So you are wondering where the red canary comes from and what food makes him red. Dear oh dear, it can get very complicated, but let me break it down for you to understand the engineering and science behind it.
The story of where the red factor canary comes from
The red canary is the first genetically engineered animal in the world. The story began in the early 19th century when two amateur german scientists Hans Duncker and Karl Reich aimed to introduce the red color to canaries. To achieve their goal, they turned to the red siskin native to Venezuela. They crossed this bird with a yellow canary, and then backcrossed the offspring with a yellow canary once again. Backcrossing continued for (offspring x yellow canary) more than 20 generations until the canary got rid of all the red siskin traits except the trait of red feathers.
But the result of backcrossing over 20 generations was an orange canary, not a red one. The two scientists thought they failed and reached a flawed conclusion at the end. However, decades later, two American breeders discovered that the orange shade shifts to red when the orange canary feeds on a diet rich in carotenoids.
Foods that help the red factor canary plumage become red
So, now you are wondering what carotenoids are. Carotenoids are organic pigments. They are found widely in nature in plants, but also in selected species of algae and some organisms such as fungi. These carotenoids are responsible for the yellow, orange, and red pigments in fruits and vegetables.
For example, oranges have an orange color because of the presence of carotenoids so do tomatoes and corn, and so on and so forth. Green fruits and vegetables can also have high concentrations of carotenoids despite their green color, especially dark leafy vegetables such as spinach. The carotenoids pigments in green fruits and vegetables can’t be seen because of the presence of the green pigment chlorophyll which overpowers other colors.
There are over 600 types of carotenoids and the ones we need for our red factor canary and other canaries are four (can be more but let’s focus on the following four):
- Beta-carotene (orange pigment)
- Lutein and zeaxanthin (yellow pigment)
- Canthaxanthin (red pigment)
So, for orange canaries that don’t carry the red factor, feed foods rich in beta-carotene, and for yellow canaries, feed lutein and zeaxanthin, and for red factor canaries feed canthaxanthin.
Food rich in canthaxanthin
Now of course you want to know what foods contain canthaxanthin so that your red factor canary can turn red. Not so fast. Canthaxanthin is rare in nature. They are found in algae as a rare example. Brine shrimps and other marine animals such as salmon obtain their orange-pink color from feeding on algae, and flamingos, in turn, feed on both brine shrimp and algae, and that is why the plumage of flamingos turn reddish-pink.
Many animals and even humans have carotenoids in their body, but they cannot synthesize or produce them. Therefore, carotenoids must be obtained from a source that can mainly plant.
Some people in the western world take commercial beta carotene and canthaxanthin pills to turn their skin darker and obtain the bronze color. Similarly, there are many available canthaxanthin supplements on the market for the purpose of feeding red canaries.
If your canary consumes canthaxanthin alone, he turns to an ugly dark brown color. That is why manufacturers add beta carotene to the mix to balance the color out.
The good news is that researchers discovered that red canaries can convert lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta carotene to red keto-carotenoids such as canthaxanthin. With that said, let’s now look at the foods that are a good source of lutein, zeaxanthin, and beta carotene.
Foods rich lutein and zeaxanthin
The top three foods are egg yolks, corn, and sweet orange peppers. Other good sources include kiwi fruit, grapes, spinach, zucchini, squash, carrots, spinach, broccoli, oranges.
Tip: If a yellow canary receives zero lutein and zeaxanthin from his diet, he turns completely white, and this is not healthy. But this doesn’t happen because many seeds such as canary seeds contain lutein and zeaxanthin. However, If you want a brighter and more attractive color, you should offer the aforementioned fruits and vegetables to your canary during molt. You can also consider adding supplements that contain lutein and zeaxanthin.
Foods rich in beta carotene
The top on the list includes sweet potatoes, carrots, cantaloupe, sweet red and yellow peppers, spinach, and broccoli, apricots, and butternut Squash.
You may wonder why watermelon and tomatoes are not on the list. After all, they are red, and surely they contain carotenoids. That is true, but the main type of carotenoid found in these red fruits and vegetables is called lycopene, and the canary body can’t deposit it in the feather shaft, and therefore can’t make use of it.
Important note: canary birds can change the color of their feathers only during molt. So, there is no point in adding carotenoids supplements or foods outside of the molting season.
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Red canary image by Robbins, M. R., M. J. Braun, and D. W. Finch“Cucullatamachoguyana”. licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license
Featured image by Freegiampi “Serinus canaria Rosso Intenso”, licensed under Creative Commons Attribution 3.0 Unported license