Terry Kelly specialised late in Fifes, but it didn’t take him long to reach the top. Ron Toft hears his story
THE fact that Terry Kelly became a lifelong breeder of birds – first of British, then prize-winning Fifes – was due, in no small part, to his Border-keeping grandfather.
“Every house but one in my grandfather’s street kept canaries,” he recalls with a smile, “because that’s the way it was in those days. My grandfather had clear yellow Borders and used to roll hemp seed with a rolling pin. I helped him out whenever I could and also fed his hens.”
Terry, born in Batley, Yorkshire, continues: “I was brought up with birds. As a child, I assumed that everybody kept canaries and hens. I thought it was normal. It was only when I grew up that I realised it wasn’t normal!” Terry’s grandfather kept clear Borders, but didn’t show them. “He just appreciated the birds for what they were. My father kept ducks, but not cage birds.”
Terry liked not only cage birds, but also wild British birds and became “obsessed” with bullfinches as a result of seeing a picture of this species in The Observer’s Book of Birds. “I was just captivated by their beautiful plumage,” he recalls.
Knowing how much his son dreamed of keeping bullfinches, Terry’s father told him he would take him to Leeds market and buy him some. Not surprisingly, Terry was over the moon – until, that is, he discovered that it was illegal to catch and keep wild British birds. “I thought it was the end of my dream. Then I found out that some bullfinches, as well as other British birds, were being bred in captivity.”
One cold day in March 1959, while a pupil at Batley Grammar School, Terry finally acquired his first pair of bullfinches for £2 at Dewsbury market. “Thus began a lifelong love of aviculture,” he tells me. “To own, breed and care for my own birds was to prove an irresistible challenge that I still find exciting to this day.”
A British medley
For 30 years, Terry kept and bred a variety of British birds – not just bullfinches and other hardbills, including greenfinches, goldfinches, chaffinches, siskins, yellowhammers and twites, but also softbills such as redstarts and grey wagtails. “It was the greatest aviculturist of all, Frank Meaden, who got me into softbills,” he reveals.
Terry kept his birds in a large garden aviary built by his father. “In those days, you didn’t specialise in one just type of bird, but had a big flight in which you put a range of birds and just let them get on with it.”
It wasn’t until the 1970s that Terry began “flirting” (as he puts it) with different canaries. He continued to breed British birds as well, but fairly soon he was concentrating on what he describes as the “gem of all canaries, the Fife – now the most popular canary breed in the UK and also in many other parts of the world”.
Terry proudly boasts that during the past 30 years he has won every major Fife show in the UK and, in the late 1980s, “when I probably owned the world’s finest stud of Fife canaries, I won all the major honours at the National Exhibition of Cage & Aviary birds in Birmingham.”
During the past three decades, Terry has also bred a staggering 4,000 Fifes, most of which have been sold to fellow fanciers all over the world. Fifes appeal to Terry because “I suppose they remind me of the Borders my grandfather kept, albeit in miniature. I just love the shape, colour and general cuteness of Fifes.”
Beginning to focus on Fifes
When, in late 1987, Terry and his wife Pam moved to their current home in a quiet Yorkshire village near Huddersfield, he sold or gave away his remaining British birds (“thinking I could always get some more later if I wanted to”) and concentrated solely on Fifes. “I had to pull down the first birdroom I built here because it got too hot during the day. Facing south, it was like a greenhouse,” he remembers.
Terry built a replacement birdroom on the other side of his large garden at the bottom of a wooded railway embankment. Why there? “It gets the sun first thing in the morning but is in the shade for the rest of the day,” he explains. Unlike most birdrooms, Terry’s is a stone-built structure. In fact, outwardly it doesn’t look like a birdroom at all, but an extension to his bungalow. “I bought a property with a fair bit of land with aim of building a range of aviaries, but I never got around to it,” he explains. “Neither did I keep British birds again. Although I am now retired, when we moved here I was working for the Civil Service – I was the youngest area manager in the country – and just didn’t have the time.”
Terry breeds only clear and green Fifes. Clears are kept on one side of his birdroom and greens on the other. Cages are labelled with coloured pegs so he knows at a glance which birds, for example, have paired but not laid, which have laid and are incubating and which pairs have youngsters in the nest. By labelling everything, Terry spends “only a quarter of the time in my birdroom compared to some people. I do like being in my birdroom, but I certainly don’t want to live in it!”
He feeds his adult birds on a mixture of plain and mixed canary seed, with an occasional bit of maw, plus broccoli, cabbage leaves and apple. “I have always kept things simple – an approach I still swear by today.
“By the end of March my Fifes are on the money, bouncing and ready to go. Years ago, when I was breeding British birds, I had to go down to the fields every day with an inverted umbrella to collect greenfly by the ton from nettles.
“For several years when I was breeding Fifes, I prepared soaked seed and scrambled egg every day. Now I simply feed moistened softfood and broccoli. This is far easier. I think some people just like making heavy weather of looking after their birds.”
Terry’s breeding programme is organised with military precision, all pairings being planned on a large chart. Although he brings in a hen every other year to avoid breeding too closely, he uses these birds only once in order to maintain strong genetic links to the successful birds he has bred in the past. “As a result of careful genetic planning, I know that all my birds will be good,” he says.
His stud of green and clear Fifes comprises 36-38 hens and about 20 cocks. “A good average in my view is getting at least three chicks per hen through the moult. So if you have 20 hens, you should get 60-odd youngsters through the moult.
“You lose birds at all stages for various reasons,” he says. “I lost four chicks the other day through a momentary lapse of concentration in that I was cleaning out the cages and inadvertently forgot to reopen the partition separating the hen from her chicks. As a result, she couldn’t feed her offspring and they died.”
Terry’s birds are sought after by Fife fanciers all over the world. “I have orders for lots of birds and know which cock is going to be paired with which hen even before it has hatched! I am already planning the 2013 breeding season.” He sells his surplus stock at reasonable prices. “Once I have decided which birds I am going to let go, my aim is to sell them as quickly as possible to fellow fanciers. One of my greatest pleasures has been supplying small, quality studs to novices,” he says.
Although Terry has won the North of England Fife Show – the world’s biggest – five times and the “old” National Exhibition twice, he now exhibits in one year and judges in the next.
When I ask him to what he attributes his outstanding success, he replies: “By knowing what I am doing, planning carefully and keeping things simple.”
Freelance journalist and photographer Ron Toft specialises in wildlife, aviculture and veterinary feature articles.