Machines made in Britain are helping to bring some of the world's rarest birds back from the brink of extinction.

Endangered species in North America, Asia, Australasia and Africa are among those who's chances of survival have been boosted by A.B. Incubators (ABI), a specialist firm which designs and hand-builds compact incubation units for zoos, conservation agencies and bird breeders in more than 50 countries.

Run by experts in avian reproductive biology, ABI combines their knowledge with the latest technology to make equipment that can incubate any egg, from a hummingbird's pea-sized product to a 1.6Kg (3.51b) monster laid by an ostrich. The same machines can be adapted to nurture reptile eggs, and have been used in Indonesia for conservation-based research on the largest of all lizards, the three-meter (1011) long Komodo dragon (Varanus komoensis).

ABI which also manufactures separate units for hatching and brooding chicks, has recently unveiled its most sophisticated incubator yet. The new model heads a range of machines that have been vastly improved since ABI's origins in the early 1970s, when the late Arthur Anderson-Brown designed incubators for the Wildfowl and Wetlands Trust, founded by the world-renowned British ornithologist Sir Peter Scott.

Dr Anderson-Brown's pioneering products were among the first of their kind to use electricity instead of paraffin for heating, but they had no facilities for regulating humidity - an important influence on successful hatching - and the eggs within them had to be turned by hand, to ensure healthy development of the embryo.

Today's ABI machines feature automatic egg-turning, a moving-air heating system, precise control of temperature and humidity, and maximum hygiene with easy to clean, thermally efficient cabinets. Clean water for the humidifier is pumped from outside the incubator to minimize the buildup of harmful bacteria.

The latest model, the A.B. Newlife 75 Mk6, which has just gone into production after two years of development, is described by ABI chief Richard Edgell as the world's most advanced small incubator. It has a microprocessor to maintain temperature within +1- 0.20C of the required setting, and an audio-visual alarm which automatically prevents over-heating in the event of any failure. There is also a new water pump, controlled by a solid-state electronic sensor, which constantly monitors the humidity level.

"These developments alone make the Mk6 a very special machine, but what really sets it apart from the competition are its egg-turning capabilities," said Mr. Edgell. "It uses a unique system, enabling eggs of different sizes to be cared for in the same unit at the same time, with infinite pre-set variations to the extent and frequency of turning according to the requirements of the individual species

Such versatility comes from the new incubator's ability to use two turning methods - tilting trays and rollers - simultaneously in interchangeable combinations. Reptile breeders can remove the turning apparatus and leave the leathery eggs beneath a layer of vermiculite, a lightweight mineral more suitable for use in incubators than the sand under which the animals may naturally bury their eggs.

The Mk6's cabinet, 51cm (20in) square and 29cm (11.5in) high, is made from molded polyurethane foam, sprayed with a special hard finish paint to protect it from contamination. It can hold up to 75 pheasant eggs but is principally designed to meet the multi-specie needs of zoos and other professional bird breeders.

ABI's consultant Gary Robbins, a world authority on artificial incubation, said: "Our machines have led the way for many years, and the new model is a significant step forward, especially for those involved in the conservation of species that are difficult to breed in captivity."

Mr. Robbins said that the captive rearing and subsequent release into suitable habitat, under strict legal protection, offered some species their only hope of continued existence in the wild. For many parrots, hawks and other popular birds, artificial incubation was a means of increasing aviary-housed stock and therefore reducing the demand from the pet trade, zoos and falconers for wild-caught specimens.

One of the rarest birds to benefit from ABI's work is the California condor (Gymnogyps cahfornianus), a giant vulture with a wingspan of up to 270cm (911). Although long revered by native Americans, the condor's population crashed in modem times as a result of shooting, poisoning and environmental problems. By 1987 only 27 were left, and all were brought into captivity for their own safety.

Special breeding facilities were set up in San Diego Wild Animal Park, Los Angeles Zoo and the World Center for Birds of Prey at Boise, Idaho. Incubation and hatching units assembled by A.B Incubators mc, the firm's US agents based in Moline, Illinois, were sent to San Diego.

The Californian condor normally raises only one chick every other year, but the females will lay again if she loses a previous egg. By removing eggs for artificial incubation as soon as they were laid, zookeepers were able to increase the reproductive rate to as many as six young per female in a two year period. This manipulation of nature was the key to the condor's steady recovery. In 1992, when the population had reached 63, seven were released into protected areas. By september 1999 there were 161 condors, 48 of which were soaring free above their native hills.

On the other side of the Pacific Ocean, New Zealand's Department of Conservation is using ABUs machines in its efforts to save the black winged stilt (Hirnanlopus novaezelandiae,). A critically endangered wading bird, and the Kakapo (Sirigops habroptilus), a flightless, nocturnal parrot whose numbers have been reduced to around 60 by introduced rats, cats and stoats. ABI's battery-powered portable brooders have formed travelling homes for Kakapo eggs and chicks on their way to captive breeding centers or to comparative safety on small islands cleared of alien predators.

In Morocco, Saudi Arabia and the United Arab Emirates, ABI equipment is helping the turkey-like houbara bustard (Chiarnydotis undulata), a traditional quarry of falconers and shooters.

ABI products are also in service with government wildlife departments in Malaysia and Thailand which, together with members of the UK based World Pheasant Association, are implementing measures to safeguard rare pheasants in south-east Asia.

The tiny eggs of the Hawaiian honey creepers are incubated in similar machines as part of a programme funded by the Peregrine Foundation in the United States. Russian aviculturalists at Moscow zoo and Novosibrisk are breeding endangered cranes in ABI Newlife units.

"Many other species of birds and reptiles are being incubated and hatched in our machines," said Mr. Edgell at ABI headquarters near Ipswich in eastern England. "Our clients are constantly adding to our knowledge, and we strive to incorporate their requirements into our products to maintain ABI's position as the world leader in incubation technology."

The ABI range of incubators runs from 25 eggs to 3355 game bird eggs.


A.B. Incubators

Unit 1, Church Farm, Chelmondiston, Ipswich, Suffolk, IP9 1HS, UK
Tel/Fax +44 (0) 1473 780 050