Saturday, 12 November 2011

Part 2: Domestication

One of the minor unexplained oddities of human beings is our fondness for keeping pets. Wherever you go, and in every society, you will generally find someone, often but by no means always a child, with a pet animal of some kind. Perhaps the world leaders in the variety of species kept are probably the native peoples of the Amazon – everything from parrots to tapirs has been reported as being kept in the villages. This happens even though the same animal may be hunted for food, or regarded as potentially dangerous (bears for example). True pets or companion animals are not the same as work animals such as hunting dogs, which may be quite badly treated. When people first started keeping them is not at all clear, but for some reason it is more common outside Africa. Given that we now know that non-African modern humans are at least part Neanderthal, I wonder – did the practise actually start with them? Contrary to what may be thought, hunter-gatherer societies are just as fond of keeping pets as settled agricultural ones, so there is no lifestyle objection to that idea.

However that may be, the first domesticated birds were raised for food. In Europe, these were the Rock Dove (whose squabs were a major delicacy into the Middle Ages) and the greylag Goose. Domestic chickens may have been domesticated earlier, probably in Thailand, but they did not reach Europe until around 400 BC. At first, chickens were kept not so much for food as for the ‘sport’ of cockfighting. The sight of rival males, resplendent in their finery, fighting furiously to show off appealed to Celtic aristocrats, who did much the same in real life, and they grew so obsessed that the Romans called them the Galli – the Chicken people. This was later worn down to Gaul, as any reader of Asterix knows.

Old English Game - probably the closest to the original Gallic chicken
There are many frescoes and other paintings from early times showing smaller birds being kept in cages, for their song for the most part. The Romans also imported parrots – probably the Indian Ring Necked Parrakeet – from India, and other birds from Africa. At that time though it is likely that they would have all been wild caught birds rather than true domesticated ones.

How the canary came to be domesticated is not at all clear. The first reference to canaries being kept for their song dates back to the 16th century, but at that time it is likely that most were wild caught. Allegedly a Spanish ship carrying some was shipwrecked near the Italian coast, and the escaped birds were the foundation stock from which all later canaries were bred. Whatever the truth of this, I wonder whether the actual techniques of breeding cage birds were obtained by the Spanish from their contacts with Asia, where cage birds were first bred by the Chinese and the skills then distributed along the Asian trade routes.

Another mystery is why they were domesticated and not other finches, as many more easily obtained small birds had been caught and kept since ancient times. I wonder whether, as an island endemic, it had weaker anti-predator instincts than continental relatives, and so was more likely to settle down to breed in the primitive conditions they would have been maintained in at first. Its adaptations to a fairly arid environment might also have helped, as animals from such environments tend to take the first opportunity to breed when food resources are at all available, even if inadequate. It is surprising how many of the world’s most common pets come from such habitats – the Syrian Hamster, Gerbil, Budgerigar, and Leopard Gecko are all commonly kept and all come from aridland environments.

As soon as birds were being bred in any numbers, a variety of mutations began to appear. The earliest forms were probably those with reduced or abnormal melanin production in their feathers, resulting in the familiar yellow canary of most books. However, a variety of other forms eventually appeared, and some of these I will cover next time.

Images from Wkipedia,

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