ROGER CATON took up breeding British Birds and Canaries more than 50 years ago and since then has bred many species in captivity under controlled conditions. He has taken awards at major shows including the National Exhibition of Cage & Aviary Birds and All-British Shows.
During the 1970s, he concentrated his efforts on Norwich Canaries. Later, he added Coloured Canaries to his stud, mainly as foster parents. However, he soon recognised their potential and began to appreciate them for their own special qualities.
Roger’s interest was increased by the influx of new mutations from the continent – particularly the Satinette. This increased interest culminated in him taking the award for best Satinette at Canary Coloured Breeders’ Association’s All-Colour Show in 1984. Another win of note in the 1980s was the best White-ground Canary award at the 1988 National Exhibition.
Always looking for a challenge, Roger’s mind turned once more to British Birds, in particular breeding colour variants of our native species. The most readily available, at that time, were Cinnamon and Lutino Greenfinches.
By now, Roger had the expertise to combine Coloured Canary mutations with those of colour variant British Finches. He hoped some of the resulting hybrids would prove fertile, and could be used to transfer colour mutations from one species to another. His first achievement was the breeding of a Silver Isabel Satinette Siskin Mule – which won the miniature Mule class at both the 1983 and 1984 National Exhibitions. Then followed the production of a Gold Satinette Lesser Redpoll Mule.
The subsequent breeding of a Satinette Linnet Mule gave
Roger a great deal of satisfaction. He saw it as the ultimate expression
of the Satinette mutation. This specimen took the award for best Hybrid at
the 1985 All-Colour Show.
About this time, Roger Caton heard that continental fanciers were trying to produce a Satinette version of a Lizard Canary, known as a Pearl. In theory, this would be a most spectacular bird in its perfect form – displaying the unique spangled plumage of the Lizard as a series of brown spots and hyphen marks running in straight lines over the back, along the flanks and across the breast.
This prospect really caught Roger’s imagination and he was soon crossing Coloured Canaries with Lizards. Within a few years he had produced perfect examples of the Pearl (Satinette Lizard) and in doing so bred Lizard Canaries in a full range of colours and mutations – Blue (Dominant White), Silver Brown (Fawn), Gold Brown (Cinnamon), Rose Brown (Rose Cinnamon), Opal and Pastel. (Photo of Cinnamon Lizard here)
Having established these Coloured Lizards, he turned his attention to the London Fancy – a breed that died out 100 years before. At the height of its glory, this remarkable Canary was described as having clear body feathers of “burnished gold” with contrasting jet-black wings and tail.
Taking into account his experiences breeding Lizard Canaries, it became obvious to Roger that the two breeds of Canary – London Fancy and Lizard – must have been related in some way. He speculated on whether the London Fancy could be recreated by extending his experiments with Coloured Canaries with Lizards. Despite his previous successes, he was unable to make any real progress with this approach and had to consider and alternative.
It eventually crossed Roger’s mind that perhaps the London
Fancy had never really existed at all! Could it have been a gigantic hoax
perpetuated by generations of Canary fanciers? He felt compelled to
discover whether it was possible to create London Fancy ‘look-alikes’ so
he took unflighted clear yellow Fife Fancy Canaries and used hair dye to
turn their plumage completely black.
Above is a photograph of London Fancy Canaries: an alternative.
As Canaries do not moult their entire plumage the first year, only the body feathers were replaced and these grew back orange-coloured. The wings and tail, of course, remained black, and he finished up with perfect replicas of the London Fancy.
Realizing that the birds would revert to normal yellow-coloured Fifes after their second moult, he decided to get them recorded for posterity. He contacted eminent bird photographer Dennis Avon and asked him to take photographs. Dennis was really impressed by their appearance and said that he thought they were marvelous. Obviously, Roger told him how they had been created.
The following Spring, it was decided to publish the photographs in Cage & Aviary Birds as an April Fools’ Day joke. The reaction was amazing and Roger received messages and letters of congratulation from all over the world. Finally the joke was on him as he suffered the embarrassment of admitting the truth. Then Roger’s attention turned to Starlings.
To most people, the huge flocks of Starlings which descend on many towns in the autumn are simply an unpleasant nuisance, littering the ground with their droppings and chattering constantly.
But avicultural consultant Roger Caton sees Starlings rather differently. "People usually take them for granted," he says. "They're such common birds that they hardly merit a second glance. But if they were a rarity, everyone would enthuse about their striking markings and the iridescent sheen in their plumage. This can create colours ranging from green to purple, depending on the light."
Roger's fascination with Starlings began when as a small boy, he used to climb into the loft of his grandparents' house to watch the Starlings nesting there. "Later on, I found a young Starling at school that had fallen from its nest and so I took it home to hand-rear it," he recalls. "This bird thrived and turned out to be a wonderful pet. It learnt to whistle tunes and I can still remember being very upset when it died."
"Thirty years later, by which time I had become an experienced aviculturist, my interest in colour variants of British Birds took me to Belgium where I met fellow breeders who were just beginning to establish various mutations of the Starling in captivity."
At that time, in the early 1980s, such mutations were quite rare. According to Roger, Starlings are regarded as something of a delicacy in some parts of Belgium, and hundreds of thousands were then being caught annually and killed for the table. On occasions, trappers obtained different coloured individuals, and soon realised that these might be worth more alive than dead, so they started to sell them to bird breeders.
The Opal is Roger's favourite variety. It's silvery-blue in colour, with stunning iridescence. It is also the rarest of the mutations at present.
Strangely enough for birds which are so common in the wild, Starlings are actually difficult to breed successfully in captivity. The main problem, in Roger Caton's experience, is that the chicks need a lot of softbodied insects if they are to survive the first three or four days after hatching. In the wild, these birds are actually beneficial, because the adults will consume huge amounts of invertebrates at this stage.
"I then devised a way of overcoming the problem by building some mobile aviaries with mesh floors that could be moved over the grass, allowing the parent birds to find the right food for their chicks over this crucial period," says Roger Caton.
Starlings will not thrive in an aviary with a solid concrete floor. "If they can't poke around on the floor, they soon become bored," explains Roger. "This can cause them to pull their nests apart. Some cock birds may also resort to carrying their eggs from the nest as they are laid, and depositing these, undamaged, on the floor of their aviary."
Their basic diet comprises of Pigeon pellets, apples and mealworms, and during the breeding season, the adult birds also received Canary eggfood, grated cheese and a soaked puppy food.
The chicks are usually removed from the nest at between 10 and 12 days old, after being ringed with special rings to prove they are captive-bred. The timing is critical. If they are left any longer, it is very difficult to persuade the youngsters to gape for food, as they will then only respond to their parents' calls. Roger relied entirely on soaked Eukanuba puppy food for rearing the chicks.
The young Starlings will start to feed themselves from the age of three weeks onwards. They prove to be very robust birds and rarely fall ill. He has had birds breeding successfully up to 12 years old.
Roger's collection has included as many as 70 Starlings, and up to 11 different colour varieties. He also had a few pet Starlings which whistled tunes, mimicked various noises and talked as well as their better known relative, the Hill Mynah bird.