In the Flanders region of Belgium, a favorite pastime among the old Dutch-speaking folks is raising and training the common chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs)—a small passerine bird about an ounce in weight, with a bright blue-grey cap and rust-red underparts. The males of the species are the most sought after because of their brighter plumage and stronger voice, which makes them a popular caged songbird.
The chaffinch breed between spring and early summer. During this period, the male chaffinch tries to attract females by making short 2-3-second-long mating calls. The chaffinch song varies from region to region, just like human dialects, and this is a source of much fascination and research among scientists. Spring is also the time for vinkensport, or vinkenzetting (finch sitting), a 400-year-old sport where chaffinch breeders compete against one another on who could make their bird sing the most.
Vinkensport participants in Beernem, Belgium. Photo: Thomas Dekiere/Shutterstock.com
The contest usually takes place in the open, such as along a road. Competitors line up their wooden bird cages, each housing a single male finch, keeping the cages about six feet apart. The owner or the trainer will sit in front of the box and keep track of the number of times the bird sings using chalk marks on a long wooden rod. Only songs that terminate with the characteristic susk-e-wiet are counted. The bird with the most calls in an hour is declared the winner.
For many, vinkensport may sound like a pleasant sport, boring even, but competition is cut-throat. In the past, breeders used to blind the birds with hot needles because a bird without visual distraction sang better. This practice was outlawed in the 1920s, thanks to a campaign led by blind World War I veterans. The famous English author and poet Thomas Hardy also decried the practice through the poem “The Blinded Bird”.
So zestfully canst thou sing?
And all this indignity,
With God’s consent, on thee!
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how
So zestfully thou canst sing!
Resenting not such wrong,
Thy grievous pain forgot,
Eternal dark thy lot,
Groping thy whole life long;
After that stab of fire;
Enjailed in pitiless wire;
Resenting not such wrong!
Who hath charity? This bird.
Who suffereth long and is kind,
Is not provoked, though blind
And alive ensepulchred?
Who hopeth, endureth all things?
Who thinketh no evil, but sings?
Who is divine? This bird.
Today, the birds are kept in small, darkened boxes, which is cruel all the same. Hot needles are replaced by selective breeding, high-protein diets, and stimulation with music and recordings of the bird’s song. Some breeders install artificial lights in the aviary to simulate spring, so that the birds begin to sing sooner, which gives them ample time to perfect their song by June, when the championship takes place.
The common chaffinch. Photo: hedera.baltica/Flickr
Listen to the common chaffinch sing in the above video.
There have been allegations of doping too, especially after one chaffinch croaked his throat dry with an unprecedented 1,278 tweets in a single hour. The bird’s handler was accused of injecting the bird with testosterone, which increases the bird’s stamina and his singing abilities.
To reduce the possibility of cheating, participants not only keep track of their own birds but that of their neighbors’ as well. During one such contest, some participants became suspicious when one chaffinch sang the exact number of susk-e-wiets three times in a row. When the judge ordered the cage opened, inside was discovered a mini CD player.
The history of the sport can be traced back to the 1590s among Flemish merchants. By the late 19th century, vinkenzetting’s popularity diminished, but it saw a resurgence after the First World War. As of 2007, there was an estimated 13,000 vinkeniers breeding 10,000 birds every year. The Flemish bird protection society claims that many of the birds currently in captivity are wild birds trapped illegally. In 2002, the society scored a victory when it successfully filed and won a case at the Belgian Constitutional Court preventing the government from relaxing a 1979 European Union law banning the capture of wild finches. But then, in 2017, to their dismay, the unusual sport was included in the register of Flemish cultural heritage.
Photo: Mya Verleye/Twitter
“This is a slap in the face for all those interested in the protection of birds in Flanders,” said Jan Rodts, director of the Flemish Bird Protection Society.
The common chaffinch was once very popular in Europe, as one 19th-century publisher wrote—”To parents and guardians plagued with a morose and sulky boy, my advice is, buy him a chaffinch.” The bird was trapped and sold in such large numbers that towards the end of the 19th century, their numbers dropped significantly in London parks.
The common chaffinch is still a popular pet bird in some European countries, and aside from Belgium, it is also bred and pitted against one another in the Caribbean and South American countries such as Guyana, Trinidad, Suriname and Brazil.
Photo: Donarreiskoffer/Wikimedia Commons
# Dan Bilefsky, One-Ounce Belgian Idols Vie for Most Tweets Per Hour, https://www.nytimes.com/2007/05/21/world/europe/21finch.html
# Willem C Verboom, Bird vocalizations: a female Common chaffinch song, https://www.researchgate.net/publication/335611093_Bird_vocalizations_a_female_Common_chaffinch_song_Fringilla_coelebs
# Finch-singing contests recognised as cultural heritage, http://www.flanderstoday.eu/current-affairs/finch-singing-contests-recognised-cultural-heritage
# Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Common_chaffinch#