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Feather's Miscellany: Keighworth Birds

...It’s a mystery to me why some folk have to stroke strange animals immediately they meet them. They’ve only to look into an animal’s eyes and read what they see there to see if it’s safe to pamper it; and had they done so when they approached that cranky cockatoo they’d have recognised at once the evil glint..

John Waddington-Feather tells some avian tales.

The township of Keighworth never lacked for past-times. The folk there were as active as ants in the pursuit of their hobbies; probably because in earlier days the conditions at work and the long hours they put were so appalling. When they finished work each day and at weekends, they threw themselves into their hobbies. So, the town had its choirs, its prize silver band, its orchestra, its drama groups, and a whole range of clubs and societies among which were bird-fanciers: pigeons, hens, budgerigars, canaries – and parrots.

When I was a boy, parrots were favourite pets among elderly ladies who, if they didn’t have a cat, had a parrot for company, sometimes both. Their parrots lived in large cages hung in one corner of the living room, talked themselves silly with their owners, or shouted at anyone who entered the room. One cockatoo remains embedded in my memory. It lived in the museum in Albert Park which as well as housing all manner of antiquaries and stuffed animals, also had a large aviary in the glass-canopied entrance.

The cockatoo formed part of it but resided not inside the aviary but on a solitary perch outside it – and what a vicious creature he was, sitting on his perch with his beady eye fixed on anyone entering the museum. He was a large white bird with a magnificent yellow crest, which went up ominously the moment anyone approached him.

His baleful eye should have been an obvious danger signal, yet simpering bird-lovers, mainly middle-ages ladies, took him to their hearts the moment they saw him, and went straight up to him to stroke him. It’s a mystery to me why some folk have to stroke strange animals immediately they meet them. They’ve only to look into an animal’s eyes and read what they see there to see if it’s safe to pamper it; and had they done so when they approached that cranky cockatoo they’d have recognised at once the evil glint he eyed them with. The moment they reached out to stroke him, he had ‘em! With one quick flick of his powerful grey beak he grasped a finger and bit – good and hard, often drawing blood.

In these less sanguine days of health and safety rules, he’d have been locked behind bars like the rest of the birds in the aviary, but he remained chained to his perch the rest of his life and tweaked away to his heart’s content. When he died, he was stuffed and placed among a wide variety of birds inside the museum, staring out from his case with dead glassy eyes safe for ever from human touch.

There were some parrots in Keighworth which once they’d learned to talk put their owners in embarrassing situations. One I knew picked up a soured husband’s oft-repeated phrase to his wife: “You sound just like your mother, the old witch!”

It wasn’t long before his pet parrot picked up the husband’s complaint and when the mother-in-law arrived not long after he’d bought the parrot and began chattering away over a cup of tea, the parrot croaked out loudly: “You sound just like your mother, the old witch!” You can imagine the rest. The husband never heard the end of it and gave away the parrot to a bachelor friend.

Then there was the parrot which repeated an old lady’s opinion of Hitler during the war. When she listened to the daily news on the radio and heard all about the bombing of our cities by the Nazis, she’d say loudly: “Ooo! That Hitler is a bugger! He’s a right old bugger!” which, of course the parrot echoed. One day the vicar paid a call and in the middle of a quiet prayer before he left, the parrot croaked out what the old lady thought of Hitler, only he missed out the first bit and yelled: “He needs watching. He’s a bugger! He’s a right old bugger!” Fortunately the vicar saw the funny side of it, but ever after when the vicar called, the parrot was taken into the next room and a cover thrown over his cage.

I could go on about canaries and cage-birds but I’ll finish by saying something about pigeons. Racing pigeons was a popular pastime in Keighworth. Some bred fancy pigeons like fan-tails for showing, but racing homing-pigeons was by far and away the most popular. Pigeon lofts were sometimes built in backyards but more especially in hen-pens or on allotments.

One keen pigeon-racer had his loft on an allotment just below the rugby league field. When a match was on, it played havoc with his timings if he was racing his pigeons. His flock would come circling in ready to land, as he stood by with his racing-clock at hand to put the leader’s leg-ring in and register its arrival, when the rugby crowd would let out a roar. Of course, the row kept his pigeons up aloft wheeling round and round till the noise subsided losing him precious seconds, and I don’t think the poor fellow ever won a race when Keighworth were playing at home.

My bird-tales could go on and on and in recent years twitchers have been added to the list, wandering about the moors with their binoculars and cameras looking for new arrivals and rare birds there; but it’s the more homely cage-birds and racing pigeons which still hold sway in the world of bird-fanciers in Keighworth.

John Waddington-Feather ©

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