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|
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, www.fifecanary.org