If you could go back 300 years to the France of Louis XIV, the Sun King, you would discover that the canary (Serinus canaria) was not called le Canari but le Serin de Canarie (the Serin of the Canaries). This is the name that Hervieux used to differentiate it from the ordinary Serin (Serinus serinus). The latter would have been familiar to most people because it is a native of France (and most of southern and central Europe and north Africa). It would have been a popular cage bird until ousted by the canary because of its superior song.
The two species look similar, and according to a DNA study by the Universidad Complutense, Madrid, ‘the Mediterranean serin is the closest living relative to the wild canary’ (1). That, perhaps, is the biggest drawback in the Serin’s claim to being a candidate in the fertile hybrid theory: the wild forms of the two species look so much alike, who would bother cross-breeding them?
The fertile hybrid theory keeps recurring whenever anyone speculates about the origins of the Lizard canary and London Fancy. The theory has its detractors, but its supporters will point to the new colour mutations established since the red siskin (Carduelis cucullata) was crossed with the domestic canary. Hans Duncker, the man credited with creating the red canary, defied the odds, but he had several advantages. He had a patron with plenty of money to sponsor an extensive breeding programme; he had a brilliant canary breeder to take care of all the practical matters; and he was trying to fix only one feature: the red colour gene (2).
Compare that with the difficulties facing anyone attempting to recreate the Lizard canary or London Fancy by means of a fertile hybrid:
- Which finch should be used? Several species have been suggested over the years.
- The sheer number of pairings that would be necessary in the hope that something interesting might turn up.
- The prospect that only some of the desired features might materialise, and even those would probably be rudimentary.
- The added complexity if recessive factors were involved (as they most probably would).
- The fundamental necessity that the hybrid offspring should be fertile!
The difficulties seem insurmountable, but what if I told you there was a way of by-passing most of these problems? Seems too good to be true? Let’s go back to the reign of Louis XIV and consider this scenario:
- Choose a close European relative of the canary, if only because it would be commonly available. There is only one candidate: the Serin (3).
- Rather than try to breed the mutation yourself, start with a wild mutation. The trappers would be on the look-out for anything out of the ordinary, and the oiseleurs of Paris would pay good money for a bird with bright colour or unusual markings. All you would have to do is buy it.
- If (and I stress ‘if’) such a bird was brought to the bird markets of Paris at the turn of the seventeenth century, there is every chance that it would have been crossed with a canary in an attempt to produce a bird that possessed both an attractive appearance and an attractive song. The financial rewards would have been a big incentive for breeders.
- When crossed with the domestic canary, most of the hybrid offspring would be fertile. The Madrid study confirmed expectations of ‘fertile male hybrids & 20% female hybrids’. That is a very high fertility rate (4). The process of fixing the mutation in the domestic canary would be feasible provided that the offspring were kept in a closed genetic pool, as we saw in the case of the Midway canaries.
The scenario may seem plausible, but that doesn’t mean it necessarily happened. Surely the chances of finding a mutation Serin that looks something like the Lizard canary or the London Fancy must be one in a million? Maybe, but the current European population is estimated to be at least 8.3 million pairs (5). Suddenly, those odds don’t look so overwhelming. We are playing with numbers here; they are meaningless unless the Serin could actually produce such a mutation. Have a look at this bird:
It is described as a Serin Cini panache (variegated serin) owned by Noureddine Bennai, who apparently caught the bird in Algeria. The photos are stills from a video you can see on Youtube. The video was brought to my attention by Danielle Sugliani, a regular correspondent whose name you may recognise from the comments on various articles. Danielle has long held the belief that the European Serin was a likely source of the Lizard and London Fancy genes, but this is by far the most compelling evidence she has found.
The bird looks like a London Fancy, yet the barring on the wings confirms its Serin origins. The stand out features are the black beak and legs. The beak is far darker than anything I have seen in a mature Lizard canary, let alone a modern London Fancy. Are these features inherent in the mutation, or have they been manipulated in some way? It would not be the first time that fake London Fancies have been presented to the world (6). The video is all we know about this bird.
By remarkable good fortune, Danielle has seen a Serin similar to the Algerian mutation in the wild. This is what she told me:
“Yesterday I have seen a similar “Serinus serinus” in the wild (an industrial area in Barcelona) there was a complete family foraging on the rooftop of a warehouse which is quite peculiar? A couple & 4 young ones in moult. One of the parents was a non-intensive yellow with black wings & tail and the rest of the family was normal green except one showing light hue but I was unable to take a photo.”
Like a detective searching for clues, Danielle found yet another specimen on a Belgian forum. There was considerable debate as to whether it was a Serin or a hybrid, but one contributor to the forum vouched that he had seen it himself and confirmed that the bird had been trapped near Marseille (7). Note that it does not share the black legs and beak of the Algerian specimen.
Mutation Serins are not limited to London Fancy look-a-likes. Here is one specimen from the Serinus Society website that has Lizard-like qualities. Unfortunately we know nothing more about it (8).
None of the above is proof that the European Serin was one of the ancestors of the London Fancy or the Lizard canary. The birds in the photos are intriguing, but they raise more questions than answers. They have opened up a new line of inquiry and given the fertile hybrid theory a boost, but the lack of detailed information about them is frustrating. The ultimate proof, a successful breeding trial, has not been achieved – yet. In the meantime, the circumstantial evidence keeps accumulating . . .
I wish to thank Danielle Sugliani for drawing my attention to the mutation Serins and the Madrid study, and for her helpful responses to my many questions.
- Rapid Radiation of Canaries by A. Arnaiz-Villena et al, Department of Immunology and Molecular Biology, Universidad Complutense, Madrid (1999).
- For the best description of Duncker’s breeding experiments, see The Red Canary by Tim Birkhead (2003).
- You might think that the Citril Finch (Serinus citrinella) should also be a candidate, but according to the authors of the Madrid study, the Citril Finch is genetically closer to the carduelines (the Goldfinch genus) than the serins.
- When Hans Duncker started his breeding experiments with the Red Siskin, none of the females and only a few of the male hybrids proved fertile.
- Roger Caton published photographs of ‘London Fancies’ as an April Fool’s joke in Cage & Aviary Birds on 4 April 1992. The birds were actually Fife Fancies with dyed wings and tail. Some people were taken in by the deceit.
- I have tried to contact the owner to obtain details but have received no reply.