Photo: Geoff Gradwell. Priceless memories: Geoff aged 11 with awards he had won as a junior. This was about the time that he joined the Foreign Bird League (FBL)


After more than half a century of keeping, breeding and showing foreign birds, Geoff Gradwell recalls the day when he decided that keeping birds was the hobby for him


I CAN pinpoint where my lifetime adventure with foreign birds began. It was in 1962 at the grand old age of six. My father was, at the time, a reasonably successful novice budgerigar exhibitor, but on a visit to a local petshop I saw a pair of birds that would change my life for ever.

I enquired what they were and was informed that they were red avadavats (Amandava amandava). I knew at that moment that if I was going to be a birdkeeper, that I would keep these fascinating tropical birds. I asked if I could possibly have the red avadavats as a birthday present, but was told in no uncertain terms that as there was a shed full of budgies, there was no room for what dad called “those fancy foreign birds”.

On my birthday I was asked to go to the bird shed to retrieve something dad had left in there. On opening the door I was greeted with a show cage containing the red avadavats; the male was in full song as though he was as happy as I was. I was told that as they were my birds, they were also my responsibility and whether they lived or died was down to me. I must have got something right because they reared chicks in the following two years.

Over the next year or so, a budgie would periodically be exchanged for a pair of common seedeaters. Eventually no budgies remained and the shed was full of “those fancy foreign birds” that dad had wanted nothing to do with a year previously. I always suspected that he was as fascinated as I was, but I could never get him to admit it. Any piece of literature I could get my hands on, I read, and spent every spare minute feeding, cleaning and observing different habits in my birds. I managed to get a few things right but a lot more wrong. “You learn from your mistakes,” I was always told, and eventually I believed that I was starting to figure it out.

I successfully managed to breed the red avadavats, green singing finches (Crithagra mozambicus), cut-throats (Amadina fasciata), silverbills and various mannikins but, on receiving my very first copy of Cage & Aviary Birds in 1965, I realised that these birds could be exhibited.

Seeing as I have always had a very competitive nature, I started to think this could be the next part of my adventure. So, I applied for some show schedules, and also obtained some show cages, in exchange for some red-headed finches (A. erythrocephala) that I had bred. At the same time I disposed of a lot of the common seedeaters and replaced them with some of the rarer species, such as whydahs, twinspots, violet-eared waxbills (Uraeginthus granatinus), etc, plus a couple of pairs of Oriental white-eyes (Zosterops palpebrosus) and, in pride of place, a stunning male scarlet-chested sunbird (Chalcomitra senegalensis).

For a couple of years, I exhibited in the junior section and was lucky enough to win best junior foreign at every show I attended, including two Scottish National wins. In consultation with a couple of exhibitors whose opinions I respected, I decided at the age of 12 to leave the junior section and mix it with the “big boys”. This was for two reasons: I was not getting a lot of competition in the juniors and, while a lot of people were very supportive and gave me good advice, others were less so.
I was just another “child showing dad’s birds”. (The fact that I am still here 56 years later disproves that!) Competing against those people in their own section and hopefully beating them might make long faces even longer.

My first major win in the foreign bird section came about in slightly humorous circumstances. A family friend in Scotland (at that time a leading foreign bird exhibitor) used any anniversary or get-together as an excuse to invite my family to his home for the weekend. He had an ulterior motive. All the cages in his shed had budgie cage fronts with the large doors, so every time he had to catch a bird from one of these cages, a number escaped and he could not catch them. So it was my job to recapture and re-cage them all.

On one occasion I saw a chattering lory (Lorius garrulus) on top of a cage and was told: “Catch it and it’s yours.” Apparently, he had bought it with a view to exhibiting, but could not get it into condition. I caught it in double quick time, took it home and bathed it every day for months. Later that year I showed this lory at a major all-foreign bird show and was awarded best parrot-like and ultimately best foreign bird in show, beating a lot of top exhibitors including the friend who’d given me the bird. I can still remember the good-humoured abuse he got from his friends, but he was the first person to congratulate me. Birdkeeping was like that in those days. I felt that was the day I finally earned a little bit of respect and was taken as a serious birdkeeper. But then, at the end of 1969, a momentous decision was made, which would take my hobby in a totally different direction.

Geoff Gradwell is the secretary of the Scottish Bengalese Fanciers Association.


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