Above: Lee Clarke with the partnership’s winning zebra finches at the Australian Finch Society’s members’ show in 2016

When LEE CLARKE decided to come back to birdkeeping after a break of nearly 20 years, he picked up straight where he left off thanks to his uncle Ron Jackson and the duo were soon producing world-class silverbills alongside other foreign species. Words by Dave Brown.

LEE Clarke’s return to the fancy has been to the advantage of many organisations and he has taken on official roles with his local club Stratford-upon-Avon CBS, the National Bengalese Fanciers Association (NBFA) and the Australian Finch Society (AFS).

In his birdroom, Lee keeps a range of seedeaters with a particular focus on silverbills.

Dave Brown: What is your birdkeeping history?

Lee Clarke: As a child, Saturday afternoons would be spent at my granddad’s house with him, my uncle Ron Jackson and I standing outside shaking tins of corn and throwing up a tumbler pigeon to encourage the returning racing pigeons to trap and be clocked. I even took and released a racing pigeon from my junior school in front of the whole class on one occasion!

My first birds were a pair of zebra finches. My interest grew and aged 16 I formed the Clarke & Jackson partnership with Ron. He was instrumental in my involvement with aviculture when I was a junior, building cages and a birdroom, taking me to club meetings and shows, and advice was always freely available. We exhibited as a novice partnership for a number of years, showing predominantly zebra finches.

When work and other interests meant I had to leave the fancy, Ron continued keeping birds. He took over our entire stud and progressed from novice to champion status with the zebra finches. Even though it was never discussed, he retained the Clarke & Jackson partnership name. I was never far away from the hobby, often calling in on Ron when I was back in the Midlands.

Fast forward 20 years and my work life has calmed down, hence me returning to the fancy several years ago and being more visible in the Clarke & Jackson partnership.

DB: What made you decide to have a go at keeping silverbills?

LC: Their docile nature, the range of colour mutations and their relatively cheap price. Quality pairs of mutation African silverbills can be brought for £25-30 a pair.

DB: Why did you decide to then go on to specialise in this species?

LC: We keep, breed and exhibit a range of foreign birds alongside the silverbills, but over the years our African silverbill stock has grown and we now breed about 100 each year. It’s the task of improving the colour, size and shape of the birds for the show bench, developing different mutation lines and trying to preserve a line of good-quality normal birds that has seen numbers grow.

We are also experimenting and trying to breed pied (variegated) silverbills. This is a real challenge and is proving frustrating as we struggle to expand the amount of white markings on our pied line.

DB: What are the different colour mutations?

LC: In African silverbills – excluding grey and pastel mutations, because they are quite rare in the UK – the basic principles of colour mutations are built on three foundation colours: normal, cinnamon and chocolate. To these you can add the established mutation types of agate, opal and ino, thus giving you the common silverbill mutations that are readily seen in the UK.

DB: How do you house your birds?

LC: Our silverbills are over-wintered in single-sex large double breeder cages or deep flight cages. We mainly cage-breed our silverbills (one pair per cage) to guarantee the production of the various colour mutations and to help develop particular good show traits. We have, in the past, colony-bred silverbills in flights but the results were disappointing compared to cage-breeding.

DB: What is your feeding regime?

LC: We feed a good-quality tropical finch mix, supplemented with millet sprays and a budgie conditioner seed mix. I use an off-the-shelf eggfood mix to which I add extra Niger and maw seed, but my uncle prefers his homemade eggfood. This mixture includes hard-boiled eggs, couscous, crushed baked eggshells, crushed mealworms and wheatgerm.

DB: How do you breed your birds?

LC: When cage-breeding, we set the cock bird up first in the cage without a nest-box, but add a few strands of coconut fibre. Then the hen is introduced, still without a nest-box, because we find this way she has nowhere to hide so treading and fertilisation is improved. An external nest-box is offered a couple of days later already part filled with hay and coconut fibre. This allows us to see when they start nest building. Eggs will normally appear within seven to 10 days of the hen being introduced.

DB: Do silverbills make good show birds? Do they require much training and preparation?

LC: Yes, they do. Silverbills are steady birds by nature and stand proud on the perch. A nice-shaped cock bird in condition with good feather quality is hard to beat on the show bench. Silverbills are commonly winning best foreign bird specials, beating various more exotic and brightly coloured foreign birds. They fall under the waxbill section, so it’s really rewarding when they take the top prize. We were very proud that our current-year owner-bred (CYOB) normal silverbill cock took best waxbill at last year’s National Exhibition at Stafford.

Surrey-based Dave Brown currently keeps zebra and Bengalese finches, north Dutch frill canaries and Malaysian Serama bantams.

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