A Day in the Life of Birdland’s Head Keeper

Alistair holding Baby Penguin at Birdland credit Cotswold House Photography - A Day in the Life of Birdland’s Head Keeper

Birdland is an all-year round operation and a key cog in keeping the attraction flying high is the work of head keeper Alastair Keen and his team.

In a colourful career spanning 20 years with us at Birdland, his memorable moments include teaching a baby penguin to swim; removing huge poplar trees which came down in a storm; and delivering bird food on a sledge following heavy snowfall.

Not all days are so dramatic, but for the animal biology graduate, he relishes the responsibility.

Pointing to the River Windrush behind him, which runs through the heart of the attraction, he said: “I’m very lucky to be able to call this my office every day, it’s a fantastic job which has its challenges, but I can’t think of anything I’d rather be doing.

“I’ve always wanted to work with animals but I didn’t know in what capacity. When I came home after graduating from Birmingham University I saw an advert for a job here in the local paper and I was lucky enough to get it.

A typical day starts at 7.30am, when a sweep of all the residents is undertaken to make sure they are in good health, particularly the cold-susceptible birds which are kept inside during the winter months.

Alistair is no stranger to being in the spotlight having flown out to Argentina to compete in BBC show Total Wipeout, as well as entering other game shows such as Tipping Point.

He made the headlines in 2015 when he hand-reared a king penguin at Birdland.

The chick, which was named Charlotte in honour of the Royal baby born at that time, was initially terrified of getting her feathers wet, so Alistair sported a snorkel and submerged himself in the pool to encourage her to do the same.

“I know penguins can’t fly but she was making a pretty good attempt in her bid to avoid taking the plunge. In the wild the chicks only learn to swim by following their parents into the water so I, as her adopted dad, felt obliged to get in and try and show her how it was done.”

There are currently seven king penguins and four Humboldts here at Birdland, including famous film star Seth, who appeared in Batman Returns, and Spike, who has 14,000 followers on Facebook after featuring in the advert for Penguin biscuits.

We are the only attraction in England which houses kings, which are the second largest species in the world after the emperor penguin.

Daily talks take place on penguins, flamingos and parrots. A Meet The Keeper session also enables visitors to handle animals, birds and creepy crawlies – something that wasn’t possible during the Covid pandemic.

Alistair added: “We’re doing more and more educational stuff – 20 years ago we did one penguin talk a day, now we’re doing up to six talks so people can go home enthusiastic about penguins and flamingos, or the fact that they held an owl.” 

“We’ve got to do our job no matter what the conditions are. Around 2008 when I lived on site the weather was so bad nobody else could get in, so I was taking food around on the sledge and my girlfriend was helping me to catch the birds in the aviary.”

One vital job each day is to chop up an impressive array of fruit and vegetables for the following day’s feeds – apples, tomatoes, bananas, grapes, steamed carrots, potatoes, broccoli and turnip.

“Apple is in plentiful supply so we use a lot of it, but sometimes the birds can get bored of certain foods so we give them something else. We try to vary their diets as much as we can.”

Once the animals are fed and watered, another important task for the keepers is to wash up the food dishes. With 120 species of birds to cater for it is no small job – and all the keepers take a turn at doing their duty.

The flamingo sheds also need regular cleaning because they make a lot of mess when they’ve been inside overnight.

Alistair has been asked some rich and varied questions during his 20-year stint, but he picks out some of the most frequent.

“Probably the one I’m asked the most is whether the penguins are real – they do stand still a lot so people think they are models. The other question is why do they not fly away? Of course, penguins can’t fly.

“I’m also often asked how old are the ‘baby’ penguins. Obviously the kings are so much bigger than the Humboldts, so people mistake the Humboldts as babies, when in fact some of them are older than the kings.”

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