Birdman of St Austell prepares to show rare species to the world

Click to follow
The Independent Online

Ever since he was given two budgies as a 12-year-old, Grenville Allen has been interested in birds. So interested, in fact, that today he shares his home with 200 exotic species – and his wife and two-year-old son.

Mr Allen, 37, is so dedicated to the conservation of some of the world's most endangered flying creatures that he has turned a smallholding behind his house in St Austell, Cornwall, into a mini zoo. Now Mr Allen, who is known to his neighbours as the Birdman, is to share his collection with the public.

"My interest in birds started years ago with a pair of budgies in a cage in my bedroom," he said.

"I then started to breed things that were critically endangered, but I never thought I'd be in the position I'm in now. The colours and the variety of the birds are amazing, and in recent years, being able to breed things that very few people have bred is quite an achievement. I get a buzz from seeing the little ones in the nest."

Some of the dazzling creatures in Mr Allen's collection include rare Hawaiian geese, red-breasted geese and an ibis. A snow-white Bali starling that flutters around behind the house is one of only 1,000 left around the world. "There were only four in the wild at the last count," he said. "It's quite possible that there are none now."

A quarter of a century after his parents bought him his first birds, Mr Allen now claims he spends more feeding his collection every month – around £200 – than he does his family.

He has 200 birds in all, most of which live in aviaries behind his house. They feed on a diet of seeds, vegetables and pulses, although if he is feeling generous they might be treated to dog food or – in times of plenty – worms.

Like many families, the Allens are tightening their belts in response to surging global food prices. But with many more mouths to feed than most, Mr Allen says his only option to counter inflation is to cut costs – where the humans are concerned.

"Unfortunately we do not have a bottomless pit of savings," he said. "If we have to eat beans on toast so that the animals get their proper feed, we will do that."

Every keeper has his favourite, and Mr Allen is no exception. "Mine is the kookaburra," he said. "Their call makes you feel like you're in a jungle, and they're full of character."

Mr Allen, who hopes to be granted a zoo licence soon so that he can expand his breeding programme, was faced with having to sell his birds when he was made redundant in January. But by converting his smallholding into a bird sanctuary and inviting members of the public and local schools to pay him a visit, he has managed to avert financial disaster.

He is yet to fix a charge for tourists but interest in the centre is blossoming. Now his prospects look as bright as the bill of his wild touraco. "I've always had a fairly big collection but it's only in the past three or four years that we have moved to the smallholding and really got into it," he says. "It's like all things, you start off at the bottom and work your way up."

The winged wonders in the Birdman's collection

Sacred Ibis

The sacred ibis hails from the wetlands of sub-Saharan Africa, Iraq and Egypt, and is often used as a symbol of the Egyptian god Thoth. It has recently been introduced into France, Italy, Spain and the US, where there are concerns that it will displace local populations of birds such as terns. The sacred ibis feeds on aquatic creatures such as frogs and fish, and makes a distinctive croaking noise.

Violet Turaco

Native to the tropical forests of West Africa, the violet touraco has glossy plumage with a distinctive red and yellow bill and red crest. The females lay two eggs in treetop platform nests. The species has a distinctive call and feeds on fruit, especially figs, and some types of seed. Not thought to be an endangered species, it is nevertheless threatened by deforestation.

Emerald Toucanet

This brightly coloured member of the toucan family is native to Central and South America. It has large bill that usually grows to half the length of its body and can conceal a tongue up to six inches long. The toucanet's habitat is under increasing threat from deforestation, and because they do not migrate like many other birds they are particularly vulnerable.