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A Paignton Zoo bird expert is off on a two month expedition to help rare birds. Senior Bird Keeper Tom Tooley is travelling to the island of Mauritius to spend eight weeks helping to set up a new breeding station for Mauritius pink pigeons.

Brixham-born Tom, 33, has been at Paignton Zoo for 16 years. He’s been working with pigeons for most of that time: “They’re in our Brook Side walk-through aviary, Reptile Tropics – they’ve always part of the collection.”

He has never done anything like this before, and is looking forward to the trip. “It’s going to be an experience!” Many people would be excited at the prospect of leaving behind the start of the English winter for two months on a tropical island, but as a bird keeper Tom’s out in all weathers, day in, day out – it’s all the same to him. But he is having to take a lot of equipment: “Mosquito net, sleeping bag - and two months-worth of insect spray and sun block!”

The Mauritius pink pigeon (Nesoenas mayeri) is classified as Endangered - without help this bird would have become as dead as that rather more famous pigeon from Mauritius - the Dodo.

Tom will be working with the Mauritius Foundation for Wildlife. He’ll be preparing new aviaries and helping to settle the new birds in, as well as assisting with field work and sharing his husbandry skills with others.

Before human settlers introduced predators and began to cut down the forest, the pink pigeon was thought to be common on Mauritius. However, since 1840 it has been regarded as a rare bird, and in 1990 only around 10 were left in the wild. Since then the population has grown and there are now around 400 free living pigeons on Mauritius.

Tom’s making the 12,000 mile round trip to the western Indian Ocean to work with birds that are notoriously difficult to manage - they are known to be so aggressive towards one another that each bird needs its own aviary and they can only be paired during breeding. Pigeon species are generally considered to be poor nest builders, physically clumsy and mentally slow, so they are a challenge for any aviculturist.

Tom’s speciality is hand-rearing. “Bringing a chick through is satisfying – it’s rewarding. It’s not easy – you need to be patient, precise and very well organised. You keep records, you weigh them every day. It’s a responsibility – you have to be prepared to put in the hours – early starts, late finishes.”

Paignton Zoo Curator of Birds Jo Gregson said: “Tom is quite prepared to be around through the night or on his days off if necessary - he gets things done. This is no hotel holiday but he won’t be worried by having to rough it in a sleeping bag. I am sure he will be an asset to the programme.

“The pink pigeon has recovered well on Mauritius, but in recent years numbers have reached a plateau. Collections in the USA and Europe are sending 54 birds to be part of a new breeding group. This shows how important aviculture is – you learn skills in a zoo that are vital for conservation in the field.”

Will Tom be sharing the expertise he’s acquired at Paignton Zoo with people on Mauritius? “Yes, but I expect I’ll be learning just as much and bringing back skills and techniques, too.” It takes unassuming, quietly determined characters like Tom to put in the hours that rare birds desperately need, both in zoos and in the field.

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