These little "spear-bearers" - Aechmophorus occidentalis, from the Ancient Greek words aichme (spear) and phoros (one who bears something around) and the Latin occidentalis (western) - are commonly known as Western Grebes. Yes, they've got red eyes, but no, they aren't even distantly related to canaries. (Remarkably, two independent research teams found grebes to be the closest living relative to the flamingo. But that's another story.)
But just as canaries nodding out in their little cages alerted miners when there was too much carbon monoxide in their confined space, the Western Grebe, through its declining numbers, is telling us something is wrong with our ecology.
Since 1979, according to Puget Sound Action Team, 14 of 18 marine bird species have experienced 56% to 95% decline, and the total number of marine birds have dropped almost by half. Just check out filmmaker Kevin Probasco's documentary, Losing our Wings (25:07 requires realPlayer) which explores the decline through the work of Terry Wahl and Dr. John Bower, two of the regions foremost marine bird scientists.
I saw these two amongst a "water dance" of a hundred or so grebes (slight digression - see An "exaltation" of larks) near Pier 70 on the Belltown waterfront. I've become accustomed to seeing them every winter when they move from western* freshwater lakes to our coastal waters. Dave McBee, who was in the region long before the Bent, recalls in Get Lost Magazine when tens of thousands would winter over in the region. But not anymore. Oddly enough, the International Union for Conservation of Nature and Natural Resources isn't too concerned, rating Aechmophorus occidentalis at Lower Risk/least concern on their Red List of Threatened Species™
The British mine industry stopped using canaries in 1979, only when technology made them redundant (that's nice). As recently as 2003, pigeons were used in Kuwait to warn of chemical or biological attack. The U.S. Marine Corp., apparently, put as much trust in the $60 bird (food and cage included) as in their $12,000 high-tech sensors.
We should pay as much attention, and put as much trust in our spear-bearing "red-eyed canaries".
* Western means western, but these guys have occurred as far into the middle as Lake County, IL!