BERNARD PALMER got into birdkeeping just as World War II was ending. Now his birds are widely sought after. Here he shares his love for Irish canaries and tells Ron Toft why his birds have kept him going through tough times
By the time he was 15 and living in Weymouth with his parents, Bernard was an avid reader of Cage & Aviary Birds. Bernard says: “In those days, it resembled a tiny book. It had a big green square at the top and cost threepence – a big chunk of my pocket money.”
In 1945, as the war drew to a close, Bernard became determined to acquire some cage birds.
Bernard explains: “I knew canaries and budgerigars (my father had kept these before the war) were right out of the frame. They cost a fortune and were very rare at the time. You could, however, get British birds and these were advertised every week in Cage & Aviary Birds, so I decided to save up for some. My parents agreed I could keep birds as long as I looked after them myself.”
Raw materials were in very short supply in 1945, so Bernard cannibalised odds and ends of timber, and made his own treble breeding unit, which he installed in the lean-to conservatory at the back of his parents house.
Eventually, he had saved up enough pocket money to buy a pair of greenfinches. The birds themselves set Bernard back 15 shillings (75p) and the cost of transporting them from Stockport to Weymouth a further 2s 6d (12½p).
A birdkeeper just across the road from Bernard introduced him to the Wyke Regis & Weymouth CBS. Bernard tells me: “When I joined, I was the club’s youngest member. Since then, I’ve kept birds, mostly canaries and British, on and off throughout my life.
“There were long periods, years in fact, when I wasn’t able to keep birds because my job as a police officer took me away from home. But my interest in cage birds never waned.”
Neither did Bernard’s interest in wild birds. In fact, he became interested in wild bird photography and still has boxes of slides of birds and other wildlife he has taken over the years in Britain and well beyond.
When Bernard’s first wife was alive, the couple lived in a bungalow in Bournemouth. He says: “I built an aviary and a long birdroom in which I kept and bred Borders, and some British, during the early to mid 1970s.”
Ironically, his best breeding season was in 1975 when he was working in West Yorkshire. Bernard continues: “I always say my wife actually had my best breeding season, as I only saw my birds at the weekend once every fortnight when I returned home. Although my wife wasn’t really interested in the birds, she fed and watered them while I was away. I ended up doing all the cleaning and maintenance during the weekends I was at home.”
Bernard realised the situation couldn’t continue, so he very reluctantly got rid of his birds. The nature of his job and other things meant he didn’t take up birdkeeping again until about 12 years ago.
By that time, he and his wife had moved from their bungalow to a ground floor maisonette, at the back of which was a little conservatory where Bernard kept a few Norwich canaries.
When Bernard’s wife died, his birds were his salvation. He says: “They gave me a sense of purpose, a reason for getting up. I could see my birds through the glass every morning. I had to pull myself together, because the birds depended on me.”
Slowly, Bernard’s enthusiasm returned. He explains: “I really got back into birdkeeping and rejoined the Bournemouth & Counties Cage Bird Association of which I had been a member many years earlier. What was really nice was that there were still a few members around who knew me from before, so I was able to drop back into the slot.”
In time, Bernard found new homes for his Norwich canaries. He says: “They were a lot of bother for the pleasure I derived from them. In my view, Norwich canaries had a number of problems that didn’t fit into my idea of what a bird should be like. For one thing, I didn’t like colour feeding, which seemed a bit too artificial. They were lovely birds, but they just weren’t for me.”
But what should he keep instead? Bernard tells me: “While at the National Exhibition, a group of us spotted some Irish fancy canaries. I had also read about them in Cage & Aviary Birds – they were just what I wanted. They were small, neat-looking and had none of the pitfalls associated with many of the old time varieties. What’s more, they didn’t have to be colour fed.”
After returning home from the National, Bernard contacted Maurice O’Connor who pioneered the keeping of Irish fancies in the UK. Bernard says: “I told him I had been really impressed with his birds and asked if he would sell me a couple of pairs. Maurice is one of the nicest men you could ever hope to meet – quiet, unassuming and straight as a gun barrel.”
Bernard agreed to meet Maurice roughly halfway between their homes. He explains: “Maurice brought three pairs of birds with him. Amazingly, he wanted only £10 a bird and wouldn’t take a penny towards his transport costs. I bought all three pairs and they did ever so well for me.
“Originally regarded as a mongrel breed, the Irish fancy is now accepted by COM as a breed in its own right with everything formalised and regulated. There are several shows every year in Ireland and one big show, every November, in this country.”
Bernard, who is now married to Gwen, who also lost her partner, keeps six to eight pairs of Irish fancy canaries. He says: “They are such lovely little birds. As soon as people see my Irish fancies for the first time, they want some. In fact, people constantly badger me for birds, such is their growing popularity.
He says: “The good news is that they are very reliable breeders, and at £10-£15 a bird, they are inexpensive. In fact, they are ideal birds for beginners for they don’t have any faults. This year I sold more young birds early on than was really sensible. Normally it’s best to wait until they’ve moulted out. I haven’t had any problems, though, and I still have a few birds I shall get rid of after Christmas.”
Bernard says Irish fancy canaries are not easy to sex. He explains: “The old maxim, of course, is that cocks sing and hens lay eggs, but sometimes you get a virtuoso soprano hen and a cock laying eggs!”
He also keeps a few redpolls and siskins – his siskin hen winning best British bird at the Mid-Cornwall show recently. Bernard says: “She is an old timer, like me, but she is still performing.”
Birds, he says, still give him as much enjoyment now as they did when he was a teenager.
Bernard adds: “Although I’ve gone long periods during my life when I’ve been unable to keep birds because of work commitments, my interest in all things avian has never diminished.
“I think once something fires your passion, be it keeping birds or going fishing (I also do a spot of salmon fishing every year in Scotland), it remains with you for the rest of your life.”
Journalist and photographer Ron Toft specialises in wildlife, aviculture and veterinary articles.