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By Marschall, Laurence A. | Natural History, February 2004 | Go to article overview

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Marschall, Laurence A., Natural History


BOOKSHELF A Brand-New Bird: How Two Amateur Scientists Created the First Genetically Engineered Animal by Tim Birkhead Basic Books, 2003; $26.00

Canary yellow, strange to relate, is not the natural color of canaries. In its native habitat, the Canary Islands, the bird is a nondescript greenish songster with a melodious warble. First brought to Europe in the fifteenth century, canaries became the prize possessions of royalty, who treasured them for the beauty of their song, not the color of their plumage. In an age before radio and CDs, songbirds were a welcome source of background music, brightening idle hours and relieving the boredom of repetitive work.

Over the centuries, though, songbirds became the hobby of bird fanciers, who selectively bred them for particular characteristics. Bird aficionados in Germany selected canaries for the strength and complexity of their song. Elsewhere in Europe, canary collectors emphasized unusual size, posture, or color, creating a remarkable variety of breeds that included the now-familiar yellow canary, but also others that were pure white, or mixtures of black, green, orange, and yellow.

According to Tim Birkhead, a professor of evolutionary biology at the University of Sheffield in England, the idea of creating a crimson canary came to Hans Duncker, a German high school teacher, in the mid-1920s. An ardent Darwinist trained in Mendelian genetics, Duncker was collaborating with an amateur canary fancier named Karl Reich on several breeding projects.

Reich had the bird breeder's equivalent of a green thumb, and was known among bird hobbyists for training canaries to sing the song of the nightingale. Duncker brought to the collaboration a trained scientific mind and an impressive command of the latest ideas in genetics. Their goal was to cross a yellow canary with a now-rare South American bird, the red siskin, creating a hybrid that would combine the fiery plumage of the siskin with the vocal talent of the canary. Duncker's breeding plan was based on a state-of-the-art genetic analysis, and though he and Reich never got the brilliant red plumage they were seeking, their work brought them fame and led to a better understanding of how both genetic and environmental factors affect variation in individuals.

Although the Duncker-Reich collaboration provides a unifying theme, it is a story only an obsessive bird lover would celebrate. Fortunately, only a small part of the narrative is taken up by it, and the real delight of the book is its frequent sidetracks into the biology, culture, lore, and politics of birds. Birkhead devotes several pages, for instance, to a description of musical instruments designed to teach songbirds how to sing.

He also includes several enlightening passages on the importance of canaries as gas detectors in coal mines, and a section on the sexual symbolism of birds (we learn that uccello, Italian for "bird," is slang for "penis," just as "cock" is in English). And there is a lengthy digression on catching and cooking songbirds.

Readers will search the body of the book in vain, however, for details about the "genetically engineered animal" of the subtitle. Taken in the modern sense, genetic engineering implies artificially implanting foreign DNA into the cells of a host animal. Duncker and Reich, of course, as Birkhead remarks in his preface, knew nothing of molecular biology. They merely applied the familiar techniques of hybridization, augmented with the insights of Mendel's genetics. Charges of false advertising might be in order (probably against an overzealous editor looking to hook readers), but the author cannot be faulted for producing a thoroughly enjoyable book.

Surviving the Extremes: A Doctor's Journey to the Limits of Human Endurance by Kenneth Kamler Saint Martin's Press, 2004; $24.95

For me, and I imagine for most readers of this magazine, just about the only circumstances that require survival skills are those awful weeks in the year when public radio stations hold their fund-raising marathons. …

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