Meet Radcliffe

This article was written by Brittany Cox

Meet Radcliffe: he has real feet, wings, beak, body – the makings of a living bird, but without the squishy inner bits. They were traded over a hundred years ago for clockwork.

Meet Radcliffe

The scarlet tanager is an American songbird, which belongs to the cardinal family and is known for its red plumage and black tail and wings. Attempting to identify the old relative at my desk proved quite challenging.

Radcliffe, as I named him, was faded, dusty, and the light in his once bright eyes had dimmed with age. He no longer resembled his vibrant cousins. After sending the Audubon Society some images, I was thrilled to learn his true identity and imagined him singing in the lush canopies of South America.

What a strange thing, to outlive and out sing all others of his species, for as a mechanized bird he will go on singing for decades to come.

The scarlet tanager, alive and immortalized

Repairing Radcliffe was no easy feat. Among the various faults in the mechanism, a section of the clockwork for commencing and ceasing the performance was missing and the bellows for voicing Radcliffe needed recovering. Zephyr, a fine parchment-like sheet of pressed goat intestine, was used to recover the bellows. The paper valves, allowing and restricting the internal air flow between the bellows chambers, were replaced with a brass and plasticine system, which I found to be the most fool-proof method.


After restoring the start/stop function to the mechanism, there was one other matter to sort out before Radcliffe was ready for his performance. He had lost his tail feathers over the years, so I made him a sort of toupée…


Using brass paper clips, I made a little ‘clip on’ tail that can be easily applied or removed without damaging his body.

There was a time when Radcliffe sang just for me; now he is singing for all of you.

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