“Controversy is not seldom excited in consequence of the disputants attaching each a different meaning to the same word.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1)
In the second part of this series I illustrated the major advances in the quantity and quality of the rowings of the Lizard canary over the last 30 years. Everyone wants Lizards with good rowings, especially since the COM-OMJ scale of points raised their value to 15 points, the second most valuable feature of the Lizard canary (2). You might think that everyone is working towards the same ideal, yet, as we have seen in Joe Coakley’s report of the 2019 World Show, there are major differences amongst breeders and judges in their perception of what good rowings should look like. It would seem, as Coleridge observed, that they attach “a different meaning to the same word”.
We shouldn’t be surprised. In my opinion, the development of rowings is still at a formative stage. We are making progress in the quantity of the rowings, but I hear much less debate about their quality. Joe’s comments are the exception. This article is therefore going to address two fundamental questions: what should the ideal rowings look like; and how far are we from achieving that ideal? Perhaps modern rowings are not quite as good as we like to think.
I will try to answer these questions with the help of some magic. I’m not referring to sorcery, but to a mnemonic, a way of remembering the four attributes that the very best rowings should possess. This particular magic is spelled Ma for magnitude, G for geometry, I for intensity, and C for constancy.
Magnitude refers to the quantity of melanins spread across the body. The greater their size and distribution, the better.
Geometry refers to the precise design of the melanins. The more regular the pattern, the better.
Intensity refers to the brilliance of the colours. The darker the melanins and brighter the ground colour, the better.
Constancy refers to the ability of a bird to display its rowings at all times. The more constant the display, the better.
I’m playing with words, of course, but with serious intent. Each of these attributes is important, and they all need to be present and correct. Let’s look at them in more detail.
Magnitude of melanins: the ideal.
The rowings should be distributed across the entire ventral parts of the Lizard canary. They should run longitudinally, starting at the neck, along the breast and belly, and past the vent. They should also extend laterally right across the breast from one flank to the other. Every feather counts; the broader the melanin the better.
The Lizard canary is sexually dimorphic, and the magnitude of the rowings varies according to sex and feather type. Bottom of the class are gold cocks. Some have almost no rowings. The bird illustrated here is better than average, but compared to the gold hen in the above photo, his rowings are scant.
It is tempting to dismiss gold cocks from serious consideration, but that would be a mistake. Their rowings may not be competitive on the show bench, but their genes have the potential to produce youngsters that excel. How can you tell? Knowing the bird’s pedigree is the most important factor, but there are visual clues if you look for them. Note the dark ticks that run between his legs. A good sign.
Magnitude of melanins: the reality.
This is undoubtedly where the greatest advance has been made in the rowings in recent years. Modern Lizards have a profusion of melanin evident in the width of the rowings and their distribution over the length and breadth of the birds. Nevertheless it is common to see show birds that have problems:
- Rowings that are no more than thin, random stripes.
- Rowings that cover the flanks but are minimal on the breast and belly, like the pencilling you see in a green Fife.
- Rowings that are absent on the belly, creating a ‘three parts dark’ effect like a Gloster. A major fault.
There is little merit in breeding Lizards with abundant melanins unless they are arranged into an attractive pattern . Take a look at this silver cock.
My guess is that many people would be impressed by his rowings, but they would be confusing quantity with quality. The intensity and magnitude of the rowings cannot be doubted, but they are random, there is no geometry. A failing.
Geometry: the ideal.
It is tempting to think of rowings as the equivalent of spangles, but located on the ventral parts of the Lizard canary. That is unrealistic and unfair. Rowings have a different feather structure from spangles (3) and they do not have such a firm foundation because the underparts of a canary are softer and carry more fat. Nevertheless the spangles give us a useful clue about the ideal rowings: straight lines of dark feathers with a light fringe so that they look like links in a chain.
Geometry: the reality.
The good news is that we are seeing more birds with rowings that are reasonably straight, particularly along the flanks, although the lineage is more random across the breast. We are also seeing more rowings with a good fringe on each feather so that the pattern is well defined.
More commonly seen, even in birds with an abundance of melanin, are faults that are often overlooked by judges:
- Fragmented and random rowings; they do not align.
- Smudgy melanins that coalesce into dark patches.
- Rowings that look like continuous stripes rather than chains of individual feathers. A very common fault.
Let’s compare three non cap gold hens so that you can see a range of phenotypes.
First is a bird that I would describe as a ‘good average’ in terms of her rowings. Their magnitude is quite good; they are not large, but they stretch the full length and width of the ventral parts of the body. Their geometry is poor: there is almost no design or definition; they are just random markings.
Secondly, a non cap gold hen that scores highly for the magnitude of her rowings. The melanins are wider and we can see an improvement in the alignment and definition of the rowings, but the geometry falls short of the best.
Thirdly, a bird that matches the second bird in the magnitude of her rowings, but displays superior geometry. The rowings are lineable and distinct. You can see the pattern.
Rowings will never match the design of the spangles, but I have no doubt that we can improve on what we have at present. Of all the factors in good rowings, this is the biggest challenge facing us.
Intensity of colour: the ideal.
Ever turned down the contrast on your TV? You end up with a dull picture: no brightness; no black or white; just muddy colours and shades of grey. That is why the intensity of the colours and the strength of contrast is so important in the display of rowings. We need deep blacks in the melanin and bright pigments in the ground colour if we want the rowings to stand out.
Intensity of colour: the reality.
This is another feature where breeders are making progress. In my experience, both sexes have the potential to display intense melanins, but it is the males that should have the brightest ground colour. Note the words ‘potential’ and ‘should’. Sadly we see far too many Lizards, both males and females, that fall short. Lizards with:
- Dull ground colour (4).
- Melanins that are various shades of grey instead of black.
- White around the vent, often just a spot in golds (intensive), or a wider expanse between the legs of silvers (schimel). Alarm bells should be ringing.
Silver cocks have enjoyed success at major shows in recent years. The most obvious advance has been in the magnitude of the melanins, but the intensity of the melanins and ground colour have also contributed to that success. It makes the rowings more eye-catching.
Silver hens are at a disadvantage because they cannot match the lipochromes of the best males, but they can match them for the intensity of their melanins and often have a broader silver edge to the feathers. This combination can enhance the contrast between dark and light. Here is an example:
Constancy of the rowings: the ideal.
It’s not so long ago that I took the view that spangles could be fickle but that rowings didn’t change very much. However, as the quality of the rowings has improved, it is becoming easier to detect any inconsistency in their geometry. Just as spangles can change from being precise and regular to being a jumble when they are disturbed, so can the rowings.
In the ideal show bird the display of rowings, like spangles, will be constant; they will always be straight and regular (5).
Constancy of the rowings: the reality.
Take a look at this silver cock; a bird with extensive rowings and good geometry. I think most breeders would be happy with a display like that.
Now look at the same bird photographed from the same angle, but taken some time later. It helps that the bird is standing to attention, because his rowings are pulled into alignment which allows us to see the design in greater detail. Every feather is distinct, and the pattern is more vivid. Once you have seen this, the first picture seems less impressive. You wish that he could maintain this precision all the time.
I am coming to the view that constancy in the rowings will become just as valuable as in the spangles, but only when the general standard of rowings has improved significantly. We have a long way to go.
Finally, some words of caution:
The improvement in rowings has given rise to some bizarre theories about how it has been achieved, from the feeding of special supplements to cross-breeding with mosaic (dimorphic) canaries (6). Let me put the record straight (and I speak from experience): it is entirely due to careful selection from true-bred stock. Any other method invites trouble and undermines the integrity of the breed.
We all love good rowings but there is also a danger in giving them undue emphasis. The Lizard canary is a balanced design. Give too much importance to one feature and you can be sure that other features will decline. That perfect harmony will be lost.
The real challenge is to continue to improve the rowings without losing the quality of all the other features that make up the ideal Lizard canary. Good luck.
- From Biographia Literaria; or Biographical Sketches of My Literary Life and Opinions, Chapter XIV, an autobiography by Samuel Taylor Colerdige (1817). My thanks to Rob Innes for bringing this quotation to my attention.
- Rowings are now equal with feather quality in the COM-OMJ scale of points. The rowings remain at 10 points in the LCA show scale.
- Refer to Lizard Canary Basics Part 3.
- The Dutch have a word for it: bleek, meaning bleak. It conveys a sense of the desolation in the colour of birds with tainted blood.
- Very few birds possess true constancy in the display of spangles. Those that do, look perfect every time you see them. Even if the bird is disturbed, the spangles realign in a few seconds. A rare and valuable attribute. David Allen’s LCA Classic winner of 2008 and several of Stan Bolton’s winners from the past come to mind.
- I’ve received reports from two separate sources that a cross-breeding programme using mosaics is under way in Spain with the intention of intensifying the melanins. Madness.