The English Cinnamon canary, Part 1

“cin·na·mon  (sĭn′ə-mən) n.

1a. The dried aromatic inner bark of certain tropical Asian trees of the genus Cinnamomum especially C. verum and cassia (C. aromaticum), often ground and used as a spice.

1b. A tree yielding this bark.

2. A light reddish brown.”


Canary fanciers with an interest in old breeds might be inclined to add a further definition: ‘a rare breed of canary renowned for its colour.’

Only last autumn I was worried that the Cinnamon was following the Liverpool Green on the path to extinction (1).  As it happened, fanciers in Scotland and the south of England were already on the case, had acquired stock, and were looking to revive the breed.  An article by Donald Skinner-Reid (2), the formation of the English Cinnamon Canary Club (3) and, above all, the support of editor Rob Innes have combined to raise the profile of the breed.  The Cinnamon canary is making a comeback.

Many readers will wonder what the fuss is all about.  After all, the cinnamon mutation is not rare, nor is it confined to one variety or species. 

Cinnamon canary
Cinnamon sticks. Source: Wikimedia Commons (Bertrand Thiry)

Cinnamon is a sex-linked recessive mutation that suppresses the expression of eumelanin black to varying degrees.  The result is that feather pigments that were black now look brown, although the actual shade can vary from dark chocolate to russet to grey-brown.  No wonder that COM refers to the mutation simply as ‘brown’.  It doesn’t sound special, does it?

If the Cinnamon was just another example of the brown mutation, I wouldn’t be writing this article, but its special combination of colour and type has seen major changes over the last 150 years.  The question I want to examine in this series is what sort of Cinnamon should modern enthusiasts be trying to conserve? 

We’ll start with the history of the cinnamon mutation itself.  Contrary to what you may have read, Hervieux’s famous list of 28 ‘varieties’, first published in 1709, makes no mention of brown, brun, marron, cannelle (French for cinnamon) or any similar tint.  Here it is in the original French (4):

Hervieux list
Hervieux’s original list of 28 ‘varieties’ of canaries.

No doubt some readers will point out that Hervieux did indeed include the cinnamon, but that he called it the isabelle.  This misunderstanding can be traced to our old friend Dr. Galloway, the man with an obsession about the cinnamon mutation but, as so often, he was wrong.  

Perhaps he was confusing it with ‘isabelline’, a sandy colour, but that term didn’t came into use until the nineteenth century (5).  Had he checked the etymology of isabelle he would have found that in 17th century France it meant a colour ‘between white and yellow’ (6).  Of all the translations of Hervieux’s isabelle, the original English version of 1718 was closest in describing it as ‘buff’.

The first description of brown canaries that I have found was published in 1742 (7), and it wasn’t flattering:

“The Germans bring over also a few darkish brown birds, called Grey Canary Birds.  They are the least esteemed of any, because of their mighty plain feather, being the colour of common sparrows, and therefore cheapest of all”.

Was this the same as Hervieux’s Serin gris commun (the common grey canary), and therefore possibly the cinnamon?  We’ll never know.

It is not until 1825 that we hear that cinnamon canaries were being cultivated for their colour:

“Those birds, which are called Quakers, are of a light brown or fawn colour, which expands itself over the whole of their plumage, making them appear very dull and heavy to the eye; but I do not consider this any improvement in fancy.” (8)

B.P Brent (1860) gives us a more detailed description:

“These, like the preceding [the Norwich canary] are simply a variety of colour, and although not so showy as the Jonque, are valued higher on account of them being less common.  In colour they are of a reddish-grey brown, of a very pleasant soft colour, from which their various names of Quakers, Cinnamon, and Dove-coloured Canaries are derived.  To be admired they should be whole-coloured, free from white feathers, and as near as may be of one uniform shade, though this varies; being in some paler, in others more reddish, but generally preferred when tinged with a yellowish shade, when they are designated Cinnamon Jonques.” (9)

It is one thing to read a description of a bird, but quite another to see it in colour.  That opportunity arose eight years later when ‘The Canary’ by the Rev. Francis Smith (1868) was published.  It is an unusual canary book insofar as it was written by an amateur canary enthusiast and illustrated ‘with portraits of the author’s own birds’ by his daughter Judy.  These birds were family pets, they all had names, and she portrayed the canaries as individuals regardless of their ‘faults’.  Her illustrations may not be of top show birds but they have a refreshing honesty.  

Cinnamon canaries
The pair of cinnamon canaries owned by the Rev. Francis Smith, from “The Canary” 1868

The Rev. Smith was not alone in admiring them because in 1866 the Crystal Palace show (the equivalent of the National Exhibition) provided separate classes for Cinnamons for the first time (10).  We can be reasonably confident that they looked similar to his birds in colour, and that most, if not all, would have been selfs (100% melanin).

Within five years, the Cinnamon canary received another boost to its popularity: the introduction of colour feeding.  It was an innovation that took the canary fancy by storm and proved very controversial at the time, with many birds being disqualified until popular demand forced shows to accept them.  Blakston recalled:

“Our own introduction to these birds was at Cheltenham, where we were judging the same year [1871].  At that time their fame had not reached us, but one or two of them were sent to Cheltenham, and one we well remember, a Heavily Variegated Buff bird, beat a large class.  We were attracted by its extraordinarily rich colour, which fairly took away our breath; but an examination showed us sure indications of its genuineness, and we  gave our award unhesitatingly.” (11)

Cinnamon canaries
Cinnamon Canaries in the 1870s, from top: mealy (non-intensive), jonque (intensive) and natural colour. Source: Blakston ‘Canaries & Cage Birds’.

Blakston was also one of the first to accept colour-fed Cinnamons when he judged at a show visited by Richard Hunter, who still had vivid memories of the event in 1902:

“Again I look back to when I first took up Norwich, when KN [cayenne] feeding was in its infancy and was a great secret.  Full well do I remember journeying to Oldham upward of thirty years ago to see the first team of Red Hot’uns I called them.  They were represented by Mackley Brothers, G.E. Russell, then of Brierley Hill . . . and Robinson of Cunsey Hill, with his Cinnamons; they were a treat for anyone to behold.” (12)

Blakston could recognise the benefit that colour feeding brought to the Cinnamon, whereas Wallace, in 1893, railed:

“Oh this cayenne! It really is the bug-bear of the fancy, if not the curse of it, and has done so much harm to some breeds that ten years of careful and honest breeding would not suffice to eradicate all the evils that have followed in its train.  There is no kind of science in this kind of breeding, no skill required, no foresight, no brains.  It is almost a matter of chance; then why resort to it?  Be warned in time, do not destroy one of the loveliest of our varieties for the sake of a whim.” (13).

The Cinnamon canary took another step forward when the ‘modern’ cinnamon canary was developed in the 1880s.  ‘Modern’ is a term used by both Blakston and Wallace, the leading authors of that period.  It referred to a Cinnamon canary that combined colour with ‘type’, but that begged the question: what should that ‘type’ be?  As usual, they disagreed about the answer.

There were two candidates, but they represented a north/south divide.  Wallace lived in Sunderland and was loyal to his northern roots:

“In some parts of Yorkshire, Lancashire, Durham, and Northumberland, many elegant specimens of the Belgian cross are to be met with.  Large slender birds, graceful in form and commanding in appearance, with sleek flat heads, exquisitely chiselled, and long slender necks, with good substantial legs, well formed, and a fine erect carriage; add to these properties a pair of evenly marked wings and two delicately and beautifully pencilled eye markings, and you have what I consider a gem of a bird to behold.” (14)

Compare that paean of praise to his opinion of the Norwich type of cinnamon favoured by breeders in the south:

“There is no accounting for taste, for the cross between the cinnamon and the Norwich fancy canaries are very diminutive birds, displaying nothing beyond the form of the commonest type of canary, and having no other recommendation beyond their superior colour over the class of birds I have previously endeavoured to portray; but whether high colour in this case really is an advantage is purely a matter of opinion; for my part, I think that the infusion of Norwich blood, giving the colours a brighter and deeper hue, detracts rather than adds to the appearance of the birds . . .” (15).

Cinnamon canaries
Prize winning Cinnamons of the type preferred by Wallace, illustrated in “The Canary Book”, third edition 1893.

Blakston lived in Derby, in the middle of the country, and was more reasoned in his approach.  His starting point was that the cinnamon had ‘one peculiarity, viz. its colour’.  That led him to the conclusion that:

 “Considering it, then, as a colour-bird, we accept the modern Norwich type as a much improved form of the old bird”. 

It highlights the different characters of the two authors, one intense and opinionated, the other more measured and rational.

For all his passion, Wallace was unable to convince his fellow fanciers.  The supporters of the ‘modern’ Cinnamon canary had seen a vision of the future: the bird they wanted to breed would be a cobby bird based on the Norwich canary, and the hotter its colour, the better.

That is the bird I will discuss in Part 2.


  1. The Liverpool Green has been extinct for over a century q.v. “The Liver Birds”, Cage & Aviary Birds, 11 September 2019.
  2. “The charm of the Cinnamon” by Donald Skinner-Reid, Cage & Aviary Birds, 2 January 2020.
  3. For details of the English Cinnamon Canary Club, contact Brian Gregory at .
  4. Nouveau traité des serins de Canarie, by Hervieux de Chanteloup, first edition 1709.  The illustration is taken from the 1711 edition, but the text is identical.
  5. ‘Isabelline’
  6. Dictionnaire de la langue française, par É. Littré .  For example ‘sorte d’étoffe de couleur mitoyenne entre le blanc et le jaune’ (‘a sort of fabric with a colour between white and yellow’) dated 1669. .
  7. “A New Way of Breeding Canary Birds”, anonymous but probably Francis Turner (1742).
  8. “The British Aviary”, anonymous, no publication date but written in 1825.
  9. “The Cottage Gardner and Country Gentleman”, May 22, 1860.  Brent corresponded with Darwin during his preparation of “The Variation of Animals and Plants under Domestication” (1868).
  10. “Cage Birds”, 7 June 1902.
  11. “The  Illustrated book of Canaries and Cage Birds” by Blakston, Swaysland and Wiener (1878-81). p. 81.
  12. Letter from Richard Hunter, “Cage Birds”, 31 May 1902.
  13. “The Canary Book” by R.L. Wallace, third edition 1893, p. 266.
  14. “The Canary Book” by R.L. Wallace, first edition 1875, p.143
  15. Ibid.

2 thoughts on “The English Cinnamon canary, Part 1

  1. Excellent piece, as always. I’m delighted that this variety is getting so much attention.

  2. With the popularity been rekindled the South Bucks Canary Breeders association will put on classes for the English Cinnamon at this years show. if we have shows? fingers crossed


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