Two weeks ago, ANDY EARLY described how he came to know the late Frank Meaden. That connection led him to further contacts in the British bird fancy, and before long he was admiring a redpoll in a novel custom-built cage, which had learned a quite extraordinary feeding technique…

DURING a visit to Frank Meaden in 2005, I accompanied him on a visit to Mill Lane Aviaries in Leverington to pick up some supplies for the birds. The well-known British bird softbill keeper Alan Baldry was the proprietor here, and a conversation between him and Frank led to an invitation to see his own collection of birds.

Alan had a lovely collection of softbills in immaculate aviaries and the birds themselves were in perfect feather condition. I remember a magnificent corn bunting in the birdroom, which was absolutely rock-steady in its cage. However, what really caught my eye was a small cage that housed a lovely little common redpoll.

The cage can only be described as rectangular, with a smaller curved section at one end only half the height of the rest of the cage. This part had a hole drilled in the bottom with a piece of string going through the centre, which was attached to a thimble. Noticing my curiosity, Alan said: “Watch this.” He filled the thimble with some condition seed and I observed fascinated as the redpoll proceeded to draw the thimble full of seed up to the hole.

It did this by pulling on the string and holding on to it with its feet to stop it dropping down. When the seed reached the hole, the bird started to eat it, while holding the thimble in place by standing on the string. I was absolutely fascinated, and over the years have often thought of this talented redpoll and its beautifully handmade cage.

Then, in late 2015, I mentioned the cage to Phil Thom during the International Ornithological Association (IOA) coach trip to the Gouden Ring Show. Phil told me he knew someone who made them, so he arranged to get me one. As I had no redpolls at the time, I purchased a pair at this show with a view to breeding some youngsters to train to use the cage.

In February this year, Phil phoned to say that the cage was ready and we arranged that Jim Clarke would bring the cage to the Stafford Spring Sale. I collected it from Jim’s table at Stafford and, as I carried it through the hall, a few people stopped to inquire what it was for. Others knew what it was but hadn’t seen one in years.

However, my redpoll breeding attempts were disastrous with loads of eggs laid but not one chick hatched. I decided to try one of the adult birds to see if they could be taught to pull up the thimble of seed. The redpoll wasn’t very steady to start with, and it took several weeks before it settled down. Training involved running the bird into the cage when I was in the shed feeding and watering the rest.

I started off with the thimble full of condition seed next to the hole to get it used to eating seed from this. After a couple of days I lowered the thimble to see if the redpoll would draw up the thimble with the seed in it. The bird’s natural curiosity meant that it pulled on the string anyway, and after several days the penny dropped.

So far, I haven’t managed to drop the string the whole way down and can’t get the redpoll to draw the thimble up to order like Alan’s bird. But after many years of thinking about owning a redpoll cage I finally have one – even if I haven’t yet got a highly trained redpoll.

• Experienced bird breeder Andy Early is a former editor of the International Ornithological Association magazine.