This peculiar device, in the collection of the Science Museum in South Kensington, London, looks like a tiny gas chamber a movie villain would use.
Throw in your enemy—in this case, a small innocent canary—close the hatch, turn open the valve to let in poisonous gas from the cylinder above, and then laugh manically as the bird suffocates and dies.
In reality, it’s the opposite. This device is used not to kill canaries, but to revive them. The cylinder attached to the top of the metal box contains life giving oxygen.
They are known as Canary Resuscitators. Coal miners used to go down to work carrying canaries with them in glass chambers such as these.
Underground mines can contain potentially deadly gases such as carbon monoxide that can form during an accident such as fire or an explosion.
The colorless gas is equally deadly to both humans and canaries alike, but canaries are much more susceptible to the gas, and react more quickly and visibly than humans do, thus alerting miners to the presence of the poisonous gas.
When a disaster strikes inside a mine, rescue workers would descend into the mine carrying a canary in a Resuscitator.
The glass and metal box has a circular open door in the front to let air in, but a grill prevents the canary from escaping.
If there is carbon monoxide in the air, the canary would show signs of distress. It would start swaying noticeably on its perch and eventually fall of it.
If the canary loses consciousness, the door to the box would be closed and the valve opened, allowing oxygen from the tank on top to be released and revive the canary.
The symbolism of ravens can be divided into three main categories: that of the evil spirit or harbinger of death, that of the trickster or thief, and that of the prophetic or wise spirit. The traditional English poem “One for bad news, Two for mirth” incorporates all three of these, reflecting the way that both Celtic and European cultures embrace a range of meanings for the symbolic raven.
Moreover, the original use of the poem as a simple way of divining the future based on everyday events, such as seeing a flock of crows, emphasises the raven’s prophetic powers. “
To have a raven’s knowledge” is an Irish proverb which means to have the power to see into the future, and the wisdom to understand what is being seen.
The interpretation of a raven as an evil spirit is actually largely a misconception based on Western culture’s negative associations with death. The raven is black, a colour generally associated with witches despite that fact that it is frequently a colour worn by members of the Church, such as nuns and Catholic priests.
The raven is also a carrion-eater, which is traditionally associated with uncleanliness.
This fact is likely one of the reasons for its association with death, because it was seen as significant that ravens were close by at the death of people and animals. Presumably they were just there for a meal.
The Trickster Raven
The raven as trickster is most often a part of allegorical myths that explain how things came to be. For example, there is an Australian myth in which a raven tries to steal fire from the people. It is burnt by the fire, and that is why ravens are black.
It may also come from some of the realities of ravens, such as the fact that they can mimic any sound they hear, and that they are attracted to shiny objects.
The Raven as Prophet
Lastly there is the interpretation of the raven as a proud, wise and prophetic symbol. Edgar Allen Poe’s raven is “stately” and “lordly,” even among the darker associations evoked by the poem. King Arthur is believed to live on as a raven, and the ravens Thought and Memory are key instruments of the Norse god Odin’s power.
Ravens are part of the divining and foreseeing arts of many cultures because of their power to give knowledge and understanding. All three of these meanings must be taken together to fully understand the meaning of ravens.
A cuckoo sits on a perch in the rain on Thursley Common, England.
The United Kingdom has seen a 71% decline in the breeding population of cuckoos over the last 25 years.
The decline is thought to be linked to the migration routes to wintering grounds in the Congo Basin in West Africa.
The environmental conditions at stop over sites are thought to be the main thing that determine the birds’ migration success with drought and wildfires on the shorter routes having a negative effect, according to scientists.
Image Credit: Photograph by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images.