Which came first, the canary or the island? The Canary Islands were named long before the Spanish conquered the islands in 1496 and brought some of the native birds back with them to Europe. Interestingly, the word “canary” is a derivative of the Latin word “canis,” as in “dog.” The Romans were said to have given the islands their name (Canaria Insula) because the islands’ native inhabitants bred a type of dog.
The Canary Islands, which are comprised of seven islands (the nearest being 67 miles off the northwest of the African mainland), were, according to the Encyclopedia Britannica, visited by the Arabs as early as 999 for trading purposes. During the 13th and 14th centuries, Genoese, Majorcan, Portuguese and French navigators made their way to the islands. And since the late 1400s, Spain has ruled the subtropical Canary Islands, which also became a stopping ground for the up-and-coming Christopher Columbus as a place to replenish his westward fleets.
The Spanish were so taken by the little green birds known as Serinus serinus with the delightful songs that they decided to take some back and introduced them to the rest of Europe. From there, Italy, Germany, France, Belgium, and much later on the U.S., bred their own versions of these colorful little birds known as canaries.
Canaries were originally bred exclusively for their impressive song. After being introduced by the Spaniards (who conquered the Canary Islands in the late 15th century) to Europe, canaries were so enthusiastically bred that 29 distinct varieties existed by the beginning of the 18th century. Adding to the mix are today’s bird breeders, who strive to create even more colors and types of canaries.
With so many canaries to choose from, one might conclude that the ancestors of all canaries must have been a remarkably striking bird. But take a glimpse of the pet canary’s wild counterpart, and you’ll see a small, grayish-green and yellow bird that strikes a pose closer to a sparrow than the vibrant-yellow canary commonly found in pet stores.