Birdman of a cruel and grey metropolis: Tony Duckett of Regent's Park acts as gamekeeper to four square miles of central London

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TONY DUCKETT scooped a shovelful of smelly little pellets of feed into a bucket and wandered over to a seemingly empty patch of water in the middle of Regent's Park. 'Watch this,' he said, as he chucked some of the bucket's contents into the murk.

Within seconds of the pellets falling, dozens of ducks, geese, swans and seagulls appeared from banks where they had been snoozing, and flapped headlong into a feeding frenzy. Birds seemed to be flying in from all over the park to join the fray, as if they had not seen food for days. There were all sorts of sizes and colours, some with tufts on their heads like floating guardsmen, some bald as, well, coots. Indeed coots, the skinheads of the lake - no hair and nasty - were in the heart of the flutter, squawking and head-butting each other.

'People say that our birds must be under-fed because they are always so eager for food,' Tony said. 'But they're not. They're just right pigs.'

Tony Duckett may well have the best job in London. As his name would suggest, he is in charge of Regent's Park's collection of exotic waterfowl, acting as unofficial gamekeeper for four square miles of greenery in the middle of London's grey. Every morning at dawn he leaves his cottage by the zoo and begins a daily round of caring for the birds in his charge. He rears them, feeds them and buries them.

Occasionally, too, he has to rescue them from the city in which they live. There is a building on Baker Street, for instance, with a huge roof garden which broody ducks seem to find irresistible for egg-laying purposes. Once they have been hatched there, ducklings are obliged to follow their mother back to the nearest water to swim and feed.

'The mother would be quite happy to lead them back here,' said Tony. 'The only problem is, to get here, they'd have to drop off a 10-storey building and waddle along the Marylebone Road. So I get rung up and asked to go and collect them.'

For 15 years he has been doing this sort of thing, since a friend of a friend tipped him off that the park authorities would be prepared to pay him while he indulged his bird-watching hobby. He became head bird-keeper in 1978. During his time he has, through breeding, buying and bartering with other fanciers, built up the numbers and variety of birds to unprecedented levels.

'We have the best public water fowl collection in the country,' said David Castleton, the park manager. 'And it's entirely down to Tony's efforts.'

Much of Tony's work is done in an island compound, which overlooks Winfield House, the United States ambassador's residence. When the President comes to call on his ambassador, Tony gets frogmen in his lake, checking for snipers and being harassed by the swans.

The compound is a flap of neurotic ducks, geese, pheasants and chickens (he uses broody hens to babysit abandoned eggs). A Cape Barren goose stands sentinel by the gate, pecking at the ankles and shoe-laces of visitors in apparent fury.

'That's Croak,' Tony said, picking up the vicious creature, which suddenly went docile in his arms. 'She's quite aggressive. She's blind. I found her shot through the head with an air rifle. Her partner had been killed.'

Croak follows in Tony's footsteps like a little dog. Across the doorway of the 'Duck House', the hut where he and his assistant, Dave, make each other coffee, Tony has constructed a low fence to keep her out ('Geese mess a bit too often to house-train,' he says). When Tony is inside, Croak flaps sadly and blindly at the fence.

'Her mother used to sit in that chair,' he explained. 'So I suppose she thinks she's entitled to come in.' Croak's mother was stolen from the park. 'I think she was taken by a dealer. There's no way she'd have left of her own accord. She was sitting on the nest at the time.'

Dave, incidentally, is a 'twitcher', from the fanatical wing of bird-spotting. When he was in Norfolk last weekend, he heard that a buff-breasted sandpiper had been seen in Nottingham. So he and a friend drove up there to see it. When they arrived, the unusual visitor had been picked off by sparrowhawks.

It is on the compound that Tony and Dave rear fledglings, nurse the injured and clip wings. They look after two groups of birds: the 76 varieties of exotic wildfowl in the official collection and the large numbers of indigenous birds which, mainly because of the regular supplies of food, choose to make their homes there. The law says that the non-native birds have to be clipped to prevent them escaping from collections and ousting natives, in the way grey squirrels overtook the reds.

'If you do it early, it doesn't hurt them,' Tony said. 'I miss clipping some of the youngsters, and they could fly away, but they tend to stay because they were born here.'

One man, who visits the park every day, finds the whole process of clipping intolerable. This old boy, who claims to be on a mission not so much from God as the RSPB, gives Tony constant grief. 'He tries to make me look small in front of the public,' Tony said. 'He says I don't look after the birds properly.'

Once the old man spotted Tony carrying the body of a swan, which had died from avian TB, across the park. 'About an hour later he appeared in my compound, which is a no-go area for the public, and confronted me about the swan. I said I was quite happy to talk to him if he remained civil.'

But he didn't. He produced an axe out of his bag and proceeded to attack Tony with it. 'Luckily he's quite an old chap, and I just disarmed him. I have to say, everyone else who uses the park, the dog-walkers and so on, are really friendly.'

Sheila is one of the less aggressive regulars. She comes down everyday to feed the sparrows, bringing with her two supermarket carriers filled with digestives and a red shoulder bag crammed with Safeway's French Madeleine cakes (sometimes tramps pinch her bags and have an unexpected feast).

She crumbles the digestives on to the railings, then pops halves of Madeleines into the branches for the sparrows to peck at, and overweight wood pigeons to knock off. She preferred, she said, the company of her birds to people. But she likes Tony.

'Ooh, he's marvellous,' she said. 'So gentle to the birds.'

What many of the regulars fail to appreciate is that although the park may be in the middle of a big city, nature is no less red in tooth and claw here than on the plains of Kenya. Sheila with her Madeleines and the old boy with his axe may not like it, but death is never far away in Regent's Park. And Tony is the one who has to pick up the pieces.

Foxes and feral cats constantly prey on his flocks, picking off weaklings. 'You can't cull these predators,' Tony said. 'It's too public a place, and I don't think we'd want to do that sort of thing anyway.'

So to protect his birds, he and his dog round them up at night from their grazing compounds and shoo them on to islands where they will be safer.

'They don't eat them, the foxes,' Tony said. 'They just kill them. They're not hungry, there's loads of food for them in the bins and things. But if they come across a goose, they kill it. Luckily we've only lost three this year to foxes.'

Crows, however, are more of a problem. Last year about 100 of these ugly, muscular predators used to gather on the football fields. 'You just don't see that number of crows grouping in the countryside, and if you did, you'd think they were rooks,' Tony explained. 'Then, suddenly earlier this year, they just went. I think the competition for food became too great, and they decided to try their luck elsewhere. Which is good news for me.'

It is also good news for the waterfowl. Crows like a duck egg, they fancy a baby duck, and they are even partial to a smaller adult goose. They regularly bully pigeons into the lake, then kill them when they are too water- logged to fly away.

Tony once saw a crow flapping over the park with a small rabbit in its beak. As it passed over the lake, its dinner became too heavy and it dropped the rabbit, which proceeded to paddle pathetically to the shore. And there the crow and its mates were, waiting for it, to peck at its eyes.

'We would have saved the rabbit if we could,' Tony recalls. 'But by the time we got over there and frightened off the birds, it was too late.'

If the resident crows, sparrowhawks or kestrels don't get the birds, another danger is lurking in the water, gorging on grebes' eggs and snapping at ducks' feet.

'We've got a terrapin problem. Some of them are this big,' Tony said, spreading his arms like a mendacious fisherman. 'People dumped them in the lake when they got too big for tanks at home, and they have thrived. I have caught one out of curiosity. Come up behind it in the boat. Put it straight back, though. They are snappy little things.'

As yet he has not come across any alligators. 'I don't think they are hardy enough to survive. But having said that, there was a parrot here for about six months over the winter. It made a terrible noise up in the trees all the time. I haven't heard it for a while now.'

As he walked back across the bridge from where he had fed the ducks a couple of hours before, a man and his small son were chucking stale bread from a Sunblest bag into the water. A feeding frenzy had erupted, with a coot in the middle of it.

'Greedy beggars,' Tony said.

(Photograph omitted)

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