SHE is affectionately known as the “bird nanny” at work.
But avicultural officer Richelle Avila’s feathers are not ruffled by the friendly nickname. After all, the description is accurate, she says.
Ms Avila, 35, who is from the Philippines, has been rearing chicks (baby birds) at the Jurong Bird Park’s breeding and research centre (BRC) since 2010.
“Children can understand the title ‘bird nanny’ easily, so it’s okay with me,” she adds.
Part of her job includes educating BRC’s young visitors about the work that the centre does. But her time is mostly spent feeding chicks and making sure they grow up healthy, she says.
Different bird, different diet
Her day starts bright and early at 6am, where her first task is to weigh all the chicks under her care.
The chick’s weight determines the volume of food it is given.
Then, she is off preparing their feed. But not all birds eat the same food, she says.
For example, the black cockatoo requires more fibre in its diet, so broccoli and apples have to be included in its feed.
In comparison, large macaw chicks eat more nuts, like macadamias and walnuts, because they need more energy and fat.
“Every species has a dietary protocol. It’s a meticulous job,” she says.
She has to be fast on her feet too as all the chicks — she currently has about 40 under her care — need to be fed by 7am.
It is a process that is repeated several times a day, as the newborns — typically those up to 10 days old — need to be fed at least eight times a day. Baby birds that are being weaned are fed about four to six times a day.
‘This is my mummy!’
Although most of her time is spent feeding chicks, she is quick to dispel the myth that that’s all there is to her job.
Ms Avila, who has a Bachelor of Science in biology with a major in animal pathology, also has to breed birds and ensure that their eggs are properly incubated.
She breeds about 100 chicks a year and has to ensure that the breeders — she now has between 60 and 80 pairs — are in a tiptop condition. This means de-worming them, conducting blood tests and ensuring that they eat a protein-rich diet, she explains.
She also works closely with the park’s keepers to rescue abandoned eggs in the park’s premises.
“Some birds are not very good parents, so we have to step in to help,” she says.
These orphaned eggs are then housed in special incubators that regulate temperature and humidity.
After the eggs hatch, Ms Avila looks after the chicks until they are grown up.
“I am so happy and proud when I see them grow from featherless chicks to colourful birds,” she says.
And the birds return the affection in equal measure. The grown birds, especially parrots, that now live in the main park still recognise her.
“They make noise, they scream when they hear my voice. I think the birds must be saying, ‘This is my mummy!’” says Ms Avila.
Always working with animals
Though her work schedule may be hectic, she says she has no regrets of stepping into her vocation.
“I’ve always had the opportunity to work with animals. My world has always revolved around them,” she says.
Before joining the bird park, she had worked at a diagnostic lab for animals as a researcher and was also a veterinary nurse at a breeding centre for parrots in the Philippines.
It was her two-year stint at the latter workplace that convinced her to pursue a career in aviculture. She had observed how the bird breeders there had hand-fed the baby parrots and the interaction had tugged at her heartstrings.
Her favourite bird, she says, is the hyacinth macaw, the largest parrot in the world, because of its innocent eyes.
To do well as an avicultural officer, she says that passion, commitment and dedication are key.
“These chicks are innocent and helpless, you need to take care of them properly. If possible, they need 24/7 attention,” she adds.
For more information about Jurong Bird Park, visit www.birdpark.com.sg