In 1990 Cage & Aviary Birds published a ‘four page pull-out’ featuring the Lizard canary. It was organised by John Scott on behalf of the LCA. It contained articles by John, Stan Bolton, a poem in Black Country dialect by Brian Gisby (brilliant), a summary of the Lizard canary show standard, and an article on the back page by a newcomer to the fancy, Huw Evans.
My subject was Keith Knighton, or more accurately, the K & A Knighton Partnership because Keith showed in partnership with his wife Audrey. Keith was a colourful character, and there was plenty of scope for an eye-catching title, but editor Brian Byles, for reasons best known to himself, came up with “Breeding programme achieved results”. A belter! You can see it at the head of this article.
Here is the original text with some additional photographs and footnotes. Happy memories . . .
In Lizard canary breeder Keith Knighton’s book there are outstanding birds, good birds and rubbish. What is more, if you ask him for his opinion of your own stock, he has no qualms about revealing which category he would put them in!
If the answer is not the one you had hoped for, he will probably add “you want the truth, don’t you?”
Such directness is typical of the man who, with his wife Audrey, benched both the Best and Second Best Lizard canary at the 1989 National Exhibition of Cage & Aviary Birds (1).
In Keith’s view there is no point in ‘beating about the bush’ if you want to get to the top. He has seen too many promising fanciers languishing in the ranks simply because they are unaware of basic faults in their stock, or in their management techniques. The truth may be painful, but at least it identifies where improvements need to be made, which is the first step on the road to success.
Keith’s forthright opinions have been tempered by the knowledge that he too made mistakes in his formative years in the fancy; wasting his efforts on breeding with ‘rubbish’ and using misguided husbandry methods. He sees little merit in beginners repeating those mistakes when, if only they are prepared to listen, they can benefit from his hard-won experience.
The quality of his experience was demonstrated by the partnership’s record during the 1989 show season. It proved he was a man who backs up his words with action, and must be worth listening to.
The couple’s involvement in bird keeping goes back to the 1950s when they lived in Malta where Keith undertook his military service (2). They started with a pair of pet canaries who raised eight youngsters in an ordinary wire cage in the bedroom. On returning to the UK, they did not take up bird keeping until 1977, when Audrey’s mother died and Keith bought her a pet canary to console her. This was all that was needed for Keith to be ‘bitten by the bug’, and within six months he had bought six Lizard canaries.
Why Lizards? The answer is typically forthright: “because I liked a photograph of a Lizard canary in a book I bought; and besides, I’d been told they were easy to breed”!
Easy or not, the partnership quickly got the hang of the essential characteristics of the breed, and gained the award for Best Novice at the 1980 National Exhibition at their first attempt.
They soon elected to move up to Champion status “where the real competition was”. After three years of reasonable success, but without landing any major prizes, Keith recalls the breakthrough came when he asked Albert Durrell, a leading Lizard fancier (3), for his opinion of their birds.
Albert’s assessment was simple, but precise: Keith and Audrey were producing ‘narrow’ birds which lacked the width of head and back needed to show off the spangled plumage to its best advantage. Scrutiny of winning show birds confirmed Albert’s analysis. But simple though it may sound, it needed an outsider to point it out, and Keith never forgot this lesson.
The partnership systematically weeded out the ‘narrow’ birds from their stock and introduced the desired ‘type’ (even though ‘type’ itself carries no points in the Lizard Canary Association’s show scale); firstly with birds from Albert, and subsequently from Stan Bolton. The results of this breeding programme speak for themselves, as it was birds descended from the Bolton line that took the top two awards at the 1989 National Exhibition.
One of the strengths of the partnership is the way Keith and Audrey’s talents compliment one another. Audrey has the avian equivalent of ‘green fingers’ (4). Under her care, ailing chicks recover; nervous birds become steady; and elderly hens produce nests full of chicks. Visitors to the Knighton birdroom will be treated to the sight of their birds queuing up at the wires to be fed with Rice Crispies. Each canary is addressed by its pet name (no numbers or codes here!) thanks mainly to Audrey’s knack of gaining their confidence.
If Audrey is a ‘natural’, then Keith is an enthusiast. It is his commitment which has ensured that the partnership persevered, and ultimately achieved its goals. Keith willingly acknowledges the expertise of his peers, and his conversation is peppered with the advice he has received from the likes of Albert Durell, Stan Bolton and John Scott. By the same token, he has put this advice to the test, found it sound, and therefore worth passing on.
Here are examples of Keith’s methods and philosophy:
- Dispose of you ‘rubbish’. Why perpetuate a line of second-rate birds when, in the Lizard fancy, quality stock is available at reasonable prices?
- Don’t interfere! Keith does not remove the eggs from laying hens, but simply lets nature takes it course.
- Don’t trust cock birds. Separate the cock from the hen when she is sitting on eggs, but leave a gap behind the cage divider to enable him to feed her. This policy eliminates the losses in the nest arising from the cock’s interference.
- Don’t skimp! Keith is a keen advocate of Haith’s seeds and rearing foods (5). “if you want the best out of your birds, you’ve got to put the best in”.
- Give breeding hens privacy. Fix a a 5” (12.5cm) wide strip of plywood across the cage front to screen the nest from prying eyes.
- Don’t blow husks from the seed hoppers. Canaries are natural gleaners, so empty the seed pots on to the cage floor and just watch the birds eagerly search for their favourite seeds.
- Contrary to conventional wisdom, don’t be afraid to use a coarse-feathered mealy bird for breeding provided that you have a fine feathered partner for it. Their offspring will often combine the best of both worlds with large, but well defined, spangles.
- Showing is all about the art of presentation. Breeding the best Lizard in the world is of no avail if it is not presented to the judge properly. Smart, tidy cages and thorough training are essential prerequisites for showing your birds to their best advantage.
- Got a problem with your birds? Then it is almost certainly your fault! Don’t blame the birds, but examine your methods; there is usually a link if you can only find it.
The last piece of advice is also the most important, even if it is difficult for some people to accept. The Knighton philosophy may be uncompromising, but it is effective. Those who prefer to overlook their own shortcomings might be surprised at what a long hard look at their birds and management might reveal. After all, as Keith would say, “you want the truth, don’t you?’
Sadly, both Keith and Audrey are no longer with us. Fortunately their legacy lives on. The Knighton bloodline forms the foundation of some of the best studs in the world. It was highly influential in Italy, t
hanks to the likes of Fernando Fermi (6) and formed the basis of Kees Everaer’s stud in Holland. It has continued without a break in Great Britain, firstly through Norman Reeve’s outstanding stud of the 1990s and early 2000s, and by direct descent, to David Newton’s outstanding birds today. They all have that ‘Knighton stamp’: big, bold birds, good colour, very dark melanins and excellent markings. They still catch your eye.
- The partnership went on to win the National title on another two occasions in 1991 and 1993.
- Keith worked in the military police. I can imagine that he was well suited to the role.
- Albert won the award for Best Lizard at the National in 1984 and 1986. Photographs of some of his birds are featured in Geoff Walker’s Colour, Song and Type Canaries (1987).
- For the benefit of readers whose first language is not English, ‘green fingers’ refers to people who are successful gardeners; even the weakest plants will flourish under their care. Audrey had the same ability with canaries.
- Keith, and many other top breeders, gave Haith’s British Finch mixture to their Lizard canaries. It was an outstanding seed mixture, but inevitably the quality and availability of various seeds have changed over the last 27 years.
- Antonio Petraroli tells me that Mr. Fermi’s stud was based on Len Wood and Stan Bolton’s birds. Apologies for the error.