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By Graeme Phipps

Published in The Avicultural Review
March & April 1996, Volume 18 Number 2
(Printable Version - PDF file - Free Adobe Reader download)

A Salute to Leslie John Clayton
1933 to 1996

Les Clayton, bird man of Taronga Zoo with his blue and gold macaw, EleniMany members will recall the bird man of Taronga Zoo, Les Clayton, who died on the 20th January 1996 at the comparatively early age of 63.  Les had several heart operations over the last decade and had reached the stage where nothing more could be done.

Giotto di Bondone - Legend of St Francis - 15. Sermon to the Birds - WGA09139At the farewell Mass, the papers handed out had two very appropriate images which relate to Les.  One was a picture of St Francis with all the birds around (surely Les’ alter-ego), and the other was of Eleni, the blue and gold macaw incubated and hand-raised by Les from a cracked egg which he patched with nail varnish.  Eleni has gone on to breed other macaws, but the exercise underlines the skills of Les as one of aviculture’s grandmasters.

Les began at Taronga at the age of fifteen and many were the experiences he had in over forty years of services, culminating in receiving the Public Service Medal.  Some highlights included the world’s first breeding of a kiwi in captivity and the establishment of a colony of bottle swallows (welcome swallows), again a world first.  He hand-raised over 2,000 birds in his career across a very wide range of species including many softbill species not previously kept in captivity.  Other species he bred included Stella’s lory and the white-rumped lory

My only regret is that so much experience, skills and practical knowhow died with Les.  He was one of the old school who were adept at surviving in a work environment in which you weren’t valued all that much.  So, if you didn’t have unique and important skills of definite need to the workplace, you could easily be fired.  This was the environment of the zoo at the time of Sir Edward Hallstrom and was the norm for very many workplaces.  I believe that it was for this reason that Les could never be induced to write his experiences down.  Can you imagine the fantastic book which would have eventuated had he done so?  C’est la vie.

Also, Les was a very humble man and became securely uncomfortable if praise was heaped on him.  Nevertheless, while quiet, he had a very strong personality indeed.

The anecdotes and stories about birds and about Les seem never-ending.  Many people know how much he loved Bing Crosby’s singing – so it was no surprise that he named the male lyrebird, which he successfully kept, ‘Bing’.

Then there was the saga of ‘Darkie’, the red-tailed black cockatoo, said to have come over from the old zoo (when it was at Moore Park, that is, before 1916) and supposed to be still living.  However, zoo records sort-of-showed that there were at least two and maybe three ‘Darkies’.  But it’s part of birdhouse folklore; who’s counting and who needs to?  It is certainly true that many bird longevity records were achieved by Les, because, well, since the early 1950s, no new birds could be received from overseas.  So, all foreign birds were treated like little pieces of gold and carefully nurtured.  Five of the Chilean Flamingos, which arrived as adults from South America the same year as Les started at Taronga (1948), are still alive today.

And then there was the celebrated breeding of the Andean condors, in which it was possible to sex the young while still in the egg (because of the knob on the bill of the male).  One aviculturist, on learning in 1984 that I was to become Curator of Birds at Taronga Zoo, said “Look after Les.  After all, he just bred those big condors!”

Yes, the reminiscences can go on and on – and so they should because Les should remain in our hearts for a long time.

After leaving Taronga, he did some part-time work for his close friends Bruce and Margaret Kubbers at Featherdale Wildlife Park.

He is missed by many.  On behalf of the Society, I extend our sincerest condolences to his wife Pat, mother Gladys and to his family.  Farewell Les.  Grandmaster.

See also an interview with Les Clayton (article on our website).

1Bonaventure (1867), pp. 78–85

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