Sarolgas in France, 1934-1944

by Elinor Scambler

The first ‘Sarolgas’ (Brolga-Sarus hybrids) known to ornithology were not found in the wild in Australia, but were bred in captivity in France in the 1930s. Exclusively for Ozcranes readers, we give the first detailed history of the ‘French Sarolgas’ at the avicultural park of the Château de Clères in northern France.

For information on wild Brolga-Sarus hybrids in Australia, see The Sarolga in Australia». See also Ozcranes Brolga breeding» and Sarus breeding».

The French Sarolgas

Jean Delacour and the zoological park of Clères

The first known Brolga-Sarus hybrids were bred in France in the 1930s by Jean Théodore Delacour (1890-1985), one of the world's greatest aviculturalists. He also undertook major field expeditions, contributed to avian systematics, and was a co-founder of the ICBP (later BirdLife International). Delacour completed a Doctorate in zoology before WW1 and established a private zoo, including major aviaries, on the family estate at Villers-Bretonneux, northern France. During WW1 the collection was destroyed and Delacour moved to the 14th century Château de Clères near Rouen in Normandy. On the 70 ha Clères estate he established 13 ha of gardens and wetlands and a major collection of both free-range and caged animals, mostly birds, with advanced breeding facilities. He corresponded extensively with other ornithologists and breeders, many of whom visited the estate, and in 1938 he was Secretary to the IXth International Ornithological Congress, held in nearby Rouen [1], [2].

Three cranes drinking in a lake at Clères (1950, unknown photographer). At least one (in the centre) appears to be a Sarus Crane. When the German army abandoned Clères in August 1944, the few remaining birds included 2 Sarus Cranes [6]. Photograph is taken looking uphill towards the château.

Cranes at Cleres

In 1939 things changed abruptly. In February, a fire (arson, attributed to a disgruntled former employee) seriously damaged the château: the library and years of detailed breeding records were destroyed [1], [3]. The fire was reported internationally, including in the Australian press [4]. Delacour and his staff moved into the adjacent manor house, but Clères was bombed by the Germans in 1940, then occupied by German troops [3], [5]. The grounds were used to launch V flying-bombs, one of which backfired, killing rare Siberian Cranes [6]. Some animals had been transferred at the beginning of the war but most stayed on site and were killed during 1940-44. When abandoned by the German army in August 1944, of some 3,000 birds of 500 species, there remained only 60 ducks; 3 swans; and 2 Sarus Cranes [6]. From 1940 Delacour lived in the United States, working with zoos and museums. After the war he restored Clères to some extent and donated the estate to the regional government as a zoological park (Parc de Clères) [2].

Lake at Clères Zoological Park, 2018, looking downhill from the château (tyalis_2: Licence)

Lake at Cleres

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Crane breeding and hybrids at Clères

Delacour always had an interest in cranes [7] (he was still an advisor to the International Crane Foundation in the USA in 1983, at age 93) and the birds at Clères included Brolgas and up to eight Sarus Cranes. At least two of these were Eastern Sarus (Antigone a. sharpii), probably from Vietnam. The published literature on aviculture including hybrids is full of duplications (the same event published in different journals, or repeated by third parties in later reports). After discounting duplicate records, a search of Delacour's writings in French and English shows that he reported three broods of Sarolgas raised at Clères (2 chicks in 1934; 1 in 1935; and 2 in 1937. One chick hatched in 1938, but died). The parents were an Eastern Sarus female and a Brolga male. Except for the size of the first hybrids in 1934, Delacour gives no description of his Sarolgas' features [8], [9], [10], [11], [12].

This year [1934] an old hen Eastern Sarus, who never had produced fertile eggs as long as she had a cock of her own species, hatched and reared two fine hybrids with an Australian Crane. They grew very quickly, and at two months of age were just as big as their mother. One cannot say yet what they will look like [9].

The classic reference on avian hybrids, Gray 1958 [13], reports the 1934 brood and adds that further hybrids were reared: ‘They proved to be fertile’. This statement is not found in any published article by Delacour or others, so presumably can only have come from Gray's citation of ‘Delacour 1949’, which is a personal communication by Delacour. As above, the Clères breeding records were destroyed by the 1939 fire, so this personal communication is the only source for fertility in captive-bred Sarolgas at Clères. The five Sarolgas presumably perished during WW2 [6]. The International Crane Foundation crossbred Brolgas and Sarus Cranes in the 1980s, which laid fertile eggs [14], but there appears to be no published record of fertility in these offspring.

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[1] J Delacour. 1966. The Living Air: The memoirs of an ornithologist. Country Life, London.
[2] E Mayr. 1986. In memorium: Jean (Théodore) Delacour. Auk 103: 603-605.
[2] J Delacour, E Mayr. 1945. The family Anatidae. Wilson Bulletin 57: 3-7.
[4] e.g. Anon. The Australasian, 18 March 1939: 23.
[5] J Delacour. 1941. The end of Clères. Avicultural Magazine, 5th Series 6: 81-84.
[6] G Hellman. 1947. Birds of a feather: the great aviculturalist. In: How to Disappear for an Hour. Dodd, Mead; New York.
[7] J Delacour. 1921. Birds in the park at Clères. Avicultural Magazine, 3rd Series 12: 113-116.
[8] J Delacour. 1934. Elevages d'oiseaux rares à Clères. L'Oiseau (Paris), N.S.(2): 572.
[9] J Delacour. 1935. Bird-breeding at Clères. Avicultural Magazine, 4th Series 14: 24-25.
[10] J Delacour. 1936. Notes sur les oiseaux de Clères en 1935. L'Oiseau (Paris), N.S.(6): 519-521.
[11] J Delacour. 1937. Les élevages de Clères en 1936. L'Oiseau (Paris) N.S. (7): 173-176.
[12] J Delacour. 1939. Breeding results at Clères. Avicultural Magazine 5th Series 4: 2-4.
[13] A P Gray. 1958. ‘Bird Hybrids: A Check-list with Bibliography.’. Commonwealth Agricultural Bureaux, Edinburgh.
[14] JCL Schuh & TM Yuill. 1985. Persistence of inclusion body disease of cranes virus. Journal of Wildlife Diseases 21: 111-119.

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