Ron Toft meets SIMON TAMMAM, a lifelong birdkeeper who has embraced one of the most challenging of today’s fancies – the frill
WHEN Simon Tammam was 13, he was given a pair of budgerigars as a birthday present. But when he discovered they were noisy birds, he decided to get rid of them. He exchanged the budgies at a local pet shop in Tripoli, Libya, where he lived, for a pair of crested Italian canaries of a type that no longer exists, but was very similar to old Glosters.
Simon says: “Those two canaries – a crested white hen and normal cock – produced 15 youngsters in my first season.” From that point on, Simon was hooked on birds generally and canaries specifically. He explains: “The funny thing is that it was only later in life I realised that my great grandfather and a couple of uncles also kept and bred canaries. I never knew my ancestors had birds.
“When I lived in Israel, I discovered that not only were my uncles keeping birds, but that some of their relatives were too. I suppose you could say, therefore, that birdkeeping is in my blood, in my genes.”
Before moving from Tripoli to Rome in 1967, Simon had about 60 pairs of canaries. He tells me: “There was a lot of demand for my young stock. There weren’t any shows as such, but people often came to look at my birds. In Libya in those days, the Timbrado or Spanish singing canary was very popular. Cock birds were sought-after and cost a lot more than hens because they were the singers.”
Although Simon loved birds when he was a teenager, he didn’t focus on them to the exclusion of all else. Simon continues: “I also enjoyed football and basketball and was in the school teams for both sports.”
Simon and his wife, whom he met in Israel, moved to the UK in 1978. He adds: “At that time, of course, I had no birds at all. I had to start all over again.”
It wasn’t long before Simon, who has lived in Poole for more than 30 years, spotted a meeting notice in a local newspaper for Poole & Parkstone CBS. He went along and soon after found himself appointed publicity officer. As a result of joining that club, Simon started keeping Border canaries. He says: “I’d never kept Borders before, but I liked the look of them.”
Simon bought good birds and won best novice at the first Poole & Parkstone CBS show at which he exhibited. Simon explains: “After winning five times in the same year as best novice, I had to go up to champion status. That was much harder. I bought better and better birds, eventually ending up with some from Phil Warne.”
Soon after moving to the UK, Simon began looking around for frill canaries, because he had kept these birds in Italy and liked them very much.
He contacted the Old Varieties Canary Association which, in turn, provided Simon with contact details for a breeder in south-east England. He says: “Although I bought some birds from him, they were absolutely rubbish – mongrels. In those days, all frill canaries were lumped together, whether they had big or small frills. Eventually I decided to import some good lines from Italy.
“I was the first person to import the Fiorino frill to this country. I introduced it at the National at the NEC about 20 years ago. It wasn’t a great success, however, because whoever judged the Fiorinos didn’t like them very much. But now, as it happens, they are the most popular frills in the UK.”
A leading keeper and breeder of frill canaries, Simon has done much during the past 30 years to make the avicultural community aware of these birds and to encourage people to keep them. Simon tells me: “Many varieties are now available, each different in its own – sometimes very subtle – way from all the others.
“There are 13 types, some of which are officially recognised and some that are not, including the Paduan or Padovan frill, both that are crested and non-crested, north and south Dutch frills, Parisian, Fiorino and gibber, and giboso frills.”
He continues: “Accepted by the Confédération Ornithologique Mondiale (COM) about 10 years ago is the Italian giant frill, which is like the Parisian but much larger – about 25cm [10in] long.”
Simon handles the membership side of things for the Frill Canary Club, which was set up to help publicise the different varieties, and to provide a forum for keepers and breeders. Simon says: “Frill canaries have become very popular as a result of the club. Although, we don’t have many members at present. It could be, as in many other areas of birdkeeping, that there are a lot of people out there who keep these canaries but don’t want to join any clubs.”
The cheapest frills are the Fiorino and north Dutch (Frisée du nort), each costing about £30-£50 per bird, whereas Parisian frills can set you back between £300 and £500. Simon adds: “If you want the Italian giant frill, you are probably looking at £1,000-plus. That’s a lot of money for a single bird.”
Simon, who is a printer by trade, runs a small sideline business called Simon’s Exclusives, importing quality food and equipment for aviculturists.
An international COM judge, he has won many prizes over the years. Simon’s proudest achievements on the show bench are the gold medal he won in Portugal this year with his Fiorinos and the silver medal he won with the same variety in Italy 10 years ago.
Looking ahead, he says he will continue doing everything he can to put frill canaries on the birdkeeping map in the UK. “They are such lovely birds. It would nice if still more people kept them.”
He adds that although he has been quite successful with his Borders (he has won best in show at many CBS shows, always been in the cards at all-Border shows and also won best cinnamon and best white Border at the National), he says that he would love to be as successful with Borders as he has been with frill canaries.
“I need to improve my Borders so I can compete with the big boys. I am confident I will get there in the end.” With so determined a fancier, you’d bet on it.
Ron Toft is a journalist and photographer specialising in wildlife, aviculture and veterinary features.