The commonly held picture of a canary, Serinus canaria, is of a tiny bird, coloured bright yellow, singing sweetly from a cage.
The birds originate from the Canary Isles, in the Atlantic Ocean, just west from the Sahara Desert. The canary is one of the emblems of the Islands2. Contrary to popular belief, the birds are named after the islands, and not the other way about3. They are also native to Madeira and the Cape Verde Islands.
They have been bred in captivity as a songbird for many centuries; the birds were originally discovered and brought to Europe by the Spanish conquerors of the Canary Islands. After their discovery they began to be bred by Spanish monks. Only the male birds were sold, for large sums of money. The monks would not sell any females to prevent any other people breeding canaries, so as to protect their financial assets.
The canary is a small bird, approximately 6 inches from beak to tail. Serinus canaria domestica, the domestic canary, is a member of the finch family. The average weight of a canary is less than an ounce, or 22g. There are three sorts of canary varieties.
Colours vary from bright canary yellow, to orange, tangerine and sometimes red. The undomesticated, wild canary is mostly greenish-brown with yellow flashes. Canaries are bred not only for their spirited song, but also for their colour variations. Two types of colour-bred canary exist, a yellow form, and the 'red-factor' colour canary. The red-factor was bred as a cross between the now endangered Venezuelan black-hooded red siskin, Spinus cocullatus, and the yellow canary, Serinus canaria.
The second variety of canaries are those which are bred entirely for their musical song. Within this group there are four main types, the Roller, the American Singer, the Spanish Timbrado and the Waterslager. All of these produce different melodious songs, some of which are extremely loud, and some which are remarkable for their variety and tunefulness. When singing, the air sacs in the bird's throat region puff up - a truly amazing sight.
As well as the above sorts of canary, there is a further group which are bred as 'types'. This group includes a dozen or so, such as the Yorkshire, the Parisian Frilled, the Stafford, the Northern Dutch Frilled, the Crested and the Lizard canary. The plumage and shape of these birds differs vastly from type to type - but of course all of these canaries will still sing - just not perhaps so fabulously as those specially bred for this purpose.
How to Choose a Canary
You may wish to buy a canary that will sit in your kitchen window and keep you company by singing its heart out all day long. If this is the case, you will easily be able to find one, either in a pet shop or by contacting a breeder directly. The advantages of buying from a breeder will be that you may get a wider choice of young birds, you might pay slightly less than the price charged by a shop and you will also meet a 'canary expert' who might offer you some tips in how to care for your new pet.
You might find a canary breeder by attending a bird show in your locality - try looking for advertisements in the local press.
Wherever you decide to buy your new bird, be sure to look for signs that it is healthy, and that the place you obtain it from looks scrupulously clean, as dirty cages can provide opportunities for diseases to breed.
You should look for an alert bird, with clean plumage, bright eyes and well-shaped beak. Avoid any bird that is sitting huddled, whose feathers are fluffed up or has a dirty vent4.
You will definitely want to buy a young bird, as it will be easier to tame. Also, you will have the advantage of knowing that your pet will be yours for longer (the average life expectancy of a canary is around ten years). However, you should really make sure that you are buying a male, or cock canary. These sing far better than the females or hens. Unfortunately it is not that easy to tell the sexes of immature canaries. You may wish to choose a bird that you have actually heard singing, if owning a singing canary is what you are most looking for.
Oh, and it is probably worth mentioning that it is a good idea to purchase your bird cage before you obtain your canary!
Canaries need a large cage - no smaller than 10 x 10 x 18 inches (25 x 25 x 45cm) - or large aviary in which they can fly freely. However, you should not introduce more than one male to the same cage, as they are territorial birds. Canaries are not sociable birds and will not mind living alone. Roosting and singing perches should be provided; food and clean water made constantly available. The canary will also like to bathe occasionally, especially when the weather is warm, so a shallow container of clean cool water should be positioned on the floor of the cage at regular intervals.
You should place your bird cage in an area free from cold draughts, and also make sure not to leave the cage where it will be exposed to scorching sunshine. The bird should have some shade when the sun is too hot. A bright, sunny window or balcony would be ideal as long as there is relief from the worst of the elements, neither too hot, nor too cold.
In the evening, when you turn on your electric lights, you may wish to cover the bird cage with a dark cloth, as the bird will prefer to keep a natural rhythm with the daylight cycle.
Care should be taken not to expose the canary to strong fumes or smoke. Cigarette smoke and cooking fumes, for instance, can be lethal to this sensitive bird. Try to avoid using aerosol sprays, such as cleaning products and deodorant near the bird. Other toxins which can harm your canary might be found in air fresheners and scented candles. Remember that the canary was until quite recently used to indicate the presence of poisonous fumes down in coal mines.
You may allow your bird to fly freely around your house, which it will thoroughly enjoy, as it is an inquisitive creature and likes to explore its environment whilst getting exercise by flying. If you do this you should ensure that it cannot escape through any open windows or doors. Once your canary has escaped, it will soon fall prey to any domestic cats or even a sparrow-hawk. It will certainly not be able to fend for itself outside, nor would it be inclined to fly back home again.
Other considerations to take into account, when letting your bird have free flight, will be to ensure that there are no harmful substances that your bird might peck - they are very inquisitive - and such things as toxic houseplants should be removed. The bird is also in danger of flying directly into large mirrors and damaging itself, so if this is likely your mirror should be covered over with a cloth.
When you wish to return your canary to its cage, you should find it fairly easy to catch, if it is quite tame. They are not usually timid birds and will let you approach them with ease. If you have difficulty persuading it back into its home - normally a bird will return on its own accord as it knows that this is where it will find food and water - you may use a very lightweight silk cloth to capture the canary.
Cleaning the Cage
You should take care to keep the bird cage as clean as possible. Daily tasks will be:
- To wash and dry the feeding dishes, before replenishing food and water
- Changing the lining paper5 at the bottom of the cage
- Wiping down any surfaces to remove bird droppings
Weekly cleaning will involve:
- Scrubbing the whole cage, removing the tray at the bottom and soaking the grate (some cages have a wire base through which any debris passes, above the solid tray) to loosen any difficult deposits if necessary
- Scrubbing all the perches, and drying them thoroughly before returning them to the cage
Once again, make sure that any cleaning product used is safe for canaries to come in contact with. If in doubt, check with your pet supplier, as there are proprietary cage cleaning sprays.
A canary will need to be offered a wide variety of food. In the wild the birds would have eaten many types of seeds and sub-tropical fruits. It is possible to buy a complete canary fruit and seed mix from reputable pet stores. Canaries will enjoy eating a good selection of fresh fruits as well as this dried food, but care should be given to offer a wider choice of fruits than merely orange or other citrus fruit, as too high a level of vitamin C in the diet can lead to a condition called Iron Storage6 Disease. Greenstuff, such as Common chickweed, Stellaria media should be provided regularly. Cuttlefish bones provide additional calcium and can help to keep the beak in good condition. Regular bird seed, possibly with added vitamin oils to aid the health of the breeding females in season, can also be used. If you are going to breed your canaries then special food should be provided for the hen bird, and also for the chicks.
Singing is the number one reason that canaries have been kept in captivity.
Birds such as canaries seem to sing for the pure enjoyment of producing an incredible volume of enchanting trills and warbles. However, it is occasionally necessary to try to train a reluctant male bird. One simple solution will be to place the aviary or cage where your pet can listen to the wild bird population singing - your canary will be stimulated by other birdsong and will soon be giving his best performance.
Canaries sing with such gusto that they are entered into canary singing contests at bird shows. The presence of other singing birds in the vicinity causes a canary to compete, and to hear more than one singing in response to another skilled performer is something worth seeking out.
You may wish your own pet bird had a wider variety of song, and it is now possible to buy a training CD for your immature bird to listen to. These recorded bird songs, of the better songbird types, are extremely useful, as the canary is a bird that will mimic sounds in the wild. You may also record your own bird singing, and play the song back to your canary - it will immediately sing back in reply!
If owning a solitary song bird is not quite enough for you, or you enjoy these birds so much that you feel you would like to try your hand at breeding them yourself you will obviously need to own more than a single male. Canaries breed quite happily in captivity, but you will need to ensure that you have at least one compatible breeding pair.
The breeding season starts in March (in the Northern hemisphere) and you should introduce the male and female birds to each other at this time. Your cage should be provided with a nesting cup and some nesting material - obtainable from specialist suppliers. The female, or hen bird will start to make a nest and the male will mate her. Soon after mating the hen will begin laying, and she will produce four or five blue-brown speckled eggs. The hen will incubate them for about fourteen days and then they should hatch, if all is well. Once the tiny canary chicks are hatched, both parents will feed them.
Special 'egg food' should be provided throughout the breeding season in addition to the regular canary food, as the female will have a lot more nutrition requirements than normal. The baby chicks will need a special diet as well. 'Egg food' can either be bought from pet stores, or it can be prepared at home - usually by boiling some eggs very hard and then mashing them with grated carrot and whole-wheat bread crumbs.
Problems and Illnesses
If you suspect that your canary has anything at all wrong with it, you should make an appointment with your veterinary surgeon for a check-up. Often the problems may be resolved by a change of diet, but there are other illnesses, such as respiratory disease, mites and viruses, that can affect these little creatures. Should your canary suddenly stop singing, start to look huddled up, be unresponsive, have its feathers fluffed up constantly, or go off its food - waste no time and take it to see a vet.
Moulting is something that happens to all birds. While it is not an illness, it can certainly make your bird look slightly dishevelled. All birds lose their feathers in an annual moult, and canaries are no exception. Their feathers fall out and new ones take their place. It is important to ensure that your canary has access to the best of diets during this phase; although they may lose their appetite, they still need high energy food whilst they regrow their plumage. The process of moulting should take no longer than six to eight weeks. If your bird is looking unkempt for longer than this you should make a vet's appointment as there is a condition called feather disorder syndrome which will need attention.
Access to water for bathing in, during the moulting season, will be especially appreciated by the bird - and it is quite entertaining to watch your little pet bathing!