. He couldn’t do anything, had no interest in flying, and had this big crop… I’ll let him go in a day or two.”
Bill has perfected ways of treating his patients. His first step is to administer fluids, then work up to special diets. He is not sure if he has a special skill but has always wanted to help sick and distressed birds. The Massey course helped him understand the needs of his patients. Sadly, it is not offered any more.
And yes, he does grow attached to some of them.
His advice for anyone finding a distressed bird? “Protect yourself and do no harm.”
“Drop a towel over the bird, this makes it easier to catch. Keep it dark quiet, warm, same as you would for a human in shock, and take it to a vet or the SPCA.”
It’s best not to go directly to Bill – “If the vet thinks the bird can be saved, they will contact me and I will pick it up and take it from there.”
In an interview earlier this year, he talks about why he does it – “The most amazing one was a harrier with a broken wing, it had mixed itself up with a truck. We pinned the wing and took it out to a quarry and released it. And to see that bird fly, and then soar down into a pasture and have another harrier come over to investiate, was just an amazing feeling. It makes doing it all worthwhile.”
What, I ask somewhat unfairly, is his favourite bird?
“Of the native birds, probably the morepork, because of its personality. But they’re nasty little beggars, and have very sharp claws,” he says.
“They’re all ungrateful. Not one of them will give you a thank you. Starlings are probably the worst.”
Oscar, at this point, looks up and I swear, winks. How can you thank someone who has saved your life?
Click here for a short Waikato Times’ video on Bill’s work.
And a bonus photo –
Annette revisited Bill and his birds for Home Range magazine, Summer 2019. He’s still going strong and loving helping his feathered birds. If you would like to find out more about his work, visit his site, here.