Harry Carr – Seriously Softbills
(Late of Gladesville, NSW)
Text and Photos by Simon Degenhard
This article was written in 2009 and first published in Australian Aviary Life magazine, 2009
The name Harry Carr is virtually synonymous with softbills in this country and in fact mention the term softbill to older members of the Australian avicultural community and Harry’s name will often be the first thing to come to mind. He is known across the country for being a driving force behind improving the profile of softbills within Australian aviculture and helping to establish the numerous species available to bird keepers in as many collections as possible over the last 2-3 decades.
I have known Harry for some 12-13 years and he was instrumental in developing my own interest in not only softbills but also pigeons and doves, to this day this fascination with this wide and varied group of birds is still as strong as ever and sees my current collection include Satin Bowerbirds and Blue-faced Honeyeaters. Since I have known Harry I have spent many a day at his place just talking softbills and observing and photographing the birds and no matter how many times I visit, the variety and beauty of the numerous species he keeps in his collection never ceases to amaze me.
Recently I took the opportunity to sit down with Harry and ask about where his passion for all things softbill started and I am pleased to be able to share some of Harry’s story with you, our readers.
The first thing Harry pointed out when asked how his fascination with softbills arose was that he was in fact a failed parrot keeper in the beginning, who turned to softbills after an amazing and eye opening trip to Europe in the mid 80’s. At this time the majority of bird collections in Australia consisted mainly of parrots, along with a few dedicated finch breeders, softbills were virtually unheard of in aviculture here and only a handful of dedicated individuals were trying their hand at this so called “intensive care” group of birds.
The trip in question involved a group of Australian aviculturalists, including high profile breeders such as the late Stan Sindel and the late Harry Stephens (who was involved with setting up of the bird collection at Featherdale Wildlife Park in the early days) among others. The trip took place in 1984 and took the group through the UK, Belgium, Holland, Germany and Italy. Harry recalls that the majority of collections they visited consisted of a spectacular array of exotic parrots, but it was a small number of collections, mainly in Holland that included some absolutely breathtaking softbill species that really caught his eye and the eye of other members of the group. After seeing these amazing birds in Holland the seed was well and truly planted and Harry and Stan along with a couple of the others returned home with softbills on their minds.
Over the next couple of years Harry set about changing his existing aviaries and building new ones to provide suitable accommodation for the large and varied collection of softbills he was starting to amass. With every new species he added to his collection, Harry’s passion for this diverse group of birds only grew stronger and he soon found himself constantly encouraging others to give softbills a go. In 1986 it was this desire to promote the keeping of softbills in this country that led to Harry and Terry Atkinson starting a specialised club to cater for the growing number of softbill keepers in Australia. So this was how ‘The Softbill and Native Pigeon Society of Australia’ came to be and with a core group of some twenty members they set about improving the profile of these beautiful birds.
It was decided that the club would meet bi-monthly and Harry kindly made his home available for this purpose. They also set about putting together a bi-monthly newsletter for the members, which included articles relating to member’s experiences with their birds along with any other relevant information they could find. Club membership gradually increased and to this day the membership remains steady at 50+ members and Harry still hosts the bi-monthly meetings at his place.
With his collection constantly expanding, Harry found himself learning more and more about softbills everyday and he was thoroughly enjoying the challenge of keeping these birds. During this time Harry was one of the pioneers in the early development of softbill soft foods which were devised in order to provide a convenient and easy to feed nutritious supplement to the varied types of live food that made up the bulk of the wild diet of this group of birds.
In subsequent years with the increased numbers of breeders keeping softbills, the methods of keeping them and the diets that were provided to them were being constantly revised and improved upon and along with these advancements came increased success. Through ongoing research into this group of birds our knowledge of them is still continually increasing and with the advent of specialised formulated insectivorous diets such as ‘INSECTA-PRO™’ by Vetafarm, keeping them is becoming easier all the time, products such as this make the supplementary feeding of live food non-essential for some species and it is now possible to breed these softbills without the provision of supplementary live food at all, though most breeders do still offer varying amounts of live food to their birds. Advances such as this have made the keeping of softbills increasingly easier and are helping to encourage more aviculturalists to give them a go.
Harry has long been known for his extensive collection of softbills and to this day he still maintains one of the largest collections of softbills in this country. The list of species he has kept and/or currently keeps includes: All species of Bowerbird with the exception of the Golden Bowerbird; most species of wrens including both Striated and Thick-billed Grasswrens; 10+ species of honeyeater including Spiny-Cheeked, Blue-faced, Scarlet, Yellow-Tufted and Eastern Spinebills; Scarlet, Red-capped and Eastern Yellow Robins; Crimson, Orange and White-fronted Chats; Yellow-bellied Sunbird, Eastern Whipbird, Olive-backed Oriole, Figbird, White-browed Woodswallow, Silvereye, Metallic Starling, Rainbow Bee-eater, Sacred Kingfisher, Noisy Pitta, Buff-banded Rail, Black-winged Stilt and the Masked Lapwing. He has also kept/currently keeps a large variety of pigeons and doves such as White-headed, Spinifex, Squatter, Brush Bronzewing, Flock, Partridge, Topknot, Brown, White-quilled Rock, Wompoo and Nicobar Pigeons; Rose-crowned and Purple-crowned Fruit-doves; Peaceful, Bar-shouldered, Barbary and Ruddy Turtle Doves.
Harry considers his success with the breeding and subsequent establishment in captivity of both the Rose-crowned and Purple-crowned Fruit-doves to be his greatest achievement over the years. Harry along with a breeder from South Australia were given the opportunity to keep these beautiful birds in 1979-80 when Dr. H J Frith of the CSIRO offered the birds to them upon the disposal of the pigeon and dove collection that had been collected as part of an in-depth study that was carried out by Dr. Frith and D K Rushton in Canberra during the 1970’s. Having been afforded this opportunity, Harry set about increasing the numbers of the small captive populations of both species and along the way pioneered the development of a specialised fruit-dove diet, along with a number of other husbandry techniques. He was able to breed good numbers during the mid-late 80’s and into the early 90’s and by the mid-late 90’s both the Rose-crowned and the Purple-crowned Fruit-doves were considered to be well established in Australian aviaries.
Another highlight Harry recalls was the breeding of a lutino Satin Bowerbird in 1995. As would be expected, it caused quite a stir and news of this breeding didn’t take long to circulate. Unfortunately this bird was never bred from and the parents also failed to produce any more lutino chicks.
Harry has been, and still is, one of the most influential aviculturalists in Australia when it comes to the keeping of softbills and his tireless work with regards to the promotion of this wonderful group of birds has helped to cement the place of softbills within Australian aviculture. All along the journey Harry has supported and helped anyone who has showed even the slightest interest in softbills to the point where not only has he given countless hours of his time but he has also given many pairs of birds to budding softbill keepers just to give them a start and hopefully get them hooked for years to come.
Harry’s contribution to Australian aviculture with regards to softbill keeping has been huge and his efforts are such that they will be long remembered, so thank you Harry for showing us that softbills can be successfully kept and bred and convincing so many aviculturalists that they are worthy of a place in their collections.
Footnote: Harry Carr passed away in 2012; his contribution to Australian aviculture and his love of softbills will long be fondly remembered by those who were lucky enough to know him. Harry was no doubt a pioneer of aviculture in this country.
May you continue to Rest in Peace, my dear friend.