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You may be asking "Why choose a canary for a football team mascot?" Sure they may seem all sweet and innocent, but they also served an essential function in the early days of mining...

How Canaries Saved the Lives of Coal Miners

One of coal mining's earliest systems for warning of the presence of methane gas, the canary in the coal mine, though low-tech, was extremely effective and rather easy to read: if the bird died, miners had to get out of the shaft.

As coal mines became deeper, so did problems of ventilation. Gas was an eternal problem in the mines, without adequate oxygen in the air, the miners would die.

The Solution: taking canaries into the mine. If the canary died, there was gas and the miners needed to leave the pit.

[canary in a coal mine] The bright yellow canary birds were an early coal miner's life insurance policy. Carried below ground in cages, the animals' highly sensitive metabolism detected methane and carbon monoxide gas traces that signaled potential explosions, poisoned air or both.

On their web site MSHA (Mine Safety Health Administration) says "Canaries were preferred over mice to alert coal miners to the presence of carbon monoxide underground.... For instance, when consumed by the effects of carbon monoxide, a canary would sway noticeably on his perch before falling."

According to tests conducted by the Bureau of Mines, canaries were preferred over mice to alert coal miners to the presence of carbon monoxide underground, because canaries more visibly demonstrated signs of distress in the presence of small quantities of the noxious gas. For instance, when consumed by the effects of carbon monoxide, a canary would sway noticeably on his perch before falling, a much better indicator of danger than the limited struggle and squatting, extended posture a mouse might assume.

Canaries: Warning System for Coal Miners

Early coal miners didn't have the special equipment miners have today to measure gas in the air, so it was impossible to tell if the gases were building up to dangerous levels.

Miners started to use canaries to test the air quality in the mines. Canaries are very sensitive to carbon monoxide. The canaries would chirp and sing and make noise all day long. But, if the carbon monoxide levels got too high, the canaries would have trouble breathing, and maybe even die.

When the canaries were no longer singing, miners would know that the gas levels were too high. They would leave the mine quickly to avoid being caught in an explosion. This is how canaries acted as a warning system for miners.

See Also:

"Canary in a Coalmine (by The Police) song lyrics

Meaning of the phrase "Canary in a coal mine"

Gases in Coal Mining

Pictures of Canaries in the Coal Mines

The most famous canary is Tweety Bird of Looney Tune fame.

All About Canaries & Canaries as Pet Birds

American Singer Canaries

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