Little Yellow Bird

April 25th, 2013

My incorrigible husband recently fulfilled his long-time aspiration to acquire a canary. And this isn’t just any bird. He’s a real dynamo — a professional singer with pipes and ego to match. We picked him out because he was beating up all the other birds in the aviary at the pet shop. Aggression seems to be an indication of talent in birds…

Girl with Canary, by Seymour Joseph Guy
Girl with Canary, by Seymour Joseph Guy

Canaries are also a very 19th-century pet. Many ladies kept them to brighten the parlor, housing them in elaborate and decorative cages. Household manuals of the time often included articles on caring for your bird. And here is an excerpt from the introduction to Canary Birds: A Manual of Useful and Practical Information for Bird Keepers, 1869:

A great many people think that to confine birds is cruel. If it were so, indeed, few would be the cage birds one would wish to see; but happily, on the contrary, for those who, like myself, are fond of the little songsters, the more we know about them, the more we are satisfied that theirs is a happy prison. Not for all birds by any means; some would break their hearts, if confined in a cage. The birds of passage, all those that come and go, should never be kept from the sunny skies they seek as winter comes. But with the Canary, as well as a variety of other birds, reared in cages and knowing nothing of that freedom upon which depends almost the existence of their wilder brethren, it would be cruel to expose them to the misery of being loose, little, shivering, trembling strangers, in an unkindly crowd. Poor little creatures, if one of them does get out, how fast it flies to seek some friendly cage; it knows not the language, the ways, and fashions of the birds around it, nor yet does it always meet with the kindest welcome from them. Besides, our canaries want petting—they have no wish, so their gay song tells us, to seek a dirty puddle instead of a crystal bath; to hide from the rain and cower from the cold, instead of hanging singing in a warm pleasant room. Most people forget to reckon on the birds’ social habits; nor do they give them credit for half their loving ways. Canaries are often wild and show fear whenever approached by those who have never shown them kindness. This arises from a natural, and a very proper suspicion, of mankind. Their instinct tells them that the human race are inherently savage; and till they have some convincing proof to the contrary, they never change this, their very correct opinion. To be teased, frightened, slighted, or neglected, is their too frequent fate. But we may add with a deep feeling of pleasure, there are ” exceptions” to all rules, and we know that there are many, many gentle hearts who do love” their birds—aye, and hold converse with them too.

The new little bird has already learned to eat his morning greens from our fingers, and when we aren’t in the room he peeps desperately to hear our answering call. Most of all, he just loves to sing. My husband, a professional musician and radio DJ, exposes him to every style and genre of music imaginable. So far, the canary likes Scriabin, Elvis, Jim Morrison, and the Andrews Sisters, to name a very few. He’s also passionately fond of Linda Ronstadt, or pretty much any high female voice. I’ve even gotten him to sing along with me a few times.

Historian Mary Knapp, my erstwhile mentor and dear friend, introduced me to this poem by Walt Whitman, which sums up our feelings about the bird quite nicely:

My Canary Bird

Did we count great, O soul, to penetrate the themes of mighty books,
Absorbing deep and full from thoughts, plays, speculations?
But now from thee to me, caged bird, to feel thy joyous warble,
Filling the air, the lonesome room, the long forenoon,
Is it not just as great, O soul?