Fowl British ducknappers ruffle some costly feathers

FOREIGN CLOSEUP

November 11, 1993|By Carl Schoettler | Carl Schoettler,London Bureau

LONDON -- You know something's up in Britain when you learn people are stealing ducks.

Not just any ducks either. Collectible ducks: Cuban whistling ducks, smew, buffleheads, Cape shovelers, Barrow's golden eye, South American black-headed duck -- ducks too exotic to be identified.

Sixty ducks have already been stolen from the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust at Slimbridge in Gloucestershire. Private collectors are also losing rare ducks.

Wildfowl experts are beginning to worry about organized ducknapping rings stealing birds to order for foreign collectors.

They think that Britain's ducks may be ending up in many other European countries.

Fowl thieves nipped 35 ducks in a recent foray into the Slimbridge sanctuary in an 850-acre refuge on the River Severn.

The bird snatchers knew pretty much what they were looking for. They took ducks of 12 species, mostly exotic, non-British birds, worth about $7,500.

They climbed over an 8-foot fence, partly electrified to keep out foxes, then bagged the birds they wanted with nets.

Breeders suspect that ducknappers are filling orders for small, obscure collectors as art thieves do for unscrupulous connoisseurs of painting.

They don't think the birds are staying in Britain because the duck-collecting community is relatively small. A suddenly expanded collection would draw immediate attention.

But smuggling rare waterfowl out of Britain is duck soup in these days of open European borders.

"It's not difficult to do at all," says Andy Jones, head of investigations for the Royal Society for the Protection of Birds.

"There are virtually no controls on the movements of animals across European borders," he says.

The RSPB is concerned mostly about the theft of birds from the wild, especially predatory birds, hawks and the like.

"There is a market for these birds," Mr. Jones says. "Large sums of money change hands."

British peregrine falcons, for example, are smuggled to the Continent or the Middle East. The RSPB reports 1,000 incidents of "persecution" of wild birds so far this year.

Miscreants killed two golden eagles, six peregrine falcons, three goshawks, five sparrow hawks and a sea eagle, not to mention 21 buzzards.

The RSPB is not so interested in stolen ducks, which Mr. Jones tends to think of more as "pets," than wild birds.

The ducks are ornamental, domesticated birds, often with clipped or pinioned wings to prevent escape.

Tony Richardson, who is in charge of breeding and raising birds at Slimbridge, says all the stolen ducks were home bred. Many were under 2 years of age and in a captive breeding program set to begin in 1994.

Bird thefts can be big business: $750,000 worth of parrots and macaws were stolen in Britain last year. They're usually worth more than waterfowl because a lot more people collect them.

Generally speaking, you need a pond for ducks. You can keep a caged parrot in your living room and carry it around on your shoulder if you're feeling a bit nautical.

Still, some 2,000 collectors specialize in waterfowl in Britain. They've appealed to European collectors to watch out for stolen birds.

One of the big problems in tracking missing ducks is identifying them. Police find themselves stymied. If you've seen one Cuban whistling duck. . . .

"If it was a stolen video," Russ Williams, a constable from Gloucestershire, told a local news person, "I'd know where to look."

Waterfowl remain pretty safe at St. James's Park here in central London, according to one of the queen's bird keepers.

People are so security-conscious because of Irish Republican Army bombers that any unlikely package is suspect, especially if it quacks.

All of these crimes against birds seems terribly un-British. Gentle people here worry about newts, great crested newts. Girl Guides (the British version of Girl Scouts) help little old toads across the road.

Snatching ducks, or whacking buzzards for that matter, is simply not what one expects of a properly brought-up Briton.

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