Carefully lifting up a tiny and fragile Norwich canary, Pete Young checks on the nest of four eggs underneath.
‘I don’t like to handle the eggs,’ he admits.
‘Some people hold them up to the light to see if they are fertile or not, but I prefer to let nature take its course. My birds are happier that way.’
Pete, 68, is one of a large number of caged bird owners in the Portsmouth area who love the whole process of breeding and showing their feathered friends.
Unsure of exactly how many birds he owns, Pete spends hours every day in his aviary, tending to them.
He says: ‘The people in the bird clubs don’t represent the true number of caged bird owners.
‘There are hundreds more owners of pet birds who don’t belong to any organisation.’
Bird keepers can spend anything from under £10 for a canary from a pet shop to up to £15,000 for a near- extinct Hyacinth Macaw parrot.
Coupled with the cost of food, care and showing the birds, the hobby can be expensive and time-consuming.
Another local bird enthusiast, Terry Sayers, was featured in The News last week following his success in a national event, collecting an array of prizes for his birds.
To the uninitiated, keeping caged birds can be confusing. With 360 different British birds and a similar number of foreign birds, ranging from the fruit-eating Soft Bills to the much larger Macaws, it is easy to become overwhelmed.
Breeders pride themselves on coveted cross breeds, achieved through a pairing process, and by exchanging birds amongst themselves, a process known as outcrossing.
Two local clubs, Havant Cage Bird Society and Solent Cage Bird Society, aim to unite ‘bird fanciers’ as they are known, giving them a place to meet and compete.
The clubs are a good place to learn about the different types of birds and how to care for them. Many of the members have lots of experience that they are happy to pass on to beginners.
Two of Pete’s birds recently won gold and silver awards at a competition in Belgium, whilst others are currently at a major show in Italy, competing against over 22,000 other birds.
Ray Piper, chairman of Havant Cage Bird Society and a member of the Council of the Avicultural Society, is keen to spread the word about the hobby he loves.
He says: ‘The aim of the societies is to promote the hobby of breeding captive birds and encourage fellowship amongst breeders.
‘We exchange birds amongst each other locally and also nationally. We are friendly clubs where bird owners and lovers can come and listen to guest speakers.’
Cage bird clubs and societies have been around since the early 1900s, but they saw a decline in interest in the latter half of the last century due to controversy about whether keeping caged birds is morally right.
Those against their captivity argue that it is cruel to keep them in small enclosures and deprive them of freedom. However, advocates of the hobby respond by saying the life expectancy of birds kept in captivity is up to 14 years as opposed to the average of 18 months for those in the wild.
Ray, 71, has bred and owned hundreds of birds over the past 60 years.
He says: ‘All us local boys raced pigeons. My father had poultry as well and so I just carried on the family tradition, getting more into keeping different varieties of birds when I got older.’
He adds: ‘My wife reckons it’s time-consuming and sometimes expensive, but you often make back what you spend after breeding season.’
Ray says it’s not true that keeping birds in cages is cruel.
‘ When cared for properly, birds live a lot longer in captivity, have a much better quality of life, a regular supply of food and don’t get bothered by predators.’
He adds: ‘Cage bird owners are also animal lovers and supporters of wild birds, feeding them in their gardens. Many are associated with the RSPB.’
Recently the hobby has seen an increase in popularity, with Havant and Solent Cage Bird Societies attractiving around 40 members and 30 members respectively, ranging from people in their 20s to those in their 80s.
Barry Duvante, 67, treasurer and show secretary of the Havant society, says it’s important to get the hobby more widely-known, especially amongst the younger generation, in order to preserve the beauty and diversity of the birds for the future.
He believes keeping birds is a lifelong hobby.
‘There’s a saying ‘‘once a birdman, always a birdman’’. I can’t remember not having birds.’
Unfortunately, the rarity of some of these birds can leave them susceptible to theft and owners of prize-winning examples are taking extreme measures to protect their pride and joy.
Talk of electric fences and CCTV has become commonplace during bird keepers’ meetings.
Recent bird thefts in the south included 400 birds, worth more than £60,000, being stolen from a Southampton breeder’s home last October.
Ray says: ‘The thefts have caused a lot of upset to bird keepers, who have raised and looked after the birds themselves only to have them all gone.
‘People need to be aware of the risks of keeping birds and be very cautious about letting people know what birds they have.’
History of keeping cage birds
There is evidence that birds have been kept as pets for as long as 4,000 years, originally caged for their beauty by the ancient Egyptians and also by the ancient Chinese and ancient Greeks.
In medieval Europe, caged birds were kept as a luxury by the rich and it was not until sailors brought canaries to Europe in the late 1600s/early 1700s that bird keeping became available to the public.
Parrots were popular pets in literature during the 20th century, immortalised in the fiction works of Enid Blyton and the non-fiction of Gerald Durrell,
The talkative birds were also popular in the White House - American presidents Ulysses S. Grant and Theodore Roosevelt both had pet parrots.
Tips for keeping cage birds
If you are thinking about getting a British or foreign cage bird, it is advisable to research the bird and its needs before buying one.
Joining a local club can also be helpful to get advice and to give you an idea about the type of bird you would like before you rush into buying one.
Despite the birds seeming cheap at pet shops, you should consider fully whether you have the space and commitment to keep a caged bird. Also consider the cost of food, cages and vets’ trips.
Terry Sayers, secretary of Solent Cage Bird Association and Havant Cage Bird Society, says only those with a ‘love and dedication to animals’ should consider buying birds. He adds ‘It can be an expensive hobby. There are exotic and rare birds, many of which need a lot of varied care.’
If you are planning on breeding pet birds, you should pay a lot of attention to the pairing process. Look at how two birds interact and what qualities they have.
Barry Duvante, who has kept canaries for 40 years, says ‘Patience is a virtue when breeding and showing birds. You need to be patient.
How to find out more
havantcbs.co.uk – The Havant Cage Bird Society is a local society which aims to promote birding. It welcomes owners and those who don’t have any birds but are interested in the hobby. It meets the first Wednesday of every month at Bedhampton Social Hall.
foreignbirdleague.com - Formed in 1932, The Foreign Bird League promotes the keeping and breeding of all types of foreign birds and provides a united front in representing foreign bird owners.
foreignbirdassociation.org.uk - The Foreign Bird Association aims to help develop an interest in foreign birds into a passion.
budgerigarsociety.com - The Budgerigar Society helps prospective budgie owners and is also a fellowship for breeders.
australianfinchsociety.co.uk - Catering for those who keep, breed and exhibit the native Australian finches and the various Parrot finches, the Australian Finch Society was formed in 1971.
theparrotsocietyuk.org - The Parrot Society aims to encourage the conservation, keeping and breeding of parrot species.