The creation of Dolly the sheep in the 1990s was for many people the start of a new era: the age of genetically modified animals. However, the idea was not new, for in the 1920s an amateur scientist, Hans Duncker, decided to genetically engineer a red canary.
Favored originally for their voice, by the middle of the nineteenth century canaries had become so popular that millions were exported from Europe to the United States to satisfy demand. During the 1870s, English canary breeders caused a scandal by feeding their birds red peppers to turn them orange. In the 1930s, Duncker’s genetics efforts caught the attention of the Nazi regime who saw him as a champion of their eugenic policies, even though his ingenious experiments were not successful.
Nonetheless, Duncker’s work paved the way thirty years later for an Englishman, Anthony Gill, and an American, Charles Bennett, to succeed, after recognizing that the red canary would need to be a product of both nature and nurture. In Tim Birkhead’s masterful hands, this highly original narrative reveals how the obsession of bird keepers turned the wild canary from green to red, and in the process, heralded exciting but controversial developments in genetic manipulation.