A little history of canary birds

The humble canary is the most popular pet bird in the world out the 8,700 or so species of modern birds, ranging in size from the huge flightless ostrich to the tiny hummingbird. Known through its scientific name, Serinus canaria or Fringilla canaria, is found in a rich choice of colours and shapes.

Related wild sub-species of canaries still can be found throughout Europe and parts of Asia, and ornithologists - professional bird scientists - have divided canaries into various groups.

The most important canary to the aviculturist, of course, is the one from the Canary Islands or Madeira, islands off the west coast of North Africa in the Atlantic Ocean. The colour of this wild bird is mainly olive green, broken with a number of greyish brown (hen) or yellowish (cock) stripes. The yellow in the males is not very obvious and certainly no basis for comparison with current yellow canaries.

No matter how drab and insignificant looking the wild canary may be, it has the honour of being the ancestor of all current song, colour, or type canaries! The early history of domestication is obscure, but there are a few fairly believable stories, one about a Frenchman, Jean de Bethancourt, who married a girl native to the Canary Islands. He settled on the islands and lived mainly from farming and fishing.

He became fascinated by the songs of the wild canaries and began to build small cages in his spare time. These he began to fill with canaries and ship them to Spain in Spanish vessels. Thus, Spain would have been the pioneer country in caged canaries.  

This story must be accepted for what it is worth, though it really does not matter whether it is believed. It is certain, however, that during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, canaries already were being bred in several places. They are also alleged to have been bred in large numbers in Spain during the fifteenth century.

Another story tells of how Spain held a very tight rein on the canary market, exporting just a few males to Italy and Switzerland. A mistake seems to have been made, however, in one of these exports and a female got into the hands of a priest who started breeding her. It may be that this female was mistaken for a male due to her bright colouring or perhaps her song being like that of a male. Judgment on the authenticity of this story will again have to be reserved.

Perhaps the best-known story is that of the Spanish ship that was caught in a storm off the coast of Italy as it proceeded to Livorno. The cargo consisted largely of canaries for which the sailors undoubtedly felt sorry and, in their compassion, released the birds. Thereafter, canaries were found on the island of Elba for some considerable period. From Elba, some found their way to the mainland. However, canaries are no longer to be found on Elba.

The very first mention of the canary in literature probably occurred in 1555 when the Swiss naturalist Konrad von Gesner described it in his Avium Naturae (Natural History of Birds). Although Gesner had never seen a canary, the details had been given to him by colleagues who had. Gesner called the canary, Canaria Avicula. At that time, the canary also was known as a cane or sugarcane bird, probably derived from the fact that there was a sugarcane industry on the Canary Islands. However, this also led to an erroneous belief, even to modern times, that sugar is good for canaries.

The wild canary should not be confused with the European canary, which, ornithologically, is a totally different species. The European canary still can be found in Elba, but not the wild canary. The original Elba refugee birds found the climate to their liking and multiplied. The Italians realized the monetary prospects of these sprightly little songsters, caught them in the thousands, and brought them to the mainland.

The canaries thence made their way via northern Italy to the Tirol and to parts of Germany where they were successfully bred and marketed. It was not long before they were found in England and Russia. It would seem that the prices of canaries were not too high, since most of them were kept and bred by ordinary people.

In Holland, canaries were imported from Germany and Belgium, particularly in the nineteenth and in the beginning of the twentieth centuries, and sold across Europe by “canary peddler”. These peddlers were a common sight in our towns and villages at that time and they would carry on their backs a wooden rack which had a great many little cages attached to it, with four to six canaries in each cage. The whole contraption was tied to the back of the peddler with belts and was covered with a canvas, which was rolled up in good weather.

The peddler could be heard coming from quite a distance, because the birds had grown accustomed to their nomadic existence and often sang loudly. These peddlers travelled from town to town and from village to village and usually spent a few days in a particular lodging awaiting buyers who were made aware of the peddler's visit by an advertisement placed in the local paper.

As the peddler sold his canaries, the cages became emptier, and his supply of the niger seed with which he fed his canaries was also steadily being depleted, so the peddler would need to return home to resupply. The peddlers usually bred their own birds. They normally lived in the Black Forest and Bavaria, which was the centre of canary breeding.

As soon as the breeding season was over and the young birds had started to sing, the peddler buckled his rack to his back and started the peddling journey all over again. This was quite an achievement, especially when we consider that these travels often lasted until the spring and that the peddler walked the entire way. Many of them often went back to the same lodgings, and they were generally considered the most honest because one could then feel assured that the peddler could be located if something was wrong with the purchased bird.

Harz canaries were also found in England, which always had an important standing in avicultural matters. Soon England developed its own methods of operation with regard to canary development, and started breeding song canaries on a large scale.

The wild canaries' singing talents was further improved by selective breeding. In France, attempts were made to enrich the song of the canary with musical instruments. Hervieux de Chanteloup, who was connected with the court of King Louis XIV, described special little flutes made to accompany the canaries. He even tried to teach the canary to imitate the human voice, though unsuccessfully.

In 1750, the Dutch author F. Van Wickede wrote about colour including the agate (diluted green) and the isabel (cinnamon), the feuille morte, the white, and the yellow; even an albino seems to have existed, but not today! During this era, the currently well-known crossbreedings with goldfinch, greenfinch, siskin, chaffince, and redpoll already were common.

A lot has happened to the wild Canary since it was first brought into captivity. The colour, the shape, and especially the song, have undergone considerable development. Originally, the nightingale was classed as the champion singer, the European goldfinch was a good imitator of other bird songs, but now the canary came into its own.

The Germans were the pioneers and masters of the development of the canary's song. The Harz roller canary or domestic Harz was developed for its song, and it is still much loved and bred today. Type canaries also started to gain attention, each variety more or less having its own beginning followed often by an interesting history.

 

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