Domestic canary

Canary Bird

This little bird, highly esteemed for its song, which is reared with so much care, particularly by the fair sex, and which affords an innocent amusement to those who are fond of the wild notes of nature, is a native of those islands from which it takes its name. As it was not known in Europe till the fifteenth century, no account of it is to be met with in any of the works of the old ornithologists. Bellon, who about the year 1555 described all the birds then known, does not so much as mention it. At that period it was brought from the Canary Islands. It was therefore so dear that it could be procured only by people of fortune, and those who purchased were even often imposed on 58. It was called the sugar-bird, because it was said to be fond of the sugar-cane, and that it could eat sugar in great abundance. This circumstance seems to be very singular; for that substance is to many birds a poison. Experiments have shown, that a pigeon to which four drachms of sugar were given died in four hours, and that a duck which had swallowed five drachms did not live seven hours after. It is certain, therefore, that the power of poison is relative.

The first figure of this bird is given by Aldrovandus, but it is small and inaccurate. That naturalist reckons the Canary bird among the number of those which were scarce and expensive, as it was brought from a distant country with great care and attention. The first good figure of it is to be found in Olina 59 : it has been copied by both Johnston and Willughby.

In the middle of the seventeenth century these birds began to be bred in Europe, and to this the following circumstance, related by Olina, seems to have given occasion. A vessel, which, among other commodities, was carrying a number of Canary birds to Leghorn, was wrecked on the coast of Italy; and these birds, being thus set at liberty, flew to the nearest land, which was the Island of Elba, where they found the climate so favourable, that they multiplied, and perhaps would have become domesticated, had they not been caught in snares; for it appears that the breed of them there has been long since destroyed. Olina says that the breed soon degenerated; but it is probable that these Canary birds, which were perhaps all males, did at the Island of Elba what the European sailors do in India. By coupling with the birds of the island, they may have produced mules. Such hybrids are described by Gesner and other naturalists 60.

The breeding of these birds was at first attended with great difficulty; partly because the treatment and attention they required were not known, and partly because males chiefly, and few females, were brought to Europe. We are told that the Spaniards once forbade the exportation of males, that they might secure to themselves the trade carried on in these birds, and that they ordered the bird-catchers either to strangle the females or to set them at liberty 61. But this order seems to have been unnecessary; for, as the females commonly do not sing, or are much inferior in the strength of their notes to the males, the latter only were sought after as objects of trade. In the like manner, as the male parrots are much superior in colour to the females, the males are more esteemed, and more of them are brought to Europe than of the females. It is probable, therefore, that in our system of ornithology, many female parrots belonging to species already well-known are considered as distinct species. It was at first believed that those Canary birds bred in the Canary Islands were much better singers than those reared in Europe; but this at present is doubted 62. In latter times various treatises have been published in different languages, on the manner of breeding these birds, and many people have made it a trade, by which they have acquired considerable gain. It does no discredit to the industry of the Tyrolese that they have carried it to the greatest extent. At Ymst there is a company who, after the breeding season is over, send out persons to different parts of Germany and Switzerland to purchase birds from those who breed them. Each person brings with him commonly from three to four hundred, which are afterwards carried for sale, not only through every part of Germany, but also to England, Russia, and even Constantinople. About sixteen hundred are brought every year to England; where the dealers in them, notwithstanding the considerable expense they are at, and after carrying them about on their backs, perhaps a hundred miles, sell them for five shillings apiece. This trade, hitherto neglected, is now carried on in Schwarzwalde; and at present there is a citizen here at Göttingen, who takes with him every year to England several Canary birds and bullfinches (Loxia pyrrhula ), with the produce of which he purchases such small wares as he has occasion for.

The principal food of these birds is the Canary seed, which, as is commonly affirmed, and not improbably, was first brought, for this purpose, from the Canary Islands to Spain, and thence dispersed all over Europe. Most of the old botanists, however, are of opinion that the plant which produces it is the same as that called Phalaris  by Dioscorides 63. Should this be true, it will follow that this kind of grass must have grown wild in other places besides the island it takes its name from; which is not improbable. But those who read the different descriptions which the ancients have given of Phalaris, will, in my opinion, observe that they may be equally applied to more plants; and Pliny seems to have used this name for more than one species of grass 64.

However this may be, it is certain that this seed, when it was used as food for these birds, began to be cultivated first in Spain, and afterwards in the southern parts of France. At present it is cultivated in various parts, and forms no inconsiderable branch of trade, particularly in the island of Sicily, where the plant is called Scagliuola, or Scaghiola. The seed is sold principally to the French and the Genoese. In England, the industrious inhabitants of the Isle of Thanet, particularly those around Margate and Sandwich, gain considerably by this article, as they can easily transport it to London by water.

That this plant might be cultivated with little trouble in Germany, is shown by the yearly experience of those who raise it in their gardens, and by its having become so naturalized in some parts of Hesse, that it propagates by seed of itself in the fields. The use of the seed might also be extended, for it yields a good meal; but the grains are not easily freed from the husks.

I shall here take occasion to remark, that Savary 65  has been guilty of an error, when he says that archil is cultivated in the Canary Islands in order to be sold as food for Canary birds. One may easily perceive that this mistake has arisen from his confounding that lichen used for dyeing with this kind of grass; and I should not have considered it worth notice, had it not been copied into Ludovici's Dictionary of Trade, from which, perhaps, it may be copied into the works of others.


58  Gesneri Historiæ Animalium, liber tertius. Tiguri, 1555, fol. p. 234.

59  Uccelliera, overo Discorso della natura di diversi Uccelli. Roma, 1622, 4to.

60  Gesneri redivivi, aucti et emendati, tomus ii. Franc. 1669, fol. p. 62. More information respecting hybrids may be found in Brisson, Ornithologie, t. iii. p. 187; and Frisch, Vorstellung der Vögel in Teutschland, the twelfth plate of which contains several good figures.

61  Coleri Œconomia ruralis et domestica. Franc. 1680, folio.

62  Barrington's paper in the Phil. Trans. vol. lxiii. p. 249.

63  Phalaris Canariensis. The best figure and description of it are to be found in Schreber's Beschreibung der Gräser, ii. p. 83, tab. x. 2.

64  Lib. iii. c. 159, and lib. xxvii. c. 12.

65  Dictionnaire de Commerce, t. v. 1765, fol. p. 1149.