Let's Talk About Birds: Canaries

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This is one of a series presented by the National Aviary, which works to inspire respect for nature through an appreciation of birds.

When you think of "canary," what picture comes to mind? A bright yellow finch on a swinging perch in a fancy bird cage? The cartoon bird Tweety? Or do you see a little caged bird in the hand of a dusty coal miner? All of these popular images of the canary are rooted in a wild species of finch, the Atlantic canary, which is native to small islands off the northwest coast of Africa.

There are a few common misnomers about the canary. The Atlantic canary, an ancestor of the iconic yellow canary, was named for the Canary Islands, not the other way around. In fact, the Canary Islands were named for the canaries that inhabited them.

Additionally, the original wild canaries are not solid bright yellow like the familiar pet shop and cartoon varieties; they are streaked greenish yellow birds (kind of like a yellow variant house finch, if you've ever seen one). Breeding for desirable color, song type and form has produced more than 200 breeds of canary, including the all-yellow variety. Ironically, the bright yellow domesticated canaries are so familiar that people sometimes call our native bright yellow American goldfinch "wild canary."

The canaries that coal miners first took into the underground tunnels where they worked were undoubtedly of the domesticated variety. Although they didn't cost very much, they were invaluable to the miners, whose lives depended on them. For nearly a hundred years (as recently as the 1980s) before the technological age of reliable electronic air-quality sensors, miners could look for signs of distress in their caged canaries to get advance warning that dangerous coal gases, especially carbon monoxide, were building up inside the mine shafts where they were working. The small birds, with their rapid metabolism, showed the effects of poisoning much more quickly. If the birds' behavior changed, the miners knew they had only a little time before they, too, would suffer the dangerous effects of poisonous gases. The canary's call, or lack thereof, was an early warning that gave those miners the time they needed to save themselves.

Even today, when we refer to something as "a canary in a coal mine," we mean that it is a warning, often of a sensitive bio-indicator of the quality of the environment. This concept has inspired an exciting new exhibit at the National Aviary, called "Canary's Call." Opening to the public on Nov. 8, "Canary's Call" is an interactive exhibit highlighting biodiversity and what "canaries" of all kinds can tell us about the health of our planet ... if we will only listen to their calls.

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