Song of the Ovsîanka: Enhanced Nature of the Urban Canary in Imperial St. Petersburg (1880–1900)

In: Society & Animals
Olga Petri Department of Geography, Cambridge University United Kingdom

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This article explores a stylized version of “natural” birdsong as an element of the soundscape of a historical city, late-nineteenth-century St. Petersburg. From 1880 to 1900, canaries were brought to the city in great numbers from hatcheries located in the Russian countryside. Their song was the ovsîanka, a mix of melodies acquired from wild Russian birds. This song reflects “enhanced nature,” linking human intentionality to the agency of a nonhuman animal, the canary, and both to the city. Breeders, merchants, keepers, and birds formed a super-urban assemblage spanning the city and the countryside. Canaries, like human migrants flooding to the city during this time, retained their strong village roots, and their urban role depended on them. In this super-urban assemblage, the canaries’ urban performance was an expression of their modified and contextual agency, though their agency was assembled and authorized by human-nonhuman networks engendered by the city.

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