Canaries come in a variety of colors and types. They are generally classified in three basic varieties: song, color, and body type. Song canaries are bred for their singing ability, with the more intricate and melodious songs being desired. Although only male canaries sing extensively, females are sometimes known to sing quite well, making it difficult to differentiate the sex of the birds. Color-bred canaries are bred for their red-factored feathering, which is made darker through the consumption of foods containing carotene, such as carrots or red peppers. Type canaries are bred for their body type and include canaries with crests.
When choosing a canary, look for one with smooth and even feathers. The legs should be smooth and free of scales. A healthy canary will be bright and energetic and will hop from one perch to another. Unhealthy canaries will fluff their feathers and sit in one spot. If you are purchasing a male canary, make sure that the breeder or pet store will guarantee it to sing. Look for a close-banded canary if you want to be sure of the age. Breeders slip a small band over the foot of the canary the first few days after hatching. The band will have the year and an individual number indicating the order of hatching. The bird then grows into the band and it cannot be removed.
Choose a canary cage that is as large as you can comfortably fit in your home and can afford. Although round cages are popular, a rectangular cage will provide more room for the canary. Look for 1/2-inch or smaller spaces between bars and make sure there's enough room to place at least two perches. Wood perches of varied diameter work best (3/8 to 3/4 inches). The perch surface should be slightly irregular so that it is easier to grip. It is best to use clean and pesticide-free natural wood branches; sandpaper perch covers are not recommended.
Food containers should be near the bottom of the cage because canaries are notorious for throwing their seeds and will create a mess on your floor if the food containers are placed higher. Canaries love to eat off of the cage floor, so a removable tray that can be cleaned is helpful. A seed guard around the bottom of the cage will help keep things neat and will be more efficient because seed will fall back into the cage. Clean quarters are vital. The cage should be cleaned each week and the perches should be washed with a bleach solution and then thoroughly dried once a week.
Place the cage away from breezes or blowing air. Drafts can easily kill a canary or cause a molt due to stress. Canaries can be housed in outdoor aviaries in temperate climates as long as they have protection from wind and rain. They have been known to withstand temperatures low enough to freeze water in their dishes when protection from drafts is provided.
Canaries are sensitive to cigarette smoke, dust, scented candles, fumes from cleaning solvents, and ordinary kitchen and household activities. Their cages should never be placed close to the kitchen stove and should be high enough to protect them from other household pets. But don't be afraid to place their cages at the center of activity because the more activity and sound in your home, the more canaries will sing.
The staple for adult canaries is the canary seed, a long, light-colored seed that is pointed at both ends. A fortified blend of canary seed, rape seed, golden German millet, oat groats, thistle, steel cut oats, flax, sesame, and hemp is an excellent seed mix. In addition, fresh fruits and vegetables, hard-boiled eggs, and egg shells or cuttlebone should also be offered for optimal health of adult birds and is essential if you are breeding your canaries. Although adult canaries only eat a teaspoon or so of food per day, they may waste food by flinging it around their cages. Care must be taken when examining the food dish to remove the hulls to see how much whole seed is left. All vegetables and fruits that humans eat, with the exception of avocadoes, may be fed to canaries in small amounts each day. Be sure to remove any unused portions at the end of the day.
During times of stress, such as during a molt or breeding season, canaries need a higher protein source that can come from either soaked and sprouted seeds or egg yolks that have been hard-boiled. Soak seeds overnight in a refrigerator and rinse and drain thoroughly. Rinse the soaked seeds each day and place a small amount in a separate small food dish. Sprouted seeds are higher in protein and are eagerly consumed by the birds. Hard-boiled egg is also a favorite, but be sure to remove unused portions within a few hours to prevent spoiling. Female canaries need extra calcium to prevent egg binding. You can provide this through either a cuttlebone or through dried egg shells.
Complete foods in pellet form are available and can be nutritious, but if you use them it is important to blend the food with canary seed and gradually increase the amount as the canary develops a taste for it. Some canaries may never accept anything but a natural seed.
To enhance the color of red-factored canaries, there are foods with coloring agents in them. Or during the molt and as their new feathers grow in, feed fresh vegetables of a rich orange or red color, such as carrots or red peppers, daily.
Canaries are usually fairly social and will live happily in groups in an aviary, but in small cages they may become quarrelsome. During breeding season, males housed together may need to be separated to prevent fighting. Male canaries sing to attract females and to designate their territory. Young birds may not sing until they hear another bird or a recording of a bird. For the best singing, two males placed where they can hear each other can produce an abundance of vigorous song as they try to drown each other out.
Canaries are sensitive to changes in daylight. It is important to allow your canary to molt each year by limiting the amount of light they receive each day. If your canary is located in a room where there are lights on for much of the evening, it is best to either move them to another room for a few months each fall or to cover them to simulate the natural shortening of days.
Canaries are not normally tamed to come to the finger like many of the other companion birds. They are best left in a cage or aviary where they are safe. If a canary escapes from its cage, remove other animals from the room, shut doors and windows, and use a lightweight curtain or a net to catch it.
Canaries love water and will bathe every day if given a small dish of water. They splash about and will be soaked when finished, to the point that they cannot fly until they dry off. Water for the bath should be lukewarm. You can also spray canaries with fresh, lukewarm water daily to encourage preening that helps keep feathers healthy.
It is normal for a canary to fluff its feathers at night and perch on one foot, often with its head tucked under a wing. However, if a canary is fluffed up at any other time or appears listless, put a light bulb near the cage to warm the bird. Many times, a few hours of heat from a light is all that is needed to bring a bird back to its usual active self. If the bird does not return to normal activity within a day, call your avian veterinarian.
Elizabeth Wells, Ph.D. - Michigan State University
Photo provided by Martin Terber