Bird Care In The Late 1800s


Before the Womachs left for their tour with Ringling, Dave handed me a small booklet that he thought I would find interesting. It is a 15 page pamphlet, about 5″X7″ in size, titled: “The Art Of Training Birds” by Signor Giovannis. It was originally published in 1883 and was recently reprinted in 1991. It divulges information as to the “care and treatment” of the canary specifically, but is meant to apply to all birds.

The first couple of “chapters” deal with taming and training. It begins: “Although birds are naturally of a timid disposition, very easily alarmed, and from their delicate structure unable to endure any but the most gentle handling, they may be made very tame, and become quite attached to their trainer. We propose to tell our readers how to tame their birds, but to make these instructions successful, they must be carried out with the greatest gentleness and patience. The utmost pains should be observed not to frighten the bird, as a slight fright may render him so shy as to defeat all your efforts to gain his confidence.”

As I continued to read, I was amazed at his recommendation of using respectful encouragement, treats and praise in his training methodology to gain the best results. We currently term this as positive reinforcement. He talks about what is known today as target training, using a feather as the target in the taming process. This is a guy who gets it.  I was expecting his procedures to be harsh and heartless – perhaps because I have always felt that animals were kept during that age for service to humans, as workers or as food, for purpose instead of pleasure. He has earned some BIG points with me.

I got to the general care and diet part of the booklet where the ignorance of the times shone painfully through. Some of the booklet’s more notable faux pas include his recommendation that you seriously limit your bird’s intake of “green foods” because it will cause “diarrhea, generally a fatal disease”. (He has lost a lot of his points with this statement.) He does redeem himself somewhat by alerting us to the fact that birds enjoy sweets but that we should refrain from allowing them any because we are ultimately “killing them with kindness”.

While he recommends that water be clean and plentiful for both drinking and bathing (points go up again), he also suggests putting a RUSTY NAIL(!!) into the drinking water to alleviate the stresses of molting season, which he says is “a very trying time for birds, and some die from it.” (losing nearly all points he gained in the area of compassionate training.) Am I alone in thinking that, just maybe, it’s the rusty nail water and not the molting process that is the cause of death? He earns back a few points with his recommendation of adding hard boiled eggs to the diet during this time.
He states that the best remedy for a bird with a “cold” is to offer stale bread soaked in milk, as well as cutting a red pepper in half and placing it at the bottom of the cage. More points lost, and game over.

The random final chapter in the book is titled: “The art of making music from glasses”. You know, where you fill water glasses to different levels and rub your finger around the edge to create different musical notes. I don’t know what to say about the inclusion of this chapter. His second job, I guess. Dave was right. This was an interesting read.
I am assuming that the life expectancy of Senior Giovannis’ canaries was rather short, although they were respectfully treated prior to their untimely deaths. In fairness, though, the life expectancy of humans was much shorter not so long ago. As we have learned more about the body, nutrition and with medical advancement, the duration and quality of life has increased both in humans and our pets. So, the next time I start going on about how little knowledge we have acquired on companion birds, please shake me and remind me of this post. Obviously we have come a long way. And it only took us just over a century to get here.

Author Patty Jourgensen specializes in avian health, behavior and nutrition and has been working with and caring for rescue birds since 1987.

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