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Wildlife Camera » The Tale of the Red Canary

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The Tale of the Red Canary

13 November 2009


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Red canary

“Darwin and sex” was the title which caught my eye. It was the subject of a recent lecture to an animal behaviour conference in Oxford and the lecturer was Professor Tim Birkhead.

This is the same Tim Birkhead who used to turn up at cage-bird club meetings in the North of England and explain canary genetics. Over a pie and a pint he could open fanciers’ eyes to the possibilities of breeding a better canary. And he is one of the few people who understands both serious ornithology and also the motivations of bird keepers. His 2004 paperback, The Red Canary,  is my favourite cage bird book – a masterpiece of popular science.

Tim Birkhead is famous in many fields of bird study. He knows all about the Arctic islands where the extinct great auk used to breed and he helped to map the DNA of the zebra finch. He is an authority on magpies and is currently working on the history of modern ornithology. He is a brilliant all-rounder who also managed to write the most fascinating of canary books.

In his own words, it is the story of the first genetically engineered animal. Long before Dolly the Sheep or transgenic mice or bioengineered corn, there was the red canary - the first organism to be manipulated by genetic technology. He describes how a rather plain but sweet-voiced green bird discovered by Spanish explorers in the 1300s became a craze in Renaissance Europe, how breeders gradually turned the canary’s green plumage to yellow, and how a pair of German bird enthusiasts combined genetic science with bird-breeding lore in the 1920s to produce an almost-red canary – a project brought to fruition in Britain in the 1960s.
The Red Canary is a fascinating read — highly recommended. (Published by Phoenix, £8.99 – and from £1.95 on Amazon.)

 – Willy Newlands copyright. Illustration: iStockphoto.


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