Growing up with Strange Pets

I’ve been a bit quiet on my blog over the last few weeks but it’s not for a lack of writing. I have been writing a fly tying piece for Vagabond Fly Mag, and another article for the Flyfishing magazine on fishing in Lesotho.

Over the years we have had various pets other than the usual cats and dogs. From a Sacred Ibis to a mongoose and all sorts in between. These were such fun animals and birds to rear while growing up. You learn a lot about nature by having a bit of nature in your house. My wife grew up in the bush in Zimbabwe and she had way more cool pets than I did. She had all sorts of animals ranging from a Cheetah, to several Kudus and a few Giraffe. Our pets were far more normal but nonetheless a great novelty to have.

We had a Water Mongoose for many years. Mongi was a wonderful pet, if a little smelly at times. She used to be big mates with our Sausage dog, until the Sausage dog found her nest and killed all Mongi’s babies. As with most wild animal pets, they tend to come and go as they please. Mongi used to dissappear for weeks or even months on end doing what wild mongooses do. We had Mongi for a good 6 or 7 years before one day we realised that she hadn’t been around for a month or so. It was a gradual realisation that she wasn’t coming home which was sad, but for us kids it was a much less traumatic way to go. She really was an incredible character and as smart as any dog. She learned to open the warmer draw and get stuck into our freshly cooked dinner. We often found her inside the dog food bag making an absolute pig of herself. It was like having a kid in the house, you had to make everything Mongi-proof. Mongi was undoubtedly our best wild pet that we ever had.

Another amusing pet we had was a mousebird called Scruffy. I was collecting birds eggs one day, and I found this nest high in a tall tree. I climbed up, felt in the nest for eggs, and out jumped a mousbird chick. It was just learning to fly but crash landed in the flower bed below. I captured the chick and named it Scruffy. Scruffy turned out into a great fun house pet who would make an absolute nuisance of himself at meal times. Scruffy had a thing for butter and cheese and would climb onto your plate to steal whatever looked tasty. The fruit salad bowl was also a favourite place of his. Scruffy spent the day time flying around the house or in his cage. Normally he was confined to his cage as he shat about as frequently as he ate. Scruffy lived to about 5 years old before probably succumbing to obesity from over indulgence and no exercise.

Other birds we had were a pair of Egyptian Geese. They lived in the dam in the garden for many years and would chase off any other waterfowl that I tried to release there. We reared and released a family of African Shell duck, and another group of Egyptian geese but the resident geese chased them all away.

I reared a family of 8 Egyptian geese in my room at boarding school for the first 3 weeks of their lives. I was a dorm prefect and one of the grade 9’s in my dorm brought back a goose egg for me as he knew I collected eggs. The egg hatched before I could blow it so we went straight back to the nest the next day, not to return the chick, but to steal the whole lot of them. I now had a gaggle of goslings living in my room at school. This is not exactly what most other matric boys were doing at the time, they were more interested in another type of fluff. I kept these 8 goslings in my room for several weeks before I took them home on a long weekend. We took them for walks every day down to a small dam where they would have an hour or so to be like normal goslings. It was the most amusing thing to watch them following us down a cattle path to the dam. Their stumpy little wings spread wide for ballance as they ran full tilt after their strange looking mothers. It was like taking your dog’s for an afternoon walk in the park. Every day it would be someone else’s turn in the dorm to take the children for a walk. You can imagine my room didn’t smell too good with 8 goslings living in a soggy cardboard box. It was hardly something you want a visiting girl to smell. Maybe that’s why I was 21 before I got my first girlfriend😂😂😂.

Our most beautiful pets were undoubtedly a pair of Crested Cranes. There was a pair that nested on the other side of the river from our house. Every year they nested in November which is a month or two earlier than normal. They often failed in their attempt at rearing their chicks, and would have to lay another clutch of eggs sometime in February. Dad decided we should intervene and take their first clutch and hatch the eggs under a chicken. This was a great success and shortly we had 2 cranes running around after a mother hen. After a few weeks these little fellas were towering over their mother. I wonder if the hen thought it unusual that she had 3 week old chicks bigger than herself? I was in junior school at the time and my job in school holidays was to run around with a butterfly net catching grasshoppers for our cranes, and when I was away then some farm worker was enlisted with the task of satisfying their voracious appetites.

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Mother hen looking confused at the size of her week old chicks.

 

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The Crested Crane: One of the most beautiful birds in Africa

 

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My father feeding the wild birds that flock to our garden every evening. Our two adolescent cranes in the tree behind him. 

 

The cranes grew up and lived in the garden for about 5 years before one died of lice while we were on holiday and one was found with a broken neck a gew years after the first one died. They were very protective and they would charge any intruder with wings spread wide. It was a frightening sight, two Cranes charging towards one with wings spread wide. We suspect that our last crane was hit by someone with a stick as the crane possibly attacked or chased them. Once it’s mate died it did become a menace and quite aggressive at times.

One of the most unlikely pets we had and still have is Stanley the Sacred Ibis. Stanley has been around for 27 years! That’s not a joke. When I was 6 years old I reared him by hand and released him into the wild. He fell out of his nest as an ugly half feathered chick. He is legendary amongst all visitors to Fisherman’s Bend. He hangs around the windows in front if the house and if anyone leaves a door open, he’s in like a flash. He immediately heads straight under the table as you try chase him out. He has learned that the only way you can get him out is to lure him out with a piece of cheese. He often surprises the odd person as he sometimes mobs you expecting a piece of cheese. Imagine the surprise that some visitors have as they open the door to leave the house and a big white bird charges at you demanding food. He is an amazing character and he even knows his name. If he is foraging in the garden and you call him, he comes. People don’t believe us at first, but he really does know his name like any dog would.

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Stanley our now 27 year old ibis, and they crane coming for a feed. 

 

Stanley hangs around until well after dark on some occasions when we are having a braai, but most evenings he flies off after sunset to spend the night with his mates. During the breeding season he comes and goes a lot more and will be away for weeks at a time. As soon as you think you’ve seen the last of him, he’s back. I’m sure Stanley holds the record for Ibis longevity. What a legend, 27 years and still going strong!

I often wonder what sort of pets I will find for Olli to rear? Maybe I will try a few new species? Maybe we will just see what we happen to stumble across, but as much as a hassle it may be for us as parents, it’s so worthwhile for the kids. It’s all part of the adventure of growing up on the farm.

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