Tuileries Garden Bird Charmers

Tuileries Garden bird charmer. Author’s collection.

Tuileries Garden bird charmers were street performers who appeared in the mid to late 1800s and enticed flocks of birds to come to them. Later, the bird charmers began appearing in other gardens or in public green spaces, such as the Champ de Mars. One of the earliest of the bird charmers at the Tuileries Garden was Edward du Peyron, “an old sub-prefect … [whose son] long continued his practices [of bird charming] in Diane Alley.”[1]

“[When Peyron arrived at the garden, ring-doves] left the branches of the tall chestnut trees and flew from the center of the grass plats, and … [sparrows] came in swarms from the smallest shrubs, and all followed him until he came to a standstill. The boldest at once alighted upon his shoulders, upon one of his outstretched arms, or one of his fingers, and took from his hand or lips, the food that he offered them, while the others arranged in a line upon the iron railings, or hopping about on the ground, or sustaining themselves in the air by rapid flaps of theirs, impatiently awaited their turn.”[2]

In 1868, an American author and journalist, Edward King, reported on another bird charmer at Tuileries Garden. This bird charmer was an old man, “clad in a clean white coat, with a little bag at his waist, and with myriads of doves and sparrows around him.”[3] King reported that  “[he] calls a birdlet by name, and the little one comes to him piping joyously.”[4] This bird charmer operated so close to the Tuileries Palace that King said Napoleon III could have easily looked out the window and seen him in action.

Spectators generally formed a circle around the bird charmer. Just like the birds did not fear the bird charmer, they also did not fear the bystanders. However, this sometimes resulted in ill-advised bystander deciding to attract the birds with bread. Bird charmers were usually unhappy if a bystander did so because it disrupted their performance. Furthermore, if the bystander frightened the birds and they flew off, the bird charmer had no choice but to leave and return the following day.

In 1886, a correspondent of the Philadelphia Telegraph visited Paris and filed this report:

“I witnessed the other day one of the celebrated sights of Paris of which I had often heard before, but never before seen. Crossing the Tuileries Garden on one of the late mild days, my attention was attracted by an intense commotion among the sparrows which abound … There I saw the cause of their agitation – the well-known bird charmer of the Tuileries Garden.”[5]

In this case, the bird charmer was a 30-year-old woman who the Philadelphia correspondent described as “pale, with very black hair, dressed in the deepest mourning, and wearing no bonnet.”[6] Hundreds of fearless birds surrounded her with some landing near her feet and others flying around her head. When she held out a piece of bread, “three or four would hover around it with rapid whirring wings, like hummingbirds around a flower, some perching on her fingers, while others would peck at the coveted morsel on the wing.”[7] When she threw crumbs into the air, the swift ones caught them mid-air and the crumbs that fell to the ground were quickly eaten by hundreds of hopping, hungry birds. As she walked slowly through the gardens, the birds followed her fluttering, chattering, and singing. When she sat, they perched all over her. In addition, this 1876 bird charmer never spoke to any of the bystanders and never paid attention to anyone or anything but the birds. The only thing known about her was that every day during winter time she came to feed the birds in the garden.

Another Tuileries Garden bird charmer of 1868 was described as an old gentleman who wore a “clean but snuff-colored dress, [and] who every now and then comes to see and feed the birds.”[8] Supposedly, the moment he appeared the twittering and screams of delight from the birds started. One journalist reported “amidst the trees of the Tuileries, the birds swarm about his head, sit on his shoulders and hands, while others describe a thousand revolutions around his head.”[9] This bird charmer threw just a few crumbs, but all the same, an amazing scene occurred with birds surrounding him and when he took his leave, he kissed his hand to the birds and walked toward the river.

Tuileries Garden bird charmer. Public domain.

In January 1869 an English newspaper journalist reported on the latest gossip in France and noted that most English visitors to Paris had probably seen the “celebrated bird charmer,” who they described was a delight for children and anyone who promenaded in the garden. The journalist stated:

“[The bird charmer] has only to stop near the flower-beds or grass plots, when immediately the little sparrows, the most intractable, perch on his finger. The wood pigeons leave the trees to flutter around him; and the whistling blackbirds do not disdain to take crumbs of bread from his lips and hands. He is followed by crowds to witness his performance, and not a few envy the mysterious power of the charmer. But, though, he long ‘stood alone in his glory,’ he has now many imitators. Indeed, not a few women and children now have the same power of charming that he has hitherto enjoyed exclusively. Almost any day, more than ten of these ‘charmers’ may be counted at the Tuileries playing with the pigeons and sparrows, calling and sending them away, taking pleasure in being pecked by them.”[10]

In 1885, Scientific American reported on another Tuileries Garden bird charmer. This bird charmer was a jolly man identified as Mr. Bour. He came every day arriving just as the Tuileries guards opened the gates. Bour had a black moustache (probably dyed), “twinkling eyes,” and “rosy cheeks.” He kept his bread in his pockets, which he scattered across the ground.

“They [the birds] loved him and … they flew with merry chirps toward the bench on which he sat; In an instant, quickly familiarized, they perched upon his shoulders, squatted upon his knees, ran along his arms, and even climbed upon his head, like the pigeons of St. Mark, jealous of the favorite that had just taken with its bill the crumb held between his lips.”[11]

People noted that Bour was “magical” and street boys thought it “astonishing” to watch the relationship Bour had with the birds. He was so popular, when he died, one newspaper reported on his death and noted that he died of “inflammation of the lungs through the Siberian cold, while in the exercise of his good mission.”[12]

Le Petit Journal showing M. Pol in 1911 in the Tuileries Garden. Author’s collection.

Perhaps, one of the most well-known of the bird charmers began visiting the Tuileries Garden and charming birds in 1890. His name was Henri Pol. Pol was much remembered by tourists and reported as one of the must-see-sights of Paris. He was a tall elderly gentleman who retired from the post office and could be found wending his way down the Avenue de l’Opéra every day towards the Tuileries Garden around lunchtime and near dusk. He always dressed in a russet-brown coat and nodded to those who recognized him.

At the garden he was “surrounded by a ring of interested and amused spectators, with half a hundred sparrows hopping about his feet, fluttering his face, perching on his hands and head.”[13] About fifty of the sparrows he named and when he called them, the birds answered readily:

“[H]e will hold out his hand with some crumbs between his finger and thumb. Like so many children the birds will hop around, looking up into his face, jerking their tiny heads in perky, inquisitive fashion from side to side, plainly waiting for his lips to open, on the alert to catch their name.”[14]

Beyond naming some of the birds and feeding the birds from his hands and lips, Pol taught the sparrows some tricks. For instance, he taught them to dance and they took their cues from Pol. He would shuffle his feet and make a few steps towards the birds or begin a waltz, and they would do likewise. In fact, “they actually seem[ed] to pair off into couples and spin around like partners in a ball-room.”[15] One journalist also noted:

“A casual observer of the performance cannot fail, however, to notice two remarkable facts, and be convinced, since in this case ‘seeing is believing.’ … There is no doubt that each individual bird recognises the name by which it is called; and although sparrows to the average man are so much alike that you cannot tell one from another, M. Pol recognises each of his numerous pets by some peculiarity particular to it.”[16]

After fourteen years of experience with the birds, Pol was named an honored member of the “Society for the Protection of Landscapes.” He also contributed a lengthy paper to the Institute of Zoological Psychology, a society founded to study the intelligence of animals. In the paper, he stated in part:

“In short, I find the sparrows possessed of the spirit of observation, reasoning, judgment, memory, and attachment, and while they are cautious they also display the greatest confidence in anyone with whom they become familiar and whom they learn to trust. Finally, what I regard as most remarkable is the readiness with which each bird responds to its name the moment I call it, either rising to my hand to take a crumb or flying after the crumb if I throw it on the ground?”[17]

One twentieth century magazine did a 5-page write-up on Pol in 1904. They correspondent concluded his article by stating that as he and Pol were walking away Pol recognized a sparrow he called Père François. It was hopping 5 feet behind him, and he stooped, picked up the bird, and talked tenderly to it for a few minutes.

“Then he placed Père François on the ground with strict injunctions to go off to its nest. But only after he had again picked it up, smoothed its feathers, and given it a few crumbs did the sparrow obey, and then only with reluctance, for it alighted on a near statue and watched our departure. ‘Only birds,’ remarked M. Pol, ‘only birds; but to me — well, they are my family — little ones, with brains that understand, and so — I love them.’”[18]

References:

  • [1] Scientific American: Supplement v. 19 (New York: Munn and Company, 1885), p. 7780.
  • [2] Ibid., p. 7780–81.
  • [3] E. King, My Paris: French Character Sketches (Boston: Loring, 1868), p. 149.
  • [4] Ibid.
  • [5] M. M. Ballou, Ballou’s Monthly Magazine v. 43-44 (Boston: Thomes & Talbot, 1876), p. 497.
  • [6] Ibid.
  • [7] Ibid.
  • [8] Arthur’s Illustrated Home Magazine v. 31-32 (Philadelphia, 1868), p. 165.
  • [9] Ibid.
  • [10] Shrewsbury Chronicle, “Gossip From France,” January 22, 1869, p. 2.
  • [11] Scientific American: Supplement, p. 7780.
  • [12] Ibid.
  • [13] The Wide World Magazine: An Illustrated Monthly of True Narrative, Adventure, Travel, Customs, and Sport v. 12 (London: G. Newness, 1904), p. 479.
  • [14] ibid., p. 480.
  • [15] ibid., p. 481.
  • [16] ibid., p. 482.
  • [17] ibid., p. 483.
  • [18] Ibid.

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