History, part 14: clear cap, broken cap, non cap

Clear cap, broken cap, non cap.  They are the basis of the Lizard classification.  We are so familiar with these designations that we take them for granted, but have you wondered why they are so uninspiring?  Just think about it: ‘broken cap’ suggests damaged goods; ‘non cap’ tells you that something is missing; only ‘clear cap’ has any appeal.  In a world where positive imagery is essential if you want to promote anything, the Lizard’s nomenclature looks strangely negative.

If you want to know how to put a positive spin on things, look at the names that colour canary breeders give to their mutations: agate, opal, onyx, satinette etc.  They evoke images of avian jewels, exotic and desirable – or so the people with birds to sell would like us to believe.  There is nothing unusual about giving a product an enticing name, whether it is a new car or a new canary, so why is the terminology of the Lizard classification so downbeat?

It is all the more surprising because the early Lizard breeders were just as savvy as modern colour canary breeders when it came to marketing their birds.  The Lizard lexicon has plenty of glitz: ‘gold’, ‘silver’ and ‘spangles’ all have an exotic allure.  The early Lizard shows differed from modern practice in one important respect, however.  Their show classification only comprised two classes: one for ‘golden spangled’ and the other for ‘silver spangled’ (1).  There were no sub-divisions based on the type of cap because only clear caps were permitted at shows.

According to Blakston, the name ‘broken cap’ seems to have been adopted in the 1860/70s (2), around the same time that the first classes for broken caps were introduced at the Middlesborough Ornithological Society show (3).  Prior to that, broken caps were of no value to exhibitors and it is hardly surprising that their name reflects the low esteem in which they were held.  Blakston preferred the term ‘blemished cap’, but that still has negative connotations.  With the benefit of hindsight, ‘variegated cap’ or ‘patterned cap’ would have been more attractive alternatives, but tradition runs deep in the Lizard fancy and it is too late to change things now.

Lizard canary classification-Blakston

The reputation of the poor broken cap didn’t fare much better as a stock bird.  Blakston advocated their inclusion in the breeding team only ‘if good caps have been bred from the strain’.  Initially, Wallace (1875) was more sanguine: ‘a broken cap is the least objectionable feature for breeding purposes’ (4) but by the third edition of The Canary Book (1893) he had become wary: ‘I do not advocate breeding from “broken” capped birds unless they are highly meritorious in all other respects’ (5). It was not until the early twentieth century that the use of broken caps and non caps for breeding purposes was generally accepted as good practice.

The official recognition of broken caps in the show classification transformed their popularity (6).  As all the Victorian and Edwardian writers pointed out, broken caps were often superior in spangles and colour to clear caps.  Instead of being dismissed as refuse stock, they were now admired for their own beauty.

This didn’t help the non cap.   It was regarded as a sub-variety of broken cap, and didn’t even have an official name.  Blakston refers to Lizards with ‘no cap’, and Wallace describes a bird that was ‘entirely destitute of a cap’.  The first reference I have found to the term ‘non cap’ was published in Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds (1910-11), where the leading Lizard breeder F. W. Barker had ‘pointed out the advantage of pairing clear capped birds to broken or non-capped partners’ (7).  The name didn’t seem to stick however, because C.A. House writing in 1923 referred to them as ‘self or no-capped birds‘ (8).

This situation seems to have continued up to the outbreak of the Second World War, when the Lizard’s national governing body, the Lancashire and Lizard Canary Fancier’s Association, became defunct.  You can see in this extract from the L&LCFA’s handbook (9) that the show classification hadn’t changed since the 1860/70s, and presumably non caps were still being shown in the broken cap classes.

Lizard Classification L&LCFA 1936-FSS

It was not until the Lizard Canary Association was formed in 1945 that non caps were recognised as a distinct class of Lizard canary.  It was a cautious innovation: all non caps, male, female, gold, silver and over-year birds were allocated a single class – in the Champion section only.  As far as Novices were concerned, non caps were still exhibited amongst the broken caps.

Lizard classification 1954-FSS

Given the pioneering spirit of the new association, it is surprising that no attempt was made to present the distinctive appearance of these birds in a positive light; ‘dark cap’ or ‘spangled cap’ perhaps.  Fortunately, Lizard breeders are more interested in the appearance of the birds than their nomenclature.  They have taken the non cap to their hearts, and many breeders regard them as the most attractive of all Lizards.

This tells us that people are attracted to Lizard canaries on their merits, not their titles.  In a world full of hype and headlines, I find that  reassuring.


  1. Canaries and Cage Birds, canary chapters by W. A. Blakston (1877-80), p. 171.
  2. Ibid, p.157.  Blakston tells us that ‘any intrusion of the surrounding feathers on the clear surface constituting what as of late years come to be generally recognised as a broken cap’.  (My emphasis in bold).
  3. Ibid, p.171.  Blakston doesn’t give a date for the show, but presumably also ‘of late years’ (i.e. 1870s).
  4. The Canary Book by R.L. Wallace, first edition (1875) p.165.
  5. The Canary Book by R.L. Wallace (third edition 1893) p.333.
  6. Canaries and Cage Birds, p.172. Blakston noted with satisfaction that ‘Like many other reforms, this was thought to be very revolutionary, and offering prizes for imperfection could be nothing short of the beginning of the end of the ancient family of Lizards.  It was nothing of the kind, each succeeding year evidencing by the marked improvement of the bird’.
  7. Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds by John Robson, edited by S.H. Lewer (1910-11) p.301. F.W. Barker and John Rukin, two leading lights of the L&LCFA both recommended the use of broken caps for breeding purposes.
  8. Canaries by C.A. House (1923) p.220.
  9. Taken from William Scott’s copy of the L&LCFA handbook.


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