‘I have bred and now possess alive two Siskin-Canary hybrids, one with a perfectly shaped golden-yellow cap (most of the rest of the bird being dark-heavily variegated) and another with a beautiful silver-spangled back (most of the rest of the bird being clear) . . . The spangled back appeared at the first moult, just as appears in the spangling of the Lizard canary . . . The canary parent in each case was of a strain with cinnamon blood, but with no Lizard cross.’
Rudolf Galloway, The Cinnamon Canary as the Foundation of Variety (1)
I referred briefly to a coloured plate illustrating a siskin-canary mule (2) with cap and spangles in my post on Rudolf Galloway’s theory. At the time I had not seen the plate, but thanks to information received from Dee Amaral, have now found it. You can see it at the head of this article. Galloway used the appearance of these markings to explain the ‘origin of the Lizard and London Fancy canaries’. An inspired breakthrough or wishful thinking? Let’s take a look.
According to the caption, the bird in the plate won a prize at the Crystal Palace Show in February 1909. It has spangles on its back and a cap on its head. The plate was painted by Harry Norman, the noted bird illustrator, so ought to be an accurate representation; but is it? Read the quotation at the head of this article again. There were two birds: one with a cap, the other with spangles, yet the plate depicts a bird with both. How do we explain this anomaly?
Perhaps the most straightforward explanation is that Galloway made an error in the written description, but he was meticulous in describing the colours and markings of his variegated hybrids (down to numbering individual quill feathers that showed light, dark or grizzled markings), so this seems unlikely. The alternative explanation is that the illustration was an amalgam of the two birds in the description; a vision of what might be possible. Harry Norman produced three plates for Biometrika featuring several hybrids and colour sports owned by Galloway. That’s quite a coincidence and suggests that the plates were commissioned by Galloway himself and that Norman, like a portrait painter who produces a flattering image of his patron, may have been inclined to draw what his client wanted to see. We will never know.
If we accept the illustration at face value, what does it tell us about Galloway’s explanation of the ‘origin of the Lizard and London Fancy canaries’? As we have seen in History Part 12, Galloway had a tendency ‘to twist facts to suit theories, instead of theories to suit facts’ and that propensity is apparent here. He sees a cap and some spangles but ignores the clear flight and tail feathers, yet declares that ‘we may safely infer that both the Lizard and London Fancy were derived from cinnamon canaries’.
Even the presence of the cinnamon factor is questionable. Note that the canary parent was not a cinnamon, but from ‘a strain with cinnamon blood’. According to the key to the coloured plate, the ‘Siskin-canary’ mule was the product of a siskin male x canary female, the conventional pairing. With the benefit of hindsight we can deduce that no cinnamon genes were involved in this pairing because female canaries cannot ‘carry’ the cinnamon factor in hidden form. Galloway can be excused because he did not know about sex-linked inheritance at the time.
As usual, whenever Galloway produced a hybrid with light feathers or other novel trait, it is the cinnamon factor that got the credit. It doesn’t seem to have occurred to him that it might have been the siskin (3) that was responsible for the variegation in its offspring. I am not an expert on mules, so I asked someone who is: Bob Partridge, the noted breeder and writer on British birds (4). Bob’s comments were:
- The overwhelming majority of siskin mules are dark birds, showing no light feathers.
- Variegated Siskin mules are very rare, and those approaching 75% clear feathers are exceedingly rare. Bob had only ever seen one totally clear Siskin mule – over 50 years ago!
- Amongst variegated mules, saddle-back markings are not uncommon.
- Clear feathers often appear first on the head, and in his strain of pied Greenfinches, some could be described as having a clear cap.
I haven’t been able to find a photograph of a variegated siskin mule, but a similar looking Greenfinch mule was successful at the National Exhibition in 1995. It was a saddle-back, and had frosted edges to the dark feathers in its back and left wing. It is going too far to describe these as spangles, as found in a good Lizard canary, but you can see their potential. Who knows what they might look like after several generations of selective breeding?
Does this mean that Galloway’s Siskin-canary could hold the key to the origin of the Lizard canary, even if he didn’t recognise the contribution of the siskin parent? Supporters of the fertile hybrid theory will be cheered by the presence of some spangles and a cap; doubters will point out the lack of dark wings and tail and a host of other Lizard features. You might expect that having got so far, Galloway would have continued with his experiments, but he didn’t. He made bold claims about his Siskin-canary, yet he failed to investigate the most important attribute of a fertile hybrid: its fertility. After all, there is no point breeding a hybrid with some of the Lizard’s features unless you can demonstrate that those features could be reproduced and improved in subsequent generations.
The fertile hybrid theory always comes up whenever people discuss the origins of the Lizard canary and the London Fancy, but that is a subject that I will examine another day. The real lesson we should learn from Galloway is that the more someone proclaims that they have ‘cracked the enigma’, the more sceptical we should become.
One of the things I enjoy about this blog is the feedback that I get from readers. This article is only possible thanks to a lead from Dee Amaral, researcher of natural history and a bird lover involved in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, that enabled me to find the illustration at the head of this post. Dee also bred the Lizard canary that holds the record (to the best of my knowledge) for longevity: 17 years!
- Biometrika Vol VII, (1911) p.10. This theory was modified to ‘The Grey or Cinnamon Canary as the Foundation of Variety’ in Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds, by John Robson, Edited by S.H. Lewer, (1911) p.20.
- As is customary in Britain, the term ‘mule’ is used here to denote a cross between a finch and a canary. European breeders would describe this bird as a Siskin x canary hybrid.
- The siskin Galloway refers to is the Eurasian siskin Spinus spinus.
- Bob Partridge is a leading British bird and hybrid breeder, famous for having established the pied Greenfinch and the cinnamon Redpoll in aviculture. His Crossbill mule won Best Mule or Hybrid at the National Exhibition in the early 1980s, and he is credited with the first breeding of the Corn Bunting in Britain. He has written many articles for Cage and Aviary Birds and was co-author with Peter Lander of the Popular British Birds in Aviculture series, which is still available.