Before I picked up this book, the only thing I knew about ornithology was what I learned from the old lady in Hitchcockís movie The Birds -- in other words, enough to view anything bigger than a finch as a sharp-beaked torpedo. Tim Birkhead promised to tell the story of the first genetically engineered animal -- a topic that has interested me since I reviewed a tome by Matt Ridley called Nature Via Nurture. A Brand-New Bird delivered that and more. By the time I finished, I was intrigued with the history of bird keeping -- no small feat, considering my years of movie-induced ambivalence to feathers.
For most of the last millennium, the relationship between birds and humans has been complicated. People hunted the feathery critters for food, of course -- some to extinction, like the passenger pigeon. Farmers domesticated chickens and turkeys for their eggs as well as their flesh. Others species became pets. Symbolic of love and fertility, small birds were the perfect gift between sweethearts. Folks enjoyed them for their singing and their bright plumages. Because of their high metabolic rate, miners used them as gas monitors. Before long, bird-keeping became both an avocation and a business.
Catching birds to fulfill popular demand evolved into breeding them in captivity. First, fanciers focused on getting wild-born animals to mate. Then devotees enhanced certain qualities like color or size or ability to sing through selective matings. Finally, people crossed species to achieve attractive features. Soon clubs and universities organized competitions to reward the man who came up with the best, most unusual bird.
Birkheadís book focuses on a particular green bird found living wild on the Canary Islands. Interestingly, the Romans named the islands after some big dogs that lived there -- insulae canariae or "islands of dogs." Named after these islands, the canary distinguished himself by his exceptionally loud singing.
This little critter intrigued German birdkeepers with its singing, which was beautiful but not as beautiful as the nightingale. Seeking the perfect songster, they engaged in a significant effort to teach baby canaries to sing like nightingales. I found this endeavor bizarre -- if you want to hear a nightingale, why do you have a canary in the first place? In fact, it was a dirty trick to play on the birds themselves, since male canaries singing like nightingales doesnít attract female canaries. However, the whole process was ingenious and I got a kick out of the cleverness of the practitioners.
Birdkeepers in England went another route with the little green canary. They experimented with breeding colored birds -- white, orange and yellow. Using trial and error, their results caught the interest of a German professor by the name of Hans Duncker.
An ardent Darwinist, Duncker became interested in canaries when he hooked up with Karl Reich, who was into breeding birds who sang like nightingales. Duncker was a scientist with an interest in the evolutionary tree of these little birds. Together with Reich, and influenced by the work of British breeders, Duncker came up with the idea of crossing the red siskin with canaries in order to produce a red canary.
Why red? Well, seems that red is a powerful color in birds as well as a dramatic color for humans. The brighter the feathers of a male canary, the more likely he is to draw females eager to mate with him. Moreover, humans love bright red birds of any species. Red canaries were shoe-ins for first prize in the birdkeeping hall of fame.
Dunckerís Darwinist beliefs led him to begin this project. Ironically, it was these very principles that kept him from attaining his dream. After much thought and much work, the closest he got was a disappointing coppery red. To Duncker and other American and German scientists of the day, an animalís ancestry determined everything about it, from its size, shape and color to its behavior. They thought heredity was the prime influencer of human traits as well. This narrow view of the world led to ideas of racial hygiene, state mandated castration of undesirables in the United States and ultimately, mass murder in Europe.
Duncker was so fixated on his goal of "breeding" a red canary that he branded other breeders who used diet to impact the color of a birdís feathers as "cheaters". The answer to the riddle was, of course, that both sides were right. It wasnít nature versus nurture but nature AND nurture. Canaries with the red coloring gene donít turn bright crimson unless their diet includes Carophyll -- the brand name of a carotenoid called canthaxathin. In nature, canthaxathin is found in the shells of shrimp eaten by lovely pink flamingos that would be white otherwise. Canaries without the appropriate gene will never turn red no matter how much Carophyll they eat. On the other hand, a canary with the gene will never turn red unless his diet is rich in the substance.
This simple concept makes all the sense in the world now that we know it to be true. Female canaries prefer males with the brightest colors. Is this because these males are skilled at finding the richest sources of food in the region? Is the color a reflection on the excellence of their health?
Dunckerís philosophical fidelity to a single perspective is remarkably human. How many times in life do we take a position, certain that we are right and stick with it to the end? Birkhead points out how easy it is to let our knowledge of a topic blind us to other possibilities. When a female horse was crossed with a zebra, she had a striped colt. Later on, when she was bred to another horse without stripes, she again gave birth to a striped colt. This observation led breeders to believe that that single mating with the zebra "contaminated" her forever. No one stopped to ask if this mare would have had a certain number of striped colts no matter what the coloring of the father based on her own ancestry. The Nazis used this misunderstanding of genetics as an underpinning for the Nuremburg laws, believing that sex between an Aryan woman and a Jewish man would despoil all future children the Aryan woman might have. Just because everyone believes something, doesnít make it true.
Witty, profound and filled with interesting bits of trivia about birds, Birkheadís book is well worth the read. You donít have to be an ornithologist to enjoy it. You donít have to be a geneticist to understand it, either.