The fertile hybrid theory: the Serin

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.

  1. Rapid Radiation of Canaries by A. Arnaiz-Villena et al, Department of Immunology and Molecular Biology, Universidad Complutense, Madrid (1999).
  2. For the best description of Duncker’s breeding experiments, see The Red Canary by Tim Birkhead (2003).
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  6. 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.
  8. I have tried to contact the owner to obtain details but have received no reply.

17 thoughts on “The fertile hybrid theory: the Serin

  1. While this an interesting article, it sort of misses the boat and can be misleading. The fact is, for centuries the Wild Canary and the European Serin were thought to be VARIETIES — (later subspecies, when that taxonomic designation finally gained wide acceptance during the the late 19th/early 20th centuries) — of the exact SAME species! As just one of numerous examples: In the 1920s and 30s the Musee Royal d’Histoire Naturelle de Belgique published a series of illustrated collectors cards on the birds of Europe. The European Serin is card #138 and it is labeled “Serinus canarius germanicus – Serin cini de l’Europe central Middeneuropeesche Kanarie”. (I can send you a jpeg of that card, if you wish).

    It was not until the early 1940s that it began to be realized by both taxonomists and field ornithologists alike (Stresemann, 1943; Wolters, 1952; Vaurie, 1956 and 1959; Nicolai, 1960) that the European Serin and the Wild Canary of the Azores, the Maderias and the Canary Islands are actually two separate and distinct monotypic species, albeit very closely related. The two were finally deemed separable on the basis of morphological differences in size and proportions, vocalizations, song, courtship and general behavior, as well as on their food and habitat preferences. Later, biochemical and egg white protein analysis, as well as DNA testing, all confirmed this.

    Still, it takes time for taxonomic revises to filter down to other sources. For example, in the 1960s the publishing firm of Methuen & Co. began issuing reproductions of the lithographs of 19th century English ornithologist John Gould in a series of books. The first volume of their “Birds of Europe” (1966) took its plates from two of Gould’s works: his “Birds of Europe” and his “Birds of Great Britain”. The plate of the European Serin they used was reproduced from the former. Methuen’s text was written by respected Dutch ornithologist A. Rutgers … But Rutgers was obviously unaware of the revise because he labeled that plate “Serinus canarius”!

    In other words, Ms Sugliani should be careful when pointing to oddly-colored or marked Serins to explain Lizard/London Fancy origins. While they’re interesting, they really explain nothing of the kind. In the first place, it is more than likely that ALL domestic canaries are the result of inadvertent hybridization done between the Serin and the Canary because both were popular cagebirds and until relatively recently aviculturalists would never have realized that they were actually hybridizing two different species. Secondly, the two species share so much of the same genetic makeup to begin with that any and all mutated colors/patterning that may have appeared in the Serin have likely also appeared in the Canary.

    1. Much of what you say was acknowledged by Buffon (1778). For example, he includes the Serin and the Citril Finch in his chapter on the canary, describing the first two as ‘the wild branches of a polished stem’. He adds ‘All three intermix in the state of captivity; but in the range of nature, each propagates in its peculiar climate’. He also mentions ‘German Serins’. None of that undermines the hypothesis discussed in the article.

      There are several theories on the origins of the Lizard canary and the London Fancy, and they will be covered in future articles. The mutation serin theory is as plausible as any, and while the photographic evidence is far from conclusive, it has added a new dimension to the debate. It certainly encouraged me to think afresh.

      For the sake of clarity, Danielle Sugliani contributed much of the evidence, but the analysis of that evidence was entirely mine.

  2. more facts :
    – the serin finch is mentioned in the book of Joseph Smith 1830 2nd ed London “Breeding & rearing the canary finch : its most admired varieties of feather & song with practical hints & recipes for its domestication :

    – See picture of Allan Brooks mentioned in my comment of Part 5 – History Huguenot legend
    showing the presence of the serin finch together with lizard canary and norwich in an aviary…

    1. Take care; both these references were produced long after the event. I wouldn’t rely on them as an authentic record of early canary history.

      The date of Smith’s book is incorrect by the way, whatever Google may say. The book is very interesting for other reasons, which I’ll cover in a future article.

  3. Note about the fertility of the european serin (serinus serinus) X melanin canary (serinus canarius domestica ?) hybrids:

    Over the past twenty years I’ve bred dozens of those hybrids. Nothing special about that: you can see them at almost every bird show in Belgium. They should be half european serin, half canary and they are nice “green” birds.

    Every (100%) male hybrid (H1) I’ve tried breeding with a canary hen proved fertile (full nests). Even the male H2 are fertile. I can take pictures of some of them if someone is interested. (H2 or H1)

    The females (H1) however!?! None of them (0%) do anything, they don’t even pick up a small thing or feather to begin nesting. No nests and surely no eggs.

    A fun experiment i’ve done the last three years:
    Take a bird house used in Belgium for breeding all kinds of european birds (like bull finches or siskins), so a cage of 1 meter wide, two meters deep and two meters high. In that cage put one male european serin and three female birds:

    1° a female european serin. The male will first mate with her and you’ll get nice european serin youngsters which fetch a nice price on the market. (easely about 35 euro’s)

    2° a female european serin X canary hybrid (H1): The male european serin will sing and court here all summer. Very nice to watch and some what less to hear. The song of the european serin is even worse of that of our lizards but he danses in the air, flikkering his wings and yellow markings. The result: nothing really nothing. (Let me know if you can prove me wrong)

    3° a female canary: the canary hen will do well, what every canary hen does: she will built a nest, lay four or five fertile eggs and you’ll get a full nest of H1 hybrids. I’ve only tried full melanin hens but if you want the youngsters to resemble london fancy’s (called mutation serins in the pictures of this post above) use a full yellow canary hen, no melanin or as little melanin as possible

    regards and lots of fun in 2017,

    Gust Truyens, Belgium.

    1. Very informative Gust. The 0% female FI fertility is explained by Haldane’s Rule. If you have photos of F2 hybrids on the male side, I’d like to see them.

      1. Mr Evans,

        i’ve got six hybrid birds on show in Vosselaar at the moment. Two of them are H2 hybrids born in 2016. I can’t tell if they are male or female for the moment.

        One of the six birds is a bird I bought as a redfronted serin X canary hybrid in 2015. I got 39 eggs from him over 6 canary hens. All of the eggs were infertile (maybe one but I’m not sure fertile) There was much discussion over this bird: maybe it’s a alario (serinus alario) hybrid. I’m pretty sure it isn’t but maybe it’s a red siskin hybrid. (that would make him a fertile hybrid!)

        I’ll take photo’s of all six birds and (mail ?) them. Note that the main difference between a canary and the european serin is it’s overall size. A colour canay should be 13 cm where the serin is at most 9 cm. The difference in volume is striking.

        regards Gust Truyens

  4. Buenos días
    Espero disculpen que me exprese en mi idioma ( español ), ya que me resulta más fácil plasmar las ideas.
    Llevo unos años trabajando con el verdecillo europeo ( Serinus serinus ) tratando de emitir algo más de luz sobre el origen del canario lizard.
    Para mí, una teoría totalmente plausible.

  5. Si, o al menos eso es lo que creo.
    Estoy en estos momentos cuidando de mis padres en el hospital, pero en cuanto pueda ( pronto, ya va todo bien ) aportar datos.
    Debo decir no obstante que mi teoría se resume en que el lizard es un canario pio especial, es decir, que las manchas melaninas se confinan exclusivamente en la cabeza, y además con un diseño especial.
    Y según mi teoría, pudo aparecer a través del cruce entre un verdecillo con un diseño especial con una canaria con mucha seguridad, como he leído mád arriba, lipocrómica amarilla.

    1. Rafael, the only spanish words i know are “dos servezas por favor” but …

      with the help of mister google i translated your words into my own poor english. I will be abliged if a native english speaker would correct mine.

      So here they are:

      Good Morning
      Sorry for using the spanish language, but I find it easier this way to express ideas.
      I have been working with the European greens (Serinus serinus) for some years, trying to emit more light on the origin of the canary lizard.
      For me, a totally plausible theory.

      Huw, then asked if you discovered anything?

      Yes, I think so.
      My parents are in hospital at the moment but I contribute data soon.
      My theory is that the lizard canary is a special song canary, one where melanin (black) spots are confined exclusevely in the head.
      In my theory the lizard originates from the hybridisation between a small green species and a species almost certain yellow lipocromic.

      mvg Gust

  6. Rafael,

    I do not think the european serin (serinus serinus) hybrids from the canary hens are at the origins of the fine spangled ones. Professor Zuccon would support my claim that the european serin or as you call them green serins, are not a subspecies of the canary. They are the most related but a different species.

    Sorry but I feel some users of this blog are not that familiar with the european serin and its hybrids.

    First: Yes size matters, they are very small birds a mere 9 cm, compared to the 13 cm of the wild “serin of the canaries”. Two green serins fit easy into one chubby silver lizard hen. The H1 hybrids are midway (11 cm) as are the H2 hybrids.
    Second: the posture is completely different. The canary 45°, where the cini is flat.
    Third: The natural behaviour: The serin cock doesn’t bother rasing his offspring. His only contribution is singing but he is eager to fertilize the hen. The serins hen is a sailors wife, breeding and feeding her chicks on her own. Maybe he contributes after the chicks hatch but i haven’t even seen that.
    Four: the song: I had to listen this winter 2016 all day to my european serin. He is by far the smallest bird in my aviary but he dominates more than ten lizard cocks and a few hybrids. His strongest challenger is his own H1 son. Search google for his distinct song.
    Five: DNA see the paper by Mr. Zuccon.

    mvg Gust

  7. Rafael,

    thank you very very much for this quote: “My theory is that the lizard canary is a special song canary, one where melanin (black) spots are confined exclusevely in the head.”

    I am waiting very eagerly to your data.

    I still believe the “german theory” as the red fronted serin (serinus pusillus) as the most likely candidate.
    (if you would only know what they did to my family in WO1 and WO2)

    Support Huw in his effort to defend the one and only old LCA fancy standard. So let us compare this standard to a hybrid (red fronted serin cock and the “serin of the canaries” hen)

    The black legs and beak. The red fronted serin beats every other serinus species, maybe the alario as a close second.
    Search google for a photo of a juvenile red fronted canary. Their is no difference with a young lizard. They change from brown into a black bird after their first moult.
    these hybrids appear very divers. I strongly advise the hybrids book by Aloïs Van Mingeroet (in dutch !) for everyone interested in breeding hybrids. (no commission required)
    On page 17 there is a color plate by Hermann Heinzel. The four lowest drawings are red fronted serin hybrids. In all of them you find spangles and rowings if willing to see them. The one on the right maybe seen as a gold lizard first, the lowest as a silver.
    Ps on the front cover their is of course a goldfinchXbullfinch hybrid but i favor page 70: a red fronted serinXgoldfinch hybrid because its a real photo not a color plate.
    the orange color of the hybrids. Computerscreens are color liars. I have seen real supposed to be red fronted serin hybrids on local shows. I sometimes believe the red and mozaïc canary DNA comes from the red fronted serin trou the lizard. (i agree their is enough data to support the red siskin line)
    Back to our LCA standard: the continentals dislike the colouring but the english stick rightly to it. Maybe around 1800 the coloring was a bit of a hype, but it’s still in the standard.
    the cap. I believe the lizard cap is a poor pied imitation of the red fronted serin cap (see also the redpoll).
    Huw gave me lots to think about with his “fugitive black” in corrolation with the cap (and the london fancy) Recent own experiences crossing the lizard cock with a full melanin (green ) canary surprised me to the strong combination between spangling and appearence of a clear cap. 50% of the second generation are non capped self greens. The other 50% minor lizards with broken and sometimes even full clear caps. Their is definately a mendelian factor involved. Very nice to see on one day old chicks. The ones with naked black skin will become green. The ones with kaukasian skin becoming lizards. When ringing the youngsters at the age of five or six days you could even sell the greens as black canaries.

    I believe in these arguments in the above order and hope to include your quote and data between them.

    So again thank you Rafael and Huw,

    mvg Gust

    1. Sorry, I have to be more clear about the red canary:
      it’s a red siskin hybrid

      Ricardo J. Lopes, James D. Johnson, Matthew B. Toomey, Mafalda S. Ferreira, Pedro M. Araujo, José Melo-Ferreira, Leif Andersson, Geoffrey E. Hill, Joseph C. Corbo, and Miguel Carneiro (2016).
      Genetic Basis for Red Coloration in Birds, Current Biology, 26, published online ahead of print on 19 May 2016 |

      Of course the book by Birkhead

      Regards Gust


    Últimas fotos por favor

    Las patas y el pico negros se seleccionan por la cría en cautividad. Casi todos los pájaros silvestres suelen tener las patas y el pico negros.

    Siento no poder participar con más frecuencia

  9. Si consultamos láminas y dibujos antiguos, en muy pocos de éstos dibujos aparecen por ejemplo nás patas de los canarios de color negro.
    Creo que es una característica que no debió pasar desapercibida a los ilustradores de la época


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