Birds trained to talk and sing

Deprived of the opportunity to copy their natural vocabulary, captive birds of certain species will copy not only human speech, but almost any other sounds, including music.

Sparkie Williams, the talking budgie

The most famous British budgerigar was Sparkie Williams, trained by Mrs. Mattie Williams of Newcastle-upon-Tyne. He could utter about 550 words and recite several four-line nursery rhymes.

Sparkie was born in October 1954 and after a six-year working life as a character actor (two accents: “Geordie” and “refined”) retired to a small bungalow in Bournemouth. He died at the age of eight, having returned to his native north-east. Sparkie had come to fame by winning in July 1958 a Cage Word contest run by the BBC radio programme Home for the Day.

In 1958 a 78 rpm gramophone record with Sparkie as a soloist was issued by Parlophone. He also appeared on a television commercial advertising Caperns, a make of bird seed. In 1962 the company produced over 20,000 copies of a disc with Sparkie's voice on. It was called Pretty Talk.

Birds trained to sing

Birds were deliberately trained to sing, and sold on the strength of their musical ability. Mozart bought a starling that had been taught to sing. Contrary to popular supposition, this bird did not inspire the first notes of the last movement in Mozart's G major piano concerto, K453 (he bought the bird six weeks after the first performance of the work).

Haydn and Beethoven both trained parrots to sing. It was the next step to “improving” the natural songs of birds, for us to try to teach them either our own existing melodies, or tunes specially “written within the compass and faculty of each bird”, to quote from the introduction to The Bird Fancyer's Delight written in 1717.

The flageolet and organ

A special instrument was invented, the bird flageolet, which played a tone above the otherwise highest-pitched recorder, the sopranino recorder. Small boys in Germany used it to tutor young bullfinches, woodlarks, Indian shamas and others. In Hesse in Germany, at least until the middle of the 19th century, bullfinches in particular were tutored by means of the bird flageolet to whistle such tunes as God Save the Queen, Bluebells of Scotland, and Yankee Doodle Dandy depending upon the country of export.

Soon human teachers were replaced by mechanical ones. The French brought out the Serinette (“serin” is French for canary) and the Merline (“merle” is French for blackbird), both being hand-turned organs invented for the purpose of teaching birds. As recently as the 1950s a man in Staffordshire was tutoring his roller canaries with an electric organ. Imported from Germany, it switched itself on (and off) six times an hour. Other trainers still use the older method of a “schoolmaster” cock bird around whom 20 or more pupils are arranged in serried ranks.

  • Jeffery Boswall
  • Jeffery Boswall (1931-2012) was a natural history broadcaster, film-maker and producer. He is best known for his radio and television work with the BBC Natural History Unit. His notable titles include Animal Magic, The Private Life of the Kingfisher, and Wildlife Safari to Ethiopia. Jeffery co-founded the National Sound Archive's wildlife section with Patrick Sellar in 1969.