Wednesday, 26 August 2015


“A Robin Redbreast in a Cage
Puts all Heaven in a Rage.
A dove house fill’d with doves and pigeons
Shudders Hell thro’ all its regions."  
William Blake,  written 1800-1803

The Goldfinch
What is your view on birds in cages? Good thing, or bad thing?

Donna Tart's book called "The Goldfinch" won the Pulizer Prize for fiction in 2014. The painting on the left (made by Carel Fabritius in 1584) lies at the heart of the story. It speaks volumes doesn't it?

Theo and his mother are at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York specially to see this painting which is on loan from Amsterdam. While she explains to him all about the history of the painting and its significance in Dutch art, a striking young red-headed girl is standing nearby with her grandfather listening in to what is being said.

"Anyway, if you ask me," my mother was saying, "this is the most extraordinary picture in the whole show. Fabritius is making clear something that he discovered all on his own, that no painter in the whole world knew before him, not even Rembrandt."

Very softly --- so softly I could barely hear her --- I heard the girl whisper: "It had to live it's whole life like that?"

You will have to read the book, but it would not be giving too much away to tell you that the artist and his studio were blown up when an explosives depot caught fire in 16th century Delft. Almost all of his work was destroyed.

Moments later an explosion rips through the gallery, killing almost everyone there except Theo and the girl. Everything that follows over the next 30 years and 864 pages stems from that horrific moment. It's about loss, about art, love, drug abuse, society, luck and chance. You must read it.

Think of all those canaries and budgerigars that "live their whole lives like that" in Northern Europe or the USA. Most owners have only ever seen them in cages because they do not occur in the wild at high latitudes. Our mental image of a canary is therefore totally disconnected from the living wild bird. It is the same with parrots. Generations of children have only one association with parrots, and that's Pirates!

If you have visited the Mediterranean or Africa, you will have seen wild canaries. They behave pretty much like our goldfinches and linnets, descending in yellow flocks to feed on seeds in open country. Typically the habitat is quite arid so they are often more attracted to water than to food. The best way to capture them on film is find a waterhole, or create one yourself. You never see one on its own in the wild. They are birds of a feather that flock together. A caged finch does not sing all day because he's happy, it's because he is lonely.

The first proper wild parrots I ever saw were in Costa Rica, not in the rain forest but in an area of coffee plantations where they zoomed past me in a noisy stream of yellow, blue and red. In Cuba and the Dominican Republic I saw the big endemic Amazon parrots in the same semi-open habitat. They are the classic "Parrots of the Caribbean;" of the Spanish Main, Hispaniola, pieces-of-eight and shiver-me-timbers fame.

Rodney, a true "Parrot of the Caribbean"
I spend ages chatting to a macaw called Rodney. He usually listens to me for a while and then politely says "Goodbye" when he has heard enough. He obviously enjoys human company and loves to show off and be photographed. He's extremely vain and a shameless attention-seeker.

How do I know that Rodney likes people? Surely he has no choice?  Well actually he does, because he is a free-flying bird whose home is in an old beer barrel. He chooses to spend his day 100 metres away in the cafe forecourt where he can keep an eye on his featherless friends. Sadly he does not have a partner, though I guess he did once.

When I see tropical birds like him in an aviary today, I am transported back to all those exotic places where I have seen them in the wild. They have an association for me that enriches the experience but pricks my conscience at the same time. Should I be enjoying this? Wouldn't the birds be better off in the wild?

Papageno; the Bird-Catcher.
As a matter of fact, captive birds often live a lot longer than wild ones and many of them breed well in captivity. Some extremely threatened island-species have been saved from extinction by taking the whole population into captivity, but that's just one side of the coin. Other species have been driven to the verge of extinction by the trade in cage birds. Parrots and macaws are prime examples because the rarer they get in the wild, the more valuable they become in the pet trade. Even our common goldfinch was almost wiped out by the demand for cage-birds in Victorian times.

Finch trapping is much older than that, the Romans and ancient Greeks did it, and probably people long before the Egyptians.

By Mozart's time, the local bird-catcher was a feature of every village in Europe. It's a strange co-incidence but one of the first solo competition pieces that I sang while at school was Papageno's song from "The Magic Flute".  It's a celebration of the bird-catcher's art and his place in the community.

Then there's that old Cockney music hall song "My Old Man". Here's the chorus:

My old man said: "Foller the van,
And don't dilly-dally on the way".
Off went the van wiv me 'ome packed in it.
I walked be'ind wiv me old cock linnet.
But I dillied and dallied,
Dallied and dillied;
Lost me way and don't know where to roam.
And you can't trust a "Special"
Like the old-time copper
When you can't find your way home. 

In Europe, trapping wild birds is now illegal, though the law is not always enforced. I once had to call the police to help me arrest a retired miner in Fife who was trapping finches within sight of the police station. He had an aviary full of finches at home that he claimed were captive-bred. Some of them were, but we had caught him "bang-to-rights" in the act of trapping. Breeding and exhibiting British Wild Birds used to be quite a big business among the miners and there were local and national competitions that paid big prize money. It's harder to find now, but it still goes on.
Illegally trapped goldfinches in Dagenham, 2012.

On another occasion I was invited to speak about wild birds to the inmates of Perth Prison. They told me that wild finches were on their way out as a hobby and tropical fish were the big thing to come. Of course that hobby too has its dark side involving dynamited reefs and chemical hunting of rare reef-fish.

Today, goldfinches are increasing in numbers and occur in almost everyone's gardens. Since we copied the Americans and brought in niger-seed feeders we can all get great views of them from the kitchen window. There's no need to cage them and the finch business is going the way of egg- collecting. Soon the trappers and collectors will be extinct.

Progress? Not really. The caged song-bird in the corner of the room has been replaced by a 48 inch super-HD, LED TV with sound bars and sub-woofers. At least the song-bird gave hard-working urbanised families a link with the wilderness that lay beyond the pit-wheels and the slag-heaps.

This article was inspired by a video that appeared on You Tube. Friends of mine on the Maine Birds Facebook Group were really thrilled to see this tame goldfinch take a bath in its owners hands. I was surprised and felt I had to re-examine my views on the whole question about wild birds in captivity. Have a look

I stumbled upon Donna Tart's book "The Goldfinch" at the same time and, confined to bed after an operation, I spent four days reading it. That made me ask questions about cage birds in art, especially goldfinches, so look out for my next blog that will be about goldfinches in historic paintings. It's not as dull as it sounds.