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The pride of an ex-miner is something special to witness. Recently, I was privileged to listen to Gerald McGlennon talking about his work with the mining rescue service in West Cumbria. I was at the Haig Mining Museum in Whitehaven researching the historic utilisation of canaries to identify dangerous gases in the mines. The little yellow birds were excellent sentinels who saved many miners lives.

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The birds being acutely sensitive to the odourless, tasteless and colourless carbon monoxide and methane gases were invaluable in monitoring air quality. The canaries were originally carried down the mines in rudimentary cages, but later their value was illustrated in the implementation of a special protective carriage.  The ‘bird reviver’ carriage (pictured above with Gerald), enabled the creature to not only be monitored through an acrylic screen, but also if it was seen to be showing signs of distress, a valve could be opened and fresh oxygen was released from a miniature tank attached to the top of the cage. The oxygen bottle doubled as a handle. An example of this charming artefact is housed in the museum  – it is well made and its style has a resonance with diving equipment.

Gerald stated, “It was our priority to monitor the canary closely and to never lose a bird through neglect.”

In the 1980s the canaries were replaced with electronic devices called ‘self rescuers’. The rationale for the change being; the technology was more reliable and cheaper to run and did not conflict with ethical policy.

It’s interesting to contemplate that many people in the world benefit from coal in some aspect of their lives, (for fuel, electricity etc.), that we all owe a great deal to such a pretty little yellow bird.

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