This 140-Year-Old Metal Bird is the Origin of the Phrase ‘Watch the Birdie!’

Professional wet plate photographer Markus Hofstätter is obviously fond of historical photography processes. But his latest video doesn’t actually involve taking any photos; instead, he’s restoring a 140-year-old chirping brass bird that is thought to be the origin of the phrase “watch the birdie.”

“‘Watch the Birdie’ – thats what my parents told me, to make sure I look into the camera before they took a photo of me,” recalls Hofstätter on his blog. “I guess lots of you guys remember this saying. With the renovation of a 140-year-old historic brass birdie, I show you the origin of this phrase.”

According to this source, the earliest known instance of this kind of photographic tool can be traced back to 1879, a scant 40 years after the invention of the Daguerreotype. The metal bird would “chirp” whenever a pneumatic bulb was squeezed, helping to capture the attention of young children and adults alike while the photographer took the photo with their other hand.

This is what Hofstätter has here; well, a “newer” version called a “toy bird songster,” which was apparently created in the 1920s. In this video he brings it back to life by cleaning it, 3D printing a missing part, attaching it to the front of his wet plate camera, and using water to help the birdie sing once again:

The final product, attached to Markus’ wet plate camera

Unfortunately, due to the rising number of COVID cases in Austria, Hofstätter had to postpone actually using the birdie on a real wet plate shoot, but he plans to do this and create another video once things are looking up.

In the meantime, check out the restoration video up top to learn more about this piece of photo history and hear it come back to life.

Image credits: All photos by Markus Hofstätter and used with permission.