Lizard canary basics, part 14: the rise and rise of rowings

Rowing, also known as breastwork, borst tekening, and dessin de la poitrine et flancs (1) has been the rising star in the Lizard’s firmament for as long as I can remember.  Anyone who has studied the Lizard’s ancient history will know that the popularity of rowings has been growing steadily for much longer than that.

Take a look at the illustration at the head of this article.  It appears in the first edition of Wallace’s ‘The Canary Book’.  It shows the winning Lizard canary at the Crystal Palace show in 1875 (2).  It was a clear cap gold cock bred by a Mr. Fairbrass of Canterbury, a leading Lizard fancier of his day.  Wallace tells us that it was ‘a champion all over’, yet the bird had a flaw.  In Wallace’s opinion ‘he is rather too much striped down the sides of the abdomen’.

Wallace was not a fan of what we now call rowings.  Elsewhere he tells us that ‘some birds – and good birds too – are striped with a darker shade of colour down the breast, but the less these stripes are observable the better’.  He allocated no points for breastwork in his score sheet for the Lizard canary.

He was not alone.  The oldest show standard for the Lizard canary I have found was published by B.P. Brent in The Cottage Gardner in 1860 (3).  The sixth of twelve ‘fancy points’ states: ‘throat, breast and belly – under surface from beak to tail clear yellow or buff’ (4).  There is no mention of dark markings in these feathers; they almost certainly existed, but they were not wanted.

The first hint that opinion was changing can be found in Blakston’s Canaries and Cage Birds (1878-81).  He offered his own version of the Lizard show scale which allocated 5 points for ‘soundness of colour and show of elaborate rudimentary spangling’ in the ‘throat and chest’.  Here is a detail from the coloured plate by Routledge.  It shows an idealised vision of a silver hen with a perfect cap, immaculate spangles and . . . neat , if rather dim, rowings (5).

Both Wallace and Blakston were knowledgeable canary men, but they were writing at a time when there were no national societies for individual breeds of canaries, and their vision of the ideal Lizard was no more than a personal interpretation.  It was not until the turn of the nineteenth century that we learn what Lizard canary breeders themselves thought.  Predictably, it differed from what these famous authors had suggested.

The turning point was the formation of the Lancashire and Lizard Canary Fanciers’ Association in the first decade of the twentieth century.  The Association became, de facto, the national body for the Lizard canary, even though most of its members lived within the county.  It was this society that William Scott joined when he started breeding Lizard canaries in 1937, yet he lived in Whitley Bay on the east coast of England, and may never have met his Lancastrian comrades.

The L&LCFA’s show scale was published in two books in 1910/11.  Strangely, they do not agree.  In Our Canaries (6) the rowings are allocated 5 points; but in Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds (7) they get 10.  How do we explain that discrepancy?

We know that C.A. House, a well-known writer on canaries, had been asked by the L&LCFA  to ‘submit a draft’ of the Lizard show standard and according to his account ‘this had been accepted’ (8).  It is this version that was printed in Our Canaries, yet the only surviving example of the L&LCFA members’ handbook, dated 1936, uses the same show scale as printed in Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds and awards 10 points to the rowings (9).  House’s draft may have been ‘accepted’, but not, it seems, without amendments by the Lizard fanciers of the L&LCFA (10).

There is no record of that decision, but there is circumstantial evidence to support the view that the Lizard breeders of Lancashire attached much greater importance to rowings than did outsiders like House (a Londoner).  I’ll give two examples here.

The first is the description of the rowings given by Mr. Barker-Clegg, a top breeder from Manchester, in Our Canaries (11):

“The Breast Work: This is the lacing which is sometimes very profuse.  Breeders now pay great attention to this necessary adornment, and the more you can get of it, well-defined, and extending down the breast, along the sides and waist, and on to the flanks, the better your chance of winning.” (12)

The second is a postcard sent by a Mr. I. Hone (or possibly I. More ?) to his ‘chum’ J. M. Shaw of Oldham  to wish him ‘happy returns of the day’ (13).  On the reverse is a drawing of a clear cap Lizard canary by P. Wynne-Williams (14) and dated 1912.  It appears to have been hand drawn and the profuse rowings suggest it was a silver hen. Surely no one would have gone to such lengths unless the bird was considered an outstanding individual?

The breeders clearly valued the rowings on a Lizard canary, and they were prepared to over-rule a canary expert to ensure that the L&LCFA scale of points reflected those values.

The founding fathers of the Lizard Canary Association agreed with them in 1945, and retained the 10 points for rowings in their show scale.  That show scale was later adopted by COM, and remained in force until the infamous hijacking of the OMJ Technical Committee’s meeting in Cervia 2016, which inflated the rowings to 15 points (15).

That decision (which is subject to appeal) indicates that the value of the rowings is still rising, at least within certain parts of COM. I will look at that trajectory, and the impact it could have on the development of the Lizard canary, in the next chapter of Lizard Canary Basics.


  1. The rowing, or rowings as they are generally called, does not translate easily into other languages. Most countries use a descriptive equivalent. As far as I am aware, only the Italians (or at least the LCCI) amongst the mainland European nations have adopted the term ‘rowings’ directly in their show scale.
  2. The Crystal Palace show was the equivalent of the ‘National Exhibition’ in Victorian times.
  3. The Cottage Gardner and Country Gentleman was a weekly magazine first published in 1853.  Brent is best known as a correspondent of Charles Darwin when he was writing The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication (1868).  Canaries did not figure in that book, Brent’s contribution being his knowledge of pigeons.
  4. Brent produced an occasional series on canaries and British finches, starting with the ‘wild canary of Madeira’ on 17 April 1860.  The Lizard canary was the fourth variety, published on 12 June of that year.
  5. Blakston and Wallace did not get on.  I can’t help feeling that Blakston’s advocacy of rowings was a deliberate attempt to contradict Wallace.
  6. Our Canaries, written by Claude St.John in 1911 (p 274).
  7. Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds, by John Robson, edited by H.S. Lewer (p.304).  No date, but published in 1910/11 according to the British Library.
  8. Canaries by C.A. House, first edition 1923 (p221).
  9. From the Scott archive.  This is William Scott’s copy.
  10. The draft show scale produced by C.A. House is the earliest reference to the term ‘rowings’ I have found.
  11. Our Canaries quotes several of the leading Lizard canary breeders of that time including Messrs Barker-Clegg, Dewsnap, Rukin and Barker (all from Lancashire and its environs).
  12. The use of the term ‘lacing’ in this context is confusing, because it was also used to refer to the covert feathers.  The latter connotation is still in use.
  13. Also from the Scott archive.   For readers whose first language is not English, ‘happy returns of the day’ means ‘happy birthday’.  The signature is not clear, but presumably Mr Hone was on holiday, as the postcard is franked ‘Scarborough’.  Unfortunately, only a photocopy of the original postcard survives.
  14. This may be the same person as ‘Mr. Wyn’ mentioned in a report on the L&LCFA’s activities by Mr. Barker-Clegg in the Cage Bids Annual 1906.
  15. If you have somehow missed the controversy, look up The Lizard’s Scales Parts 1, 2, 3 & 4.  The new show scale is due to come into force in January 2018.

12 thoughts on “Lizard canary basics, part 14: the rise and rise of rowings

  1. Great article once again! Huw you are a walking encyclopedia. I Look forward to the follow up.

  2. I am so glad I have found this site … Love the articles, very interesting and informative
    I do have a question … I am now the caregiver to a pair of European Serins and would like to get as much info on them and their care in captivity …. Please if you know of anywhere I may obtain such info head me in that direction … Many thanks
    Mark Beauchesne

    1. Nigel, the weekend of 25/26 november 2017 at a local show in Arendonk a “witkeeledelzanger X canary” hybrid was staged. I liked the bird’s overall contrast in back and breast and I was not alone, it got 92 points and was judged champion. The owner was overall champion at show with very divers birds as hedgesparrow, yellowhammer, linnet, chinese? hawfinch, redwing, song thrush and a “kastanjeborstlijster??” among others.
      I never saw such a large hybrid of that kind, easely 13 cm. Wonder what canary hen was used? Even with the most open mind I could not find any spangles nor rowings. No lizard to be seen in that bird.

      mvg Gust

      1. I wonder if the purpose of the pairing was to provide a Hybrid or to produce birds to work with going forwards to see if they have fertility with a view to developing and discovering features ? Hybridising is – to some extent – a lottery, through the F1, F2 and onwards, with all those combinations of genetic factors in play. We don’t get Red Lipochrome canaries at F1 – nor did we get the Mosaic or the Ivory / Ivoor that appeared later. I suspect ‘some’ of the developments in the early years of canary culture came about by accident in mixed collections of ‘song-birds’ rather than through engineered breeding programs.
        Known ‘unknowns’ as they say……which will probably never be known ? The closer the genes, the more the mutations, as in Budgerigars, Gouldians, Lovebirds and Siberian, but not ‘common’ Goldfinches / Bullfinches, where the gene pool is more varied and less ‘close’ in captivity ?

        1. Knowing the flemish breeders of today, i am pretty sure the pairing was setup very carefully. Choosing both cock and hen for maximum chance to have a staging champion. Maybe the breeder wanted a songbird. They do not believe in fertile hybrids with a few exceptions.
          I agree with your thoughts on the ancestry of the spangled sort. Still can not see which african serinus could have contributed his DNA.

  3. In these days of reducing costs in the testing of Genotypes one would hope that ‘someone’ would carry out some investigation – at least to establish a “baseline” from the Lizard itself to find unique DNA ‘marker’s the Lizard displays. It may not give us a ‘revelation’, but it may prompt some logical ‘next’ questions. We do not know what sort of a mish-mash the ‘typical’ ( whatever that is ) domesticated canary may display, but it my be un-typical compared to the Lizard which would at least be a starting point.
    Any ‘odd’ markers may well be apparent at an early stage. The challenge would then be to try to identify the ‘unusual’ source – should there be one. It may be that several 100 years has created a ‘soup’ that it is impossible to define. But it may not…..
    I had hoped that Dr Tim Birkhead would follow up from his work on the Red Canary and get one of his Post Grad’s to look at it for the purposes of another book !
    If costs keep coming down it ‘should’ have been the sort of thing an individual or governing body could take the first steps towards. People are now creating (supposedly) ‘fool-proof’ DNA profiles of dogs to prevent theft etc. at a cost under ‘3’ figures. Whether that is the level of information or formatting of results that would be needed to create sufficient ‘markers’ to work with I do not know, but it is enough to define the specifics and peculiarities within dog ‘breeds’ – or is at least a step along the way. Most canary varieties seem, without careful selective breeding to revert towards ‘type’, kept isolated, Lizards do not and have not. Even trying to ‘corrupt’ them fails as the introduced blood tends to be incorporated in a few generations, although it may do little to promote the quality of features, until the features win out.
    Testing every other Finch, Serin, Siskin etc to find some ‘errant’ code may cost more than the job is worth but there are probably already Data bases of markers out there being created by environmentalists and ecologists which may help short cut any research.
    It may, I suppose be better not to know – to feed the myth and mystery.

  4. Could not agree more, thank you very much for your reply in each aspect. A younger person than I would advocate for crowdfunding this proposal.
    I considered approaching a responsable person at our local multinational “Johnson and Johnson”, i’m sure they can do the job. Dr. Paul ( as founder of Janssen Pharma, after a fierce footballmatch in a local pub drinking a belgian beer, could be convinced of the matter. Specially when pointed to the importance of the molecule tyrosine ( as precursor to the pigment melanin. Note the dutch wiki on tyrosine is more elaborate on the matter, see: “precursor van melanine” on

    Seeing a lizard canary i think of spangling and rowing out of the first juvenile moult, a cap, black beak and legs, the need for red colouring. In that order.
    Call me an old romantic but i dream also about frenchmen in the 17th century from the region of Carcassonne climbing to higher grounds in spring, full of the hugenot (calvijn) doctrine but also full of superstition being guided by little red flames on coal. The fire fronted serin (serinus pusillus) has it all.
    First moult (double checked) – cap (check?) – black beak and legs (check) – reddish-orange (check). At least a nice myth to fall asleep in.

  5. Blakston and Wallace did not get on. Really interesting Huw, can you point me at your sources for this please?

    1. They were very different characters, as you will have seen in the English Cinnamon canary, Part 1.

      Blakston criticised some of Wallace’s comments on the London Fancy as “unsound”, and on the Belgian canary as “nonsense”. (Illustrated Book of Canaries, p.183 and p.201).

      Wallace responded with a testimonial of Blakston which praised him as an administrator and a “fluent writer”, but was clearly intended to undermine his reputation as an expert on canaries e.g. “as a practical breeder his experience was very limited”. (The Canary Book, 3rd edition, p.311 & 312).

      Those comments may seem innocuous by modern standards, but would have been regarded as verging on ungentlemanly conduct in Victorian times.


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