Created By: dinosaursexplosion on June 14, 2013 Last Edited By: ErebusElysium on November 17, 2016

Mine Canary

Canaries were used in coal mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide; if the canary is dead, you will soon be.

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A fairly old trope; not sure if we already have this one. Quoth the Wikipedia: "Canaries were iconically used in coal mines to detect the presence of carbon monoxide. The bird's rapid breathing rate, small size, and high metabolism, compared to the miners, led birds in dangerous mines to succumb before the miners, thereby giving them time to take action."

Shows up in historical works (or period pieces, or some fantasy novels) about mining, naturally. Nowadays, if it still makes an appearance, it's generally done metaphorically (such as mentioning that a character with a danger sense "is like a canary in a coal mine" in that, when they panic, it's time to run away).

Western Animation
  • In the "Joker Express" episode of The Batman, the Joker uses hypnotic lights in the rail-system to have other people steal for him. They then dump it in the river and he collects them. Batman, Robin and Batgirl track him down to an old mine. Here Joker is seen wearing a classic Railroad engineer outfit, complete with a small, handheld cage with a canary skeleton in it.
Community Feedback Replies: 35
  • June 14, 2013
    Chabal2
    Used to be a very dangerous dwarf job in Discworld, before the discovery that putting a wire mesh around a candle caused it to burn blue in the presence of the gas. It caused a major schism, since those who took on the responsibility (and survived) were now much less important.
  • June 14, 2013
    aurora369
    Not only carbon monoxide, but also methane (less toxic, but more explosive). The wire-mesh lantern was better at detecting methane, and the canary at detecting monoxide.
  • June 14, 2013
    Melkior
    Although in real life, the wire mesh lantern wouldn't change color. It would just go out. The miner was left fumbling around in the dark but that was better than blowing up the mine.
  • June 14, 2013
    Paradisesnake
    Used to detect Deadly Gas.
  • June 14, 2013
    Duncan
    • Referenced in Sourcery, talking about Rincewind's status as the opposite of an Eternal Hero: "Many people who had got to know Rincewind had come to treat him as a sort of two-legged miner's canary*, and tended to assume that if Rincewind was still upright and not actually running then some hope remained."
  • June 14, 2013
    CaveCat
    Live-Action TV
    • Used briefly in the Bonanza episode "The Emperor Norton", where the eponymous emperor accuses a mining engineer of not supplying canaries while working in the mine, after an accident. This leads to Joe going out and getting a canary for Emperor Norton to use as a demonstration.

    Newspaper Comics

    Western Animation
    • An episode of Sabrina The Animated Series had Sabrina and her friends go on a camping trip while being led by her Uncle Quigley. There, they hear a story from Harvey about a pair of canaries that were abandoned in an old mine when the miners evacuated the mine after it collapsed. When the canaries are found by Sabrina, Salem, and Harvey, it turns out that the canaries were alive and well, but actually dared each other into pretending to be suffocating, which scared the miners at the same time that the mine was about to collapse.
  • June 14, 2013
    robinjohnson
    In series VIII of Red Dwarf, the main characters are put into a scouting unit called the Canaries, for this reason.
  • June 14, 2013
    SKJAM
    • In a story that appeared in Analog mentioned in Anti Advice, humans who possess a certain mindset are called "canaries" because you can detect the presence of bad ideas by how strongly they advocate them.
  • June 14, 2013
    Prfnoff
    • In Banjo-Tooie, Canary Mary is first discovered trapped in a cage inside a cave filled with Deadly Gas.
  • June 14, 2013
    Jokubas
    In the Silent Hill movie, canaries are used to detect the coming of the Otherworld in enough time to escape to the safety of the church.
  • June 14, 2013
    Generality
    In Close Encounters Of The Third Kind, in order to test the government cover story of a deadly chemical spill at what is really an alien meeting site, the protagonists buy a canary as they enter the area.
  • June 14, 2013
    sgamer82
    • Kenichi The Mightiest Disciple has a variation on this with Kei Retsumin. He fights with a myna bird in a cage on top of his head. This is done because if he doesn't he runs the risk of using so much power he endangers himself. The purpose of the bird is to give out before he himself does, to warn him to dial it back.
  • June 15, 2013
    themaniacinthemailbox
    The Black Diamond, a ride at Knobels in Pennsylvannia, features a dead miner who has rotted away to just being a skeleton, with a canary cage beside him. The canary inside is dead, but not a skeleton like the miner.
  • June 15, 2013
    Melkior
    I'd suggest the trope be named Mineshaft Canary. The current name sounds like ownership, not mining.
  • June 15, 2013
    TonyG
    • On The Simpsons, the citizens of Springfield are digging a tunnel to save a boy stuck on a well. At one point they find the canary dead and evacuate. Dr. Hibbert then determines that the canary died of natural causes and they go back to digging.
    • Spoofed on the Futurama episode "Fry Am The Eggman", when Bender lights up a cigar in a pub. A man on the next table has a canary, but it's the man who succumbs to the fumes, while the canary remains alive.
  • June 16, 2013
    Korodzik
    Video Games

    In Day Of The Tentacle, a canary is kept in a cage near a fireplace in a Colonial-era motel, to warn people about the smoke in case the chimney gets clogged.
  • June 16, 2013
    acrobox
    Why not call it Coal Mine Canary

    also is this about literal uses of canaries or about figurative guinea pigs to test for/empaths that sense danger
  • June 16, 2013
    kjnoren
    All similar uses, I'd say.

    Comics:

    • In one Judge Dredd story, a riot is caused by a rumour of a vacancy, working as a canary human in a chemical factory run by robots.
  • June 25, 2013
    robbulldog
    In The Rock, when Dr. Goodspeed is attempting to disarm the nerve gas mail bomb in the beginning of the movie, the box full of roaches serves a similar purpose.
  • June 25, 2013
    CaptainPeregrin
    Maybe separate the literal examples from the metaphorical ones?
  • October 31, 2013
    Prfnoff
    YKTTW Bump. Not to be confused with Comatose Canary.
  • October 31, 2013
    NESBoy
    • The Nitrome game Canary is inspired by this trope. You play as a lone canary in a mine colony, trying to survive an onslaught of alien parasites.
    • The web browser Google Chrome Canary is named after the practice, and quite aptly — it's the most experimental version of the browser, so it's very likely that whatever features they add could cause the browser to crash.
  • November 1, 2013
    robbulldog
    The roaches in the chemical lab serve this purpose in The Rock.
  • November 1, 2013
    SharleeD
    Related to Evil Detecting Dog.
  • November 1, 2013
    henke37
    • Anti stack smash systems in software call their trap value the canary. If the canary is wrong, then the program better halt.
      • Any value whose purpose is to be compared to catch corruption can be called a canary
      • Cross site request forgery protection systems sometimes call their security token a canary as well.
  • January 18, 2016
    jormis29
    • The Lone Ranger: Tonto scares the all the men out of the silver mine by walking around disguised as one of Chinese Laborers working the mine and carrying a cage containing his dead crow.
  • January 18, 2016
    BKelly95
    Music
    • The Police song "Canary In a Coalmine" compares the subject of the song to one of these (as if you couldn't tell from the title) due to his or her neurosis.

    Western Animation
    • An episode of Captain Planet And The Planeteers shows the origins of the Planeteers in flashback. Linka's shows a group of Russian miners escaping from a mine after the air goes bad. One of them, Linka's father, carries the now dead canary and laments that she will be devastated. She is.
  • January 18, 2016
    Arivne
    Tabletop Games
    • Traveller The New Era sourcebook Reformation Coalition Manual 1: Path of Tears - The Star Viking Sourcebook. The Third Imperium was destroyed by a devastating Artificial Intelligence computer virus that took over Imperial computers. The Imperials developed test computers that "died" if infected by Virus, thus revealing that whatever was connected to them was infected.
  • January 19, 2016
    DAN004
    Would this count variations where it's not exactly a canary (maybe another animal or even an inanimate object) but it's used in the same way?

    Compare Red Alert.
  • January 20, 2016
    HeroGal2347
    ^^ If so, there's an example from Little House On The Prairie. Pa and a neighbor are digging a well, and Pa always lowers a candle down and sees if it keeps burning before he starts the day's work. The neighbor thinks it's nonsense. As it turns out, Pa was right to take the precaution — one day, the neighbor doesn't do it and passes out from Deadly Gas deep in the ground, requiring Pa to rescue him.
    Pa: All I know is, where a candle can't live, I can't.
  • January 20, 2016
    HighCrate
    Literature
    • In Stephen King's The Stand, Center for Disease Control workers pump the air from the sealed hospital room of potential plague-carrier Stu Redman into the (likewise sealed) cage of a guinea pig named Geraldo, guinea pigs having been shown to be susceptible to The Plague. When Geraldo doesn't get sick after the usual communicability period (plus a bit more for safety's sake), they conclude that it's safe to enter Stu's room without an environmental suit.
  • January 26, 2016
    HeroGal2347
    Bump.
  • April 23, 2016
    Aubren
    If humans count...In one of the Hunger Games books, Katniss specifically refers to one of her teammates as a canary when she stops singing because she's killed.
  • November 16, 2016
    JD2K
    Video Game
  • November 17, 2016
    Koveras
    • In computer security science, "stack canaries" are random numbers are written to specific memory locations while a program executes, and are checked periodically by the program code to ensure no memory tampering has been done at runtime.
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