Above: At bird shows, colourful species such as finches, waxbills, rosellas and colour budgerigars seem to interest hobbyists and non-birdkeepers more so than exhibition budgies or canaries.

Does the established format of the bird exhibition need a bit of a redesign? Jim Hayward Jnr strongly believes so and sets out his ideas for clubs to consider.

MY parents took me to my first National Exhibition at Alexandra Palace when I was five in 1972 and my abiding memory is of the beautifully arranged softbill cages set up with mosses, grasses, flowers, rocks and pieces of bark, which suggested to me the natural habitats of species being shown.

I was inspired by this and, although I have never kept softbills, I’ve always tried to set up my cages and aviaries for both parrots and finches in a natural way. I’m sure if bird clubs put on shows with a section devoted to colourful and educational single- and double-breeder cages, this would really appeal to families. Local schools and colleges could also be sent an invite, especially kids studying biology or conservation. This would make the general public aware of the work many of us do to preserve species and old varieties, and that they too can help conserve birds by breeding them at home.

Over the years, I have often invited non-birdkeeping friends and hobbyists who own an aviary or pet bird to come along and view local bird club shows. At the show they have always quickly lost interest, because to people who are new to birdkeeping, rows of very similar looking canaries, budgies, zebra and Bengalese finches don’t stand out. They always notice birds with extremely different appearances, markings and shapes, but can’t, for instance, see any obvious differences between a Fife and a Border canary. Some friends have also remarked that it’s cruel to keep birds in small cages and I always have to explain that the cages are only for exhibition and the birds are kept in large breeder cages or aviaries between shows.

In stark contrast to most exhibitors’ tastes, it’s usually the most colourful birds such as rosellas, colour budgies and waxbills that hold their attention for longer. They almost never like birds with unnatural forms, such as Giboso canaries and modern exhibition budgies.

Club friends up and down the country tell me that memberships are in decline, particularly in parrot clubs and clubs in the London area. So, with these thoughts in mind, I have a few suggestions that may help clubs to attract new members, especially younger people who are interested in wildlife conservation.

First, the fancy has become far too geared towards competitive exhibition, while disregarding educational, colourful and fun exhibits. To attract a wider range of people to the club meetings, emphasis also needs to be put on keeping birds for pleasure and conservation in suitable aviaries, sheds, conservatories or spare rooms. Back in the 1970s, I remember the fancy had a bigger following of people keeping extremely varied mixed collections, as well as a greater number of specialist collectors who were dedicated to conserving rare species.

Younger readers who think conservation is a new thing would have been amazed by many of the private collections of rare parrots, pigeons, doves and tropical finches being bred at that time. The conservation of species (rather than varieties) suitable for garden aviaries could be an attraction for many young people who are concerned about preserving bird species and natural habitats worldwide. Many youngsters might not be aware that they can play a part in saving birds by keeping and breeding them at home. The mainstream media rarely talks about private breeders, only the work of large institutions such as zoos. But, as we all know, many uncommon, rare and even endangered species of birds are kept and routinely bred by private aviculturists. For instance, there are still far more private breeders across Britain and Europe keeping hooded parakeets (Psephotellus dissimilis) than at zoos.

Bird clubs could put on a display of breeder cages set up to look attractive with plants and flowers on top and around the cages, which relate to the birds on display in various ways. As an example, a species whose natural habitat is dry grassland could have some cacti, succulents and ornamental grasses placed tastefully on and around its cage. Alternatively, a bird that lives in woodland could have some bluebells or primroses added for decoration. Food plants your birds enjoy could be placed in pots or small bottles fixed within the cage or just poked through the wire to show how many of us give wild food treats to our birds. This would immediately teach people a little about the birds’ natural habitats and the foods to which we have adapted them.

It would even be possible to set up nests within these cages, showing visitors the different nesting habits: wicker baskets for waxbills, wooden nest-boxes for lovebirds or canary pans with some evergreen screening for cup nesters. This, of course, is all old news to us but fascinating to newcomers. A tactful (and patient) representative of the club should be on hand in this section of the show to answer questions. He/she could gently persuade people to take up a species that appeals to them with the reassurance that the club would be a good place to receive guidance and support.

All species should have a name plate attached to each cage and perhaps a photo of the bird in its natural habitat to
add further interest. Photographs of most species in the wild can be downloaded from the internet. The status of the birds in aviculture and the wild should also be displayed; newcomers would be no doubt surprised that Gouldians (Erythrura gouldiae) are rare in the wild, but are commonly kept here in Britain.

One further point. There is an imbalance of exhibition members within clubs who are all breeding commonly kept species in huge numbers. There is nothing wrong with these sorts of birds, but not everyone is interested in competitive exhibition. In the 1960s, 70s and 80s many more people kept aviaries of old birds or extremely varied mixed collections just to look pretty in the garden. More should be done through the clubs to encourage these sorts of kind-hearted folks to set up decorative aviaries and thus give homes to surplus exhibition stock and retired breeding birds. At present, there are too many breeder/sellers and not enough buyers in the fancy, and not enough people dedicating space to unusual species. This is obvious from both the sales ads in this paper and the birds for sale at the National Exhibition. Many club members need to be a bit more adventurous and make an aviary, cage or two available for something unusual to ensure as wide a variety of species are kept to be captive bred privately in the future.

I hope these suggestions help, because I believe exhibition breeders from the clubs generally help to keep both standards of bird welfare and breed quality high.

Having learned birdkeeping from his parents, Jim Hayward, Jr. has bred numerous birds, in recent years chiefly parrots and tropical finches. He is particularly interested in the conservation of pure-bred species of psittacine.

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