Within 80 kilometres of Moscow, you can find yourself in an exotic forest filled with tropic parrots, flamingos, monkeys, ostriches, kangaroos and many other rare animals. Has the author had too much to drink or perhaps smoked the wrong kind of cigarette? No, there is an extraordinary place called The Bird Park, in one of the tiny villages in Kaluzhskaya oblast, which welcomes several thousand visitors every week. It is one of the largest private zoos in Russia, but not very well known, to put it mildly.
Text and photos by Elena Krivovyaz
“Beware of ostriches!”
The park opened in 2005 and has grown steadily ever since. Now it consists of two parts: the bird park proper, and the ostrich farm. Guide Tatyana Belyakova took me round the Ostrich farm. Whilst we were walking to the place, one of the children in our group shouted: “Mom, I can see them! The ostriches! Over there!” But Tatyana laughed and said: “No, they aren’t ostriches, they’re emus.” The emu looked sleepy and didn’t pay much attention as we walked by. Then came the ostriches: some of them were quite big, but there were also some much smaller birds scurrying around. “New-born ostrich nestlings can run and eat just like adult animals,” said Tatyana. “They dry out a bit when they are hatched, get up and off they go.”
The nestlings we saw were two-weeks old, but they were already half the size of an adult. Several big ostriches were standing nearby so I decided to take a look up close. They stared at me with great interest. “Please be careful,” I heard Tatyana’s concerned voice. “They can be dangerous. They can kick like a horse.”
I didn’t need to be told twice and stepped back immediately. Tatyana also said that two adult ostriches recently broke through the fence and ran off into the forest, and were only caught several hours later. “Many farmers in Russia are opening Ostrich farms at present,” continued Tatyana. “They turn out to be much more profitable than ordinary poultry farms. Ostriches are unpretentious: they eat poultry-feed and don’t need any special temperature conditions, 40 degrees of frost is nothing for them. A single ostrich egg is large enough to make omelettes for twenty hungry people. ”
Ostriches can be purchased at the Bird Park for 6,000 roubles for a two week old bird. Russians haven’t yet heard of the ostrich-farm-pyramid-scams which plagued or rather are still plaguing the West. I had the opportunity to tell a work colleague about those scams a few weeks ago at work. He turned pale, thinking about the $3000 he had invested recently.
Exotics from all over the world
Ostrich omelettes can be tasted at the café inside the park, but I had look around the bird park before I tasted that exotic treat. This park-zoo is clearly different altogether from the Moscow zoo where all you can see are lots of box-like cages. This is vast, and entirely different. Decoration is natural fauna: bushes, flowers, ornaments, artificial springs, ponds and foot-bridges, one of which is a suspension bridge across a river at the end of the park. You can bounce up and down on it. Some children make a point of doing exactly that. This kind of place may be common in the West, but it certainly isn’t in Russia.
Pompous turkey-cocks and guineafowl strutted around and welcomed us into the Bird Park proper. To the left there were enclosures with a diversity of poultry birds - doves, hazels and cock, from Germany, the Netherlands, China, Mexico and other far-off places. At some distance, peacocks paced around in their open-air cage, a Japanese crane and a Russian bustard (one of the largest birds that lives in the steppes of Russia) roosted in separate and fenced zones.
Suddenly I saw a small crowd in front of a fence: there was a fawn. “This one is four months old,” the guide explained to visitors. “We found him in the forest and I fed him from a small bottle.” A hare lay in the grass near the deer. The animals are used to people.
The Bird Park is well-known for breeding parrots, even a rare species such as Macaw. Prices vary from 600-60,000 roubles, depending on rarity. The most amazing birds I saw there were toucans, with their flashy beaks as long as their bodies. Then I saw the lengthy open-air cages for birds of prey like owls, hawks (they are expensive, as they need rats to eat every day, Tatyana explained) and even penguins! There were about a dozen of them, waddling along by an artificial lake. Penguins, Tatyana was keen to tell me, “are the most expensive animals in the park as they demand kilos of fresh fish every day, even more than pelicans and flamingos.”
Two post-Soviet engineers founded this huge park, with more than 2,000 species and the ostrich farm, without any sponsor. How?
“It all began more than 30 years ago,” recalls co-owner Tatyana Belyavskaya. “I met my future husband Alexander. He was fond of birds and collected them. At the beginning, our collection consisted mainly of parrots. But we travelled and Alexander brought more species and then we moved to the country.” Finally, when the couple had 300 species, they decided to stop being engineers, and look for some land.
“That wasn’t easy, because of legal problems,” said Belyavskaya. “But one day some friends suggested buying out a bankrupt collective farm they owned. We came here and saw this was exactly what we needed! We started construction in 2003 and opened two years later. We didn’t expect it, but the park started to pay for itself by the end of 2006.”
Tatyana insists they don’t get any donations from anyone, except a thousand roubles a month from the Russian Scout Association, which supports two eagle-owls. But the owners aren’t complaining. They are going to open a terrarium, botanical gardens and a Japanese garden in a few months. These new facilities are needed, they say because present facilities are too small. “We don’t want our guests to feel crowded,” commented Tatyana Belyavskaya.
I hope to return there one day to see piranhas in the terrarium and to taste an ostrich omelette again, yummie!