What does It Mean to be a "Canary in a Coal Mine"?

Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

Life for an actual canary in a coal mine could be described in three words: "short but meaningful." Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems, so legend has it that miners would bring a caged canary into new coal seams. Canaries are especially sensitive to methane and carbon monoxide, which made them ideal for detecting any dangerous gas build-ups. As long as the bird kept singing, the miners knew their air supply was safe. A dead canary signaled an immediate evacuation.

Because they are small, canaries could be easily transported into a mine.
Because they are small, canaries could be easily transported into a mine.

Even as gas detection technology improved, some mining companies still relied on the canary method well into the 20th century. Other animals were used occasionally, but only the canary had the ability to detect small concentrations of gas and react instinctively.

"Canary in a coal mine" refers to an early safety measure taken by coal miners.
"Canary in a coal mine" refers to an early safety measure taken by coal miners.

Today, the practice of using a bird to test the air supply has become part of coal mining lore, but the ideology behind it has become a popular expression. The phrase "living like a canary in a coal mine" often refers to serving as a warning to others. The actual canary had little control over its fate, but it continued to sing anyway. In one sense, living this way indicates a willingness to experience life's dangers without compromise.

Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems.
Early coal mines did not feature ventilation systems.

In another sense, many business and political analysts use the phrase to describe a harbinger of the future. A melting glacier in Alaska, for example, may be described as a canary in a coal mine for global warming. One small event in an isolated area may not seem especially noteworthy, but it may offer the first tangible warning of a larger problem developing. In a political sense, a country's delegation abruptly leaving a meeting could be described as a canary in a coal mine for future negotiations.

Some large corporations also use a similar strategy for future growth or reduction. A small company may be used to test the waters for a new product line, for instance. Even if the company only experiences modest profits or losses, the parent corporation can evaluate the feasibility of the product without risking a large investment. By carefully observing any early indicators, industries can avoid major failures down the road or benefit from a jump on the competition.

Modern day carbon monoxide detectors serve as the "canaries in a coal mine" for homes with natural gas appliances.
Modern day carbon monoxide detectors serve as the "canaries in a coal mine" for homes with natural gas appliances.
Michael Pollick
Michael Pollick

A regular wiseGEEK contributor, Michael enjoys doing research in order to satisfy his wide-ranging curiosity about a variety of arcane topics. Before becoming a professional writer, Michael worked as an English tutor, poet, voice-over artist, and DJ.

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Discussion Comments

anon992456

Awesome way of putting it.

anon989175

Pretty ridiculous that you can describe a term these days without incorporating liberal propaganda.

Manmade global warming has already been disproved! Look at theory yourself. The 2001 IPCC scientists predicted that the Earth would get exponentially warmer. We know for a fact that it's not. If you have basic math and science skills, look at the facts for yourself and stop believing the lies.

Read the theory. Read their predicted temperatures. Look at the actual temperatures. They're not even close!

anon953311

Next time you are in a store selling Teflon pans, read the fine print. Do not heat one up 'too high' with your birds in the room. They will die.

anon350926

This was not long ago. The last canary in a coal mine was retired in the mid-1980s in the United Kingdom, albeit with a Hi-Tech cage where the floor of the cage had several pressure sensors. When the canary became restless this was picked up by the sensors (the bird hopped incessantly) and an alarm was raised.

croydon

@Fa5t3r - I like the idea of that, but in reality it wouldn't have been very often. Coal miners back then were extremely tough men. They worked in brutal, often fatal conditions (which is illustrated by the possible use of the canaries).

On top of lax safety standards and back breaking labor, they weren't paid more than a pittance. There's a reason the generation of people who worked in the mines have been compared to slaves (although obviously, it wasn't the same).

I'm not saying it isn't possible that a coal miner might take pity on the canary, but to him, I'm sure it would be another mouth to feed and he might not be able to afford even the small amount it would take to buy a new canary.

Fa5t3r

@anon191036 - Everybody has to learn what it means from somewhere. And this is obviously a biased sample. People wouldn't be looking up an article explaining the phrase if they knew what it means.

I'd never heard the term "living like a canary in a coal mine" before. I actually quite like the idea of that, someone being cheerful and optimistic even though they have no control over their fate. I wonder how often the men became attached to the canary bird, because of its optimism, and it ended up being left permanently at home with their children?

anon191036

Seriously? This many people didn't know what this meant? The human race is doomed.

anon135597

There's a song by The Police called "Canary in a coal mine."

anon134078

In this world the canary is used unwittingly. In the nuclear world who is going to be the canary? --John B

anon132947

Glenn Beck (who is such an intelligent and insightful educator and entertainer) used this phrase recently. I found your website with the meaning. Thank you!

anon125206

Glen Beck (whom I hate) used this cliche' on FOX and I looked you up. Thanks for knowledge.

anon89597

Thanks.

anon84426

Thank you very much!

anon76044

Excellent and concise!

anon74658

I'm surprised that PETA isn't all upset about this!

anon66650

compare with recent use of Bluegill fish in North American cities, since potential the risk of water contamination following 9/11 attack.

anon55678

So helpful. Thanks!

anon55243

Having heard this saying before, I have to say that the explanation here is being wrongfully optimistic. The actual usage as I've always known it was to imply that one is being used as an unwitting subject to test the potential risk, solely for the benefit of others.

Think of it more like this: being forced to march ahead of a group across a field potentially containing land mines. Doesn't sound quite so positive, does it?

"The canary had the ability to detect small concentrations of gas and react instinctively?" Translation: if the canary suffocated, poisonous gases had leaked into the mine.

anon50590

So interesting! Thanks!

anon46699

thanks. it helped a lot.

anon45514

thank you! this information was very helpful!

anon44000

This is the best explanation. i have learned a lot. thank you.

anon40406

Very helpful article for understanding the term 'canary in a coal mine'. Thank you.

anon37372

thanks - very helpful

anon36666

Very nice explanation. I visit this website every now and then. It always been very informative to me. Thank you.

anon28100

Perfect Enlightenment.

anon23048

I think by "react instinctively" they mean stop singing. Not dying. They stop singing a little while before death sets in.

anon22850

Always wondered what this meant. Thanks for this enlightening article.

anon18087

canary in a coal mine, what about a flea in a circus, a goldfish in a bowl, the blind pit pony, not forgetting the ones we eat. Don't feel to sorry for the canary although to be born into the tropics and end up in pit well wouldn't be long before you stopped singing anyway.

anon9429

Very good and informative article! There's only one problem I see with it - I wouldn't call the canary's death "reacting instinctively" :P

anon6678

Wow- this article helped me with homework, and is VERY clear! Great job!

anon4206

This article most clearly explained "canary in a coal mine" to me; better than other websites.

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