The Canary Bird

Amelia Weatherall presents the Canary bird, a sentinel species co-opted into the global expansion of the industrial revolution. Employed up to the late 20th century as early warning systems in the often toxic atmospheres of coal mines around the world, canary birds saved thousands of human lives exposed alongside them.

Museum of the Anthropocene: The Canary Bird

Showing a Canary bird. Image by Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.
Canary bird. Image by Danuta Piotrowska from Pixabay.

The yellow canary bird is a historically significant bird due to its use in the coal mines during the late 19th to late 20th centuries. Thousands of the singing songbirds [were used in] coal mines across the world.

It was engineer John Haldane who discovered that small sentients, including mice and canaries, could be used to detect the presence of toxic gases. Canaries were preferred due to their high metabolism and better respiratory systems; they were able to detect carbon monoxide in the air 20 minutes before any human could.

The birds were used across the globe. Miners would carry them into the mines on a perch and if brought into an environment of carbon monoxide, they would faint and fall off the perch, alerting miners to the need to evacuate. The birds wouldn’t typically die as the cages were designed to shut off external air and vials of oxygen were sometimes carried by the miners. Thousands of lives were saved whilst enabling safer coal production.

In 1906, the Nottingham Evening Post wrote about an explosion at the Urpeth Colliery where four men died. Canaries were used in the rescue efforts, “a canary in a cage was kept in front and dropped off its perch when the danger point was reached, overcome by poisonous atmosphere”. The paper then described that the “birds may be of great value”.

The yellow canaries were embedded into the heritage and culture of coal mining. Most mines built aviaries to house these small singing birds even if they weren’t to be put to work. They boosted the morale of the miners and were seen as pets in many communities.

Yet even though the canaries were treated well, the use of the birds can be seen as unethical and immoral as they were used for power and economic gain. Is it right for us to be putting animals into toxic environments?

The phrase ‘a canary in a coal mine’ is used worldwide to signal that there may be an upcoming crisis. There is
political importance in this metaphor for many coal mining communities across the globe that are transitioning
to renewable energy. A developed, inclusive plan must be put in place to create a just transition to renewables
for those whose livelihoods depend on coal. For example, in India it is believed that up to 20 million people are dependent on coal directly or indirectly. Without a careful plan, those millions could be plunged into poverty.

But it is not just canaries that can tell us about our changing environments. As climate change alters our planet,
temperatures and sea level rise [and] ecosystems and habitats break down, bird species across the globe take on the role of the canary in the coal mine. Their migration patterns, population numbers and changing feeding grounds give early warnings for our environment. We can use sentinel species to identify broader environmental risks caused by climate change. For example, if a decline in bug-eating birds such as flycatchers was recorded, it could signify a decreasing population of insects which could be due to changing unsuitable climates.


The Canary bird was contributed by Amelia Weatherall. Amelia says “My inspiration of the canary bird intially came from my grandma who told me about the historical importance of them. She told me about her family who were miners and how the birds were a part of their lives and sort of acted like a symbol of hope and life to them. It was eye-opening to be able to discover a part of history that I would never have otherwise known and look at it from an environmental perspective.”

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