In 1921, forty-year-old schoolteacher Hans Duncker set off through the streets of Bremen. Near the cathedral, he heard a nightingale singing - but this was August and no one had ever heard a nightingale sing in the middle of the town at this time of year. In fact, the bird he heard was extraordinary - it was a special canary (a nightingale-canary) that Karl Reichs, a bird keeper, had engineered through a decade of dedicated breeding. With Reich's knowledge of birds and Duncker's expertise in genetics, the two joined forces and devised the audacious plan to create a brand new bird - a red canary. Favoured originally for their voices, canaries were once so rare that they were worth more than their weight in gold and had been exported in their millions. With Duncker and Reich's research, the canary once more took centre stage - this time in the race to create a genetically engineered animal. But it wasn't until an Englishman and an American recognised that the red canary would need to be a product of both nature AND nurture that the project was finally brought to fruition.
Tim Birkhead is Professor of Evolutionary Biology at the University of Sheffield. He has been President of the International Society of Behavioural Ecology, is a member of the Darwin Correspondence Project committee and he regularly contributes to radio and science television programmes, newspapers and magazines.