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The Bengalese Finch in South Africa – Competitive Exhibiting

By F. Barnicoat

In the years when I was a boy getting a kick out of keeping aviary birds, the hobby and the show scene was overwhelmingly dominated by South African species, which were freely available. In foreign birds the wonderful range of species available in 1939 had all but totally died out during the Second World War. Only Zebras and Bengalese were bred freely enough to be regularly available in pet shops, where South African birds were, or course, also sold. Diamond Doves, Longtail Grassfinches and White Zebras were occasional rarities, while Gouldians, Star Finches and a few other foreign birds smuggled off the boats landing at Durban and Cape Town were confined to the super wealthy.

My father and I got a lot of fun out of breeding Chocolate and White Bengalese and were always trying to pick out an attractively marked specimen that might appeal to a judge at the shows where the Chocolate and White class was usually nearly as big as and even harder to win than the Zebra Finch class (which implied the normal coloured bird). I would also scout around pet shops for specimens that were unusual or stood out because of the way in which they were marked. We also bred Fawn and White Bengalese. They cost a little more, but had the advantage of being easier to sex as the hens were generally a somewhat paler shade of fawn, and they were the more popular of the two varieties with the judges, and Fawn and White Bengalese now and again even making it to the “Best Foreign Bird” award. As with Chocolate and Whites the attractiveness of the markings of a bird was the main issue. There was something very exciting about raising a brood of Bengalese just because no two individuals turned out anywhere near alike.

Variegation in Bengalese is identical to variegation in canaries. Both have a history in aviculture of over 500 years. It has been worked out from old books and paintings that it took about 100 years for the ideal of the clear yellow canary to evolve from the dark olive-green wild canary, and about the same time for the pure white Bengalese to evolve from the dark brown Sharptailed Finch of the race native China. The famous German geneticist, Hans Duncker’s, controlled breeding experiments during the 1920s proved that the green-to-yellow transition in the canary is polygenic, i.e. it involves many separate genes. Capturing any polygenic trait is like trying to hit upon a specific set of numbers in a lottery, and therefore arriving at the pure yellow canary must have taken many attempts over many generations and been painfully slow. The same was the case in arriving at the White Bengalese (Black-eyed). In contrast, albinism is determined by a single gene, so the red-eyed White Bengalese happened spontaneously. We are lucky to still have both types of White Bengalese in South Africa.

Haphazardly pied Bengalese were not to everyone’s taste, but I found certain characteristic markings thrown up fairly regularly to be very striking, e.g. a clear white cap akin to the cap on the Lizard Canary; a bold clear white bib (it may be noted that this seems to be a prime spot for loss of colour since the slightest taint of pied blood will mar a normal Java Sparrow or Zebra Finch, with an irritating white spot just below the beak more likely than anywhere else); or what I might refer to as a white crown on the forehead extending back from the upper mandible.

I found makings such as these attractive enough to want to try to perpetuate them by mating together two birds possessing them. Success with this was limited, as must be expected in trying to establish any polygenic trait, which is akin to hitting on any given set of numbers in a lottery.

In about 1955 some fine Bengalese were imported commercially from Holland by the pioneer importer De Beer of Pretoria. Many people bred them into the stock they had. For the first time I saw the pure White and some of these were even in the Crested form. I also found some of the very lightly variegated ones with just eye- and/or wing-markings, or saddlebacks, particularly attractive. Some of them won on the shows, although our fanciers have never gone in for breeding Bengalese for specific markings.

Variegation in canary culture results in endless haphazard and extremely attractive colour patterns in many breeds like Border and Fife Fancy, Yorkshire, Norwich, etc., but since the second half of the 20th century variegation has always been regarded as subordinate to type. This wasn’t so in Victorian England when bird breeders had more time and patience to work at achieving the elusive goal of an ideal in variegation – the “four pointer”, i.e. a canary with four identical and perfectly balanced eye- and wing-markings. It is a fact that in variegated birds the most persistent dark markings are those on the side of the head, mainly around the eye. That eye-markings occur in many different species, e.g. the common Waxbill, is possibly indicative of this phenomenon.

Similarly, in canary (and Bengalese) wings the 6 inner flights are the most likely to remain dark, while the 12 outer ones have a strong tendency to lose their original colour. The basic tendency of colour distribution in wings has given rise to the establishment of two Bengalese varieties in continental Europe – the Saddleback (sometimes called by the vague term “Marked White” and the Clearwing). However, there is really nothing new under the sun. Ancient books on aviculture in both Japan and China reportedly claim that many different highly attractive patterns were established in Bengalese by groups of their adherents using selective breeding in mating like with like. This is a road into another world down which we in South Africa have never troubled to walk.

What I do regard as the great tragedy of the Bengalese in the South African show scene (and for that matter of the Pied Zebra) is the adoption of the 50% white and 50% colour principle as the ideal. It is a very simple fetish that in practice proves very exclusive and in no way deserves to be the “be all and end all”. There are so many combinations and patterns that could look much more attractive: the Self Chocolate with white wings, the white with a dark crest (as seen in Gloster Canaries), the white with dark eye- and wing-markings (as in the Four Pointer Canary), White-capped Bengalese (as in Lizard Canaries) etc. I would appreciate Bengalese judges looking for the patterns that are sometimes stunning and not just at 50% white and 50% colour in a mundane mix up of brown and white. Some of the very lightly variegated Bengalese (as is also the case in Pied Zebras) are by far the most beautiful.

In conclusion may I say that I feel uncomfortable with Saddlebacks (or “Marked Whites”) exhibited as A.D.V. They are, after all, “Chocolate and White”. I would like to see variegation in Bengalese exactly as it is in the canary fancy, and if we cannot accept “Heavily Variegated” and “Lightly Variegated” in a single class embracing the full spectrum from the Self Chocolate with one white feather to the white ticked with a brown feather, and judge each bird on its merits as an individual, we should split the class in two as has been done for all breeds of canary.

To any breeders living in the Bloemfontein area we strongly recommend a visit to this year’s South African National Cage-Bird Championship Show to be staged at the Agricultural Show Grounds, Bloemfontein, on the 9th, 10th, and 11th July 2015. All varieties of Bengalese mentioned in this article, as well as the more recently imported Chocolate Selfs will be on view to the public. This Show also features the best of all breeds of canary and all sections of aviary birds, foreign and indigenous, currently being bred by South African aviculturists.

For more details contact Bloemfontein Cage Bird Society:
Mr H.J. Venter 051 522 8619 / 082 899 3681
Mr W.P. Marais 051 436 1282 / 083 538 6057

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