WWT's 'universal duck mum' Phoebe Vaughan tells us about life as an aviculturist

Birds at risk of extinction are being bred in special conservation programmes around the world thanks, in part, to experience and skills gained by aviculturists at Wildfowl & Wetlands Trust (WWT) centres in the UK.

Phoebe Vaughan is one such aviculturist working at WWT Slimbridge Wetland Centre in Gloucestershire.

She took time out at the end of a busy day, hatching eggs, caring for ducklings and young birds, and showing the public around the breeding facility, to talk about her unusual job and what motivated her to become perhaps a ‘universal duck mum’.


The day after my final exam I was possibly the only person who went off with a graduate job completely unrelated to their field. I’m grateful for the opportunity that my manager, Mark ‘Sparky’ Roberts, gave me years ago. He took me on as a volunteer when I left school. I only meant to be here for eight weeks, but then I extended my stay, he took me on as a paid seasonal warden, and then as a weekend warden all through university.

I didn’t think, as a sixteen year old, that I’d be doing this. I grew up in the Forest of Dean in a beautiful village called St Briavels, which had a castle and lots of wonderful nature and birds all around it. If anybody at any point had ever said to me that knowing all the flowers in the garden and all the birds was a skill, I’d have gone in a completely different direction. But at school I was pushed to do what I was good at, which was Literature and History, so I applied to university to do those subjects. Then I discovered WWT and began to think, “Actually, ecology would be great” but I was pretty much already tied in because I hadn’t done the sciences at A level. So, I wish I could go back and tell my sixteen year old self to persevere with biology.

Sparky’s such a great teacher and he’s motivational, and 10 years’ later I’m still trying to impress him to say thanks for taking me on in the first place really.

Whenever I’m showing visitors around I often finish by telling my story, which is that I was going off to study literature, but then I came to Slimbridge, fell in love with the place and I’ve never left. The point is that someone in the group that I’m speaking to right there and then, might decide to drop everything and help save a species. It is possible to make those big changes.

Peter Scott used to hunt geese and then he became a conservationist. The point of the story is that there might be someone in the group I’m speaking to right now that might drop everything they’re doing one day and help save a species, and just try to motivate people that all these things are possible.

I’m grateful to everyone who supports our work at WWT. They may not know it, but everyone who visits a WWT wetland centre and everyone who plays the People’s Postcode Lottery is ensuing that wetland wildlife thrives. WWT is taking on bigger projects than we ever have before. I see us achieving the goals that we set out to achieve.

As a teenager you think adults know everything. Then you become an adult and you realise it’s not true. It does shock me that people know so little about how they fit into the world around them. I hope we could push a lot more ecological understanding into the curriculum and help people understand how they fit in a little better.

Who knows what breeding captive birds could do for conservation in the future? The potential for my job is very great. Our experience of handling and candling and incubating wader eggs at WWT Slimbridge helped WWT to step up to help the spoon-billed sandpiper. We’re doing genetic testing and taking breeding measurements for the Baer’s pochard since they became Critically Endangered a couple of years ago. We also trialled the costumed crane rearing method for the Great Crane Project. We do what we can.

If you show people the story of how an egg transforms from a gelatinous mass of white and yolk to an eating, feeding, ‘running-around’ duckling in just 28 days, then that’s the most surprising thing. Because I think we all know it happens but, when it’s made real for you there and then, it just blows people away.

The most rewarding thing is when you can make someone say “Wow!” It occurs a lot. The open days for the duckery are always the source of a few wows. When you take a hatching egg and hold it up against a child’s ear and you watch their face crack into a smile because it feels as if the chick has chipped just for them and they feel so special.

It’s very much regarded as “there’s an egg, you make it hot, a baby happens.” And when you actually detail the facts like eventually the duckling runs out of room to grow because the airspace has fully expanded and there’s no more room so they pop through into the airspace, use up the oxygen, nearly run out of oxygen, have a spasm, pip, chip through the shell, re-oxygenate, get their energy up, start rotating, and they rotate anti-clockwise, no matter where they are in the world, to make an escape hatch from under their own armpit, upside down in the dark and on their own. And people just think “oh my goodness, how do birds even exist if they have to go through all of that just to live at all?!”

Slimbridge has such a diverse group of visitors that it’s really important to work out on what level to approach any given group. Getting it right is really nice.

In a way I’m just a big universal duck mum. I think the most important skills that I’ve developed from this role are attention to detail, the ability to see that every single bird is different even if it is of the same species, that you need to make adjustments according to the needs of individuals and not rules based on groups and that most of the time if you’ve got a hunch then you’re right. Sometimes however, cleaning up after dozens of essentially “poo machines” can take its toll on you…

Hunches can be a powerful thing and you should go with your gut. If you’re worried somebody has eaten something they shouldn’t, the quicker you act the better.

I went to Madagascar when I was 24 to help maintain the Madagascar pochard, the world’s most endangered duck. I would do it differently if I went back again. I was so under-travelled when I went. I was still quite naïve because as a child we didn’t go on holiday. We went to Pembroke with twenty pounds and some bourbon biscuits, so I’d not really travelled far.

The strangest thing about the job is duck genitalia. When ducks do their “thing” it can be quite a phenomenal sight. The reproductive equipment they have evolved in order to compete and reproduce in a challenging environment can be quite surprising to behold!

My favourite time of the year is the anticipation – the build up to breeding. Have we chosen a good pair? Are they bonding? Have they made a suitable nesting site? What’s their clutch size like? Are the eggs of good quality? What sort of a parent is she going to be? That’s the exciting bit, I think.

The year starts for me with the Nenes (Hawaiian geese) in January. I’ll start pair observations, territory observations, making sure the pairs are fine, not over-competing, seeing if their nesting areas are suitable. During this time we’re setting aside pairs of all the other species in the breeding aviaries so they can settle in and get ready.

Once ducklings start to hatch, every day starts with a bit of a panic. I walk through the door and I’m like, “is everyone alright?” When I’ve worked out that they’re all alright, then I can start my day: feeding everyone, making sure everyone is healthy, clean, tidy and appropriately housed.

When the juveniles are a bit older they get to a difficult age – like teenagers. They want to be out grazing all day, but as soon as it rains some of them are like, “Mum, save me!” You’ve got to keep an eye on the weather. When it starts to rain, I don’t run for cover, I run and make sure the teenagers are okay.

My big concern is inaccurate news and facts impacting on people’s general attitude to the world around them. “I’ll litter because I can get away with it this time.” I wish that sort of attitude would cease. Its education, it’s generational.

I’m optimistic. I wonder whether in terms of nest box creation schemes and various bits and pieces if there are ways of helping fund ourselves in different ways. I love making people’s donations seem real to them, e.g. £19.99 buys a candling lamp that can identify life in 1000s of eggs in its lifetime.

It’s nice if people make just one little change in their lives. If everybody made one little change it would add up to be quite a lot.


Support of Players of People’s Postcode Lottery helps Phoebe and her colleagues to save rare birds from extinction and ensure that our visitors have fun learning about our conservation breeding work at our Centres



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