Monday, 5 December 2011

Putting the male parent first

   My father, in common with many working men in the England of my youth, kept birds as a hobby. Next to our garden shed, which would come to serve as a hide, he erected an aviary for a trio of fantail doves he had bought in a local pet shop. He built the structure of the 'flight', as we called it, with scrap wood he carried home from the factory. My father would later move from doves to canaries and other finches, a shift marked by his gift to me, for my seventh birthday, of a pair of Greenfinches (Carduelis chloris). Money was tight and it would be easy to see my dad as having used my birthday as an excuse to buy the birds for himself, but I clearly remember my febrile anticipation of their arrival. It is irrelevant that my reaction was the result of conditioning; what my father really gave me was enthusiasm.  

   Cousins of mine took an interest in this pastime, young men without academic qualifications who would go on to have aviaries of their own. They gradually accrued a deep understanding of genetics as a knowledge of bloodlines is essential in developing (as they did) healthy colour variants from limited gene pools. It's clear that these acolytes were heavily influenced by the calm of our little wooden haven and the knowledgeable, taciturn man who oversaw it. All problems of work and family were forgotten as they sat in quiet contemplation listening to the soft chirrupings that surrounded them - the only distraction the rustles emanating from the corner where a boy sat on a tea chest poring over his precious copy of “Cage and Aviary Birds”.

   Occasionally we created hybrids. A pair of finches of different species could be induced to breed if they were kept in isolation. Some of these hybrids were mules, a 'mule' being a cross between a canary and another species of finch. Birds bred this way were not only sterile but also at a social disadvantage; I remember a Goldfinch mule whose ethereal song enchanted human ears, but whose mongrel melodies bewildered the hens for whom he sang. My favourite was a Siskin-Greenfinch cross whose plumage was so harmonious it made the bird appear to be a genuine species, unlike the Goldfinch-Bullfinch that, to me, looked strangely cobbled together. An aviculturist such as my father would have noted that I wrote 'Goldfinch-bullfinch' and not 'Bullfinch-goldfinch' as male Bullfinches cannot be induced to mate with any other species and when describing a hybrid it is traditional to put the male parent first.