Canary Birds
pet bird

Canary Birds

Canary Birds

Canary information

This article is about the domestic variety of the wild Canary (Serinus canaria). The wild ancestors of our modern pet canaries were small songbirds of the finch family living on a few islands off Western Europe and Africa: Madeira, the Azores and – of course – the Canary Islands.  

Canaries have been selectively bred for several centuries. Spanish sailors brought them from the Canary Islands to mainland Europe where they became popular pets due their beautiful singing capacity. In Europe, they were bred by monks who only sold male specimens (only the males sing). Since no one outside the monasteries kept females, the canary supply was very limited and the prices high. Eventually, Italian bird keepers managed to obtain female canaries and commenced their own breeding of the bird. Several new breeds arose and canaries were soon bred in several different European countries. The practise of keeping singing canaries started among the rich and then eventually spread down through the social classes of Europe.   

Today, canaries are commonly divided into three main groups:

  • Song Canaries
  • Colourbred Canaries
  • Type Canaries

Song canaries are bred for their unique and specific song patterns and have names like Russian Singer Canary, American Singer Canary, Persian Singer Canary, and Spanish Timbrado. Colourbred canaries, such as the Bronze Canary, Mosaic Canary, Brown Canary, Ivory Canary and Onyx Canary, are instead bred for their colours and patterns. Last but not least, type canaries are bred for their shape and conformation, such as the Australian Plainhead Canary, Raza Española, Yorkshire Canary and Norwich Canary.  

Canary taxonomy

Kingdom:      Animalia
Phylum:         Chordata
Class:            Aves
Order:           Passeriformes
Family:          Fringillidae
Genus:           Serinus
Species:         Serinus canaria
Subspecies:   Serinus canaria domestica

Canary care

Canaries should not be kept in small cages since it is difficult for a bird to get enough exercise and stimulation in a small cage, especially if it is not let out of the cage daily. A canary that is allowed out from the cage to roam around freely for several hours per day can usually tolerate a somewhat smaller cage.

Canaries are sensitive to drafts so the placing of the cage is important. Placing the cage where it is exposed to direct sunlight is not recommended.

If you provide your canary with suitable perches that allows it to wear down it claws, you won’t have to clip the claws. Natural tree branches are appreciated, for both perching and chewing.  

Canaries like to take a bath at least once a week and should therefore be provided with a suitable “bath tub”. During moulting and breeding, the bird should ideally have access to a bath every day. The wild canary can be seen rolling around in dew dampened grass in its natural habitat and pet canaries like to do likewise. If you want to give your bird a treat, pick some dandelion leaves or similar, sprinkle them with water and place them at the bottom of the (clean) cage. 

Canaries are generally peaceful creatures that rarely show aggression. Since they are so timorous, they should not be housed with more bossy birds like parakeets or lovebirds. Keeping more than one canary males in a small cage can also lead to fights.

Males are often ready to breed before the females and can harass an unwilling female if they are kept in the same cage. To avoid stressing the female, separate the pair until the female has almost finished building her nest.

Male canaries are known for their beautiful song, but can also learn to mimic sounds, e.g. telephone signals and alarm clocks, if exposed to them at an early age.

Feeding Canary

It is important to keep canaries on a varied diet to ensure optimal health. You can for instance use a vitamin coated seed mix as a base and supplement fresh fruits and vegetables. They also like dandelions.

If you suspect that your canary is getting too little protein in its diet, provide it with occasional servings of hard boiled egg.

Moulting birds usually need some extra food.

Unless the seed mix contains minerals, the canary should be given a mineral block or cuttlebone. This is especially important for breeding females since they need a lot of calcium. 

Breeding Canary

Most male canaries sing, whereas females don’t which makes this bird fairly easy to sex. Experienced breeders can usually also determine the sex of a canary based on a combination of other factors, including behaviour and colour intensity. Wild canaries breed in spring and as spring approaches you can usually spot physical changes in the vent area of domesticated canaries as well. The belly of the female bird become more round, while the belly of the male bird grows bigger and protrudes downward in the same direction as the legs. 

Since canaries are adapted to breeding in spring, they will not breed unless subjected to at least 12 hours of daylight. For breeders don’t want to wait until spring it is possible to induce breeding using artificial lighting and heating.   

If you want your canaries to breed and produce healthy offspring it is important to keep them well fed and serve them a varied diet. They might very well survive on a monotonous diet, but the risk of deficiencies is much greater than for birds kept on a diverse diet. The diet should contain a lot of fresh greens, e.g. fruits, vegetables, flowers and leaves. 

Many breeders serve their breeding couples cuttlefish bone to make sure the female gets enough calcium.

Canaries should be given a suitable nest cup if you want them to breed in captivity, placed high up above the perches. Give your birds nesting material to use for bedding, e.g. plumbers hemp.

The female canary normally produces 4-5 eggs per batch and the eggs are deposited on successive days. She will stay in the nest to incubate them for two weeks while the male bird brings food to her.

Canary chicks need sprouted seeds and soft food rich in protein to develop well. After almost three weeks they leave the nest but their parents continue to feed them for another week or so. If the female canary starts getting ready for another batch it is important to separate her from the previous batch since she may attack her offspring to chase them away.  

Canary Health

Canaries are pretty hardy and seldom fall ill, unless kept in an unsuitable environment or given an improper diet.

Visible signs of poor health in a canary:

  • loss of appetite
  • weight loss
  • changed faeces (not black and white anymore)
  • the male canary stops singing
  • the bird sleeps more than normally
  • sneezing
  • wheezing
  • lustreless plumage
  • ruffled plumage
  • moulting when its not moulting season  
  • bare spots begin to appear in the plumage
  • feather plucking 

Examples of fairly common health problems for canaries are ingrown feathers (feather lumps), broken wings or legs, overgrown beaks and nails, confinement cramps in the legs (due to an overly small living space), heat stroke, mites, and tumours.  

Canary Facts

Canary fact # 1
Canaries are used by researchers trying to understand neurogenesis, the process when new neurons are formed in the adult brain. Canaries are also used for research regarding how songbirds encode and produce songs.

Canary facta # 2
Canaries are highly sensitive to toxic gases like carbon monoxide and methane and will die before the levels become fatal for a human. Earlier, miners took advantage of this by brining canaries down with them into the mines. If toxic gases were released, the miner would notice their effect on the bird and get a chance to evacuate. In Britain, canaries were used in mines until the late 1980s. Today, evidence of this practice can been seen in the English language where “a canary” or “a canary in a coal mine” is used to refer to someone or something that serves as an early warning system.

Canary fact # 3
The British city of Norwich was once an important centre for breeding and export of canaries throughout Europe. What we today know as the Norwich Canary was fist introduced to England in the 16th century by Flemish refugees trying to escape Spanish persecution. In the 20th century, the Norwich City Football Club adopted the colors yellow and green in homage to this tradition and the team is colloquially referred to as “The Canaries”. The canary is also the emblem of the football team.

Canary fact # 4
Canary bird shows are held in many different parts of the world and the world show C.O.M attracts thousands of breeders each year. Up to 20,000 canaries are brought to C.O.M to be showed and judged. In the Northern hemisphere, the first canary shows usually takes place in October or November when the breeding season is over. (But song canaries are normally showed later.)  

Canary fact # 5
Certain traditional canary variants can be hard to find since breeders tend to focus on the varieties that are currently popular among canary keepers. Variants that were once popular quite frequently vanish from the pet trade to give way for new variants. 

Canary lifespan

The average lifespan of a bred female canary is 5-6 years, while the average lifespan for a male is 10 years. Some individuals have however reached an age of 20 years.


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