Thursday, February 26, 2009

sentenced to be shot: one canary

The song of the caged bird is an artificial sound because the bird/song is missing its social history and environment of bird-dom. Taken out of its birdworld and brought into the caged world of humanity...inhumanity?...the bird cannot sing the song of its ancestors. Its song will mirror the built environment rather than the dynamic natural world. So, for example, my lovebird, Sydney, has learned to chirp a version of "gimme kiss" rather than the full vocabulary she would know if she were flying around the forests of south west Africa with her cabal of 20-30 bird buddies.

"Isolated birds are unable to learn the full song."

So states Mark J. Rauzon in Birdwatching, a book I received as a gift from my sister, Katja. Rauzon explains that

"Birds learn to sing early in the nesting stage. Chicks learn the song distinctions from their parents and other dialects of local birds. Variations on their theme song can occur within a bird's range. Northern birds may sing slower, faster, or with differing emphasis than the same species in the south....White-crowned sparrows raised in a lab can only sing a weak version of their songs."

Canaries, to their detriment and misfortune, not only are superb songsters, but also are highly intelligent birds. That was a deadly combination for canaries, ensuring their future in cages and to their exploitation as entertainment at exhibitions. Like dogs today, in the 1800s especially, canaries were trained to perform tricks to mimic human-like behaviour, from playing dead and balancing acts to acting like female milkmaids and "Venetian demoiselles", but even worse, military soldiers executing military combat.

from The Book of Cage Birds (1843) by Henry B. Hirst:

A second exhibition of this kind [entertainment spectacle of birds], more curious from the greater number of the performers, took place in London during the year 1820. The ingenious artist and owner was a Monsieur Dijon. The exhibited troupe consisted of twenty-four Canaries, who all performed numerous feats.
One of these represented a company of soldiers. They had a small camp, tents and other martial equipage; stood and relieved guard; marched and counter-marched; and went through various evolutions.

At last one of the company deserted, was pursued by a guard, brought back, and seemingly sentenced to be shot. The courageous little bird submitted, hero-like, to his fate, received the real fire of his companions from their little mechanical muskets, and fell apparently dead before the company. He was then taken up by his companions, placed on a small tumbril and dragged away to be buried. This concluded the performance.

To other qualities I may add their wonderful power of imitating various airs; for they have here the correctness and taste of an accomplished musician, keeping time
with the most scrupulous exactness and adhering strictly to the melody. They are taught these airs by means of a flageolet, or a serinette, or bird-organ. The manner of tuition I shall consider in a future section.

canary in captivity

In What really makes the caged bird sing, TR Birkhead explains that

"Birds have fascinated people for a long time. In the past they were caught for two things: for food or for their song. Plump and tender birds like larks, wheatears and ortolans were eaten – usually by the wealthy – as they still are in Italy. Birds with a good voice, like the nightingale, were kept for their song. If they were good looking and sang half-decently, like the goldfinch, they were also kept – but only the males, for only males sing; females were eaten.

For aeons the nightingale was the songbird par excellence. It was plain in appearance, but its voice was unsurpassed. But after the canary first appeared as a cage bird on mainland Europe in the late 1400s, it nudged the nightingale off its premier perch. Nightingales were difficult to keep, and sang only for a few weeks each year, whereas the canary (which was equally dull to look at, since the wild bird is streaky green, not yellow) had a voice nearly as good, was easy to keep and would sing through much of the year.

The people who kept canaries and other songbirds were of three types: those who simply liked their sound – birdsong was like having Radio 1 on in the background; those who used their charges to enhance their own status through singing contests; and thirdly, those (a minority) who actually studied them.

Singing for status was an all-consuming passion, and fanciers often competed using wild-caught goldfinches and chaffinches. They also used the canary – but the canary was a different case because, as it was a costly import, great efforts were made to rear it in captivity, and once it was breeding [sic], it could be artificially selected. The Germans led the way, and focused on producing superb songsters which, because of their rolling song, were to become known as roller canaries. From these Teutonic beginnings, all the 70 or so canary breeds that are now in existence developed."

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