The tradition of keeping birds as ornamental companions at home dates back thousands of years. No matter how anthropomorphic we are in teasing up the relationship, it contains some troubling tensions. There’s the systematised entrapment of a creature designed to soar — able (in most bird species) to do the one thing we will never be able to do without gliding apparatus or jet propulsion. Even a generous flight enclosure limits range from miles to split metres. There’s an uncomfortable measure of control.
Cats keep their raw instinct tucked and tailored under their fur once through the door-flap. Dogs emotionally surrender. A so-called domesticated bird, even one bred in an aviary for countless generations, frail and yet diamond tough, will always be on high alert. Birds retain those very top notes of survival behaviours.
Finally, there’s the lack of intimacy. An affectionate budgie, through lack of a mate might nuzzle your cheek, but in general, birds don’t welcome a crushing cuddle. What’s really going on here is the vanity exercise of having a bird on the finger, or the shoulder — the wild thing tamed by the kind, noble human being. Roberta Flak put it neatly in her 1957 song ‘The First Time Ever I Saw Your Face’ — “like the trembling heart of a captive bird, that was there at my command”.
Ivan Kreilkamp writes in his paper, The Emotional Extravagance of Victorian Pet Keeping, that pets were a way for people trapped in the cultural and biological norms to freely accrue new relationships. Deep stuff.
We could go way back to the keeping of birds and other wild animals in medieval Europe and the ancient Orient, but let’s pick on the Victorians again, so peculiar in their repressed, twisted excesses. Bird keeping was ideal for a proper household in the 1800s. Small, nonthreatening, feminine, pretty, and capable of song and delightful capers — birds not only decorated a drawing-room but powerfully reflected the position of most women closed up behind the hefty mahogany doors of polite society.
Trilling out movements on the piano, stabbing at needlework like restless fly-catchers, and unable to make all but the most banal decisions from a velvet perch, it’s no wonder the linkage of the caged bird and the corseted Victorian woman was so familiar in books and poetry.
Songbirds were just part of the Victorian obsession with the natural world. Having something peculiar behind bars or even better roaming free in the house had huge social cache. Fabulous cages, enclosures, and elaborate aviaries were used to stage a live exotic menagerie that could be stuffed and staged in little outfits in an eternal diorama after death. In 1895 there were 118 wild animals dealers in London.
Pets were shopped from the deserts and jungles of the British colonies and from the local environment. The point was to amuse the keeper — the fate of the pet, bar the most obvious cruelty, was rarely mentioned — animals were not widely believed to have souls (phew). The practice of grabbing animals (or having your estate manager get you something interesting from the bushes or fields) was enthusiastically encouraged by some grizzly books of the day.
Jane Loudon’s Domestic Pets: Their Habits and Management offered advice on stealing squirrel kittens from the nest for keeping in tiny, tin-lined kennels. They should be let out to romp about and could Loudon advised, “run up a window curtain, and along the cornice at the top with wonderful grace and agility — if it is richly carved, it will peep out between the leaves and flowers in a very amusing manner”. Perhaps the odd kenneled squirrel adapted to this strange housebound existence, spraying droppings from a swinging chandelier.
Loudon recounts a story flying around London tea times in the 1840s of 14 lumps of sugar being found in a single cornice, hidden by some demented British squirrel. She recommends a tiny chain fastened to a tiny collar. I know — incredible to our sensitivities today. Still, this book does at least try to put animal welfare out there.
Squirrels were so familiar as pets, they appear in Chapter III of Loudon’s work ahead of rabbits. Happily for anyone enlightened enough to read up the well-intentioned book, she deemed monkeys “often vicious and spiteful to children” and “so mischievous and disagreeable they scarcely deserve to be called pets”.
If you were a monkey, imprisoned in a cold, dreary English home for years on end, slurping bread and milk — wouldn’t you be spiteful and disagreeable? Some Victorian kitchens kept a hedgehog on the floor to waddle around eating troublesome black beetles.
The potential pets Loudon includes aside from dogs and cats are — parrots and other foreign talking birds, ravens and other British talking birds, singing birds (picked off from the hedgerows) and doves and pigeons. Motivated by the difference it made to their singing, trick doing, and speaking prowess Loudon encourages freedom for birds over small cages, or should I say, British birds. Foreign birds are, she says, “much more happy in their cages”. Her bird expertise includes the French habit of giving a parrot with a snuffling chill cinnamon-laced wine.
Ravens were an extremely popular pet in high society, so glossy and beautiful, and could be easily taught to speak — a lovely gentleman’s bird for his study. Like well-off dogs, some large birds even had their own valet. Relatively rare and pricey to buy at market, ravens had strong associations with the metaphysical world, including that of the necromancer — individuals who could commune with the dead. The Victorians loved this mist-shrouded spooky stuff. Ovid was known to have kept a raven and Charles Dickens immortalised the “superior of genius” of two of his beloved pet ravens in his novel Barnaby Rudge.
Ravens and jackdaws were best taken from the nest, half-fledged according to Loudon’s book, She celebrates ravens for their “noble aspect and aerial evolutions”. The half-wild bird that would fly around the garden and then return obediently to its cage was the ideal. She perpetuates the common notion that bird keepers, even ones poaching ravens, starlings, finches, nightingales, and magpies, as amateur naturalists — protecting them from hunting.
Still, by the 1870s legislation had to be introduced to limit the taking of wild birds to certain times of the year, to protect their numbers. It doesn’t read well today, but we have to see the treatment of these vulnerable pets through a 19th-century lens, where the idea of animals having any right to exist bar serving our pleasure or plate (as based on the Book of Genesis), was regarded as, well, feather-brained sentimentalism.