San José, Costa Rica, since 1956

Flying in the Face of Convention

SOME people collect stamps. Others collect coins, antique cars, china plates or dolls. Heredia veterinarian Dr. Oscar Soto collects birds. You might say he’s an ave’d collector.He has about 300 chirping, squawking, clucking specimens ranging from tiny finches to xandus of the ostrich family. “It’s hard to keep count,” he says, as new ones hatch or arrive every day. Soto loves all animals, but birds are his passion.“All my life, even as a child, I was interested in birds,” he says. “It’s not just having birds; it’s raising and breeding them and seeing them reproduce.”The best part of his collection is when the birds lay eggs and the babies hatch. Many are Costa Rican species, but he has exotic ones, too.All collectors have one special item that is a point of pride. For Soto, it’s his long-legged and crested African gray cranes.“They’re probably the only ones in Costa Rica,” he says. Most of the other birds are not commonly seen in Barva de Heredia, north of San José, either.Collecting rare birds is not for everyone. Each type of bird needs its own environment. According to Soto, not much information is available here. He says he depends on the Internet and international veterinary meetings to learn more.Soto started with chickens. It’s hard to imagine a chicken collection, but these chickens range from ordinary farm types to the huge varieties of the United States and Europe – more than 30 varieties in all. By necessity, these are not free-range fowl. Chickens have a pecking order and are fighters by nature. Letting them all mingle together would set feathers flying.From chickens he moved on to quails, which are common here; colorfully plumed pheasants, both native and foreign; striped guinea hens; and different types of ducks, geese and swans. Then he proceeded to cranes, herons, peacocks, emus and xandus, the latter two being smaller versions of ostriches.Like Noah with the ark, Soto has breeding pairs of all his birds, except in the case of the lonely xandu.“They sent me two males,” says Soto, who had to return one and is waiting for a female. (In case anyone wants to know, xandus are shipped by air in cages.) In a separate area are toucans, parrots and an owl. Many of these were brought to his veterinary practice, El Corral, in Heredia.“Parrots live a long time; their owners die and nobody wants to inherit the parrot,” he explains. “One is 35 years old.”Another parrot came from Germany, but when asked, “Sprechen sie Deutsch?” it answered in an unknown language.There is also a big cage full of urracas, or magpies, a species that runs afoul of other birds and people for its habit of stealing everything from nests to pretty shiny things. With magpies, it’s often a story of wanting a rare pet and then getting tired of it and taking it to the vet for disposal.“They’re messy and throw seeds around,” Soto explains. “They need care, and people don’t want to bother.” And so his collection grows.Cages for those that might fly away are ample and necessary. Emus and xandus roam freely, as do cranes and swans that wouldn’t take flight. Missing from the collection are sea birds and carrion eaters, the latter for the problem of providing food. Though Soto says he’d love to have eagles or falcons, he admits it just isn’t practical.Fruit, greens and commercial chicken feed are the preferred diet. Mango trees in the area provide plenty of snacks. Even with the best of care, situations arise that require special veterinary skill. When a little crane hatched with a crooked neck, Soto made a tiny brace for it.Fortunately, the veterinarian has 5,000 square meters of land, divided into free areas for those who get along nicely and room-sized cages for those that need their own space or are too rare to run free. Keeping a collection of 300 birds requires a lot of time and expense. Several employees help out, and Soto spends much of his free time among his birds, claiming he has to work long hours just to support his hobby.

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