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Canaries in the coal mine: why birds can tell us so much about the health of Earth

Still Waters

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Posted (IP: Staff) ·

Following a deadly explosion in a Welsh coal mine in 1896, an engineer called John Haldane invented a type of bird cage that allowed canaries to accompany miners into the depths. The small songbirds are much more sensitive than humans to the deadly carbon monoxide gas found underground.

A sudden halt to their singing would warn workers to evacuate the pit – and rescue the canary by closing its cage door and opening a valve to pump oxygen inside. Remarkably, it was only in 1986 that canaries were relieved of their duties detecting noxious gases in UK coal mines.

As rising temperatures and habitat loss degrade the natural world, bird species everywhere play the role of mine canaries for the whole planet. Trends in the size of their populations inform us of the extent and patterns of environmental change, providing a kind of early warning system.

There are a number of reasons why birds are excellent indicators of the status of other wildlife groups and the health of the wider ecosystem. For one, birds are found all over the world, in all countries and in nearly all habitats. From ivory gulls and emperor penguins on the polar ice caps to birds of paradise in tropical rainforests, and from albatrosses cruising the remote open ocean to desert larks in the Sahara.


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