Canaries (Y11+)
Tim Griffin

“The canary is dead,” the miner said;
“The one we kept in the shaft.
“We were told he’d assure that the air was pure–”
The boss interrupted and laughed.

“Alas for the bird!” the boss demurred,
“But it wasn’t the air in the mine.
“Birds die like that at the drop of a hat;
“The air in there is fine.

“Now listen son, there’s work to be done;
“But if you find it so scary,
“Here’s what I’ll do for you and your crew–
“I’ll send in another canary.”

“The canary is dead,” the miner said;
“The second one today.
“It sang for a while but then fell silent
“And died in the cage as it lay.

“Perhaps we should be-—” “Now listen to me!”
Said the boss, “There’s no need for fright.
“The government sent us a safety inspector;
“I just bought him dinner last night.

“He gave his assurance the air is pure
“If it’s trouble you’re looking to borrow,
“So give up your worries about your canaries;
“I’ll order a dozen tomorrow.”

“The canary has died,” the miner cried,
“We’re losing them faster each day.”
The boss was busily counting his money
But paused for a moment to say:

“The birds are no good! It should be understood
“How canaries come and go.
“A professor has published a paper to prove it;
“He works for us, you know.

“He’ll do what we need, selectively breeding
“Canaries to be more resilient.
“And that ought to stop your canaries from dropping
“So tell me now, isn’t that brilliant?”

The canaries are gone, every one,
Along with the miners they sang for.
The boss was away from the mine that day
And didn’t hear whom the bells rang for.

Off at a hearing where he was assuring
There’s no need for more regulation;
“Perhaps the canaries are causing the trouble?”
They gave him a standing ovation.

And money is made as experts are paid
To swear that the air is fine;
So send in more miners (and of course, more canaries)
We’ll feed every one to the mine.


You may have heard the phrase, "Canary in a coal mine," but have you wondered where it came from?

Mining has always been essential but dangerous work. Among the many dangers are toxic gases trapped in pockets underground; if you are in a confined space and hit a pocket of something dangerous like carbon monoxide, you and the other miners might be poisoned before you even know it. For deep mining, you need some kind of early warning system for bad air!

Before we had reliable electronic sensors for air quality, miners would often bring a caged canary down into a mine. The idea is partly to have something alive and cheerful in a dark, scary place; but the main reason to bring a canary is that the bird is way more sensitive than you are to those bad gases. So while you are digging, keep one eye and one ear on the canary: if the canary looks drowsy, walk to the exit. If the canary dies, run. You may lose some canaries this way, but you will save people.

The real trouble, though, is when some people see the canaries dying around us and think we just need a tougher canary.