composer, performer and sound designer

The Bird Fancyer’s Delight

For BBC Radio 4

Read background notes on The Bird Fancyer’s Delight

Hear tunes composed for songbirds

Centuries before the advent of the phonograph, captured songbirds were trained to sing fashionable melodies then used in the home as primordial, feathered music machines. In this half-hour documentary for BBC Radio 4, I explore the surprising history of teaching songbirds to sing. Produced by Neil McCarthy, first broadcast 9 July 2011.

In the 18th and 19th centuries, instruction books circulated showing songbird keepers how to teach their birds to sing human tunes. These treatises, known as the Bird Fancyer’s Delight, included tunes specially written to teach to a pet bullfinch, linnet or canary. The idea was to teach these birds to sing on command, bringing fashionable music into the home. This attempt to engineer primordial, feathered sound recorders was in high fashion 100 years before the arrival of the phonograph and the advent of recorded sound. In his half-hour documentary, I ask if this interspecies music making was successful and explore modern attempts to ‘teach the birds to sing’.

There’s an interview with Yorkshire’s ‘Champion of Champion’ canary fancyer Ken Westmorland, whose prize birds’ rolling sounds are far from their natural song. I also listen to birds’ own utterances during a Northumbrian dawn chorus with poet Katrina Porteous and ornithologist Geoff Sample, as we reflect on the ethics of controlling nature’s song. I also meet Aleks Kolkowski, a composer and researcher who worked with canaries and a string quartet to make some highly unusual interspecies music.

The Bird-Song Organ or Lady Varying Her Amusements (JBS Chardin, 1751)
The Bird-Song Organ or Lady Varying Her Amusements (JBS Chardin, 1751)