A Guide to Keeping Canaries

Canaries can be an ideal pet in smaller households. They cope very well with being an 'only' pet and don't need to have a 'friend' as company. While a large cage is obviously to be preferred, canaries will cope with being kept in a smaller cage. They are entertaining, inoffensive little birds. Depending on the type, the males in particular have a glorious and uplifting song.

Canaries belong to the genus Serinus. Their full scientific name is Serinus canaria. They are a member of the finch family and are endemic to the Canary Islands. Wild canaries are mostly a greenish yellow with yellow underparts. Selective breeding has resulted in a great and varied range of domestic canaries available in a range of colours. Canaries are often classified into type canaries (which have a sub-group of frilled canaries), song canaries and colour canaries. The size, shape, colour, plumage and type of song can vary greatly between these types.

CanaryCredit: Wikimedia

Canaries have been household pets since around 1610. By 1790 there were several breeds available and there are now even more. The birds were discovered when shipwrecked Spanish sailors bound for Africa were washed up on the Canary Islands, off the northwest coast of Africa. Because of their beautiful 'song', the sailors determined to take back some of the birds. At first only affordable by the very wealthy, the popularity of these cheerful birds spread. Although they were by no means the first birds to be kept in captivity, they were easier to keep than many other types and people were captivated by their glorious singing.

The average life span of a canary is about eight to ten years. Generally it is best to purchase a bird not over two years old although it is difficult to gauge the age of a canary. They are best as singers or breeders between the ages of one and four.

Choose a cage which is not too fancy as it will be difficult to clean. The simpler and larger the cage, the better. A wire cage is most hygienic as wood and bamboo can be very hard to clean. The canary should be able to fly in its cage enough to exercise itself. It is more important that the cage be long rather than high and narrow. A minimum of 24 inches long is best. Bars should not be more than ½ inch apart.

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The perches should be varied in diameter with preferably a branch as well so that the toes are not gripping exactly the same size perch all the time. 3/8 to ¾ inch diameter is about right. Very smooth perches can be roughened slightly with a saw blade or utility knife but don't cover them with sandpaper. Remove the perches once a week and scrub thoroughly with hot, soapy water. This will kill any germs.

The temperature of the bird's permanent position is very important. A maximum of 70oF in winter is suitable. Higher temperatures may cause the bird to start what is known as a soft moult. If this happens, it can be difficult to stop. A constant and uniform temperature is best although dropping to 55 or 60oF will not harm the bird. During hot weather keep the cage in as cool a place as possible. Check the actual location of the cage with a thermometer as it may be quite different to the thermostat reading. Avoid a hot spot.

If the cage is placed on a stand it should not be above eye level and should preferably be lower. Above head height, the temperature of a heated room is likely to be too hot for a canary. Keep away from draughts, air conditioners and direct sunlight. Direct sunlight can make the cage and the bird too hot but short sunbaths in moderate sunshine will be enjoyed so move the cage to a sunny position for short periods from time to time. Do not hang or place the cage directly in front of a window. A position beside a window will be out of the drafts.

Red Factor CanaryCredit: Wikimedia

Red Factor Canary (above)

Cover the bottom of the cage with newspaper or a speciality paper available from a pet shop. This will be easier to clean than using sa

nd or gravel. Change the paper about twice a week. Tie a place of cuttle-fish to the bars of the cage and supply a bowl of grit as well.

Grit sits in the gizzard of the bird and is absolutely vital if it is to grind its food properly.

Feed and water every day. Canaries are hard-billed finches and their main feed requirement is seed. For a single bird, buying commercial seed is probably the easiest way to go. Pelleted seed will not be as popular probably with the birds but can be given next to their seed dish. Canaries will enjoy greens such as lettuce, endive, watercress, dandelion, clover and wild seeding heads of grasses. They will also enjoy occasional treats of apple, melon, bananas, corn, cucumbers, strawberries or orange. They also like boiled eggs. Fresh sprouted seed will be welcomed too. If you have a lot of canaries, it is most economical to buy large bags of seed and mix it yourself. Store seeds in metal containers and keep in a dry place.

Once the seed is eaten the dish may still appear full. This will be the husks which can be blown off and the seed replenished.

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Some canaries like their bath while others don't bother so much. If the room is warm, the bird can be sprayed with an atomiser in the morning.

Canaries need more sleep than their human owners. They like to roost as darkness falls so cover his cage with a lightproof cover soon after twilight. Try to approximate the natural day/night changes. A radio or TV playing will be very disturbing to a bird at night. Keep him in a quiet place and be sure to cut out all light.

When taking delivery of a new bird, place it in the cage and give it some space for a while until it has time to settle down. A young bird may be quite timid at first so be patient. It may take a few days to settle down or even longer if it has come to a small cage from a larger aviary.

Move slowly and gently round the cage especially when feeding the bird and cleaning the cage. Once the bird is used to his surroundings he will sing if he feels so inclined. Canaries are often stimulated to sing by rain on a tin roof, running the vacuum cleaner or some such. Shaking a few matches in a match-box will often encourage a bird to sing.

Canaries can be given toys but don't place them where they obstruct his flight patterns. Mirrors, bells, swings and hanging toys are all suitable.

Canaries are ideal for the beginner bird-keeper. Do some research on their needs, which are simple, and you'll have a charming companion for many years.

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