I taut I taw a puddy tat! 

A highly sought-after canaryAble Sea-cat Bart turns this tall tale of a seafaring feline and a shipment of canaries on its head as a reminder that friendship can be where you least expect it.  

Guard for ship’s cat

A fat and unrepentant ship's cat slumped amid empty birdcages.THE NEW YORK TIMES, 11 DECEMBER 1906— Some 40,000 canary birds from the Harz Mountains arrived here yesterday on the steamship Rhein, but the real story was in the troubles of Gretchen, the ship’s cat. It took six men to keep Gretchen out of that part of the ship where the songsters were caged. Twice Gretchen was ejected with force from the hold. The ship’s surgeon would offer no opinion as to whether Gretchen or the watchers lost more flesh. Late at night the Hoboken cats were gathering about the pier to welcome the new arrivals. 


Hitting the right note

My take on thisGretchen may look like the cat who ate the canary here, but it’s highly unlikely she got up close and personal at all. Keep in mind cat stories have been column fodder for The New York Times for over 140 years, so the shipping news reporter would find a tallish tale of the ship’s cat and a shipment of canaries irresistible.

The song bird trade was really hitting the high notes back in 1906. The song bird everyone wanted was a canary, and the canary everyone wanted was a Harzer roller. Why? It had a lower pitched sound that “resembled a deep hollow roll, a repetitive ‘rororo’, which sounded as though it was sung from deep inside a barrel,” says bird guru Professor Tim Birkhead.

Rearing and training canaries began as a cottage industry in Germany’s Harz region and ended up big business. At its peak, the locals were exporting 150,000 male Harzer rollers a year. This created hundreds of jobs – rearers, voice coaches, cage makers, dealers, pickers (to source canaries for export) and travellers.

Being a traveller was not a cushy, all-expenses paid, enjoy the sea air job says ornithologist, song bird whistler, and author of Cage-Bird Traffic of the United States (1906), Henry Oldys describing the diligent daily cleaning and feeding routine required to ensure the canaries arrived in good voice. Here’s his summary:

Canaries are confined in small wicker cages; seven of which are strung on a stick, constituting what is technically known as a row. When shipped across the ocean these rows are crated and a linen or burlap sack specially made for the purpose is placed about each crate. A crate usually contains 33 rows. To paraphrase the old riddle — every sack has 33 rows, every row has 7 cages, every cage has 1 canary (or sometimes 2 if the occupants are the more peaceable females). Often more than two dozen crates are shipped in one consignment. Each of these must be opened every day of the voyage, every row removed, and food and water placed in the cages. In this daily re-crating the rows are rearranged so that the benefits of outside positions may be more evenly distributed among the birds.

Tweety in his cage, whistling happily.Dealing with a shipment of 40,000 birds each day would be logistically impossible. Even 4000 cages a day would be a stretch. So, a throwaway “the cat did it,” would be handy to account for losses. I admit we sea-cats make a meal of the occasional bird, but let’s put this in perspective. So do humans. But (soapbox moment) we don’t do wholesale slaughter like “game bird shooters”. Nor do we consign birds to a life behind bars, gilded or otherwise. Tweety may have sung “I’m just a bird in a gilded cage” with trilling gusto (thanks Mel Blanc), but Tweety was free to come and go as he pleased.

In Tweety’s day, it was all about the chase. “Unlikely friendships” get the column inches (or make The New York Times’  best-seller list) these days. Readers want stories that are heartwarming and uplifting and inspirational and true. Frankly these friendships aren’t as unlikely as people think. Life on board was an inter-species floating menagerie that was (mostly) a peaceable kingdom.

2 Sailors holding some cats and a dog and giving them food.The caption says: “Chow time for ship’s dog and cats aboard the French Naval training and hydrographic ship, Président Theodore Tissier, early 1940”. It was really PR photo opp time. And a happy snap, too.

Hiroko the cat grooming 2 ducklings.And of course the Internet has replaced the press for heartwarming tales such as Hiroko who became surrogate mum to a couple of newly hatched ducklings.

And social media star, Bob, and his feathered and furry friends. Bob the golden retriever and his dear friends.


The cage-bird trade

Castile’s conquest and colonisation of the Canary Islands during the fifteenth century kickstarted the canary trade. The Spanish invaders moved in, wiped out the locals, planted sugar cane and plundered the canary (Serinus canaria) population, capitalising on the lucrative market in Europe for song birds. They astutely only exported males to maintain their monopoly. The canary they traded wasn’t at all like Tweety. It was drab green, but its song was astonishing and Europe’s elite couldn’t get enough of it. It is remarkable reckons Prof Tim Birkhead they didn’t wipe out the world’s canary population in their frenzy to supply European markets.

Crates of canaries ready for shippingIt’s estimated thousands of wild caught males were shipped each year. For example, a single shipment in 1546 comprised 25 dozen (that’s 300) birds. Despite the tight embargo, some females slipped though the net. Bird fanciers in Germany now began breeding canaries and they created the yellow songster with the golden voice absolutely everyone wanted (for a while). Henry Oldys puts some numbers on this in his Cage-Bird Traffic of the United States. By 1880 “a single dealer in New York City handled 70,000 canaries each season … in the year ending June 30, 1906, 274,914 canaries were imported … nearly all raised in Germany”. 

IMAGE Yearbook U.S. Dept. of Agriculture 1906 Crates of canaries ready for shipping.

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