A Publication of DRAGON
Chapter 22 of the American Singers Club
What is it about a closed door or a 'do not disturb' sign that brings out the cat in a bird breeder? Some years ago I was at a large midwest show and noticed such a sign on an out-of-the-way door of the showhall. After inquiring of the steward, I learned that behind that door breathed the unique and sometimes misunderstood world of the American Singer canary.
“That's the fiery furnace in there...” said the steward. “It tests both the bird and the breeder --- will the bird sing before the judge? Does he have the right notes? And has the breeder taught him to do his stuff when the-heat's on...?”
The door opened suddenly and the steward said I might go in, “if I behaved myself,” meaning no smoking, talking, or making sudden movements that might distract the birds. Also, I was to consider myself glued to my seat until the and of the judging period. I sat down, eight singers of various colors were placed before the judge, and the door was locked. The birds were given a few minutes to settle down (they had been draped with sheets all morning out in the showhall to keep them from singing themselves out before the big moment). The judge sits with pencil poised, there is not a sound in the room except the hopping of suddenly energized birds from perch to perch. The air is crackling with a well-bred tension as the seconds tick away. I imagine I hear prayers being sent to heaven (sing! sing! please let my bird sing!), as breeders wait for their hopefuls to do what they have been bred to do for the past forty years: to sing as no canary on the Canary Islands ever thought of singing. The birds seem calm enough, some even nibbling seed, fluffing feathers, emitting an occasional bewildered cheep. Thirty seconds gone, one bold male hops up and takes his stance. There are a few exploratory chirps (as if to find the right key) and he is off on what I know, ignorant as I am, is a remarkable song. I have listened to rollers, I even own a few, but I have never heard anything like this. It is a steady liquid hum, but more melodious, more tuneful, both sad and happy. He sings primarily with his beak closed, like a roller, but just when you begin to think you know all his tricks, he opens his beak and throws in something new. It has about half the volume of my borders' singing but is more arresting. Three minutes gone and all are singing except one which is taking a bath in his water cup. From the tragic scowl across the room, it is not hard to guess its owner, though the bird appears to be enjoying himself.
The judge is writing fast and furious, little squiggles and tally marks to keep track of who sang what and how many times. This is the and of the freedom period, and he sits back and takes a sip of water. (You would think that he has been doing the singing from the furrows on his brow.)
“Now comes the hard part,” he mutters. This next ten minutes is for evaluating song quality. “What is the song worth?” as it says in the ASC handbook, meaning how varied the song, does the bird have a sense of 'style' and what about tone quality? A bell sounds. But the judge writes on for several minutes, little notes to the breeder to explain his bird's score. Then the judge approaches the birds for an eyeball-to-eyeball check of conformation and condition, twenty and ten points respectively. Points are deducted for faults of feather, lack of size and bad carriage. The judge smiles at the bird still shaking out from his bath. “Ah. Mr. Clean. We'll give you an extra point for being clean, but, an n.s. for no song.” We all laugh, even the owner, and tension dissolves in the room.
The judge takes his seat again and announces the first, second, and third in class. “Do you agree with me?” he asks. A few breeders express their opinions politely, knowing the judge will not change his mind. Still, it's nice to be asked. A discussion develops over the tone of the third-place bird. “I wish I could have heard more of that double note in its song, but he lacked too much in freedom...”
The birds are taken out, and I stay for another 25-minute session. Four hours later, all classes judged, I'm still sitting there when the five highest scoring birds are brought in. The steward removes each bird from its cage and reads the band number aloud. The judge consults his master list of bands issued by the ASC and announces who bred what. “I declare a grand champion!” says a breeder in the corner. We all congratulate him. His bird, now five years old, has finally earned the 20 points that can be accumulated by winning first through fifth.
I rise to leave. “Come back again!” say the breeders to me wistfully --- “we always need a new fancier.” Outside the showhall seems noisier somehow after being in that room with birds bred only to create beautiful sounds. In my hand is a slip of paper with the address of the national American Singers Club. I'm beginning to assess the damages --- I'm hooked.
Years later I will be trying to explain my fascination for the American Singer to my type breeding friends, but words can only convey so much. Maybe you have to go behind the closed door of the little room to hear them for yourself. Or perhaps it's like trying to explain a sunset.
Perhaps this is why AS breeders are such a tight-knit, nonvocal group. The bird world is full of so much noise that no one can hear them. Since many clubs do not sponsor AS sections, breeders of singers have little reason to attend all-type bird shows or to join their clubs. They just go it alone, attending the shows that do have sections.
But any show that does not have a place for American Singers is missing something both artistic and mysterious. It is exciting to watch any animal performing, actually doing something. The AS has a broad appeal to the individual who can appreciate invisible qualities as well as the visible.
The day has come to an end. I leave with a border trophy under my arm. It's getting dark outside and the fog of an early winter is rolling in. Despite my modest success, I find myself wondering if this show routine is all worth it. The money spent, the cleaning of cages, the anxieties of the breeding season. From across the parking lot, I see another breeder packing his trunks of birds into his van. I hear some plaintive, wild and beautiful notes escaping from the depths of one of the near-dark trunks he is hoisting into the back. I stroll over. “How'd you do?” I ask.
“No trophies today --- I ran into some tough luck -- that was my bird that decided to take a bath in the judging room!” He laughs good naturedly. “Maybe next week in Chicago --- hear his? That's the bather singing now with the double note passage. First time I ever found a double note in my strain...” From the back of his van other birds down in their trunks are answering the song of the first bird. He drives away into the night.
I'm standing in the middle of the parking lot with my trophy. I would gladly give him every trophy I've ever won for a trunkful of those singers. The wheels of my brain are turning again. The American Singer is 66 per cent roller, 33 per cent border. I have both at home in my aviary. Perhaps an experiment during the dreary winter months which are rolling in...
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