An article written by Alan Haury.
I have always had a great fondness for Lesser redpolls. A Lesser Redpoll cock was the very first bird that I owned. I was seven years old. This bird lived in an old budgie cage in the house and I fed it on mixed canary seed and family left overs !! The area I lived in had lots of Lessers. We had different names for them (Tillys – mountiers ). Many local birdmen would always try to obtain the ones with the red breast. You could obtain these birds for £1 a pair !!!
As I got into my early teens I started to seriously breed British Birds (Goldies were the first I bred). I started showing birds when I was fourteen. At the local show the junior section was very competitive. On leaving school I showed as a partnership with a friend called Chris Coulton. He was a few years older than me and his Dad took us to the shows. One Saturday at Skelmersdale Show we were lucky enough to get Best Novice CYB and Best Novice Exhibit. A local hero of ours Mr Terry McCracken won Best British Bird In Show and Best Exhibit with a greenfinch. We always admired the quality of Terry’s show team.
Three to four days after the show Chris received a letter from Terry saying how wonderful the Lessers looked. I was well chuffed that such a good birdman thought this. In his letter he asked if we had any spare birds that he could buy. He gave his phone number and said to reverse the charges!! Chris phoned Terry to inform him that I had bred 17 young. We arranged to meet at the No1 Labour Club in Haydock. That’s where Haydock Bird Club and Lancashire held their shows for many a year. I took Terry to my parent’s house to see my very small set up – we hadn’t lived there long. I gave him the choice of 3 – 4 birds. Terry was pleased and picked 2 of the birds and asked how much they were or were there any birds I would be interested in. So straight away I said a pair of greenies. With a smile he said he had none at present but would put me on his waiting list.
Being young and foolish I didn’t want to go on a waiting list. So I asked if there was any chance of a pair of siskins. He said his friend, the late Derek Oldknow, had some. A few weeks later he fixed me up with a wonderful pair of siskins, especially the hen. A few weeks later our local bird club got a mini bus down to the All British Show in Doncaster. When I got there I bought a catalogue and going through the classes I noticed Terry had entered two Lesser Redpolls. So straight away I went to look at the class, this was when Lessers and Meallies were in the same class. There were over thirty birds in the class and Terry was first and third!!!! Straight away I recognised the birds as the ones Terry swapped me a few weeks earlier. On seeing this I shouted Chris and a few of the lads over – they didn’t believe me!!!!! They said that a Champion of Terry’s status wouldn’t be getting birds from a novice to show!! After a while Terry noticed Chris and me and shouted me over. The first thing Terry said was have you seen your redpolls and how well they had done. He said you have some nice redpolls there and you should concentrate on them. That is where it all began. Later the following year we decided to show at the All British at Winsford. It was our first major show. We won all the redpoll classes. We also showed the two siskins and the hen won a major special. The following show season we split our partnership as Chris had other commitments. Over the next four years I did relatively ok with the Lessers in the novice section and I had one or two good softbills as well at the time. When I moved up to Champion I would be lucky to get one in the first seven placings. After a few more years, still struggling, I decided to reluctantly part with all my softbills and to concentrate only with my Lessers and Goldies. Looking back now there have been some really great Redpoll men and these names stick in my mind; Val Emmery – Wales, Kevin Dodd – Blackpool, Terry Ball – Anglesey and Jack Lloyd – Lancashire. I asked every one of these if I could buy a bird off them and had help from Kevin and Jack. The two biggest breaks that helped me were first obtaining a cock bird from Mick Brookes from London. This bird was a few years old and had a dropped wing but could fly ok. I remember the anticipation of picking the bird up from my local railway station. When getting it home I noticed it was bigger, better coloured and with better flank markings than anything I have ever had. The red flush went right between its legs but obviously it was no good for showing with the dropped wing. I managed to breed from this bird for three years, putting it with as many hens as possible.
I can trace my current stock back to this old cock. I believe it had been bred by a gentleman from Scotland called Mr Bullock. My second lucky break was meeting an Irish man from Cork in the bar at the National Show in Birmingham. We got talking about redpolls and he said he had plenty of these small brown birds. After exchanging phone numbers I arranged for a friend who kept greyhounds to collect them for me. So with the Irish birds and the bird from London things just clicked.
the main staple diet I give is Bayers Goldfinch/siskin mix and Bayers Wildfood. I feed blue maw, white/brown perilla, niger seed, oyster shell grit and a big piece of cuttle fish in each cage and outside flight. Eggfood
Cede eggfood, frozen peas (pour boiling water over them and microwave for around 4 – 5 minutes ), scrambled eggs, blue maw seed and a small amount of sausage rusk just to make it go that bit further. Three quarter Cede and one quarter sausage rusk and mix all the ingredients together. I start to give eggfood after Christmas and give one finger drawer per cage. I cage all my birds singularly during the show season. After my last show I start to give them mini mealworms and frozen white pinkies ( I leave them out for a while before offering them to my birds), these are given once a week so the birds get a taste for them.
My soakseed consists of Bayers and Manor Farm with a little niger added. seed consists of Bayers and Manor Farm with a little niger added. Wildfood
I’m a great believer in giving as much wildfood as you can get. I start with coltsfoot, dandelions, chickweed, sow thistle, milk thistle, sorrel, mugwort, fat hen, ragwort, meadowsweet and alders during the winter.
Lessers will breed in cages and small flights. Mine are outside flights. I use both every year. I have a block of thirteen flights built on a 24’ x 8’ base with a passageway running through the front. I use these for lessers, goldies and twites. Each is set with four nesting sites. I use small metal baskets with coconut fibre lining. The nesting material I offer to the birds is coconut fibre, white kapok, white horse hair cut into very small lengths and sometimes I use 100% cotton wool (no man made fibres) if I cant get enough kapok. I usually breed in single pairs but if I have a real good cock I will run him with numerous hens. I use a small amount of conifer cover around each nest basket. The bottom of the flights I cover with horse bedding with small silver birch branches placed low down for the young to perch on. All the flights are covered in corrugated pvc but there is an 18’’ strip at the back of the flights which is felted. This provides some shade. I have wire trays in the flights for chickweed and sometimes the Lessers actually build their nests in the chickweed!!! Pairing Up (the harder part) I usually pair up a few weeks after the All British Bird Show. This takes me a few weeks as I get all my previous breeding records out (it is so important to keep accurate breeding records). I don’t always pair best to best. Over the years I have tried different combinations. In the past I was obsessed with getting a good colour by pairing the best coloured birds together each year. By doing this I slowly improved the colour but the Lessers were getting smaller. So then I tried to put the size back in without losing the colour. I achieved this by using big heavy feathered birds
the standard states that type, colour and markings will give a combined total of 60 points. Colour should be rich, nutty brown. As we all know there are a few shades in nuts. I know people now prefer the warm conker colour. I was trying to get mine as dark as possible. After colour and type I wanted to get real strong, heavy markings. On a few occasions I have managed to get four lines on each side (this doesn’t happen very often) usually you will get three lines. Try to avoid birds that show too much white on the front of the chest. Try to get the brown to come down as far as possible. I have never been bothered about the size of the bibs as most adult cocks lose the bibs in the second year. Shape – try to aim for the wagon horse shape (shapely and cobby). I am not too keen on the over large birds on the show bench now – the ones with thumbnail sized bibs and large beaks. As we all know the cock Lessers only get the red chest the following year but I have had hens that are three and four years old get a red flush on the chest ns that are three and four years old get a red flush on the chest and some people would mistake these for cocks. These hens are the birds that throw good coloured young. Show Training
I wait until the young have finished moulting and start by running them in a show cage (no more than one hour a day). The show cage fronts have half inch spacers instead of the five eighths. This stops the birds putting their heads through the wires. I have some training cages with Perspex fronts. This stops the birds jumping on the wires. Some birds are naturals and don’t need much training. My biggest disappointment is when I breed a real good bird and it throws its head back in the cage (known as a twirler). This happened last breeding season. I would love to know the reason why this happens?
Size No 2 show cages are used but I would love to see the Scottish No1 allowed back in use in England. At this moment in time Sean Fitzpatrick is trying to revive the No1 cage in England. I colour feed when the birds are six to seven weeks old using carophyll red in their drinking water. Redpolls are one of the quickest British birds to moult and are always ready for the early shows. There is no need to put redpolls on any sulphur drugs. Lessers are not long lived birds. It is so easy to lose a strain. You need to keep having a decent breeding season and to always keep some spare birds if possible.