They took a red hot needle and pressed it, hard, into the eyes of birds. They did it purposely, aware of the creatures cries, fully knowing the pain they caused. They did it to win contests. They did it out of a belief that the bird would sing, all the sweeter, when blinded to all but song.
It was a common practice in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, popular in Britain and other European countries. It was considered a 'sport' and prizes were given to the bird who could sing the most phrases in a set time. Vinkensport, as it is called, means literally, 'finch sport'.
Thomas Hardy wrote a poem against the sport:
Blinded ere yet a-wing
By the red-hot needle thou,
I stand and wonder how,
So zestfully thou canst sing!
But the practice of blinding the birds (substituted by having them sing while in a dark, well ventilated box) was ended because of a campaign led by veterans of the trenches who had been blinded in the war. Their campaign brought to an end a practice of unimaginable cruelty.
I found little on the web about this campaign but can only wonder at the generosity of spirit and the gentleness of soul of men who returned home, disabled, to face immense issues of rehabilitation and poverty, of unemployment and discrimination, taking up the cause of little birds. Raising a public outcry that brought an end to a barbarous practice. The precise same public who would respond with a callousness and cruelty to the veterans who returned home, having fought a war for freedom.
This story moves me.
I found out about it because it was mentioned on the television show QI and after hearing about it I wrote the 'QI Elves,' who are the people who research the show, and asked them for more information. Imagine my surprise when I opened my mailbox to find an email from 'elves'. They kindly send me information and a link to a New York Times article about the practice along with a brief mention of the service men's protest.
Disability history is replete with stories like this one. Stories of people who in extraordinary circumstances do extraordinary things.
A two line novel:
They took needles to the eyes of birds.
And blind men stopped them.
Disability history is as rich as it is often hidden. This little fact has captured me, inspired me, motivated me and most importantly, gave me a sense of true awe at the immensity of the human spirit and the generosity of the human heart.