When we think of the Norwich Canaries nowadays it is probably footballers that first spring to mind. Yet this a relatively recent use of the word; when Norwich City Football Club was first formed in 1902 their nickname was the Norwich Citizens. Their strip was originally not the familiar yellow and green (after bird’s plumage) but blue and white. They did not become the Canaries until 1908. Nantes FC in France also has yellow and green strip and is nicknamed Les Canaris. For the origin of the word canaries we must go back into history; and not to footballs or even to birds, but to dogs!
Canine is the word for all things pertaining to dogs, and it comes from the Latin word for that animal, canis. The Spanish group of islands in the Atlantic got their name Canary Islands from the large wild dogs which lived their in Roman times. Other animals living on the archipelago were a species of giant lizard and of course the green songbirds of the finch family which also acquired the name canaries. The word canary has meant several other things as well over the centuries – a lively Spanish dance, a sweet white wine and even a medicine. The birds were first kept as pets by Spanish sailors. The attractive song of the male birds soon made them the toys of royalty.
Norwich enters the picture when the Flemish weavers settled in the city in the 17th century. They brought canaries with them as cage birds. Norwich became famous for its canary birds, a fashion which lasted for 200 years. The fame of Norwich canaries stemmed largely from the secret formula that local breeders used to turn the green wild bird first yellow and then bright orange. This was achieved by adding spices such as red pepper to their food, although selective breeding was increasingly played its part. Although the city is no longer the centre of canary breeding, the name is still used as far away as Scotland and Canada. Other breeds have taken over as more popular however, such as the Border and Fife canaries. The Norwich canary is a robust but sedate bird. It is also relatively easy to keep, being fed on normal canary pellets. It appreciates a small amount of green food such as lettuce. Canaries were used in coal mines as an early warning system for the presence of dangerous gas. There were of course no coal mines in Norfolk. The birds were commonly grown all over the country, Norwich was namely for its birds, but they were by no means unique to the city.
My own experience of canaries goes back to the 1950s when I was given a bird to look after. It would be allowed to fly around the room from time to time, chirping slightly. There was no beautiful song as our bird was a hen, and only the cocks sing. Her name was Lady Rowena Pipsqueak, and she would occasionally lay petty blue eggs- infertile ones of course, as she was a solitary bird. Eventually when I got up one morning she lay dead on the bottom of her cage. I was never moved to replace her.
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