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Sparkie the Budgerigar (1954-1962)

Became famous after winning a speaking bird contest in 1958. He appeared on TV, radio, and in the press and even made his own hit records! After his death he was preserved and mounted and is one of the Great North Museum: Hancock's most treasured items. The heart-warming story of Sparkie and his owner Mattie Williams continues to fascinate the public and inspire artists and writers.

Sparkie was born and bred in the North East, starting life in an aviary in Houghton-le-Spring where his owner Mrs Mattie Williams saw him, ‘a green baby budgie, only six weeks old’, and bought him immediately. His head and bib were light yellow, his wings were yellow with black markings and his long tail feathers were a deep peacock blue. Mattie, who lived at 34 Granville Place Forest Hall, named him Sparkie as she said he was ‘A bright little spark’.

Within three weeks he was saying his first words ‘Pretty Sparkie.’ Mattie taught him his name and address ‘just in case he got lost’ and continued to teach him rhymes, ditties and new words every day.

Sparkie had a huge repertoire of words and sayings and by the time he was 3 ½ years old he had won the BBC International Cage Word Contest in July 1958. In fact he was so good he was unable to take part again as he would have won hands or should that be ‘claws’ down.

From that day Sparkie was set for stardom. He was courted by bird seed sellers and he was signed up to front the advertisement campaign for Capern’s bird seed for two years. He appeared on the BBC Tonight program with Cliff Michelmore and was also ‘interviewed’ on BBC radio by Philip Marsden, the world budgerigar expert; to listen to that interview, please click here.

His most ambitious and entertaining enterprise was to make a record for Parlophone in 1958 with Lorrae Desmond called ‘Sparkie the Fiddle.’ This hilarious record has Sparkie as an American gangster with Lorrae as his girlfriend and partner in crime. The record was so popular it was regularly requested on the radio programmes ‘Housewife’s Choice’ and ‘Family Favourites’.  To listen to it, please click here.

Sparkie lived for eight years and continued to give his owner a great deal of joy, his last words were to tell Mattie he loved her. He died in 1962 at Bournemouth, where the family had relocated.

Mattie Williams had her beloved pet bird preserved and mounted on a wooden perch by the premier taxidermists in the country, Rowland Ward of London. Since then Sparkie has toured Britain in an exhibition on his life and work, returning to the Hancock Museum in 1996, where he can still be seen on display in the Living Planet gallery.

The story of Mattie and Sparkie continues to influence and inspire historians, scientists, artists and the media. In 2009 the world-renowned composer Michael Nyman wrote a musical tribute to Sparkie.  Performed with fellow artist, Carsten Nicolai (also known as Alva Noto), the hour long show was held at the Haus der Berliner Festspiele, part of the MaerzMusik Festival in Berlin on the 26 March 2009.

The composition Sparkie: Cage and Beyond was a collaborative work based on Michael Nyman’s 1977 piece Pretty Talk, originally using material from a flexidisc giveaway single produced by the Capern’s bird seed company to help customers teach their pet birds to talk. The disc played short sentences spoken by Mattie Williams to encourage her pet, followed by replies from Sparkie himself. Carsten Nicolai contributed more material with remixes and studio recordings of Sparkie from other sources.

When Mr Nyman and Carsten Nicolai first visited the Society Office in 2008 to see Sparkie and look at our archives they were astounded to find that we had an unpublished typescript of a biography “The Life of Sparkie Williams 1954 -1962” written by Mattie. During the Berlin performance, selections from the biography were read by actress Kika Markham playing the role of Mattie culminating in a very touching finale dealing with the death of her beloved bird.

Sparkie with Natural History Society Archivist June Holmes in 2009 before their trip to Berlin.

Society Archivist, June Holmes, accompanied Sparkie on his journey to Germany and attended the premiere: “I was mesmerised by Kika Markham, she became Mattie Williams in front of our eyes.”  The production, playing to a packed theatre, closed to thunderous applause, four curtain calls and an encore. The German audience certainly enjoyed seeing and hearing our tiny feathered hero.

Sparkie continues to be one of our most popular specimens. His story has given visitors great pleasure over the years; seeing him, reading his story and hearing the recordings of his voice.

The Society is trying to raise funds for Sparkie to have his own display in the Great North Musuem: Hancock which would also enable visitors to listen to some of his recordings. To donate, please click here.

Amazingly a recording from the original BBC International Cage Word Contest still survives to hear it click here.

Check out the latest book about Sparkie

I, Sparkie World Famous Champion Talking Budgerigar by Andrew Dodds

Created by artist Andrew Dodds, I, Sparkie represents a rich and unusual archive relating to the life of a real budgerigar, Sparkie Williams, who was raised and trained in Forest Hall, Newcastle by Mrs Mattie Williams.

Between the years 1954-1958 Sparkie came to be recognised as the world’s most famous talking bird. His vocabulary included over 500 words; he won awards and a place in the Guinness Book of Records; his voice was used on a pop record and in bird seed adverts; his dialect was distinctly Geordie; and his taxidermied remains are still on display in the Great North Museum: Hancock.

This publication opens with an extensive interview with Andrew Dodds; features a previously unpublished extract from the typescript biography of Sparkie written by Mattie; includes two analyses of the ‘Sparkie phenomena’ by esteemed academics philosopher Prof. John Mullarkey and artist Prof. Robert Williams.

An exclusive CD of Sparkie learning to speak (transferred from reel to reel and abridged by Dodds) accompanies this book and it is lavishly illustrated with images from the Natural History Society’s archive.

I, Sparkie (£12 now a bargain at £5)

All funds will be assigned to the Sparkie Williams Archive Fund for future use in publicising his story.

Contact the office to purchase a copy.