Tuesday, May 31, 2016

The Red Canary by Tim Birkhead

I was in a used bookstore in Fredericksburg, Virginia yesterday, and for $5 picked up a copy of The Red Canary: The Story of the First Genetically Engineered Animal, by Tim Birkhead.  From pages 106-107:

As canary keeping grew more popular in the late 1700s informal societies begin to emerge, providing an opportunity for men to socialize, exchange ideas and use their birds in competitions. These local federations, which met in coffee houses and taverns, forced common standards of what was expected of canaries because this was the only way to compete. Transport was poor and human communities were still extremely insular, with pronounced regional differences in dialects and customs. It was precisely this combination of isolation and local tradition that resulted in the evolution of different canary breeds. Cities were effectively islands, each with its own environment in which close-knit groups of breeders expressed their fancy about what they felt was desirable in a canary. Just as with natural selection, the course of canary artificial selection was dictated by what was available. And what was available in England was strongly influenced by the Huguenot émigrés, who favored the very large, upright canaries sometimes referred to as Old Dutch – – more than twice as large as original little wild bird. These big-bodied birds provided much of the raw material for the English breeders, whose strong regional preferences rapidly gave rise to different breeds. The industrial cotton towns of north-west England considered size crucial and developed a giant of a canary – the Lancanshire. Just over the Pennines to the east, breeder strove to produce a very tall, upright bird, the Yorkshire canary, which to win prizes had to be slim enough - so they said – to pass through a wedding ring. In East Anglia, a richly colored, almost orange John Bull of a bird was preferred – the Norwich canary. In the Low Countries posture was deemed important, resulting in the hunchback Belgian Fancy. It was later appropriated by the Scots who produced a bird with an academic stoop, known as the Glasgow Don. In France birds with long frilly feathers were favored.

The paragraph, above, was the one I read in the store that got me to spring $5.

From what I can tell, this is one of the few books to explore the history of captive bird breeding, aside from chickens.

To be clear, the title here is a bit deceiving. There is no real "genetic modification" going on here, nor is the red canary the first of anything other than the first red canary. This is a bird carefully speciated through cross-breeding with red siskins and canaries that carry the recessive gene for whiteness.  It was founded that when carotene is added to the diet, the birds become red. This is going to be a very interesting history of breeding for effect, and an illumination of the connections between  "blood and mud" (nature and nuture), but the Red Canary is not a GMO bird as we traditionally use that term in the modern era.

This looks to be an excellent book that explores not only the struggles that early pet breeders had as they learned genetics, but also how pet breeders helped fuel the intellectual underpinnings that led to the rise of Nazi Germany.  I have written a bit about that in the past as it relates to dog in general, and one breed of terrier in particular.  Now we have the pet bird side of that same story.


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