JOHN BUTLER, NSW.
When I was first asked by Paul to select an Australian aviculturist to introduce to readers the name John Butler immediately sprang to mind. I asked myself why this was, as I have met and talked with some great bird people over the years yet it was John’s name that kept echoing around my brain – plenty of room in there to do that some no doubt think!
So, how did this state of affairs come about? I must take a
‘trip down memory lane’ here as I was the tender age of 18 when I first spoke to
John and asked him about some finches. I can now admit to being a tad nervous as
my last two efforts at obtaining finches had resulted in highly priced rubbish
and finches that came with a pension plan! I had read a few articles written by
John and was rapt when he just drawled down the phone "Yeah mate, tell me what
you want and I’ll send ‘em down to ya." With trepidation based on my last two
experiences I drove to the airport and collected my birds. Now, too many years
to mention later, I am still getting birds from John, or JB as many
affectionately know him, and annoying him and his wife, Margarette, at every
given opportunity at their Hunter Valley residence!
John and Margarette live at Branxton, some 22kms from Cessnock and in the middle of the picturesque Hunter Valley of NSW – or, as John would have us believe, God’s Own Country! This area is in the famous wine belt of NSW and the Pokolbin/Rothbury vineyards are but a temptingly short drive away! Should you ever be up that way when the Hunter Valley Branch of the Finch Society of Australia meets you can bet that there is a wide selection of the areas best wines that John has squeezed out of some unsuspecting vineyard to bolster the Club’s raffle!
This area is usually very lush and has summer temperatures on the mid to high side of 30degrees. Winter nights can be cold and John stated one day that it was minus 8 degrees one morning- but what he neglected to add was that it was 20 degrees by lunchtime! Those of you, like me, that live in ‘cooler climes’ can only dream of what we could breed given the climatic conditions of "God’s own country" – with its warm temperatures and acres of seeding grasses!!!
Many of you will possibly know John for his work with the Golden Song Sparrow and the Green Strawberry. Without his dedication and excellent finch breeding techniques both of these species may well have been lost to us in aviculture in this country. I shall relate his work with the Green strawb as it the one I know the most about! Back in the ‘bad old days’ when these finches were practically unheard of John acquired a pair that were known to be fertile but had defied a number of breeders attempts to get them to rear their own young. John took the eggs from this pair and fostered them under the Orange-breasted waxbill with excellent results – 18 young for the season. During that breeding season John purchased any odd Green strawbs that were for sale, regardless of age and condition, and used these with his 18 fostered birds to establish a colony. The fact that Johns fostered birds proved to be excellent parents in the next season probably says it all for his fostering technique. The following year 54 young were produced but the exact number bred during the next season was 84 – not a bad effort!! The same year as the 84 Green strawbs were bred John also graced the perches with 54 Golden song sparrows – a very impressive double!
Fig.1. Back Large Aviaries.
Fig.2. Back Smaller Flights
Fig.3. Front Flights.
Just to prove that this was not simply a one off he replicated this success for a number of seasons without having to resort to the use of foster birds again.
My first dealings with Golden Song Sparrows were rather successful and I was able to breed 16 youngsters myself one season. Unfortunately I was to choose that season to finally meet John and see first hand the colour of his ‘Songies’. Deflated was the only word I could use to describe what I felt like when I saw the colours of his cock birds. They made my males look like hens!! "Yeah, well ya see son, things are always brighter up here!" was his wry comment when I commented upon them. Put in my place yet again, but I did return home with the best male ‘songies’ we’d ever had!!
Following a serious accident at his coalmine workplace John was forced to retire from the work force at a young age and the legacy of his accident has impacted upon his bird keeping. During his recuperation the onerous task of caring for Johns birds fell to his wife, Margarette. As a bird breeding team they are second to none! Margarette's scrapbook pictures of the charges she has hand reared – from Crested pigeons to tiny Red siskins- say it far better than I ever could!
Fig.4. Cinnamon Star.
Fig.6. Red-hooded siskin.
Perhaps one of the key factors in my choice of JB as one of the most influential finch breeders I have known is his willingness to share his techniques and ‘bird secrets’ with lesser lights. An afternoon spent going over his husbandry methods and being shown the smallest details that make his aviaries ‘tick’ is something I will always remember. Many I have encountered are loathe to share this knowledge with you but, not so JB. He is also prepared to listen and has always updated every aspect of his husbandry by taking on board and trialing new innovations. No one could accuse him of remaining stagnant as far as his birds go.
A bit of a wag at the best of time John never lets up on telling me about his termite collecting trips, knowing full well that we don’t have them down here!! Nothing worse than being told all about them when half your husbandry is devoted to trying to replace them in your own birds diet! If I hear one more time about "free range maggots" I may scream!! However, if you really want to see a twinkle appear in those eyes ask John if he has any pussycat tales to tell – but be prepared to collapse with laughter though!
At present John maintains a large collection of native
Australian and foreign finches, which includes Red stars (and many of their
mutations), Longtails, Masks, Diggles Parsons, Redbrows, Blue-caps, Cordons,
Pictorellas, Orangebreasts and the list goes on and on! He sticks with many of
the finches he calls his ‘bread and butter birds’ but we feel it is only a
matter of time before Tanimbars and Orange-cheek waxbills find their way back to
The aviaries themselves are constructed from metal pipe and are welded together. They are the typical NSW-type design of half the aviary as an open flight and half filled in as a shelter where the finches breed. The foundations of the two main breeding aviaries are brick to allow some depth for adding a well draining flooring material. On some aviaries there are full Polycarbonate-based plastic sheets that cover the entire roof section but the fronts remain full open. The Cessnock area has a fair rainfall and, having seen it for myself, when it rains it really rains!! For this reason the floors of all open flights are covered with a crushed river rock or mine tailings. These are usually at least 15cms deep and allow the rain to drain off rather than sitting there as an environment for parasites. The floors of the shelters are concrete and easy to clean, add to that a sprinkling of sand and you have it!
John has 1 banks of 5 aviaries that are 4m long and 2 meters wide, another that is 3m long and 2 meters wide and a large block of 2 for the more robust species ( such as weavers, Whydahs, Chaffinches and Crimson chats) that measure 17m long and 2 m wide. In this large aviary there are trees growing, pebbles on the floor and a completely covered shelter packed with nesting sites.
A few years back during a period of high rainfall a number of Hunter Valley breeders experienced real problems with protozoal parasites – caused by these wetter than normal conditions. Following a host of tests and counter tests by a number of vets the problem was shown to be the ceramic bowls used for drinking. Apparently the protozoans hid in the porous walls of the bowls and emerged after the bowls had been cleaned and re-contaminated the ‘clean’ water in the bowls. So, off went JB on the scrounge and purchased a heap of stainless steel trays which now serve as ‘protozoal free’ waterers! Told you he was sharp!
Fig.7. A Healthy Diet!
Fig.8. The Termite-inator!
Fig.9. Inside Front Flights.
However, the past couple of years have not been kind to the Butler family but, despite all that life could throw at them, their hospitality, sense of humour and bird breeding prowess has not diminished. Let us all hope that John and Margarette keep on breeding finches for a long time to come, for all our sakes!
By way of completing this attempt to introduce you to JB I will leave you with his honour call and wants lists – a thing dear to ALL finch keepers’ hearts everywhere!
How Long Have You Been In Birds?
"I started keeping them when I was 10, so let’s see, that would be 50 years, cripes that long!"
The Best Finch breeder you have Met Over the Years:
"That would have to be Ken Rix, the best bird man I have ever encountered" Ken is a resident of Cessnock, NSW, just a stones throw away from Johns!
Your Greatest Success in Finches:
"Easy mate, the 84 Green strawbs and 54 Song Sparrows in the one season."
Your Greatest Disappointment in Finches:
"Watching all those parrots, pigeons and budgies come in through the legal importation system but the bludgers not giving the finch keepers a chance to import new blood and a few new species into our aviaries."
Most Difficult Species Kept:
"The Dybowski Twinspot, never could get them to click. Let’s hope I get the chance again, one day!"
Your Three Favourite Species?
"The Diamond sparrow, the Red-hooded siskin and the Red strawb would have to be my all time favourites."
If You Had Access To Any Finches, What Would You Select?
"Jeez, your making me drool now! Let’s think, the Orange-cheek waxbill, the Blue-breasted waxbill and how could I go past the beautiful Diamond sparrow, again!