(Serinus canaria domestica)

FUN FACT

The Canary bird is named after the Canary Islands, not the other way around. The Latin name for the Canary Islands (Canariea Insulae) translates as "The Island of Dogs," originally referring to the very large dogs bred by the natives of those islands.

When most of us think of the canary, we think of a cheerful, bright yellow bird in a decorative cage.  In reality, this common canary (Serinus canaria domestica) is the domesticated cousin of the “true” Atlantic Canary (Serinus canaria), native to the Canary Islands just off the northwest coast of Africa.

Spanish sailors first brought the canary to Europe in 1478, where it was prized among those wealthy enough to afford one for the male canary’s silvery, twittering song.  The brilliant yellow color that we associate with modern domestic canaries is the result of a genetic mutation that suppresses the melanin in the birds’ feathers, effectively “erasing” the dark banding and streaking found on wild birds.  For the next century, the Spaniards controlled availability of canaries by only selling male birds to the rest of Europe.  When a shipping accident in the 16th Century allowed a shipment of the birds to escape to Elba Island in the Tuscan Archipelago, the Italians were quick to take advantage of the situation.  Soon canaries were being bred and sold all over the world outside of Spanish control. 

The ready availability of domestic canaries made them ideal candidates when, in the late 1890’s, pioneering physiologist John Scott Haldane recommended the use of small, warm-blooded animals as “sentinels” for the build-up of toxic gases in coal mines.  A build-up of toxic gases following “firedamp” and coal dust explosions was known to be what killed most miners, but reliable gas detectors were hard to come by.  The flame of a “safety lamp” could be used to detect rising levels of methane and “chokedamp” (a combination of gaseous nitrogen and carbon dioxide), but no mechanical means of measuring carbon monoxide existed.  With their small body size and faster metabolism, animals such as mice and canaries would succumb to a build-up of carbon monoxide more quickly than a human.  Canaries came to be preferred over mice because the birds more visibly demonstrated signs of distress in the presence of even small quantities of carbon monoxide gas.  This few minutes of warning gave miners time to put on protective gas masks, or even to leave the mines entirely.  In their capacity as sentinels, canaries saved the lives of thousands of miners during the nearly 100 years they were in use.

Today, we still use the phrase “the canary in a coal mine” when we talk about species who are biological indicators for the health of an ecosystem – species who, like the canary for the miners, begin to suffer and die as an early sign that something is wrong.  Changes in the function, health, or population of these indicator species can reveal such things as the accumulation of  pollutants (lamp shell brachiopods), changes in overall air quality (milkweed and some strains of white pine are sensitive to ozone), and the threat of rising ocean temperatures (corals and marine fishes worldwide).

Distribution

Pet homes worldwide.

Habitat

A clean cage with lots of toys and ample room to flit about.

Diet

Mixed seeds and fresh greens.

Breeding

Domestic Canaries are usually housed in pairs to control the genetics of resulting offspring. Females begin laying when exposed to at last 12 hours of daylight -- something which can happen naturally, or be artificially induced with selective lighting. The female lays 4-5 eggs on successive days, and incubates for two weeks. During that time, she never leaves the nest, and depends on her mate to bring her food. Chicks leave the nest about 18 days after hatch, and the parents continue to feed them for up to a week afterward.

Status

Not Under Threat (Least Concern)

At the Aviary

Visit the Canaries in The Canary's Call.