Sunday, 19 June 2011

Pidgeon Fancier - bird related historical trivia.

The Song Thrush (courtesy of Arthur Grosset.)

According to a recent RSPB (Royal Society for the Protection of Birds) survey, many of  Britain’s native birds are in decline. Changes in farming and horticulture have deprived birds such as the song-thrush of its favourite foods – slugs and snails, leading to a decline in  numbers. However this is not the first time that native birds have had a lean time. In Victorian times bird keeping was a popular hobby amongst city communities. Native birds such as thrushes, bullfinches and goldfinches were trapped at night in country villages and sent by train to the suburbs to be sold in markets at Greenwich, Hounslow and Woolwich.

Bullfinches and goldfinches were especially popular, since they could be trained to sing and fetch a high
price, several shillings each, whilst larks sold for six to eight pence a piece. There was even a market for
 dowdy birds such as house sparrows- once they were disguised with paint –sadly when they preened they died of lead poisoning. Even more unpleasant was the craze in the 1890’s for ‘flying’ greenfinches. These birds were sold for half a penny each, with a cotton thread tied to a leg. The idea was to bet on which bird could fly in circles longest before it dropped dead of exhaustion.

Keeping caged birds was widespread, even amongst prisoners held at the Tower of London. One prisoner wrote ‘An Epitaph on a Goldfinch,’ on the death of his pet bird,
‘Buried June 23, 1794 by a fellow prisoner in the Tower of London.’
The Spitalfields weavers of the 1840’s also prized their birds. The breeding of fancy pigeons and canaries; Almond tumblers, Pouting horseman and Nuns, was taken very seriously. Bird shows were highly competitive, matching the fashion amongst wealthier classes for dog shows. It could be a dodgy business - the prize winning pigeons at a show in Islington had had their throats stitched back to improve their appearance – the perpetrators were found out and prosecuted.
London’s pigeons are descended from those that escaped from dove cotes in medieval times, to roost amongst the cities ledges and towers. In 1277 a man is recorded as falling from the belfry of St Stephens, Walbrook whilst trying to raid a pigeons nest and in 1385 the Bishop of London complained of ‘malignant persons’ who threw stones at pigeons resting in city churches.

Nowadays, birds that interact and be part of a family, like parrots, are popular. An African Grey, Sunny, was the mascot of HMS Lancaster. The ship’s crew taught him an impressive vocabulary including an armoury of expletives so extensive he has to be hidden in a broom cupboard when dignitaries visit. His catch phrases included –
‘You ain’t seen me, right?’ and
Zulus, thousands of ‘em!

Another parrot owner was W S Gilbert –  who wrote the words to accompany Sir Arthur Sullivan’s music. He owned a particularly fine parrot, reputedly the best talker in England. When a guest commented on the appearance of a second parrot in his hallway, Gilbert replied:
‘The other parrot, who is a novice, belongs to Doctor Playfair. He is reading up with my bird, who takes pupils.’

However, pet birds were not necessarily popular with everyone. George Bernard Shaw was given a caged canary, which he heartily disliked, calling it a ‘little green brute.’ He was delighted when the bird was stolen, and equally disappointed when a friend replaced it. His comment was;
‘I’m a vegetarian and can’t eat it, and its too small to eat me.’

Author and playwright, George Bernard Shaw.


  1. I remember the caged birds in the movie Bleak House (Dickens). Later, doing research for my books, I learned that caged birds were all the rage in Victorian England. My second book, coming out in 2012 is named The Skylark. Blatant self promotion, but I'm sure everyone will forget this comment before then. :D

  2. I've never really been a bird fancier. I was traumatized at a young age by by a caged parakeet that escaped one time and repeatedly dive bombed me. Actually, the poor thing was just in a panic and trying to get out of the room, but it certainly felt like I was being attached at the time :) It might make for an amusing rescue scene in a romance novel sometime. The hero would have to be rescuing a child or maybe a rival heroine though, otherwise a heroine who was afraid of a tiny bird would just be too poor spirited to like.


Due to the amount of SPAM I have been forced to moderate comments. If you are a spammer - please go away! You comment will not be posted and you are wasting your own time.