Cage & Aviary Birds launched a quest to produce its own Hall of Fame this week (1). You’ll have to obtain a copy to read the rules, but in essence the aim is to find the ‘UK’s All-time Great Birdkeepers’. The stress is on bird-keepers, not those who might be worthy of honours for other reasons. Bird keeping is a wide-ranging hobby, but for most of us it is the famous showmen and women that are likely to attract most interest.
Will any Lizard canary breeders be inducted to C&AB’s Hall of Fame? Editor Rob Innes has been careful to give himself room to manoeuvre, so presumably there is no fixed limit to the number of people who could qualify for the list, but where do you draw the line? In some branches of aviculture there are stand-out candidates that almost everyone has heard of. You don’t need to be a genius to predict that Harry Bryan (budgerigars), Phil Warne (Border canaries), Peter Harrison (zebra finches) and Raymond Sawyer (foreign birds) are likely to be enrolled. Is there an equivalent person in the Lizard fancy?
One of the things that has always struck me about the Lizard world is that no one has ever dominated the competitive scene for decades as they have done in other varieties. Several people have enjoyed a period of supremacy, when their birds seem unbeatable, but it rarely lasts more than five years. Others have been regular winners for longer, but without that sense of overwhelming superiority. Why should that be?
You would think that it would be easier for one person (or partnership) to dominate a minority breed with a small pool of exhibitors than a breed with a strong following. My guess is that when a breed is big and valuable enough to support professional breeders, an amateur, however skilled, is unlikely to have the resources to compete. Fortunately the Lizard canary is still the province of the amateur, and while there are some breeders who operate on a large scale, anyone with the necessary skill, knowledge and commitment has a good chance of success.
Open competition is good for the Lizard canary fancy, but it creates a problem when it comes to nominating an ‘All-Time Great’. Fred Snelling is the most obvious candidate, having won Best Lizard at the National (2) no less than eight times between 1951 and 1969. No one else has exceed three wins, but I doubt that he is eligible (nominees must have been active in the fancy within living memory). Since then, we have had a succession of very able and competitive breeders, but none have been totally dominant for a long time. If you put one name forward, a dozen others would have a similar claim.
Another crucial aspect is the intensity of the competition. It is one thing to win a show when the number and quality of the birds is down, quite another to win it when all the top breeders are out in force. For that reason, the period from the late eighties to the early years of this century was arguably the toughest time for any Lizard breeder to reach the top. John Scott, writing in 2000, was of the opinion that ’more high quality birds are being bred now than at any time in the breed’s long history’ (3). Classes of over 30 birds at the LCA Classic were not uncommon, and on one memorable occasion the standard was so high that Gordon Plumb felt compelled to judge one class down to eighth place (4). You never see that now.
How many readers of Cage & Aviary Birds are likely to know who those breeders were, let alone appreciate the quality of their birds and the toughness of the challenge they faced? There are only a handful of current Lizard breeders whose birds would be competitive at that level.
What happens next? Readers have been invited to submit their nominations, together with a supporting statement of up to 300 words, to C&AB. Read the conditions carefully: this Hall of Fame does not follow the usual format; its remit is much wider than the old focus on successful exhibitors. Breeders of rare and difficult species will qualify, as will conservationists involved in a breeding programme to save threatened species. Perhaps someone who breeds a few birds under exceptionally difficult circumstances will get the credit they deserve. Good.
In principle, inviting readers to participate is also a good thing, but in practice it can have its drawbacks. This is a self-selecting survey, not an impartial review. Many participants will only have been in the hobby a short while; their knowledge is likely to be outweighed by their enthusiasm. Those with a longer perspective of the hobby may assume that the results are a foregone conclusion and not bother to take part. At worst, the poll could be distorted by concerted campaigns to promote an ambitious candidate or to serve factional interests. It may be ‘just a bit of (serious) fun’, as Rob Innes put it, but I predict:
- There will be surprises: some ‘true greats’ will miss out; some ‘winners’ will be contentious; others will be almost unknown, but well deserved.
- C&AB’s post bag/inbox will be bulging, and controversy will rage. The real winner will be Cage & Aviary Birds.
- Editor’s letter, Cage and Aviary Birds, 14 September 2016, p7.
- ‘National’ means the old National Exhibition of Cage & Aviary Birds, which was generally regarded as the highlight of the Lizard show season. The last edition of that show was held in 2003. It should not be confused with the modern ‘National’ which is a very different event.
- Introduction to the LCA Handbook (2000).
- The broken cap gold hen class at the 1992 LCA Classic. I was stewarding for Gordon.