CHESHIRE – Dr. Robert Giddings, who retired from Kensington Bird and Animal Hospital in 2009, recently delighted an audience at the First Congregational Church with a talk on some of the more humorous recollections of his life’s work as an avian veterinarian.
Although Giddings was Connecticut’s first board certified avian specialist, he didn’t come to it directly out of school. Instead he worked with large animals, like dairy cattle. As the federal government oversees food production, Giddings and his fellow classmates took a federal accreditation exam in order to be able to work within federal programs such as vaccinations and the like. He also would be able to sign health certificates for animals going out of the country.
“For quite awhile, I was the only veterinarian in the state of Connecticut who was federally accredited and who also had any interest or knowledge of birds,” he said. So if you had a bird you wanted to send out of the country, you went to see Dr. Giddings.
The first big event for Giddings was with 200 white doves for the Ice Capades at the New Haven Coliseum back in the day. After their engagement the doves were going to Montreal, Canada. In order to leave the country, they had to be examined. Who could do that? “The number of possible candidates on that list was immediately reduced to one,” said Giddings, in a deadpan, as the room resounded in laughter.
Another entertaining story came from his visit to a client in Farmington who collected exotic waterfowl from the around the world. The collection included two African Crowned Cranes that were being sold to someone in Canada. As Giddings told it, early one morning he drove up to Farmington and was informed that “we had to catch them.”
Fortunately, the cranes were in a small area, an enclosure with a shed at one end and a small pool in the center, said Giddings, who had to shoo the cranes down to where the owner was stationed. It seemed to be going well, until the cranes reached the end of the enclosure. At that point, Giddings felt as if they might charge him. What to do?
“I spread out my arms to stop them,” he said. No sooner had the vet made this move, the crane matched him, Giddings said while attempting to recreate the dance for the audience, who were now in hysterics. “For a few seconds we did the African Crowned Crane dominance dance,” said Giddings, chuckling. That changed the whole dynamic, he said. “I spoke their language. So instead of being an enemy, I was one of them. After that they moved very easily into the shed to be examined, and that was that.”
Racing pigeons also were among the stories talked about that night. Giddings became acquainted with a man named Don whose business was racing pigeons. “Don” was a known entity both in the U.S. and abroad as the man who knew who was selling and who wanted to buy racing pigeons.
“Don taught me about everything I know about pigeon racing,” said Giddings. The sport is very popular in Europe and Giddings said his hospital is close to a population in New Britain who know the sport. As a result Giddings said he saw his fair share of pigeons.
As an example of how races are conducted, Giddings said if a group decided to race 200 birds, every bird has to be identified, and that’s done when they are banded as small one-year-olds.
“Baby birds grow incredibly fast,” said Giddings. The band has a lot of information including the club, the owner and bird, the hatch date and more. A timing band is put onto the other leg. On the morning of the race, the birds are loaded into a van and driven 200 miles to the north or the south or the west, wherever the race would start, Giddings said. They are released from the van simultaneously and the birds fly straight up in the air, circle around five times and head for home.
“How they know they need to fly south from Burlington, Vermont, or fly east from Syracuse, New York, to get back to Connecticut, I have no idea,” said Giddings, genuinely mystified. “I am sure it is related in some way to the way they navigate in migration and we don’t know that either,” he said.
To everyone’s amazement, Giddings explained the bird doesn’t just fly back to Connecticut, it flies back to his very own home loft. “Birds are incredible athletes and some of their migratory flights are nothing but mind-boggling,” he said.
Giddings then makes reference to a bird called the Alaskan Bar-tailed Godwit. A few years ago, a godwit was fitted with a GPS device and his flight was monitored, said Giddings. “Instead of flying down along the coast, he headed out to over the open ocean. He flew non-stop for eight days. During those eight days, he covered 7,150 miles and he finally landed in New Zealand,” said Giddings. “I would not be at all surprised if he landed on exactly the same little beach that he had landed on the year before,” he said, adding, “This remains the single longest migratory flight of any bird.”
At the conclusion of his talk, Giddings entertained questions from the audience. Leah Saunders asked about a bird’s intelligence and the term “bird brain.” It depends on the bird, but corvids, ravens and blue jays are thought to be the most intelligent, Giddings replied. They can count, along with other skills.
Roy Pritchard asked about the massive decline in bird populations. He wanted to know why that was.
Among a long list of possibilities, was global warming, Giddings said. “That affects every creature.” he said. PFAS (a group of man-made chemicals used in various industries) and other toxins, are to blame, as was DDT. The latter headed the list as a long-term pesticide that was responsible for the loss of generations of bald eagles, said Giddings, who also counts habitat loss, light pollution and cats for the decline in bird populations.