‘Although not wildlife, my canary stock is worthy of comment.’

By Graham Wellstead.

We feel it is good to have a certain amount about animals in captivity on FFON. Many naturalists also keep or tend animals in their homes; it’s all part of the spectrum of enjoying and caring for wildlife. MK (Maxwell Knight) would certainly approve.’

John and Margaret Cooper

Earlier today, while looking for something else I came across an instruction to falconers, written in about 1575. “Wafthe you hands always before you feed her. Beware you have no Mufle nor Syuet nor kinds fwetes about you.” Two things struck me: Firstly, hand washing does not spring to mind with the period. Secondly, how appropriate in these troubled times?

However, in my garden today: I was working in my canary shed at 6am feeding my families of Roller Canaries, when the sound of lots of small feet running across the roof disturbed me. I stepped outside to see what was afoot, to see three baby grey squirrels playing chase on the ridge. I would much rather see the native red, as I did in my boyhood, not two miles from where I stand now, but I admit to being beguiled by their fearless charm. Their parents know me well, are aware that I never offer harm, even though they make themselves at home on my bird table, but I was surprised the little ones ignored me for several minutes, when they made their untroubled way back into the Scots pine trees, the other side of the fence.

We have babies everywhere now. Two pairs of blackbirds, plus a widowed hen. The cat I mentioned previously has taken her mate, but has had his comeuppance in the form of a full gallon of water as a direct hit, after I had cut off his previous escape route. His total panic suggests he will be slow to return. Very wet, but unharmed.

Babies: Hedge sparrows, Great and blue tits. House sparrows every where I look. I see others on this blog have sparrows too, which is cheering. One little one flew onto the scroll in my garden gate as I was going through, for a few suspended moments we were nose to nose, until I said ‘Hello little one”, and it was gone. Our raucous starling families have moved on, although they pop back – not to feed, but to drink, in the many watering spots, including the hawk baths. I have seen a collared dove bathe in a falcon’s bath – that really was asking for trouble.

Although not wildlife, my canary stock is worthy of comment:

Canaries were the first birds I kept from the age of ten. At the time I was also beginning to try and repair injured wild creatures, taking in a number of small birds, plus little owls, kestrels and sparrowhawks, which was the start of my lifelong interest in not only falconry, but the birds that not directly involved. Over the years I have kept and bred a great many species, a range of birds from seed to nectar feeders, and mammals too European polecats and Scottish Wildcats bred for release – But always my canaries. They are special, and now quite rare. This is a variety which has been kept and bred in the UK since the time of Good Queen Bess (1558 – 1603). Bred entirely for their song – looks count for nothing and in truth they are like peas in a pod identified by a closed ring placed on at 7 days old. My interest was fostered by the great bird song recorder Ludwig Koch.

Currently I have lots of babies, some already away from their parents. The routine being, when the little ones have left the nest and mum decided to produce another lot, once they are eating hard seed, they spend a week in a flight cage, along, hopefully, with others of the same age, then a week in the inside aviary, before being let out into the main 10foot long aviary which has fresh hazel branches to play in and later sheaves of seeding grasses to keep them occupied (which stops the pulling out each others feathers). Here they can grow, explore and in the case of the boys – learn to sing.

In October, the cock birds, now still singing baby song, come back into the cages for training. Part of the song is inherited and part learned. So they have a schoolmaster to teach them until by January their song is set and will not change. From November they travel to song contests – each competing against 59 others. They have, in groups of four, 30 minutes to impress the judge. They will contest up to six times, and then never go again. The best will go on to breed, the rest to be sold. The most I add to the stock each year is 8 birds, of both sexes, the hens, do not sing so their value is an unknown quantity. Breeding birds rarely last more than four years, although a pet cock bird I once knew was 21 and his numbered and dated ring proved it so.

At this time of the year my joy is watching them grow from tiny wee things to independence, and hopefully lots of accolades for their performance. The song is soft and slightly mournful, sung with a closed beak in a series of continuous rolling notes, as deep as possible. Bass roll sounds like a cat purring, and 24 birds in my office all singing together cannot be heard if I leave and shut the door.

By Graham Wellstead

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