Fred Barnicoat gives us a short history on modern day aviculture

20 Aug
Fred Barnicoat , who is a retired Latin teacher and founder member of the Rare Finch Conservation Group is often regarded as the grand master of aviculture in South Africa . Fred has kept and bred birds ever since he was a young boy and many of his outstanding articles have been published in leading avicultural publications throughout the world .


The oldest journal devoted to keeping and breeding birds in the English language is THE AVICULTURAL MAGAZINE founded in November 1894 to encourage the large and increasing number of people scattered all over the British Isles, who were greatly interested in birds and bird keeping, to compare notes on their experiences by means of the penny post!  The first number was published in Brighton by H.R. Fillmer, (a lawyer) and C.S. Simpson (a medical doctor) on behalf of a committee of some 18 bird keeping enthusiasts. 

In the opening lines they explained the desirability and even necessity to invent a word to denote “ a person interested in the keeping and breeding of birds and “Aviculturist (being analogous to Horticulturist) will do perhaps as well as any other term.  If anyone can suggest a better word, we shall be glad to adopt it – till then we beg to describe ourselves as “AVICULTURISTS”.  This term has been used ever since, and the AVICULTURAL MAGAZINE has continued to be published regularly, it has a long and very distinguished history and is now in its 114th volume!

The increasingly popular hobby of aviculture developed out of the changing fashions in landscape gardening largely influenced by the French aristocratic families aiming to change their ancestral homes into miniature Versailles and introducing bird keeping on a grand scale as one of the attractions in their stately grounds during the late 17th and the 18th Century.  The first Voilet eared Waxbill, for example, ever imported into Europe, appears to have been the one sent in 1754 to King Louis XV’s mistress, the Marquise de Pompadour, in Paris.  Because it lived for 3 years in a city noted for its bitter winters, and at a time when so little was known about the requirements of foreign birds in captivity, one can well believe Madame de Pompadour “was known to be an enthusiastic friend of foreign birds”!

What might be termed “bird fancying” is something rather different and started much earlier.  Various “breeds” of canary were developed in different parts of Europe from the early 16th Century, and Bengalese in Japan from about the same time, while the fancy breeds of pigeon were in vogue long before the Norman Conquest of England in 1066, and poultry breeds even from Roman times!

To return to what we now understand as ‘aviculture’, the Industrial Revolution coloured every aspect of life during the first half of the 19th Century and things came to have a scientific, as opposed to a purely aesthetic interest.  The Zoological Society of London was founded in 1826 for the scientific study of animals at close quarters.  It was the first in the field.  At the same time the Industrial Revolution out of the artisans and factory workers from their traditional rural environment with which their only link might be caged birds, resulting in the initial craving for our hobby. 

In earlier centuries bird keepers tended to be aristocrats, entrusting the care of their birds to skilled employees, but for the new class of Victorian bird owners looking after their birds, personally was an enjoyable part of the hobby.  The time the enthusiast was able to lavish on his hobby in those more leisure days, undoubtedly accounted for much of his success in breeding “difficult” species, or keeping alive exotics in far from perfect conditions

It would appear that in the mid 19th Century Germany led the way in developing expertise in breeding birds in captivity.  It certainly produced the pioneer expert and author in Dr Karl Russ (1833 – 1899) of Berlin, who was the first to popularize the hobby with his publication of 4 illustrated volumes of “Fremdlandischen Stubenvogel” (Foreign Cage Birds) which covered the finches, the parrots and ended with the softbills.  He also founded in 1872 and edited for many years the world’s first avicultural journal “Die Gefiederte Welt” (Feathered World) which appeared monthly, subsequently fortnightly, and then weekly. ( This magazine today is published once a month and it is still widely regarded as a leader in its field visit )

It is obvious to any reader that the German exerted a tremendous influence over the earlier English aviculture literature.  The best known of the earliest  English books, – “Cassell’s Book of Canaries and Cage Birds – British and Foreign” published in 1879 had the Foreign Bird Section written by August F Wiener, who had learnt his bird keeping under Dr Russ before emigrating to England.  Dr Karl Russ truly deserves to be known as the father of modern day aviculture”

Fred Barnicoat

If you would like to make a donation to the Rare Finch Conservation Group then simply click onto the PayPal button below. All donors will be publically acknowledged on the RFCG website

The Rare Finch Conservation Group is registered in South Africa as a non-profit organisation . It is totally dependent on donations and sponsorships for its future survival . For more information on this pioneering conservation group please contact

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