The Terrarium. Dr Burgess Barnett

Very few books on reptiles and amphibians, let alone keeping reptiles and amphibians, were published during the middle decades of the 20th century. Even when they were published they were in print for only a short time and soon disappeared from booksellers’ shelves. One day in the late 1950s I found Hardy Reptiles and Amphibians by L.G. Payne in a bookshop. It was undated but marked as the second edition. It was clearly from the early 1950s because it had a full-page advertisement on the back (paper) cover for Robert Jackson (Naturalists) Ltd at an old address. The advertisement contained the statement, We are at present importing on Board of Trade permit for resale to zoos, schools etc, but have many species, native, and bred in captivity, for sale in the open market. In other words, postwar austerity was at it height when this version of the booklet was published and the £ sterling was being protected.

Inside the front cover was an advertisement for The Terrarium, a book by Dr Burgess Barnett (Curator of Reptiles, London Zoological Gardens). I never managed to find a copy and only later did I learn that Burgess Barnett had left London Zoo in 1938 for Rangoon, so whatever its content, it was 20 years out of date when I began my interest in reptiles and amphibians. Indeed, only recently have I acquired a copy.


These old books are interesting because they show how knowledge of keeping reptiles and amphibians has advanced and at what level such knowledge was at a particular time in history. However, I was also intrigued by who Burgess Barnett was and what happened to him. The main story of Barnett is beyond the subject of this Blog. It continues on my main zoology blog:

The book is undated but according to the catalogues was published in 1934. The publishers were Poultry World of Dorset House, Stamford Street, London. Poultry World were also the publishers of the weekly, Cage Birds, until recently.

You can download the book in .pdf format from the Download page, above or directly from here:

The Terrarium


Charcoal in Waxbill Diets

A reader of my book, Breeding Waxbills, has asked for my advice on feeding charcoal to waxbills. He saw a note in Cage & Aviary Birds to the effect that in a talk to a society, a speaker had advised against allowing access to charcoal (popular with some bird keepers) since it adsorbed vitamins and prevented their absorption by the birds. What did I advise? Well, charcoal has been included in animal diets for two reasons. First, as sufferers from traveller’s diarrhoea will testify, activated charcoal is a potent aid because it adsorbs bacterial toxins in the gut. Second, depending on the plant from which the charcoal is obtained, it contains a concentrated source of minerals including trace elements. Old experiments in which fairly large quantities of activated charcoal were included in the diet did show that some vitamins were adsorbed and were therefore unavailable for absorption. There are numerous observations of birds seeking out charcoal after bush and forest fires which suggests that on certain soils, charcoal provides a valuable source of minerals.

There are different sorts of charcoal and it is difficult to see just what sort is being talked about. What might be called ‘normal’ charcoal from burnt wood or vegetation has a very limited capacity to adsorb anything including vitamins; it does, however, contain minerals in a concentrated form that were part of the plant. Activated charcoal is a different kettle of fish; it is specially prepared to have a huge internal surface area and that is the stuff used to bind toxins when given medicinally. It is used in filtration systems (aquarium filters and gas masks, for example) to bind metals, oxidation products and the like.  Activated charcoal is sold for inclusion in livestock feed (and has been found to bind some vitamins) but whether it is this form which is sold as a supplement for birds I do not know. The adverts I have looked at do not help. However, because it may be of value in some livestock production systems, I suspect this may be the form being sold. However, it is the ‘normal’ and not the activated charcoal that birds have been known to seek in the wild presumably because of its mineral content or use in the nest (see below). Unless I was trying to get a bird over a gut infection, I would not use activated charcoal as a supplement.

Derek Goodwin’s (Estrildid Finches of the World, 1982) paragraph on charcoal is interesting:

Charcoal is recommended by some authorities. It can be purchased from food dealers or, I suppose, one can easily make it at home by burning small bits of wood, as I did when I was breeding Avadavats which, like some of the grassfinches, put charcoal in their nests. However, I have never seen any of the species I have kept eat it so I do not bother to supply it.

I followed Goodwin, so unless the black pigeon minerals I supplied contained charcoal in some form and the birds selected it while pecking over the contents of the cage floor, my waxbills nor any other species I kept had none.

The use of charcoal in nests is interesting, though. Do some birds use charcoal (even the non-activated form will have some adsorbing capacity) to purify the inside of the closed nest?

How does one tell the difference between activated and ‘normal’ charcoal? Well, you could add a little food dye to water. If you have activated charcoal, the dye will be removed leaving a clear liquid. Try different concentrations of dye and compare with some charcoal used for drawing or from a bonfire (which will have a much lower ability to adsorb dye). I would be interested to know what you find. You can e-mail me from the welcome panel to the right of this blog.

Sadly, in a number of websites I see charcoal promoted as some sort of magic potion for human and bird health. As in all nutrition, it is difficult to see what is real evidence and what is wishful thinking.

P.M. Soderberg and his books on Foreign Birds

A series of book on bird keeping I came across only decades of their publication was that by P.M. Soderberg in 1956. There were four volumes, all published by Cassell in the same year, under the generic title of Foreign Birds for Cage and Aviary: 1. Care and Management; 2. Waxbills, Weavers, Wydahs; 3. Finches; 4. Buntings, Cardinals, Lovebirds, Mannikins.


Neither I nor my friends who became interested in birds in the late 1950s had a copy nor did I ever see one in a bookshop, pet shop or library. I can only think they were in print for only a short period after publication. There are plenty of cheap copies available now through online booksellers like Abebooks and Alibris.

But who was P.M. Soderberg? He was certainly not a well-known author on birds, like Donald Risdon, for example. Cage Birds also published books at the time (Risdon’s Foreign Finches for Beginners was one of them) and I suspect Soderberg’s books got very little publicity. Google searches plus a little research in soon came up with the answer.

Percy Measday Soderberg was born in Whitstable, Kent in 1901, the son of a schoolmaster and the grandson of a Swedish sea captain. He became the highly respected Headmaster of a preparatory school in Caterham where he was known, inevitably, to the boys as ‘Sod’. He died on 6 July 1969 in Brighton. For overseas readers, I should explain that a preparatory school prepared boys (hence ‘preparatory’ in the title) for the Common Entrance Examination of the Public Schools which are actually private and not funded by the public. So being head of a ‘prep’ school was a cut socially and educationally above being head of a publicly-funded primary school. A fuller account of his life can be found at:

He wrote other books as well as the ones on birds, on tropical fish, on butterflies and on cats (which he kept at the school). Several were published years after his death by Herbert R Axelrod’s TFH (Tropical Fish Hobbyist) empire. How this came about I do not know but anybody who has followed in the American press the story of Axelrod, his business practices, the accuracy of his publications, his conviction and gaol sentence, will be aware that the explanation will be far from straightforward.

The dustjacket says:

The author was brought up from childhood with a knowledge of and deep interest in the subject, his father, also, having been a foreign bird enthusiast. Since 1907 had his first pair of foreigners, he has rarely been without some of the delightful birds he describes. He has been, for some years, a frequent contributor from this country to America on birds and other animals and has broadcast on birds and other natural history subjects in BBC programmes. 

I have not been able to find anything on publications in the USA or on his BBC programmes. If anybody has further information, they can use the email link in the panel to the right.

The illustrator of Soderberg’s bird book was Sheila Dorrell. She illustrated other book in the 1950s but I have no other information on her. NOTE ADDED on 13 September 2015. See my post of this date for an update on Sheila Dorrell.

A plate by Sheila Dorrell

A plate by Sheila Dorrell

The illustrator (line drawings) of the first volume, Care and Management, was Paxton Chadwick, on whom there is a great deal of information:

Paxton Chadwick was born in Fallowfield, Manchester and educated at Manchester Art College. He settled in Leiston, Suffolk and had joined the Communist Party of Great Britain  (CPGB) by 1935. He was the first member of the party to be elected to Suffolk County Council. In the Second World War he was commissioned in the Royal Artillery and rose to Captain in an anti-aircraft regiment. After the war he did the nature drawings for Penguin books until his death. He died in London in 1961 and the funeral address was given by John Gollan, general secretary of CPGB. His file in MI5 would, I am sure, make interesting reading. His simple plant drawings in Soderberg’s book are excellent, and I show one below.


Drawing by Paxton Chadwick

Cuttlefish Bone: Who, When and Where?

Another post from my old site:

Everybody knows that cuttlefish bone is an ideal source of calcium for cage birds, as well as for reptiles like terrapins and day-geckos. Ideal because it is calcium carbonate and not calcium phosphate and thus helps achieve a better calcium:phosphorus ratio as well as providing calcium. But as I was writing the Breeding Waxbills book, I was struck by the fact that what I did not know is when the value of cuttle bone was discovered, how it was discovered and who discovered it.

There is no mention of cuttle bone in Dr Bechstein’s book, The Natural History of Cage Birds, the third edition of which was published in German in 1812 and in English in 1841. By 1883, Dr Karl Russ is including it in his book (the translation of the 1883 2nd German edition), The Breeding and Treatment of Foreign Aviary Birds. Similarly, cuttlebone appears both in the text of George H Holden’s Canaries and Cage Birds published by the author in New York in 1883 and in his price-list at the end (he must have been a dealer as well as an author). So my guess is that it must have come into use in the middle of the 19th Century.

Cuttle bone was used as a household scouring agent as well as for mould-making in light metalwork. I would guess that its availability for those purposes led to its use for cage birds but the basic questions remain unanswered.

Has anyone out there come across the answer. If so, I would be interested to know.

French Avicultural Journal: Pieces of History from eBay

I am moving a few posts from an old blog site. Here is one of them.

Amongst some old publications I bought on eBay last year were two issues from the 1920s of a French avicultural journal. The edges and covers are blackened by soot and dust but to my great surprise, they both contained colour plates. The short title of the journal seems to be L’Oiseau. However, the full title, and French journal titles never seem to be short, is: Revue d’Histoire naturelle appliquée, Publiée par la Société Nationale d’Acclimatation de France. Deuxième Partie. Ornithologie-Aviculture. L’Oiseau. The leading light was, not surprisingly, Jean Delacour.

French 7

Colour plates from the January 1925 issue:

French 2

French 1

Amongst the articles in Volume 6, Number 9, from September 1925 is one on the Reverend Hubert Delaval Astley’s enormous collection at Brinsop Court in Herefordshire. Astley had died on 26 May 1925 (born 14 July 1860). From the accounts available, it is clear that he had married into a hugely wealthy family, as well as being independently very  wealthy indeed.  He was a descendent of the Plantagenet kings of England. The collection Delacour described was enormous with housing equal to that of a major zoo.

Astley was the author of a truly sickly (but sometimes fascinating) example of Victorian literature, My Birds in Freedom & Captivity (Dent, London, 1900).

Here is an interesting account of what happened to his Sarus Cranes:

Will people wonder that I sometimes entertain bitter feelings towards those who shoot rare aves, amounting in one instance to anger, hatred, and malice, when I record the following story about my Sarus cranes. 

They were a magnificent pair of birds, which used to walk with stately gait about the park; and, having only the primaries of one wing clipped, when they moulted and grew new feathers, soon managed to fly. I tried to catch them, but I was placed on the horns of a dilemma. Either catch them, in which case the new feathers would not be sufficiently grown to cut with any due effect, or leave the feathers to grow long enough, in which case one wouldn’t catch them. And the latter came to pass. 

So these great birds used to take flights round the park, their enormous pinions flapping along. As the feathers grew, their flights became longer, and they went farther afield. 

But they always returned home; at least they did so until they didn’t; which seems to happen with a good many things in this life! 

When at last it came about that the cranes were absent a whole twenty-four hours, search and inquiry was made for them in the immediate neighbourhood. It was reported that at a farm about three miles off they had been shot. What epithets are strong enough for that farmer who did the deed? 

The report was only too true. The cranes had settled, and were feeding with the poultry in a field close to the farmhouse. The dunder-headed farmer, who merely remarked that he thought they were “Molly Ur-rn” by which he meant herons went indoors, seized his gun, and murdered both my poor cranes then and there. Being absent at the time, I wrote to remonstrate with him, but never even received an answer to my letter, much less an apology. 

He lived near Princes Risborough, in Buckinghamshire. If any man deserved to be peppered through his gaiters, he did; and I honestly confess it would have given me the keenest satisfaction to have done it ! Exactly the same thing happened with a pair of my white storks. 

These are photographs of Astley and of Brinsop Court from that issue. Incidentally, Brinsop Court is now holiday accommodation:

French 9

French 10

French 12

French 11

The history of aviculture, from its growth, to its heyday as a pursuit of the super rich, the aristocracy and the middle classes, and an aspirational activity of the working man, would be well worth researching properly, as would its gradual and now more rapid decline. There is at least one book’s worth out there.


Since the age of 15 I have been fascinated by amphibians and reptiles, as well as, a little later, by birds and small mammals. These animals provided the insatiable desire to understand how they work and why they work the way they do. Keeping such animals in captivity was the accepted way of finding out about animals and many professional biologists who have made major contributions to their fields were enthused by the animals in their aquaria, vivaria, cages and aviaries.

Since the 1950s, knowledge of how to keep and breed small animals has advanced by leaps and bounds. From statements in books of the time that reptiles do not breed in captivity, breeding is now routine to the extent that captive-bred reptiles rather than birds abound in pet shops in Britain. Much, if not most, of that increase in knowledge came from amateur keepers, not from those working in zoos.

The general public is now far more sympathetic to reptiles and amphibians than they were since they have the opportunity to see and handle specimens at school and in zoos or specialist collections, or at home. The health and welfare of captive specimens has increased alongside an increase in veterinary participation (unheard of in the 1950s and 60s). Captive animals have increasingly become ambassadors for conservation, as well as temporary repositories for endangered species. That is all on the plus side.

On the minus side, the fancier mentality has taken hold, joining aviculture and fish-keeping in undermining the good reasons for keeping animals in captivity. The many colour forms of species forged by natural selection, are a sad travesty of the real thing being produced by a psychological state (plus a desire for profit) that I neither understand nor condone.

In this blog, I plan to cover the history of keeping small vertebrates in relation to the advances that have been made in the past century. In other words, some of the many things that interest me and have kept me interested as a sideline to my professional research interests for the past fifty-odd years.