The strangest thing about the Bird Fair is that there are no birds at the Bird Fair. But everyone attending wears binoculars.
I pointed this out to mum last year, in the queue to get in. The man in front spun around and glared at us. “Yes there are birds” he hissed. “There are ospreys.”
Well yes. There are ospreys at Rutland Water. Also, they are released birds at an artificial lake, which is kind of lovely, considering. But there are still no birds at the Bird Fair.
What is at the Bird Fair: many marquees in which are: touts for bird tours to every part of the earth. Binoculars and spotting scopes. An art tent. And that, my friends, is it. Apart from the ‘talks’ tent where lots of slightly awkward bird events and lectures take place.
(My favourite moment of last year was watching Johnny Kingdom telling someone “I’m Johnny Kingdom”. Which is only funny if you a) know who Johnny Kingdom is, and b) know his position in the pantheon of wildlife celebrities. And c) care)
Every year I tell myself I won't go to the BirdFair. Every year I do. Every year I come away with a thudding headache, a sense of lost time, and a teensy desire to kill myself after reading for the nth time that this is The Birdwatchers' Glastonbury.
Let me tell you about a different Bird Fair. I went to it a couple of months ago with the boy. No marquees. A couple of giant sheds in the midlands. Metal ribbed sectioned livestock sheds. Monster-truck pens, small aircraft hangars.
Men traipsed back and forth from carpark to door, setting up, carrying birds in boxes, birds in cages. These were a different breed from BirdFair men. The latter wear the birders' uniform of cotton fishing waistcoats, hiking boots and technical trousers. These men were clad in rugby shirts, padded lumberjack shirts, loose grey hooded tracksuits. There were many baseball hats. Many cigarettes.
This Birdfair was a bird-keepers’ show. Trestle-tables ran the length of the sheds, stacked high with individual exhibitors’ wares.
Hooped wire cages resembling miniature Victorian aviaries holding giant poffy canaries.
Vertical stacks of wooden cages with the tiniest gauge wire fronts for minute owl-finches and waxbills. Bigger cages for pigeons, for chickens, for quail.
There were breeding pairs for sale of amazon parrots, parakeets, barbets. A few tables of show budgerigars that looked far less realistic than the plastic trays in their cages. And it was noisy of course. An amiable shouting to and fro from people setting-up stalls; the roar of gas-burners heating the space, and of course the calls and songs of thousands of birds. All for sale.
I was impressed by a pair of white pigeons the size of babies. They were very, very impressive. They were Hungarian Giant House Pigeons.
Over all this noise, non-stop tannoy announcements telling the stallholders to be very, very attentive to the welfare of the birds on their stand. And you know, I shouldn’t have taken pictures. Partly because birdkeepers are wary in today's political climate — and partly because my camera was not up to the conditions. I took lots of blurry pictures, because it was dark, and because I didn’t want to offend anyone. Or get shouted at.
What was most interesting about this fair to me was what bird people call British. You know: Crossbills. Goldfinches. Linnets. Redpolls. Bullfinches. They are shown in cages painted racing green. There were many travellers at this fair, because the traveller community go nuts for singing finches, particularly goldfinch or linnet mules, for example. Rare colours or particularly good singers can go for a fortune – a lovely example of conspicuous consumption, for these birds can’t be bred from; they’re sterile. This aberrant goldfinch was the subject of a bidding war.
There’s a long history of British Birdkeeping in marginalised communities: east-end birdkeepers; miner birdkeepers; immigrant bird-keepers; traveller bird-keepers.
The RSPB went all-out anti birdkeeping early on in its history. Of course, some other forms of birdkeeping and bird-collecting — wildfowling, waterfowl keeping, pheasant-rearing and so on — escaped censure. These ways of relating to birds were restricted to the well-bred; high status bird activities. From Lord Lilford to Peter Scott, this sort of thing hasn't been an issue for conservation bodies. One needs money and land to keep geese and diving ducks.
So our distaste for birdkeeping has a dubious social history; it seems founded on a sense that these fragments of a soundly middle-class notion of nature: of freedom, of rural idyll and threatened countryside, are cruelly imprisoned in tiny cages for the delight of the working-classes. And interestingly, I think there's another strand here: the great cage-bird campaigns of the 1970s and 1980s were partly driven by organisations whose heads had spent years in German POW camps.
There are problems with birdkeeping, of course there are. But in comparison to battery farming, or keeping African Greys in cages on darkened stairwells? The mass importation of birds for aviculture - that was a problem. But the small-scale keeping of british finches? What harm is there, really - really - in that?
So it's easy to see the marginalisation of birdkeeping as an interesting political and social phenomenon. But more depressingly, doesn't it seem to be another example of the steady attenuation of the kinds of understandings we have of animals? For birdwatchers, goldfinches are gaudy seedeaters clinging to thistles, nyger feeders or teasels. For birdkeepers, they are individual personalities; fascinating challenges for the breeder; rare songsters; actual animals.
I guess the difference between the two birdfairs is what I'm coming back to here, and it's why the first depresses me. Because ya, we know much more about birds than we used to. Biology, breeding chronology, habitat preference, migration....
But we know a lot less about what they are like in any other way. I'd never have known that redpolls are a thousand times more charismatic and full of personality than goldfinches had I not seen them in breeding cages, nibbling on broccoli tips and rattling their feathers wetly in clip-on cage-front water baths.
Oooh that was a rant. Sorry. Have you seen this?