Despite its long and complicated history, the true Cinnamon canary is still with us – in the hands of a tiny group of breeders. DONALD SKINNER-REID reckons it deserves wider appreciation

WHEN I was in my 40s, my friend Maria directed me to a poem by Robert Frost, “The Road Not Taken”, and it chimed so well it sticks in my head. Many years ago, at a show, an elderly former keeper of Scots fancies asked why I liked them and I said their elegance appealed to me. Now I think I’d answer differently. It’s in my nature to seek the road less travelled. 

So, down a new path – “knowing how way leads on to way,” as Frost put it – I have stumbled into the most fascinating and perhaps one of the rarest of the old varieties which a group of devotees still keep and exhibit, though I confess I have yet to see one in the flesh: the English Cinnamon. 

First encounters

I was led to this path by Jamie Taylor and Kevin Monsey, two of the breed’s tiny band of devotees. Jamie told me: “They are a beautiful bird to look at. They are free breeders that rear their own young.” Jamie has kept them for three years and Kevin for longer.

Kevin very kindly put me in touch with Derek Dix of Great Yarmouth. Now nearly 90 years old, Mr Dix has kept the Cinnamon for 70 years, having acquired his first stock in 1948. Mr Dix thought them a jaunty bird, halfway between the Border of those days and the Norwich. His father, a Norwich breeder, said it was a breed “trapped in time”. 

Robson and Lewer devote a chapter to this variety in their 1910 book, Canaries, Hybrids and British Birds. This bird’s predecessors are the source of cinnamon in all our canaries and it is mentioned in the 1718 translation of Hervieux, so the authenticity of its heritage cannot be denied. However, the thrust of Robson’s chapter reads to me as a means of introducing the colour cinnamon and not of preserving the Cinnamon variety itself. 

Fixing the cinnamon

Mr Dix told me that Robson had basically copied a book from 1856 (which he owned) to describe the bird. Originally it was called “the Dun” (basically meaning “brown”). In the early 1800s, Mr Dix said, the breeders did a good job in picking the best-coloured birds and kept breeding them together until they fixed the colour. Among those breeders were Charles Quinton of Great Yarmouth, a well-known breeder of the 1800s, quoted by Robson; a bit later James Marshall, also of Great Yarmouth and an elderly man when he sold all his stock, on his retirement from the fancy, to Mr Dix; and Arthur Shearing from Norwich. 

The Cinnamon now resembles but is bigger than the Norwich of the 1800s, not its modern incarnation – a fact known to Mr Dix, whose grandfather had some old-style Norwich stuffed. 

Naturally, points out Mr Dix, the understanding of genetics in 1910 was not as we know today. Cinnamon is a sex-linked gene. A cinnamon cock paired to a green hen will produce cinnamon hens, but a cinnamon hen paired to a green cock will produce cocks that are split for cinnamon. 

Not to be mixed

Mr Dix has bred cinnamon to cinnamon. In an article that he wrote, he stated: “Many fanciers falsely believe that they can use a Cinnamon to (i) improve the feather quality of their own variety or (ii) transfer to it the magnificent cinnamon colour. What they fail to understand is that the type of the Cinnamon is so steadfast that it will destroy the type of any other variety with which it is crossed. 

“Myths abound, such as (a) if Cinnamons are mated together the strain becomes small and weak. I do not know how long this is supposed to take, but after [70] years of breeding Cinnamon to Cinnamon my birds are neither small nor weak. (b) A Cinnamon has to be paired to a green. I have seen the result of somebody following this idiotic advice with Norwich cinnamons. He ended up with green tinged birds that were neither green nor cinnamon. In the same way as the Lizard Canary breeds true… so it is with the Cinnamon canary. If you want the magnificent colour of the Cinnamon canary you have to breed Cinnamon canaries.”

All those comments bring to mind recent articles by Huw Evans and myself about Lizards, Yorkshire Greens and Scots fancy canaries. 

When I asked him if there had always been a concentration of the variety in East Anglia, Mr Dix told me that, on the contrary, in the early days many breeders of the Cinnamon were in the North of England; the old Club records, now deposited with the museum, showed members in Burnley and Accrington and it was only after World War I that the breeders became concentrated on the east coast of Norfolk. 

Catered for very seldom in show schedules, the bird appears under the coloured canary section (it is colour fed) but in one of life’s Venn diagrams it could as easily, in my view, be classed as an old variety. It has the heritage.

That special ruby glow

It’s the colour that stunned me. Kevin, Jamie and Mr Dix shared with me some photos of their birds. In the jonque (yellow) birds, the ruby glow of the chest through the ground colour is quite special. It made me think of the robin, though in some ways prettier, softer and more subtle. “In judging, you are looking for the colour and not the type,” explained Mr Dix. “In their nest feather, in the evening light, the best ones have a luminescent, golden glow. You know you have a great bird when you see that.”

This surely is a breed worth fostering and preserving, intact. I think this variety deserves to be better known. Perhaps in taking up this variety, those who do, will like me, be pleased to say that in taking the road less travelled, “that has made all the difference.”

Nicely productive

Mr Dix mentions a fact which I have observed in the Scots as well: the Cinnamon may well breed best in its second year of life. Mr Dix told me that his strain will produce six or seven youngsters per pair in a season. That certainly shows vigour.

• Donald Skinner-Reid specialises in old and rare variety canaries.