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Early February 2021 the Paris City Council agreed to end the live bird market operating on the Île de la Cité, a stone’s throw from the Paris Prefecture of Police and the Hôtel-Dieu. The closure answers the calls of animal rights activists who consider the market a cruel and archaic operation. The closure not only addresses the concerns of bird trafficking, inhumane conditions and health issues surrounding live markets, but also falls in line with the planned a €5 million renovation from 2023 to 2025.
Affected would be the 13 remaining licensed bird vendors – only seven of which still actively participate. Of particular concern was the sale of endangered species and goldfinches – highly prized songbirds that could reach a price of €150. But this concern is nothing new, as documents spanning over 100 years attest.
The Marché aux Oiseaux epitomized old Paris. The history of the Sunday bird market is woven in and around that of the famous flower market, now known as the Marché aux Fleurs Reine Elizabeth II – a Paris fixture since 1809. A decree from Napoleon in 1808 ceded the land comprising the Île de la Cité to the City of Paris and a decision was made to move the flower and shrub market previously on the Quai de la Mégisserie to a vacant lot bordering the new Quai Desaix (part of the current Quai de la Corse).
The market opened on Wednesday August 16, 1809. While the flower and bird market is basically located on the same plot of land, the island it sits on has changed. The flower market was replaced in 1873 during Paris’s building boom. Baron Haussmann’s radical opening up of the Île removed a centuries-old maze of roads and bridges that linked the two sides of the Seine.
On August 15, 1874, the contemporary publication L’Univers Illustré described the new flower market on the Île de la Cité: “The shelters are all built on a uniform model. Cast iron columns support roofs with a graceful profile, the tops and angles of which are tastefully decorated.” However, the iconic Wallace fountain is the only vestige of the Belle Époque still remaining. In 1905, the flowers and feathers of the market were ruffled once again as the square became a huge building site. The Paris Metro was built through the island – and an entrance to the Cité station was created.
Before the disruption of the First World War, architect Jean-Camille Formigé designed the market shelters and pavilions we know today. A description dated July 13, 1914 read, “The main framework of these shelters will be assembled and wrought iron. The central promenade will be covered by wired glass, the lower sides by zinc. The irons will be painted.” But Formigé’s work wouldn’t be completed until the mid 1920s.
The Marché aux Fleurs and the Sunday Marché aux Oiseaux came back to roost, landing in the commercial courtyard that the architect had envisioned – a small square named Place Louis Lépine – after Louis Jean-Baptiste Lépine, the innovative Préfet de Police from 1893 to 1913.
Public opinion regarding the welfare of our feathered friends has waxed and waned through the years, but the prevailing romantic opinion was that the market of captive songbirds was a charming feature in the heart of Paris.
When the bird market first appeared in 19th century, the passion for collecting birds was nothing new. The desire for exotic birds is recorded back to antiquity. Due to improved lines of communication in the 1800s, trips taken oversees by merchants, and the creation of zoological gardens, Parisians could see species they had only ever seen stuffed in museum display cases. This gave rise to a not insignificant branch of industry called the bird trade. Once almost exclusively confined to French seaports, the bird trade quickly sprang up in the French capital. There were Parisian bird markets in various districts, along the Quai Gesvres, the Quai Mégisserie, and one near the Louvre. Advertisements in the January 1898 Paris Hachette revealed that there were other bird markets in Paris – the Boulevard Raspail on Thursdays and a Sunday Market on the Rue Lobineau. But today it is the open-air Sunday market under long shelters on the Place Louis Lépine that is affected.
In the Dickens’ Dictionary of Paris (1883), the unconventional handbook bearing the long-dead British writer’s name, there is a description of the Marché aux Oiseaux.
“In this square situated in the Île de la Cité, birds of many and various kinds are sold every Sunday. …It would be useless to enumerate the different kinds of birds that are here sold. Those who like the chirp of the canary, or the talk of the parrot may easily satisfy their wishes. Besides birds there are also bird cages and other articles needed for bird welfare. Cocks and hens of choice broods are bought here for sale, so also are rabbits, pigeons of different colors, guinea pigs, white mice, and silk worms.”
In 1885 Parisians were concerned about the expensive and exotic species taking precedence over domestic breeds. The 19th-century publication l’Éleveur, from that year, read on BNF Gallica says:
“Year after year, the number of bird enthusiasts grows, not just in France but in our neighboring countries like Holland and Belgium, Germany and England. The urge for luxury pervades all classes of society. The public is showing increasing difficulty in choosing the species intended to be bred in captivity. They tend to abandon our native birds, generally dressed in a modest livery, for birds remarkable for the intricacy of their forms or the beauty of their plumage.”
The writer continues in this tone, saying that the goldfinches and the bullfinches and the merle – the blackbird – with its harmonious song, were well out of fashion and the sansonnet – the starling – had almost entirely disappeared from the shops where it was once unavoidable. As for the wild canary – it only retained its popularity “by constantly changing, by adopting the most bizarre adornments, or being dyed the most improbable colors.” Bird tinting would be a practice that continued for decades.
As early as 1895 an environmentalist named Henri de Parville spoke of the decimation of French farms and forest in the Revue Pedagogique. His essay continued to rail against the law that protected thousands of birds in the Paris bird market. In May of 1895 he and his colleagues counted the market’s caged birds. There were over than 200 nightingales, more than 2000 finches, chickadees and other perching songbirds for sale. All these birds, de Parville said, had been captured a few days before. De Parville likened the bird sellers to poachers. Species like the nightingales, in particular, could not live in captivity. He prophesied their quick death.
Politicians took sentiments like Henri de Parville’s to heart. In 1896 a new law banning the sale of small birds was drawn up only to be repealed months later. A synopsis of what occurred was written up in the December 31, 1896 issue of Le Matin. This article was biased in favor of the Marché aux Oiseaux from an aesthetic standpoint, saying the date of the bird ban was “funereally inscribed on the memory of many bird lovers in Paris.” On August 8th, 1896 the Prefect of Police prohibited at all times, “the hunting… the capture, the peddling and the sale of small birds whose size is lower than that of quail, thrush or blackbird.”
The journalist continued, “Since that time, the bird market that is held, as we know, every Sunday on the Quai aux Fleurs, was speechless or rather without songs of nightingales, warblers, goldfinches, bullfinches, linots, etc. etc.” Police officers mercilessly seized the birds and drew up official reports. Based on the arrest of one Monsieur Picard and the seizure of his cage of three live robins and citing a precedent set back in 1844, Judge Planteaux acquitted Mr. Picard adding,
“The picturesque bird market, so sad and so abandoned for some time, will therefore recover, next Sunday, its animation and its former prosperity… the sale of small live birds is without restriction.”
Bird prices listed in 1898 are as follow: Serins finches aka wild canaries went for two francs 50 centimes for a pair. Dutch canaries were 12, 15, 30 francs and more. Sansonnets – starlings – one for 75. Parrots sold for five-20 francs. Surprisingly those who “spoke” had no additional value. “Mandarin-diamonts” – Zebra finches – sold for six francs per pair. Japanese nightingales – six francs each. Little birds from the “Islands” were offered from one to 10 francs. The warbling and the sight of these iridescent songbirds must have been a delight to the senses. The most expensive bird sold in Paris was the suimanga, a sunbird from Africa, which was worth in 1898 currency from 150- 250 francs.
The fluctuating opinion of the sale of birds was made apparent from publications of that time. In 1898 it was the sale of country birds that was banned, most likely because it meant they had been hunted or poached. Included in that list were siskins, warblers, nightingales, robins and bullfinches. Oddly, exceptions were made for crows, magpies and other chatty birds. Only 15 years earlier the press was cawing that domestic birds had taken a secondary place to the exotic ones.
Authorities urged the bird-keepers to sell their birds “guaranteed” – to affirm their origin, sexes and age. As a sign of guarantee they would imprint their mark on the body or on the wing of the bird. “This mark facilitates complaints if necessary.”
A 1930s article in L’Image magazine described the market as “a small market, honest and clean, family friendly, tidy, tucked away between the Seine and the Prefecture of Police, somewhat private in character.” Appealing to bird lovers the author continues to describe the canary specialist as “a small man wearing a foreman’s bowler with a three-fold scarf around the neck.” The man waxed poetic his specialty, the harzer canary. “All my birds have been singing this noble song for three generations,” he said. His bright yellow birds produced all the notes that were possible to play on a violin.
In October 1941, when Parisians had other troubles on their minds than birds, a front page report in Paris-Soir titled “Marché aux oiseaux – bat en retraite” (The Bird Market – In Retreat), written by René J. Piguet, read: “Who can predict that the poor birds, whether from the islands or the metropolis would also be victims of the restrictions.” Birds, it seems, did not understand that rationing and the supply of birdseed was so thin that the end of the bird trade was in sight. Pet birds were just as popular as ever but they were impractical. Birds already in hand before the onset of World War II traveled with their owners during the exodus or were entrusted to a neighbor. The esoteric bird market was giving way to the more essential market of farm animals, at that time monopolizing half of the Marché aux Fleurs. A telling quote read: “We are in the era of the practical, the urgent, and the edible at all costs and yet you guarantee me that your bird can sing?”
“M. Hector,” a goldfinch seller interviewed for this wartime story advised not putting one’s new purchase in the rain lest you find your “painting” was no longer worth anything. The slippery M. Hector then disappeared into the back room of a café where, using his two bottles of red and yellow dyes, he transformed a common sparrow into a goldfinch.
Regarding the fate of the Marché aux Oiseaux, one could be tempted to say plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose. However in 2021 with the noble push for animal rights, the dwindling demand for caged birds, and the worldwide concern about live markets, the Marché aux Oiseaux will not rise like a phoenix from the ashes this time. We may be fascinated with these clever and bright birds but they no longer need to be our captives. The Marché aux Oiseaux will become a chapter of Paris’s colorful history.
Here’s a poem written by Jacques Prévert shortly after the end of World War II.
For You My Love
I went to the market of birds
And I bought birds
I went to the market of flowers
And I bought flowers
I went to the market of ironwork
And I bought chains
And then I went to the market of slaves
And I looked for you
But I did not find you there
Lead photo credit : Le Marché aux Oiseaux, quai aux Fleurs, Paris. Photo credit © Géniaux, Paul, Photographe. Entre 1895 et 1905. Musée Carnavalet, Histoire de Paris. PH135 CC0 Paris Musées / Musée Carnavalet