“We think the caged birds sing, when indeed they cry.”
Although Goldfinches are quite rare in other parts of the country, they can be seen frequently in and around the village of Bridge, which is why one of these birds features in the logo of BridgeNature.org. Today we enjoy seeing them flying in family flocks out in the wild where they belong, but if ever we need a symbol of mankind’s yearning to possess that which has a right to be free, there is none better than the Goldfinch. Sadly its striking appearance and uniqueness have been its downfall: throughout history it has been treasured for its beauty and its song, and we know that in pursuit of treasure mankind is often at its most ruthless. Historically Goldfinches have been captured and caged in large numbers.
The poet and hymn writer William Cowper, who owned two caged Goldfinches which had been bred from captured wild birds, wrote of them thus:
“They sang as blithe as finches sing
That flutter loose on golden wing,
And frolic where they list;
Strangers to liberty, ’tis true,
But that delight they never knew,
And therefore never missed.” (1)
His verse demonstrates an attitude that still persists today: “If all an animal knows is cruelty, then you are quite justified in continuing to be cruel to it, because it doesn’t know any different”. This is an expedient excuse in defence of an irresponsible attitude. Of course the morality of what we do should be judged on what we know, not what we think our helpless victims know. That excuse was expressed here, ironically, by an intelligent, sensitive man who became a passionate advocate in the movements to end the human slave trade and cruelty to animals. How to tread the difficult moral ground of what constitutes cruelty is something William Cowper pondered a great deal; but it perhaps sums up the confusion and conflicting values of his time to note that he wrote some very thoughtful letters and poems reflecting on the plight of his imprisoned Goldfinches, and even put them in the same cage so that they would have company, yet he continued to keep them in captivity for the sake of his own entertainment (2).
By the later half of the 19th century the fashion for owning a caged bird, particularly a Goldfinch, reached a peak and thousands of wild birds were trapped annually. One common method of capture was to spread a glue called ‘birdlime’ onto branches near a food source. Birds would seek out the food and land in the glue.
Towards the end of that same century, ending these callous practices against Goldfinches became a primary objective of a newly formed group called The Society for the Protection of Birds, and their campaigns inspired the ‘Protection of Birds Act 1872’, the first law which imposed some concept of protection for wild birds upon an ignorant, disinterested British population. The group was later given a royal charter and became the RSPB as we still know it today.
Despite greater awareness of the issues in modern times, owning a caged bird, particularly a budgerigar, was still a very popular practice in 1960s Britain, almost a hundred years later. Today attitudes are much changed, but, astonishingly, it still goes on and the breeding and exporting of caged finches, including Goldfinches, is still perfectly legal. Capturing and selling wild birds is illegal under the Wildlife and Countryside Act 1981, but that still goes on too. Birdlime is still openly used to trap wild birds in Spain, despite EU efforts to ban it.
(1) William Cowper, ‘The faithful Bird’.
(2) Refers to: William Cowper, Letter to the Rev. William Lunwin. 1783.