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National Bird Day 2015: The Red Siskin

Endangered by its genes and the bird trade

In celebration of National Bird Day 2015, Barry Kent MacKay, Senior Program Associate for Born Free USA and lifelong bird enthusiast, is writing a special eight-part blog series in December and January where he will describe some interesting avian species. Below is the first installment.

Most people have never heard of, or seen, a Red Siskin. Related to our familiar goldfinch, and the same size, the Red Siskin's entire native range is restricted to a few locations in northern Colombia, Venezuela, and southern Guyana. A small population of escaped cage birds exists in Puerto Rico, but even they went into decline and may not survive. The Red Siskin is endangered for reasons that are most unusual, and have everything to do with human greed, the commercial bird trade, and our desire to always "improve" what nature gives us. It's a sad tale, worth knowing.

The Red Siskin (Carduelis cucullata) is one of the rarest and least known members of a family of birds, the Fringillidae (finches), which has given us one of the most abundant and best known of birds: the canary. The canary is one of the world's most popular cage birds, derived from a species called the Island Canary (Serinus canaria), which is naturally found across the Atlantic, on the Canary Islands, in the Azores, and in Madeira, with wild populations established in Bermuda, Puerto Rico, and Hawaii. The wild Island Canary is colored in modest shades of yellow and drab greenish, streaked with brown. In its domesticated form, the same species can occur in a variety of colors, with some breeds having bizarre shapes and misshapen feathers. The most common color is yellow.

The Island Canary is one of literally dozens of similarly colored species found in a family of about 144 different species from around the world that come in a wide variety of colors and patterns. But, among those finches most closely related to the domestic (and Island) Canary, the Red Siskin is distinctive by virtue of its bright red plumage.

Early in the 20th Century, with both the science of evolution and that of genetics in their infancy, a German bird keeper named Hans Duncker, assisted by Karl Reich, found that he could breed South American Red Siskins with the already-domesticated Island Canary. The hybrids thus produced were bred back with yellow canaries. Duncker selected specimens carefully, the aim being to remove everything that resembled the Red Siskin except for the red color! He was so convinced that genetics alone were responsible for the color of a bird's plumage that he tried no other method. In the end, Duncker and Reich were able to produce orange canaries.

Years later, American researchers discovered that the redness of such bird species as Greater Flamingos and Scarlet Ibises-and Red Siskins-was determined, at least in part, by the presence of carotene: the orange-red pigment that gives carrots and pink shrimp their color. The Red Siskin's genetic contribution, or "factor," was to allow carotene to contribute to the red parts of its red and black plumage. We now call the orange and red colored canaries that one can buy in a store "red factor" canaries, because they contain the genetic factor that allows them to turn deep orange-red (or copper, apricot, or peach) IF, as they are growing new feathers, they are fed beta-carotene (ideally, but not necessarily, with similar amounts of canthaxanthin: a carotene pigment found in algae and various marine animals).

There is a very dark side to all of this. Duncker's orange canaries have been called the first-ever genetically modified animal, "created" decades before current concerns about genetic engineering of plants and animals became prominent. He was obsessed with the idea that genes were responsible for who and what we are, and allowed his canary research to be used by the German Nazis to justify "eugenics": the idea that a "superior race" of human can be created by weeding out the "undesirable," just as he had weeded out the black head and tail of that lovely little Venezuelan bird, the Red Siskin. He became a rabid anti-Semite, blinded by ideology to the inherent flaws of his theory.

Thousands of Red Siskins were trapped to be sold as cage birds-both in their own right, and to be bred with canaries to obtain the "red factor." The bird was wiped out over most of its original range. Although it has been protected since 1940, the demand is enormous, and poaching still occurs. As a footnote, more than a decade ago, my mother, Phyllis E. MacKay, alerted me to what looked to be wild-caught Red Siskins at a local bird show. I agreed and told my colleague, Liz White, whose report ultimately led to arrests of people involved in the largest bird smuggling ring ever uncovered in Canada.

And, there is another problem. Many pet stores sell special foods to be fed to red factor canaries in order to enhance their color. Those foods do not always provide adequate nourishment and can be harmful to the health of the birds. If you own a red factor canary and you are that concerned about color, it's best to mix in finely grated carrots and chopped broccoli, or other fruits or vegetables that are rich in beta-carotene, during the period leading up to moult and as they are growing in new feathers.

The Red Siskin is protected under Appendix I of the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora (CITES). If you see any for sale, even if banded, it is best to check with the CITES enforcement office.