“The Godfather of Australian Softbill Aviculture”
Text and Photos by Simon Degenhard
The name of the late Harry Carr has for decades been virtually synonymous with softbills in this country. 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 was and still 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 during his many years of devotion towards this incredibly fascinating group of birds.
I was lucky enough to know Harry for some 16 years until his passing at the age of 83 on the 27th of January 2012 and he was instrumental in developing my 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. Since first meeting Harry as a 15yo I spent many a day at his place just talking softbills and observing and photographing the birds and no matter how many times I visited the variety and beauty of the numerous species he kept in his collection never ceased to amaze me.
Prior to his passing 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 all here.
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-1980’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 the 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, along with the eyes 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 steadily increased over the years. Unfortunately during Harry’s latter years the club’s membership began to decrease and eventually was forced to fold in 2017. Whilst this was sad news to the long-time, including myself, a dedicated facebook group “Softbills Australia” was started a few years ago by well-known NSW softbill breeder, Jeff Bray to enable enthusiast of these intriguing birds an easy way to keep in touch and share their experiences and I very pleased to say that this group has most certainly helped to fill the gap and now has a membership in the thousands!
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 commercial insectivorous diets, keeping them is becoming easier all the time. These products make the supplementary feeding of live food non-essential and it is now even possible to breed some species of softbills without the provision of supplementary live food at all, though most breeders do still offer varying amounts of live food to their birds regardless. Advances such as this have made the keeping of softbills increasingly easier and have helped to encourage more aviculturalists to give them a go.
Harry was for many, many years very well known for his extensive collection of softbills and he still maintained one of the largest collections of softbills in this country right up until just 6 months before his passing. The list of species that he kept over the decades included: 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 Sunbirds, Eastern Whipbirds, Olive-backed Orioles, Figbirds, White-browed Woodswallows, Silvereyes, Metallic Starlings, Rainbow Bee-eaters, Sacred Kingfishers, Noisy Pittas, Buff-banded Rails, Black-winged Stilts and Masked Lapwings. He has also kept a large variety of pigeons and doves such as White-headed, Spinifex, Squatter, Brush Bronzewing, Flock, Partridge, Topknot, Brown, White-quilled Rock and Nicobar Pigeons; Wompoo, Rose-crowned and Purple-crowned Fruit-doves; Peaceful, Bar-shouldered, Barbary and Ruddy Turtle Doves.
Harry conveyed to me that considered 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 recalled was the appearance of a yellow Satin Bowerbird in 1995, as would be expected it caused quite a stir and news of the existence of this bird didn’t take long to circulate. Unfortunately this bird was never bred from.
There is no doubt that Harry was 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 greatly helped to cement the place of softbills within Australian aviculture. Throughout his softbill journey Harry supported and helped anyone who showed even the slightest interest in this wonderful group of birds, even to the point where not only did he give countless hours of his time, but he has also gave many pairs of birds to budding softbill keepers just to give them a start and hopefully get them hooked for years to come. I was just one such junior breeder who benefited greatly from Harry’s generosity, both in terms of his time and willingness to set me up with my first pigeons, doves and softbills, something I will never forget as long as I live.
Harry’s contribution to Australian aviculture with regards to softbill keeping was huge and his efforts were such that they will be long remembered. I am very grateful that I remained very close to Harry from the time that I met him right up until his death, and was consequently afforded the opportunity to personally thank him for showing us that softbills can be successfully kept and bred in our aviaries and convincing so many of us that they are indeed worthy of a place in our collections!
Harry had love for life that was clearly evident from the spark in his eye, he was both a gentleman and a loveable larrikin, who was the type of person that you just could not help but feel affection for. Many, including myself learnt a great deal from Harry and there is no doubt that we were all better off for having known him; he will always hold a special place in my heart and I will be forever grateful for having the opportunity to call him a friend; I am sure that there are many other’s who feel exactly the same way.
Where softbills are concerned, Harry was a true pioneer.