Canaries are loners by nature, so solitary confinement is something they handle well. They are also tidy, non-destructive and quite content to spend their days eating, flying from perch to perch and singing their cheerful, melodious songs. Moreover, they don’t particularly like to be handled. All of which makes canaries among the less demanding pets to look after.
Members of the passerine or finch family, canaries originated in (surprise, surprise) the Canary Islands, as well as Madeira and the Azores. In the wild their plummage is yellow-green with black streaking on the back. Then people came along. In the 16th century, bird fanciers became so enchanted by the canary’s song that they began keeping and breeding them, resulting in some brilliant mutations. For some breeders colour and appearance quickly became more compelling than the ability to carry a tune. Nowadays when canaries are shown, the many different variations that have been developed over the years are judged in three categories: colour-bred, type and song.
Colour-bred – This probably won’t come as a surprise to you, but the main criterion here is feather colour. Solid shades include yellow (naturally), orange, rose, cinnamon and white. Not only do these canaries look much brighter and more attractive than their wild counterparts, they grow larger as well.
Type – The birds in this category are selected for size, shape, feather texture, posture or unusual mutations. While they often display different colours, these canaries are judged strictly on their type characteristics. Australian canary clubs devoted to particular breeds have designated the following varieties: Australian fife fancy, Australian plainhead, border fancy, Gloster fancy, lizard, Norwich, Parisian frill, red-factor, Yorkshire and new mutations and red factors. However, not all of these are accepted by every state in the country.
Here’s a bit more specific information about the canaries that have gained the most favour in Australia.
Something else you should be aware of. Because today’s canaries come from a small gene pool, mutations may be linked with genetic abnormalities and reduced life span.
Song – Believe it or not, song and the ability to sing certain notes can be bred into canaries and passed on to subsequent generations, much like colour and size characteristics. Breeders have sought to develop birds that have a pleasant tone while singing longer and more frequently with greater diversity and dynamic range. Conversely, these breeders have been trying to eliminate short songs, abrupt stops, harshness, shrill notes and monotony. In most cases, the more tours (tunes) the canary sings the better the song. But you don’t have to worry about all that; just buy one that sounds nice.
When purchasing a canary to fill your home with song, best get a male. Although both male and female canaries can start to sing as early as four weeks of age, females usually retire from the singing business when they get to be about six months, probably because they are the serenadees rather than serenaders during courtship. When a hen does sing, it’s more like a chuckle instead of the full-toned, long song of the adult male. If you have a large house and need a robust singer, border, Norwich, and coloured canaries have exceptionally strong songs.
By the way, if a male canary becomes ill, it may go all quiet until the following spring – regardless of when it actually recovers.
Choosing a canary – Like any pet, you should select a canary that’s in good health. It should be bright and active with an erect posture, not fluffed up and sitting on the bottom of the cage. The nares (nostrils) should be dry and open with no sign of discharge, the beak smooth, the eyes clear and bright. The feathers should look clean, smooth and bright without colour breaks, transparency or ragged edges, nor should you see any discolouration around the vent (a sign of diarrhoea). The body should be free of lumps and bumps. And the feet should have an even, patterned surface with the nails not too long.
Probably the best way to make sure you’re getting a good quality, healthy bird is to purchase it from a breeder who is a member of a recognised club. Most serious canary breeders enjoy their hobby and want their birds to be properly looked after when they leave their care. So expect to receive plenty of tips on the care and feeding of your new pet. Needless to say, if the seller’s birds are kept in dirty conditions or appear sick, look elsewhere.
It’s a good idea to introduce your bird to its new cage well before dark so that it can become familiar with the new surroundings, in particular the location of food and water. If you’re using an old cage, be sure to prepare it beforehand. Use a good quality disinfectant to thoroughly clean every nook and cranny, the perches and all food utensils. Then rinse in fresh water and dry.
Housing – Just like the rest of us, canaries need exercise. Since the best way a pet canary can stay fit is by flying from perch to perch, you should never have his or her wings clipped. And you should provide the largest cage possible, one that is wider rather than taller. Sixty centimetres would be a minimum length with the spacing between bars no more than 1.25 centimetres.
However attractive wood or bamboo cages might seem, they’re a real hassle to clean. Wire cages make the most sense, as long as they’re free of lead and zinc. Perches, on the other hand, should be of wood, the diameters varying from one to two centimetres to provide more exercise for your bird’s feet. Scraping perches with a saw blade or utility knife just enough to leave the surface slightly irregular makes them easier to grip. Definitely do not use sandpaper perch covers.
While canaries have no trouble coping with normal room temperatures, you should keep the cage away from draughts, air conditioners and windows that receive direct sunlight. Cover the cage at night; canary hormones are influenced by daylight length and will do best if given a light/dark cycle that approximates natural changes. Obviously, keeping them up late with artificial light is not healthy for them. Nor are tobacco and cigarette smoke, pesticides or any toxic fumes. Not to mention free-ranging birds, mosquitoes, dogs, cats, ferrets and young children.
You should ensure that fresh water is available at all times. Three to four times a week provide a shallow dish of water or a special bath bought at the pet store for splashing about in. Not only will this help maintain good hygiene, most canaries really enjoy it.
Speaking of which, toys such as swings and bells also provide pleasant diversions. (Mirrors could stop a male from singing.) Just hang the toys so that they don’t obstruct flight patterns.
Feeding – Birds are what they eat too and thus need a balanced diet in order to remain healthy. If you’re keeping just one or two canaries, one of the commercially available mixed canary seeds containing a good range of seeds including plain canary seed, rape seed, and small quantities of hulled oats and linseed should offer the right kind of balance. The seeds should appear clean, shiny and free of dust and broken seeds. Ideally, the mix should also contain grit, which birds need in their gizzards to help break down food and to provide calcium.
For even healthier birds, you might want to supply a wider mix of seeds such as niger, maw seed and millet. There are also (less palatable) pelleted diets suitable for a canary. Sprouted seeds make an excellent treat for your canary.
Incidentally, many birds will leave the hulls of the seeds they eat in the food dish. To the untrained eye, the dish can look full when in fact it’s just leftovers. To see what’s really what, gently blow the hulls off the seed dish at least daily and replenish as necessary.
Spice of life – For a truly balanced and varied diet, add fresh greens and fruit. Canaries love endive, chicory, thistle, chickweed, green peppers, cooked broccoli, corn, raw spinach, raw dandelions, raw silverbeet, cucumbers and squash. Most also find it hard to resist apples, oranges, bananas, pears, peaches and strawberries. Just use a clothes peg to hold small pieces to the cage bars. Bits of hard-boiled egg can also be offered occasionally. Cuttlefish bone provides the calcium they need as well as helping to stop the beak from growing too long. Chocolate and avocado are toxic.
Moulting –At the end of each annual breeding season canaries replace all their plumage. During this period you should supplement your pet’s diet with high-protein foods such as mashed, hard-boiled egg, finely chopped chicken and/or insects (either fresh or the commercially produced powdered version for finches). If your canary continually undergoes stress due to fear, cage-mate competition, infection or poor cage design, its feathers will not molt normally. Instead, the bird will shed throughout the full year.
Colour feeding – Adding paprika, cayenne or red pepper to any canary’s food will see it develop a shade of orange. And the plumage of red-factor and new-colour canaries will become more intensive with the addition of carotenoid, found in commercial diets containing spirulina and in plants such as grated carrots, sweet potatoes and dark green leafy vegetables.
However, if you plan to show your birds, carefully check the rules governing colour feeding. While Norwich, Yorkshire and lizard canaries are regularly colour fed for shows, exhibition Glosters can never be. What’s more, some breed organizations and clubs only allow the use of plant substances in the natural form. Those who resort to concentrates will be prohibited entry.
Health – Although pretty hardy, canaries are susceptible to some problems. They include (in no particular order): feather cysts, baldness and other feather abnormalities, obesity and fatty tumors, mites (air sac, trachea, tasselfoot, scaly face), canary poxvirus, egg binding, cataracts, internal parasites, bacterial diseases, constricted feet and digits, damaged nails and beak, leg fractures, fungal infections and obstructed airways caused by inhaled seed.
The single, most common cause of many of these diseases is malnutrition. Needless to say, adhering to the feeding advice above will go a long way to keeping your canary healthy. Another good idea is to bring your bird to us for routine health check-ups.