Monday, January 4, 2010

My Canary's Swan Song

When I was a child I loved waking up Christmas morning, usually at the crack of dawn, to see what magical changes had been wrought during my short night of winter slumber. I could hardly wait to fly out of bed, tumble down two flights of stairs within our three story, semi-detached Lancaster, Pennsylvania home on South President Avenue to see just exactly what Santa had delivered Christmas eve.  For my brother and I it was especially enchanting because my parents didn't put up the Christmas tree until after we had gone to bed.  Can you imagine that?  Four children and almost six grandchildren later, I can't!  But I do know it made Christmas morning truly wonderful!
As an adult, one of my most memorable Christmas memories ever occured when I awoke to the sweet sounds of little finches chattering in the direction of my laundry room.  My dear son-in-law (DSIL) had transformed a tall cabinet there into a little sunny aviary by removing the front door of the closet and replacing it with a wire one.  Somehow he and Rahn (DH) managed to install a dozen or more pairs of small finches in the laundry aviary, unbeknownst to me.  Upon opening the door I was delighted to find a lovely variety of different colors and species of finches flitting about, including my little yellow canary, Chip.  (Little Chip was already a permanent denizen of the Hostetter home, but he moved up to condo high rise status after the laundry room aviary was built.) I should note here small bird keeping can be tricky. Sadly, we had trouble keeping those birds alive; though not for lack of trying.  While we had them; however, they gave me joy.
Let me just say now if you've never heard a finch's quiet chatter and pitter patter, I can only tell you it is a most soothing, peaceful sound.  As to canary's...Well! Their song is simply divine!  My first experience with the winged songsters came in the dead of winter a long time ago when I felt like I needed a little solstice pick-me-up. That year my solution for the winter blahs was to go canary shopping, after reading about them in good old Martha Stewart. (Believe me, it's was a cheap thrill--or should I say cheep trill--compared to the alternatives!)
Whatever, when I found out Wallowa County had its very own local canary breeder, I promptly showed up at their little aviary door one cold wintry day. Christi, Anna and Meredith (only a couple of years old at the time) went with me.  If you read this blog at all, you already know Wallowa County is a treasure trove of unusual folks,  and the couple that greeted us at the door were no exception.  They were a little eccentric, I must admit.

At any rate, I vividly remember this visit partly because Mer was scared to death of the husband. Every few seconds she would shoot furtive, fearful glances back over her shoulder, watching him out of the corner of her eyes, looking quite petrified the whole time.  I couldn't blame her, as I put myself into her little two year old shoes. With bird's and a few parrots squawking loquaciously in cages from every corner and the peculiar middle aged man wiith long, stringy, greasy hair, beaked nose and beady eyes--I could see why it would be creepy for an observant little one like Meredith. When Christi and I finally figured out why she was acting so strangely, we could barely look at each other for fear we'd start laughing hysterically in front of the poor guy. He really was quite nice and luckily oblivious to Meredith's terror filled glances!

The couple's aviary was an indoor/outdoor structure.  By making a hole in the outer wall of  their home, the birds could fly in and out at will. (Believe it or not, canaries can aclimate to a cold climate.) 
Until this time I had never personally heard a canary sing before. As they showed us around, I was simply stunned at the melodius music these tiny creatures made.  I listened carefully to their elaborately crafted arias (only males sing), suddenly realizing each bird had it's own unique style of music!  After hearing their serenades I remember thinking, "Why wouldn't everyone in the world want to own a canary?!" On the spot, a "Canary Evangelist" was born!
Their song was like nothing I'd ever heard and can hardly be described. I can only say that so many people through the years have commented on our canary, whether they heard him in person or over the phone. More often than not, the comment after hearing the singing was:  what kind of bird is that, anyway? I too just couldn't believe anything, let alone such a tiny bird, could make such a gorgeous sound.
Can you can imagine my shock and great sadness when a few mornings ago my little Chip and friend of many years lay dying in his cage?  I knew this day was inevitable, but I had put it out of my mind especially after the loss of Pippen, our minature Australian Shepherd.  All in all, it's pretty much been a month of back-to-back tragedies here at Full Circle Ranch, putting a real damper on all my holiday cheer.  I'm still in shock and can't believe I won't wake up to Chip's morning arias ever again.
I suppose the good thing that might come out of this tragedy is that for a while now I've been wanting to write about the joys of canary owning, but hadn't gotten around to it.  I also wanted to dazzle you with some lovely vintage pictures of canaries. (See the link above where I find lots of old prints worthy of framing.)  And here at
I admit, as a Canary Evangelist I was hoping to strike a note in you, dear reader, to go out and get your very own canary!  So, this is the point where you can read on-- if you're interested--or quit now like my dear little feathered friend, who sang his swan song last week.
Interesting Facts about Canaries for the Curious

 The Domestic Canary (Serinus canaria domestica) is a [tame] form of the Wild Canary, a small songbird in the finch family originating from Madeira, the Azores and the Canary Islands.
Canaries were first bred in captivity in the 1600s. They were brought over by Spanish sailors to Europe. Monks started breeding them and only sold the males (which sing). This kept the birds in short supply and drove the price up. Eventually Italians obtained hens and were able to breed the birds themselves. This made them very popular and resulted in many breeds arising and the birds being bred all over Europe.

The same occurred in England. First the birds were only owned by the rich but eventually the local citizens started to breed them and, again, they became very popular. Many breeds arose through selective breeding, and they are still very popular today for their voice. They come in many colours, such as yellow, orange, brown, black, white, and red. One in 65 wild canaries are naturally red.

Surprisingly, there are many canary bird shows all over the world. The world show (C.O.M.) is held in Europe each year and attracts thousands of breeders. As many as 20,000 birds are brought together for competition.
Besides their voice, there are lots of things that fascinate me about these little birds. Did you know canaries were once regularly used in coal mining as an early warning system?  Toxic gases such as carbon monoxide and methane in the mine would kill the bird before affecting the miners. Because canaries tend to sing much of the time, they provided both a visual and audible cue in this respect. The use of so called miner's canaries in British mines was phased out as recently as 1987.

Hence, the phrase "canary in a coal mine" is frequently used to refer to a person or thing which serves as an early warning of a coming crisis. By analogy, the term climate canary is used to refer to a species that is affected by an environmental danger prior to other species, thus serving as an early warning system for the other species with regard to the danger.  (Wikipedia)

Mary had a pretty bird,
Feathers bright and yellow,
Slender legs, upon my word
He was a pretty fellow.
The sweetest notes he always sung,
Which much delighted Mary,
And often where the cage was hung,
She stood to hear Canary.

~the end~

1 comment:

  1. I was so sorry to read this! But pleased to learn a thing or two about these pretty birds... maybe this a pet even I could love.


I'd love to hear from you!