Monday, 7 November 2011

The story of the canary

Domesticated canary - the 'Gloster'
From ancient times, people have kept a variety of small birds as companion animals, usually for their song. Today a huge variety of species are kept, but probably the commonest is still the first to be truly domesticated, the canary. As they have been kept for so long, their story is entwined with the origins of genetics, conservation legislation, even health and safety. The ‘miners canary’ is still proverbial (at least in English) as a reference to some event which is a portent of far more serious disasters to come, and these days is most often heard referring to some environmental change heralding climate change induced catastrophes. This series of posts will investigate the natural and unnatural history of the canary, and some reflections along the way on its implications for the world as a whole.

Part 1: What is a canary, exactly?

Canaries are so familiar as cage birds that people forget that they actually occur in the wild. They are endemic to the Canary Islands, from which they take their name. The name of the islands, on the other hand, actually derived from the Latin Canis, ‘dog’ – apparently the Romans were impressed with the local breeds when they discovered the islands.
Juvenile wild Atlantic Canary
The wild canary is a member of a widespread, but primarily African, group of finches called the serins. The ‘official’ name of the wild birs is the Atlantic Canary, Serinus canaria. The 30 or more species seem to have fairly similar ecologies, with a habitat of open scrubland and grasses, and making nests in bushes and feeding on grass seeds in particular. The young are usually raised on unripe grass seeds and insect s. One species, the European Serin Serinus serinus, is widespread in Europe and most years at least one or two arrive in the UK. They have sometimes attempted to breed in this country, but there has been no real signs of a true colonisation, at least so far.
European Serin
The serins are a complicated group, and several sub-groups have been defined. Some at least may be closer to other Eurasian finches such as the European Goldfinch Carduelis than to other ‘official’ serins.

The wild bird is not especially colourful, being a greenish-brown bird with darker streaks, especially in the female. They tend to move around in flocks like many small birds, as this provides more protection against predators such as sparrow hawks. They nest in loose colonies as well, with each pair defending a territory in the immediate vicinity of the nest.

Whether the wild canary was originally confined to the Canary islands is unclear, but today it occurs on almost all of the main islands, and also on the Azores and on Madeira. The wild population is estimated at around 150-160,000 pairs, and is listed by the IUCN as Least Concern. They are often associated with human habitation, as are many other species of serin.

The serins tend to cope well in agricultural habitats, and almost all the species are listed as of Least Concern. One exception is the Yellow-Throated Serin, Serinus flavigula, which appears to be confines to a small area of eastern Ethiopia. Part of the reason for its status is that unlike many of its relatives it is intolerant of human disturbance. The population may be under 1,000 individuals – worryingly low for a small passerine, as the typical lifespan of such birds in the wild is probably only a few years at most.

Next time: how the canary was domesticated.

(images from wikipedia)

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