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Choosing a Canary

By: Dr. Susan Clubb

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The beautiful melodious song of the canary has earned these delightful birds the status of being among the world's most popular pet birds. Requiring little space, they are easy to keep, hardy and well suited to almost any home environment. However, as with any bird, they require enough space to fly.

One of the most endearing qualities of these birds is their beautiful song. Males are the best singers – and they usually sing better when kept alone. Canaries make good pets for just about anyone, but they are especially appealing to older people.

The domestic canary (Serinus canarius domesticus) is a descendant of the wild canary (Serinus canarius canaries) found in the Canary Islands and Azores Islands, which were imported into Spain as early as 1478. Later, German miners in the Harz Mountains used them to detect toxic gases in coal mines. If the birds – which are more sensitive to airborne poisons than humans - died suddenly, the men knew to evacuate the mine.

The most common canaries bred for song are rollers and American singers, but the Timbrado and Waterslager (also known as the Malinois) are also popular.

Canaries bred for color can be divided into two main groups: those with yellow or white background vs. red-factor birds, which have orange to red background. The original coloring of the wild canary contained dark black or brown pigments on a yellow background, and the name pigmented or melanine is often used to describe such birds. Light-colored birds, which show only the light background colors, are referred to as lipochromes. The trait referred to as red-factor will only produce red or pink coloration if the birds are color-fed foods containing red-pigments.

  • Of lipochromes, yellow is the best-known color variety. The most prized show yellow canaries have no dark pigment even on the feet or beak. White birds have lost all yellow pigment except for the shafts of the flight and tail feathers. The English white is a different mutation and have no yellow. Orange and orange-red canaries have intense, even coloration. Lighter shades may be referred to as buffs or frosted, or ivory.
  • Pigmented or melanine canaries possess either black or brown pigments and are divided into six different varieties – green (brown and black pigments on a yellow background), blue (black and brown pigments on a white background), bronze (black and brown pigments on an orange or red-orange background), golden cinnamon (brown pigment on a yellow background), silver cinnamon (brown pigment on a white background) or orange cinnamon (brown pigment on an orange background). Lighter colored pigmented canaries are referred to as pastels or opals.

    Mosaic mutations are those in which patterned loss of pigmentation occurs.

    When buying a canary, look for a bird that is active and lively. The bird's plumage should be smooth and shiny and the eyes bright. Catch the canary and cup it in your hand to feel his or her chest. If the keel bone is prominent, the bird may be too thin. Hold the bird to your ear and listen for clicking respiratory sounds that may indicate respiratory disease.

    Canaries are pets for people who will admire them in their cage. Although they are highly domesticated they are not typically hand tamed and do not like handling.

    Feeding

    Pelleted diets, made in a small size, are available for canaries and finches and provide balanced nutrition in every bite. Canaries should also be offered small amounts of fresh dark green leafy vegetables such as romaine, endive, spinach, watercress and dandelion greens. They also enjoy tiny slices of apple, grapes, melons or sprouts. Boiled eggs or commercial egg food are excellent for young and breeding canaries.

    If your canary is fed a seed diet, vitamin supplementation is needed. Ideally, vitamins should be added to soft foods, such as egg food and a soft bread mix. Vitamins can be provided in water, but the bowl or water bottle must be washed daily to prevent bacterial overgrowth. Vitamin supplementation is not necessary if the bird eats a pelleted diet.

    Canaries have historically been given grit. However, contrary to popular belief, they do not require it. Note: The birds must have fresh water daily and can die if water is withheld for 24 hours.

    Housing

    Canaries are small but they are very active and should be given plenty of room to move around. They should have at least two perches far enough apart to jump or fly between. Cage size should be at least 18 inches square.

    The floor of the cage should ideally be lined with paper, newspaper or craft paper. Make it a habit to look at the stools of your bird every day when changing the paper. If your canary is eating seeds the feces should look like a small dark round dot (the feces) with a smaller white spot (the urates or solid urine) on top. If he is eating pellets, the feces will be slightly more bulky and may contain colors from the pellets, which pass harmlessly through the digestive tract.

    Grooming

    Canaries love baths and small bird baths can be purchased that will fit into the door of a standard canary cage. This can be filled with lukewarm water. Allow the bird to enter as he chooses. Canaries can also be offered a shallow bowl of water in the floor of the cage. They should be allowed to bathe twice weekly to maintain excellent plumage.

    Wing clipping is uncommon for canaries as they are not usually handled. If you do choose to let your bird fly in the house, there are safely concerns. Accidents are often associated with ceiling fans, birds falling into open toilets, swimming pools.

    Nails should be kept to an appropriate length, as overgrown nails can be a hazard as well. They can be clipped with fingernail clippers watching for the quick (vein) inside the nail.

    Breeding

    Breeding season is usually in the spring (March to July) in North America. Canaries can breed when they are 1 year old.

    The classic breeding cage size is approximately 24 inches long, 14 inches tall and 10 inches wide. They are usually constructed so a partition can be slid into the cage to separate the male from the female.

    A few days after mating the hen begins to lay and will lay four to six eggs. There can be quite a size difference between the oldest and youngest chicks in the clutch, and some chicks may be lost if they are too small to compete with their siblings. For this reason some breeders remove eggs as they are laid, replacing them with artificial eggs. When the entire clutch is laid the breeder will return all the eggs to the nest to start incubation, which lasts 13 days.

    Common Diseases and Disorders

    Canaries are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Canary pox
  • Atoxoplasmosis
  • Coccidiosis (Isospora canaria)
  • Trichomonas
  • Toxoplasmosis
  • Psittacosis or parrot fever
  • Scaly face and scaly leg mite (Cnemodocoptes)
  • Liver disease
  • Airsac mites or tracheal mites

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