A day in the life of a bird matchmaker

Bird matchmaker Richelle Tamayo Avila's job scope includes pairing compatible birds up and breeding them. (Yahoo photo)

On Valentine’s Day, many people will be hoping to spend time with a soulmate.

And Richelle Tamayo Avila is someone who can make love happen for lonely souls – just that we’re not talking about humans here, but birds.

Avila, who is from the Philippines and in her thirties, works for the Breeding and Research Centre (BRC) at the Jurong Bird Park as a bird matchmaker.

Finding the right match

In an interview with Yahoo Singapore, Avila said her job scope includes pairing compatible birds up and breeding them.

There are a lot of factors to consider when it comes to selecting birds for breeding, such as the birds’ age, blood lines and body condition, Avila said.

“You cannot pair two old birds as the fertily rate will be low,” she said.

Their age gap also shouldn’t be too large, said Avila, adding it shouldn't be anything more than 20 years.

She also has to check whether the birds are related to each other as they want to prevent inbreeding.

In terms of their body condition, they should be physically fit.

While it may seem like an obvious point, bird matchmakers have to ensure that the birds they are pairing up are not of the same sex.

Sometimes, you can’t tell the sex of the birds just by looking at them, Avila said.

For certain species, you can tell a male bird apart from a female bird from their eye colours or feathers, but for others, they look exactly the same, the bird matchmaker added.

So bird matchmakers will have to bring these birds to an avian hospital in the Jurong Bird Park to undergo endoscopy – a surgicial procedure in which an incision is made near the tummy of a bird where a scope is inserted to check its sexual organs.

During the endoscopy, veterinarians also check the bird’s heart, liver and lungs’ conditions, ensuring that it is healthy.

After that, it’s ready to meet its potential partner.

Meeting for the first time

While romantics like to believe it’s love at first sight for birds, Avila said that it takes time for birds to get to know each other.

Certain species, such as the Amazon parrot, will even show aggression before they cozy up to each other, the bird matchmaker added.

That’s why in introducing the two breeding partners, bird matchmakers will put them in holding cages in the aviary first.

“Once you see that they are going near, that’s the time we let them fly out,” Avila said.

When the birds find their perfect match, she said there might even be some kissing.

But when the birds don’t like each other, they’ll fight or stand on opposing ends of a perch.

For birds which have found their soulmate, they’ll have their own room for themselves so that they can copulate in a private place with no disturbance.

To prepare the birds for copulation, Avila has to install nest boxes and modify the birds' diets.

For example, for macaws, they need a diet with higher fat and protein content during copulation.

While monogamy is regarded as the norm in most modern human societies, not all birds are monogamous.

Avila said some birds practise communal breeding, which means they have multiple breeding partners.

But for others, such as the macaw family, once they find a partner, it’s one for the lifetime, the bird matchmaker added.

Currently at the BRC, there are 79 breeding pairs and 44 different species, out of which 10 per cent are endangered species, while a handful are vulnerable.

Avila also said that certain species are particularly difficult to breed, such as some species from the black cockatoo family.

They have different preferences when it comes to nest and food, said the bird matchmaker, adding that currently, the BRC is unable to imitate and copy the exact conditions in the wild.

But they will continue to do research to provide these species with the right environment to breed.

Avila said the entire process depends on the species, but could take up to a year, including a preparatory phase which involves checking the birds' blood and feathers, and checking for mites. It's then followed by a breeding phase which includes copulation and the laying of eggs. After that, it's an off-breeding period for the birds to rest.

Nanny of baby birds

Unlike matchmakers for humans, Avila is not just playing Cupid, she’s also a nanny for baby birds.

On a typical work day, Avila, whose official job title is avicultural officer, starts work at the BRC at 6am, attending first to the chicks.

She weighs them and then hand feeds them with a concoction of blended powder formula.

As chicks are very sensitive, the temperature of the food has to be controlled and the syringes used to feed them have to be sterilised.

Chicks also have to be fed up to eight times a day, once every two hours.

She also shows them affection by touching and cuddling them.

When the chicks grow older, the frequency of feeding decreases.

Every chick has a different food requirement and different feeding schedule, so it takes a lot of meticulousness on Avila’s part to ensure that the chicks are well fed.

Tough job

It may seem fun to be able to interact with chicks and play matchmaker to adult birds, but it also requires a lot of hard work.

Avila said the most important traits of being an avicultural officer is to be patient, committed and dedicated.

While her official working hours are from 6am to 3:30pm, there are times when she has to be around 24/7, especially when the chicks have medical conditions.

Every working day, she has to feed up to 80 different chicks as well as check on the breeding partners.

In terms of qualifications, passion and interest in birds are most important, though having knowledge of animals is a plus.

While her job is not an easy one, Avila said she really enjoys working as an avicultural officer as it's never a boring day at the BRC.

Avila also said that the birds at the BRC are really “funny”.

Sometimes she can hear the breeding partners singing the “Happy Birthday” song as they used to be part of the bird show.

On other days, she can hear the chicks barking like a dog.

She explained that there is a dog at the hawk show nearby and these chicks heard it barking and started imitating it.

The avicultural officer said the most fulfilling aspect of her job is when she “sees chicks grow into beautiful adult birds”.

“It’s like you’re a proud mother,” Avila exclaimed.

She added, “When I pass them to the exhibit, even though they cannot see me every time, they still recognise my voice and they still follow me. Like the flamingo babies, I’m like their mother, they always follow me everywhere.”