London Labour and the London Poor, volume 2

Mayhew, Henry


Of the Tricks of the Bird-Duffers.


THE tricks practised by the bird-sellers are frequent and systematic. The other day a man connected with the bird-trade had to visit Holloway, the City, and . In Holloway he saw men, some of whom he recognised as regular bird- catchers and street-sellers, offering sham birds; in the City he found ; and in , as well as he could depend upon his memory. These, he thought, did not constitute more than a half of the number now at work as bird-"duffers," not including the sellers of foreign birds. In the summer, indeed, the duffers are most numerous, for birds are cheapest then, and these tricksters, to economise time, I presume, buy of other catchers any cheap hens suited to their purpose. Some of them, I am told, never catch their birds at all, but purchase them.

The greenfinch is the bird on which these men's art is most commonly practised, its light-coloured plumage suiting it to their purposes. I have heard these people styled "bird-swindlers," but by streettraders I heard them called "bird-duffers," yet there appears to be no very distinctive name for them. They are nearly all men, as is the case in the bird trade generally, although the wives may occasionally assist in the street-sale. The means of deception, as regards the greenfinch especially, are from paint. aim of these artists is to make their finch resemble some curious foreign bird, "not often to be sold so cheap, or to be sold at all in this country." They study the birds in the window of the naturalists' shops for this purpose. Sometimes they declare these painted birds are young Java sparrows (at time "a fashionable bird"), or St. Helena birds, or French or Italian finches. They sometimes get for such a "duffing bird;" man has been known to boast that he once got a sovereign. I am told, however, by a birdcatcher who had himself supplied birds to these men for duffing, that they complained of the trade growing worse and worse.

It is usually a hen which is painted, for the hen is by far the cheapest purchase, and while the poor thing is being offered for sale by the duffers, she has an unlimited supply of hemp-seed, without other food, and hemp-seed beyond a proper quantity, is a very strong stimulus. This makes the hen look brisk and bold, but if newly caught, as is usually the case, she will perhaps be found dead next morning. The duffer will object to his bird being handled on account of its timidity; "but it is timid only with strangers!" When you've had him a week, ma'am," such a birdseller will say, "you'll find him as lovesome and tame as can be." jealous lady, when asked for a "very fine Italian finch, an excellent singer," refused to buy, but offered a deposit of , if the man would leave his bird and cage, for the trial of the bird's song, for or days. The duffer agreed; and was bold enough to call on the day to hear the result. The bird was dead, and after murmuring a little at the lady's mismanagement, and at the loss he had been subjected to, the man brought away his cage. He boasted of this to a dealer's assistant who mentioned it to me, and expressed his conviction that it was true enough. The paints used for the transformation of native birds into foreign are bought at the colour-shops, and applied with camel-hair brushes in the usual way.

When canaries are "a bad colour," or have


grown a paler yellow from age, they are re-dyed, by the application of a colour sold at the colourshops, and known as "the Queen's yellow." Blackbirds are dyed a deeper black, the "grit" off a frying-pan being used for the purpose. The same thing is done to heighten the gloss and blackness of a jackdaw, I was told, by a man who acknowledged he had duffed a little; "people liked a gay bright colour." In the same way the tints of the goldfinch are heightened by the application of paint. It is common enough, moreover, for a man to paint the beaks and legs of the birds. It is chiefly the smaller birds which are thus made the means of cheating.

Almost all the "duffing birds" are hawked. If a young hen be passed off for a good singing bird, without being painted, as a cock in his singing year, she is "brisked up" with hemp-seed, is half tipsy in fact, and so passed off deceitfully. As it is very rarely that even the male birds will sing in the streets, this is often a successful ruse, the bird appearing so lively.

A dealer calculated for me, from his own knowledge, that small birds were "duffed" yearly, at an average of from to each.

As yet I have only spoken of the "duffing" of English birds, but similar tricks are practised with the foreign birds.

In parrot-selling there is a good deal of "duffing." The birds are "painted up," as I have described in the case of the greenfinches, &c. Varnish is also used to render the colours brighter; the legs and beak are frequently varnished. Sometimes a spot of red is introduced, for as of these duffers observed to a dealer in English birds, "the more outlandish you make them look, the better's the chance to sell." Sometimes there is little injury done by this paint and varnish, which disappear gradually when the parrot is in the cage of a purchaser; but in some instances when the bird picks himself where he has been painted, he dies from the deleterious compound. Of this mortality, however, there is nothing approaching that among the duffed small birds.

Occasionally the duffers carry really fine cockatoos, &c., and if they can obtain admittance into a lady's house, to display the beauty of the bird, they will pretend to be in possession of smuggled silk, &c., made of course for duffing purposes. The bird-duffers are usually dressed as seamen, and sometimes pretend they must sell the bird before the ship sails, for a parting spree, or to get the poor thing a good home. This trade, however, has from all that I can learn, and in the words of an informant, "seen its best days." There are now sometimes men thus engaged; sometimes none: and when of these men is "hard up," he finds it difficult to start again in a business for which a capital of about is necessary, as a cage is wanted generally. The duffers buy the very lowest priced birds, and have been known to get for what cost but , but that is a very rare occurrence, and the men are very poor, and perhaps more dissipated than the generality of street-sellers. Parrot duffing, moreover, is seldom carried on regularly by any , for he will often duff cigars and other things in preference, or perhaps vend really smuggled and good cigars or tobccco. Perhaps parrots, paroquets, or cockatoos, are sold in this way annually, at from to each, but hardly averaging , as the duffer will sell, or raffle, the bird for a small sum if he cannot dispose of it otherwise.

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 Title Page
Of the Street-Sellers of Second-Hand Articles
Of the Street-Sellers of Live Animals
Of the Street-Sellers of Mineral Productions and Natural Curiosities
Of the Street-Buyers
Of the Street-Jews
Of the Street-Finders or Collectors
Of the Streets of London
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the London Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Sweepers of Old, and the Climbing Boys
Of the Chimney-Sweepers of the Present Day
Of the General Characteristics of the Working Chimney-Sweepers
Sweeping of the Chimneys of Steam-Vessels
Of the 'Ramoneur' Company
Of the Brisk and Slack Seasons, and the Casual Trade among the Chimney- Sweepers
Of the 'Leeks' Among the Chimney-Sweepers
Of the Inferior Chimney-Sweepers -- the 'Knullers' and 'Queriers'
Of the Fires of London
Of the Sewermen and Nightmen of London
Of the Wet House-Refuse of London
Of the Means of Removing the Wet House-Refuse
Of the Quantity of Metropolitan Sewage
Of Ancient Sewers
Of the Kinds and Characteristics of Sewers
Of the Subterranean Character of the Sewers
Of the House-Drainage of the Metropolis as Connected With the Sewers
Of the London Street-Drains
Of the Length of the London Sewers and Drains
Of the Cost of Constructing the Sewers and Drains of the Metropolis
Of the Uses of Sewers as a Means of Subsoil Drainage
Of the City Sewerage
Of the Outlets, Ramifications, Etc., of the Sewers
Of the Qualities, Etc., of the Sewage
Of the New Plan of Sewerage
Of the Management of the Sewers and the Late Commissions
Of the Powers and Authority of the Present Commissions of Sewers
Of the Sewers Rate
Of the Cleansing of the Sewers -- Ventilation
Of 'Flushing' and 'Plonging,' and Other Modes of Washing the Sewers
Of the Working Flushermen
Of the Rats in the Sewers
Of the Cesspoolage and Nightmen of the Metropolis
Of the Cesspool System of London
Of the Cesspool and Sewer System of Paris
Of the Emptying of the London Cesspools by Pump and Hose
Statement of a Cesspool-Sewerman
Of the Present Disposal of the Night-Soil
Of the Working Nightmen and the Mode of Work