Arthur Bills loves his birds. Their song warms his heart. But he never imagined entering them in singing competitions until a few months ago, when a friend of a friend suggested he should enter a local show. Turns out his canary Flash is a star. Paul Williams reports.
Arthur Bills doesn't move around like he used to.
Once upon a time he was a keen gardener, until the arthritis kicked in. He was playing indoor bowls until his back gave out. Nowadays, he gets around the house at no great speed with the help of walking sticks.
He has lived on his own in his house in Levin since 2010. Lately he's gone to the birds, with a penchant for one particular breed - the German Roller canary.
Arthur had always had a canary about the house. He loves them. They're great company and a good healthy hobby, he said. When he had too many, he took some to the local pet shop.
But it never crossed his mind to enter them in shows until his friend Bob turned up, with another friend who was involved with bird clubs throughout New Zealand.
"They said to me you should be showing these German Rollers," he said.
Arthur invested in training cages towards the end of May, and a few weeks later entered his first show, in Levin. His birds impressed, so much so it was suggested he bring them to the Napier Show a few weeks later. He came home with a third placing.
A bird had eight minutes in which to impress judges. If they became shy with stage fright, or unsettled, they were marked N.S. - which stood for "no song". The doors are closed, and out came the next contestant.
Each song was marked against 13 judging criteria for which the bird was given points.
So when the National show came around, held at the Te Rapa racecourse in Hamilton, a friend took Flash through for Arthur. He rang him soon after the competition with the news that Flash had won the gold medal.
Bills had only been trying to show a bird in this category for 10 weeks, so to beat a host of more experienced bird breeders from around New Zealand was unexpected, to say the least.
"It was out of this world. It really was," he said.
Arthur was at pains to impress that his birds were representing the Levin Bird Club, who he said were so helpful and welcoming. He really felt the success and New Zealand title belonged with the club.
"Everyone has different ideas and they are not frightened to help you. This is the joy of a bird club, the friendship...everyone has been so helpful."
"If I hadn't joined Levin Bird Club I wouldn't have had any of this great joy and pleasure with my birds and all the helpful people I've met...it's great," he said.
"You join the club...you learn things....there's guest speakers. It's a great hobby to have."
So what made Flash sing so well?
"The song is in their breeding," he said.
Canary shows are held the world over. The world show was held in Europe each year and attracted thousands of breeders and as many as 20,000 birds. It was hugely popular in Europe, particularly in parts of England, Belgium and France.
"I wouldn't call it a sport though. For me it's more of a hobby, and I highly recommend that if you are interested in birds to join your local club," he said.
Canaries were first bred in captivity in the 1600s. They were brought over by Spanish sailors to Europe. Monks started breeding them and only sold the males, which was said to have kept the birds in short supply, driving the price up.
This bird became expensive and fashionable to breed in courts of Spanish and English kings.
Eventually, Italians obtained hens and were able to breed the birds. This made them very popular, resulted in a variations of the breed and their spread across Europe.
The same occurred in England. First the birds were only owned by the rich, but eventually the local citizens started to breed them and, again, they became very popular.
Canaries were once used in the UK, Canada and USA in the coal mining industry to detect carbon monoxide, although the practice had now ceased.
As birds go, they're small. They're yellow. But they can sing up a storm. The German Roller canary is the only one of the breed to be judged on its song. Given proper housing and care, they could live as long as 15 years.
The Levin Club's meetings were held on the first Thursday of every month at the Hunting and Tramping Clubrooms on Parker Avenue. Contacts are Linda Russell (06)367-9090 or Mark Knutson (06)362-6196.
The Kāpiti Bird Club meetings are on the second Wednesday of every month at the Community Centre, Ngahina Street, Paraparaumu, at 7.30pm. Secretary is Helen Kake (04)298-6291.