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Celebrating Birds

The history of aviculture in New South Wales:  A Project.

La Nouvelle - Hollande Mieux Connue  -- Vegetaux Utiles Naturalises  En France. (Rondelle from Volume 1. Vignette in the title: result of the discoveries of the geographer and the naturalist corvettes and the schooner the Casuarina. Discovery of the southern lands.] New Holland better known. Useful plants naturalised in France.)The history of aviculture identifies the culture of aviculture.  At one level this project is about recording the history of our Society.  Everything we can access is scanned to picture data files (PDF) and is thus able to be accessed and used.  At another level it is about the heritage of our Society:     Aviculture in our state and avicultural history since settlement; and our network.  Putting it all together, building on our strong base and then going forward. 

Beginnings

Rainbow Lorikeet taken as a cage bird on Cook's voyage back to Britain and illustrated by Peter Brown.The first example of an Australian species in aviculture is the Rainbow Lorikeet taken as a cage bird on Cook’s voyage back to Britain and illustrated by Peter Brown.  It’s a beautiful painting well showing the vibrant personality of the species.  I selected this notable picture in a book I wrote in 1980 ‘Australia’s Animals Discovered’. 

From First Fleet days, Australian birds, especially parrots were of interest.  In the new Colony of New South Wales people kept cage birds, especially parrots as pets notably Eastern Rosellas or ‘rosehillers’ = rosellas, because they were originally trapped from Rose Hill (Parramatta).  King or more accurately King’s Parrots were also popular, right from first settlement.  They are selected as our Society emblem.

The banner we use for the Avicultural Review reminds of some important very early avicultural events.  It is a cartouche drawn for the report of the Nicolas Baudin - Francois Peron voyage of exploration to Australia (1800-1803) which when it returned to Paris, various notable Australian species were delivered to the menagerie at ‘Malmaison’ the home of Empress Josephine of France.  She received Black Swans, cockatoos and parrots, kangaroos, and the most notable of all Dwarf Emus collected on King Island.  Josephine liked ‘nice’ animals, nothing fierce - all the dangerous ones went to the zoological collection in the Jardins des Plantes.  But if you look at our banner you can see it is very Australian - a cockatoo and a parrot in a gum tree, a lyrebird, the ship in the centre and to the right, one of the celebrated Dwarf Emus with a heron flying overhead and some Xanthorrheas or Grass Trees - again distinctly Australian and sensational to European eyes.

The black swans built nests of sticks and reeds and bred following their arrival in the lake at Malmaison.  Empress Josephine really loved them.  She was so pleased with her black swans she adopted them as an emblem about the house and gardens, in her bedroom, on her furniture, furnishings and ceramics.  Australian aviculture had certainly arrived in European collections.

In 1840s John Gould visited Australia and stayed with his relatives, the Coxen’s.  One of the birds he acquired and described in his “Birds of Australia” included a cross between King and Red-winged Parrots which demonstrates captive breeding.  Although not the first to do so, he also took budgerigars back to Britain, and I don’t think there is a more important cage bird in the history of the world than the budgerigar.

Our avicultural heritage includes the birds collected by Dr George Bennett of Sydney who sent them on to the Zoological Society of London - all sorts of birds - for which see ‘Gatherings of a Naturalist in New South Wales’ 1860.  And there is plenty more detail of aviculture in the 19th Century.

Early 20th century aviculture in Sydney

Through to the 20th Century we have the development of budgerigar culture resulting in Budgerigar Societies, including a Budgerigar Section in the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales, notably chaired by Neville Cayley, who wrote and illustrated ‘Budgerigars in Bush and Aviary’, ‘Australian Finches in Bush and Aviary’ and ‘What Bird Is That?’ (When we needed a Society emblem for badges, etc., an illustration by Neville Cayley of the King Parrot was selected).  There was also an Avicultural Section of the Royal Zoological Society of New South Wales .

When I was a Councillor of the RZS of NSW in the 1970s and 1980s, I also attended the Avicultural Section, which although off and on for half a century, was closed in the 1980’s by the RZS.  We can access the records of the RZS of NSW for details of aviculture during the early 20th Century through the lens of this Section.

Vice President Ian Ward has provided manuscript evidence of the inaugural meeting of the Canary and Cage Bird Federation of New South Wales in August 1935 which had delegates from 14 societies in attendance including G A Duncan and S J McSwiggan from the NSW Avicultural Society.  Perhaps because of the formation of “Federation” as we now all call it, a quality ‘Australian Cage Birds Weekly’ magazine was published.  I have bound volumes of the first 2 years, from Volume 1 Number 1 September 1936 - but don’t know how long the publication went for.  I am willing to give up any of my ‘ephemera’ as it is called in historical circles - pamphlets, magazines, notes, manuscripts to our HISTORICAL PROJECT - and these are the precious gems we need.  You can have them back after scanning if you like.

By the way, Federation is still alive and well, and Ian is our representative on that important organisation.

A NSW Avicultural Society was active way earlier than 1936.  There are Annual Meeting reports of the Society in ‘Australian Cage Birds’ and the regular meetings were at the YMCA building in Pitt Street, Sydney.  In the same magazines are advertisements for the Avicultural Section, Zoological Society meeting in the Society’s rooms in Martin Place, Sydney; so all of this can be stitched together.

Also, we have many skins in the Australian Museum deposited by Sydney’s aviculturists and the Zoo in the early 20th Century (as used by me for avicultural convention presentations for Pheasants in Australia, and also for Parrot finches).

So, there is ABUNDANT evidence of ongoing bird keeping activity in NSW from the First Fleet onwards.  The word AVICULTURE was only minted at organisational level in 1894 with the formation of the Avicultural Society (UK).  I have Volume 1 Number 1 onwards.  The inaugural rules state that “The name of the Society shall be “THE AVICULTURAL SOCIETY” and its objects shall be the study of Foreign and British Birds.  Poultry, Pigeons and Canaries shall be outside the scope of the Society.” Australian species are prominent and there are Corresponding Members of that Society from NSW.  Therefore it is fatuous that the Avicultural Society of South Australia purports to be the oldest avicultural society in Australia.  It is definitely not true to arrogate to themselves the idea that aviculture itself is older in South Australia than elsewhere - I mean, given that NSW is the first State of settlement (and personally my own ancestors arrived with the 3rd Fleet in 1792 - having been selected by the best British judges of character) it isn’t credible that everything began in Aunty Adelaide!    It’s ridiculous really.  Aviculture in all its forms, including the name itself, was alive and well in NSW and we are the direct line descendants of this in Sydney.

With the continuing and ongoing ebb and flow of avicultural activity, The Parrot and African Lovebird Society of Australia formed in 1940 morphed into the Avicultural Society of New South Wales to fill a gap.  You will find that although the Society names change here and there, the people involved are the same.  And the rest as they say is HISTORY - and that is the core aspect of the Historical Project - to gather ALL of this history of our Society together; but let us also include the PRE-HISTORY or Heritage of the Society just mentioned which is also ours as New South Welshmen.  Definitely we are the ones responsible to carry it forward.  It began with Sydney, and we are still here alive and well - well maybe we are a bit on the ropes at the moment; but we need to continue to carry the torch.

I will be specifically approaching people to stitch this one together, particularly our notable Life Members, as while they live it is crucially important to gather information that would die with them; all of that precious ephemera that will be discarded by their families.  And they will be helped by younger crew who can help with scanning documents etc.  We don’t necessarily want to have the hard copies (paper copies of things) as we require only the electronic scanned and saved copies- however the State Library of New South Wales/Mitchell Library will be approached to receive our archived documents, and any that are donated to the project.

I expect that funding for this will come from grants that I will write, and also from sale of books and other historically relevant materials.  This will create abundant content for our publications, so we intend to use the project heavily.

We can commemorate notable people and events in our avicultural history - e.g. what was happening aviculturally 200, 100, 50, 25 and 10 years ago.  Have events at Old Government House, Parramatta Park…whatever.  There is lots of scope there to have our history live.

Note that as the ASNSW the Society represented well the general interests of aviculture; but we were always willing to collaborate and co-ordinate with other Societies for the betterment of Aviculture - especially regarding federal matters.  Parrots have always been a strong card of the ASNSW; however speaking for myself - my avian interests are certainly general and not at all limited to parrots.  Our Society needs to be not just about ‘the study of wild birds’ - the ‘serious’ end of the spectrum, but to embrace also the fun aspects of pure enjoyment that comes from showing birds, playing with mutations, whatever... just so that non-domesticated birds are front and centre in everything.

Over time, again with the way things are in Sydney and NSW - which is a much more fluid and relaxed culture than in most other States - again there is ebb and flow.  The Society spawned others - eg the Macquarie Fields Branch of the ASNSW, now Macarthur Aviary Bird Club for one; and helped in the formation and support of others - the Avicultural Society of Canberra, and notably the Avicultural Society of Queensland - although I’m not sure what has happened with ASQ.

Federal level activity

Federally, The Avicultural Federation of Australia (AFA) was formed - to be modelled on the American AFA.  I was a foundation member and Conservation Committee Chairperson for many years - but achieved absolutely nothing whatsoever in that role.  Conservation was not then and is not now central to avicultural interests - but it needs to have some reasonable profile.  We need to care ABOUT the birds we keep as well as FOR them.  Their wild survival matters.

The AFA experiment in Australia did not work.  One reason I suspect is that we let it be ‘managed’ by South Australians, who in order to join needed more clout than their numbers warranted - with all the baggage that comes with that ‘short people/small state’ mentality.  Therefore, guaranteed to be a train wreck, and it eventually was.  Another good reason (following on from the first) was that it did not fully represent the complete range of aviculture, it didn’t really model on the US AFA as it excluded traders and commercial interests - so that made clear space, indeed need, for the formation of the ABA.  National Federations anywhere are always difficult.

Now, with the existence of quality national magazines such as ‘Australian Birdkeeper’, and also Simon Degenhard’s ‘Aviary Life’, I wonder if national federations are even necessary, as communication is extremely well served by impartial journals such as these who will report the wide range of opinion on just about any facet of aviculture.  And then of course there is the internet, and I plan for the ASNSW to be extremely well performing in the cyber world as that is the REALITY of today - our website, Facebook, Twitter, blogs...  we embrace all of it, and are transitioning to it.

Back to State level

The Avicultural Society of New South Wales is the general and umbrella captive bird society of our State.  Over time, various specialist and interest groups have hived off.  Additionally entire general geographical components of the Society have formed.  So, what role does the Society now have?  What does the Society stand for?  What does it DO?  What should it do?

So the way forward is clear.  We need to rebuild and regain our Society completely.  We don’t want to wind back the clock or anything, because we need to work with what the current evolved situation is and including the world of the internet.

Definitely we need to get off the ropes, rebuild and get back into ringside; which is what the ASNSW will be:

  1. Ringside
  2. Network Central for Aviculture in our State

We need to be again the GENERAL captive bird society that both CARES FOR birds and CARES ABOUT birds, primarily in NSW, but if the issue is a federal / national / international one we will take that on, develop policy and promote the interests of birds and our membership.

The HISTORY PROJECT is one of several designed to rebuild our Society and take us to where we need to be.  Going forward needs to be built on our background, hence the need for access to all of our history, our heritage and our network; and hence be clear about the culture of aviculture; who we are, what we stand for and what we do.

I hope that the Life Members take it on.  I hope that many of you find the History Project exciting and would like to become a part of it and to leave your footprint.

Graeme Phipps.  March 2012.

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