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1. The Social Factor
3. Home Tweet Home
5. The Bread of Life
7. Play With Your Food
11. Feathers Everywhere
10.The Leg You Stand On
12.Your Feathered Child
The Social Factor Back Top Next
Canaries have much more capacity for intelligent thought than most people realize. In their native habitat, they are faced with decisions and problems many times a day; where to eat and drink, how to avoid predators, what relations they will have with others creatures both within and outside the flock...all these challenges and more must be met on an everyday basis.
Hundreds of generations of evolution under these conditions has given the canary not only the capacity to deal with this amount of stimulation but also, in my observations, the need for it. Traditionally, canaries were kept in small cages. It was believed that a bird which was given too large a cage would spend too much time playing, and not enough time singing.
It is true that a canary in a small cage will sing a lot, especially at first. Lacking company and room, he will spend all his time announcing his presence to the world.
In the wild, this activity would bring other males to challenge his right to be present and hens to be courted and wooed. Wild birds must also learn to deal with the many other species with which they share their world.
In a household environment this simply does not happen. Many canary owners are content to leave him in his cage and rarely interact with him other than when his needs are being attended to.
Canaries are driven by the need to establish and dominate a territory. His song is an announcement to the world that he is prepared to defend his right to and ownership of his territory to all comers. If he does not feel there is a chance for him to have the right to his own little bit of the world, he is not likely to try to stake his claim.
So how does one go about eliciting a response from a canary who has proven to be healthy, and male, but who will not sing? As you have probably realized by now the answer for each bird may not necessarily be simple or straightforward.
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First the physical environment of the cage must be scrutinized. The area must be free of either warm or cool drafts no matter what the time of year. There should be no objects, large or small, in the area immediately over the cage. Placement should be neither too high or too low, being ideally at slightly below head height for a human standing next to the cage.
Seed cups and drinkers must be visible and easy to use. Don't use the covered cups unless you know your bird will use them; more than one canary has starved to death because he would not put his head in a little hole to eat. Perches should be situated so that the seed, water, and vegetables stay clean; this is one of the easiest ways of all to prevent problems with disease or pests.
The cage should be neither isolated nor in the middle of everything. As with most aspects of life, a happy medium is the ideal. The bird should be able to see family activity without feeling overwhelmed or threatened by it.
Sunshine is always enjoyed by canaries, but there must be shade available at all times as well. Anyone who has not seen a canary enjoying a sunbath is in for a treat!
Home Tweet Home
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Next, look at the cage itself and its contents. Is the cage large enough, and appropriately shaped for a canary to use the space? Is it too crowded for the bird? Does it make the bird feel safe and at home, or threatened and exposed?
The traditional round cage is the last cage you want to have for a canary. Even a larger round cage will be difficult to adapt to a canary’s needs, and because of this will also tend to get dirty faster and make the bird feel less at home.
Canaries, you see, like most small birds which are adapted for flying rather than climbing, move primarily back and forth. A rectangular cage allows for a perch at either end, so that the bird may move naturally. If the perches are far enough apart, he will be able to fly a little, and get some exercise and fun.b
A round cage simply does not allow this. The result is that the canary is deprived of one of his most natural, instinctive movements. This restriction will often produce a bird which feels threatened and/or exposed, although this can be hard to discern unless you have had some practice with canary body language; similar to, and yet different from that used by the psittacine (parrot) family.
Because such birds cannot play or move freely, they quite often become rather badly cage-bound, subject to panic attacks at the slightest change in their environment or routine. This is probably the main source of the common belief that canaries are delicate and sensitive; in actual fact, when cared for properly, the canary is one of the hardiest and most adaptable of all the songbirds.
The ideal (not always attainable but a good goal) cage for a canary will be rectangular, forty inches or more long, at least fifteen to twenty inches wide, and twenty-five or more inches tall, with bar spacing of no more than one-half inch. It should have a perch at either end, placed about four inches in from the bars and at at about a third of the cage height.
If a swing is to be included, it should be placed so that it does not interfere with the bird’s movements between the two fixed perches. Central placement ensures that the cage liner rather than dishes or perches are soiled.
I like to provide a little shelter by way of a light coloured cloth hung across one end of the cage. It is not necessary for this cloth to cover the entire end of the cage as long as it is arranged so that a portion of one of the perches is relatively private.
This mimics the natural shelter which would be available to a bird perching in a tree. While many tree branches are exposed, it is always possible to find a little nook, shaded by leaves or other branches.
Canaries are exceptionally sensitive to traces of undesirable elements in water, so if there is any doubt about the quality of the water source, I use bottled water. Because regular bottled water can carry bacteria, I prefer to use spring water. Distilled water would seem to be a good choice, but is not healthy for birds or people.
Bath time will be greatly appreciated by your canary - I sometimes think my birds act more like they are half fish - and, if possible, should be offered once a day, in the summertime at least.
Please don’t let your bird go for any more than two or three days without a bath if you cannot give him one every day. Put his tub up in the morning, and take it down after an hour or so, to prevent him drinking the used water. This way, too, you can be sure that his plumage will be thoroughly dry before evening comes. Wet feathers at night will mean you will have a sick bird in short order!
The Bread of Life
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Seed should be as fresh as possible. Once exposed to air whole seed will go stale quite quickly, much as bread will. If you must buy large amounts, try to freeze as much as possible, and remove small amounts as needed. Freezing the seed not only keeps it fresh for far longer than any other method (including refrigeration) it also has the added benefit of killing any insect larvae which may be present.
A good canary mix will contain about 80% canary grass seed. The rest of the mix should be mostly canola and flax. Small amounts of other seeds, such as lettuce, teasel and poppy may be present, but what you should not see is white or yellow millets. Most canaries cannot crack these larger, harder shelled millets, but they are often used as filler in the cheaper seed mixes.
You should blow the chaff off the top of the seed in the cup at least once a day if the bird lets it accumulate there; more than one bird has starved to death with a full cup of seed because they will not try to eat what they can’t see is there!
I have always found that most canaries are not always the messy eaters many people seem to believe them to be. Given properly fresh seed, they may stop throwing it everywhere and settle down to eat it.
Imagine, if you will, that you are very hungry and somebody has given you a loaf of stale bread. The best slices will be in the middle of the loaf - would you not eat these first? This is all that many of these canaries are doing; searching through a cup full of stale seed for the fresher-tasting bits.
Except for myself, I have never heard of people feeding oatmeal to canaries anywhere else but in Scotland (of course) but as far as I am concerned this is a valuable grain, and very useful to canaries. Most cannot eat it unless it is hulled and crushed or rolled, but once it is served in a form they can handle they devour it with relish. It is similar to canary grass seed in nutritional content, but is higher in carbohydrates.
This makes rolled oats a useful diet supplement in cold weather and during the moult, when the extra energy is needed by the bird. Be aware that, as with the treat seed and song food mixes, that too much fat or too many carbos can make your bird fat and unhealthy, especially if he does not get a lot of exercise.
Give any one of these items no more than once or twice a week unless the bird is weaning, breeding, or moulting, in which case every day is all right, but only for the duration of the condition.
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Vitamins and minerals are an absolute necessity for indoor cagebirds. You can offer vitamins the traditional way, via addition to the water, but I try to discourage this method for canaries. They are suspicious of any new taste or colour in the water, and will probably not drink enough to do them much good. After the first few hours, the vitamins will be decomposing and are no longer available for digestion. This also renders the cups slimy and can make them difficult to clean.
I like to offer powdered vitamins such as Hagen’Prime sprinkled on their fruit, veggies, or greens. This product is tasty to the birds, by comparison with many others. As an added attraction, it contains trace elements and avian-specific beneficial bacteria and enzymes. If you live in Ontario or the U.S., you can find the nearest dealer to you here.
Contrary to popular opinion, many birds do not require grit to help them digest their seed - research has shown this to be true only of birds who swallow their seed whole, rather than husking it as do most birds, including canaries.
A good supply of minerals, however, is necessary, along with the vitamins without which the minerals cannot digest. Luckily, these are easily provided by using either a 'mineralized' oyster shell 'gravel' mix, served in its own cup, or free access to both a cuttlebone and an mineral block. These may be ignored for months on end, and then suddenly the bird will begin to use them. It is the rare canary indeed who will not at least sometimes use a cuttlebone or mineral block.
I myself often use baked eggshells - every time I use a raw egg, I set the shell aside to dry out. When I have a heap of these, they go into the oven at 250 degrees Farenheit for at least a half hour, to be sure any bacteria are dead. (bake the shells any hotter, and they smell horrid - any cooler, and they will not be properly sterilized). When they come out of the oven, I crunch them up, and put a little cup in each bird's cage. It is a rare canary indeed who does not love these, and they provide a good balance of the necessary minerals needed to maintain health.
Please, Play With Your Food
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One of the best toys you can give your canary is a variety of vegetables to chew on. As well as chopping them up and serving mixed in a dish, try being creative and make your bird work a little for his goodies.
Try slices, wedges, or chunks, squeezed through the bars above a perch or wedged into a clip. Use apple, broccoli, corn on the cob (sliced with the cob into round chunks), carrots or beets, kohlrabi (a favourite), or any other such similar veggie. These will all be relished by canaries once they understand that it is food.
Another good way to offer these foods is on a bird skewer. These are sold in pet stores, and come with a nut on the end to hold the food on the skewer, and, incidentally, to prevent any accidents with the sharper end. Most birds I have known love chewing on their own veggie shish-kabob.
Most people have no idea how much vegetation a canary prefers to consume. Up to fifty or sixty percent of his body weight a day can quite safely consist of vegetables and greens; it is a myth that this can cause diarrhea, except perhaps if the bird has seen no such food for a long time and eats too much.
I personally have never had any problems associated with allowing my birds to eat as much vegetation as they want; and I never or rarely have problems common to many traditional breeders, who carefully limit the amount of vegetables and greenery their birds have access to. A coincidence? I don't think so.
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As well as the vegetables, offer a dish of chopped greenery at least every other day or so. If you have a Red Factor Canary, now is the time to add lots of grated carrots to his greens every day, to maintain good colour. Use nutritious greens such as winter kale, savoy cabbages, romaine lettuce, Italian rapini, leafy endive, culinary dandelion, and other such power - packed greens. A favoured delicacy with my birds is the Chinese sprouting broccoli 'Gui Lan'.
Almost any dark leafy green is good, even such things as carrot, turnip, or beet tops. Be aware, though, that some greens, such as spinach, beets, and chard, can bind with calcium and slow or prevent its digestion. I never serve these greens when I have hens laying eggs, for example.
You also need to remember that canaries are extremely sensitive to chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Because of this fact I try to ensure that anything fed my birds is, if at all possible, organically grown, or at least very thoroughly washed!
Most canaries are unabashed and utter pigs about eating anything green. This means that chopped greens are useful for mixing with new or unusually coloured vegetables. When first served grated carrots, beets, or turnip, my birds would not touch them, but when I began serving them mixed with chopped greens the birds soon got used to them. Now it is more common to see them picking the grated veggies out of the mix to eat first!
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Canaries love to play! Simple toys such as hanging chains with beads to slide about are greatly appreciated, as is any toy with interesting things to poke at or tug on. One favourite must be the simplest of all - two or three pieces of natural fibre kitchen twine cut four or five inches long and tied about a cage wire two or three inches over a perch, with the ends hanging loose inside the cage. Most canaries will spend quite a lot of time preening and tugging on the fibrous strands.
It is my opinion that a canary should always have at least one swing. The movement mimics that of the lighter branches at the top of a tree, and they seem to find it relaxing. They also seem to like the fact that swings must be hung from the roof of the cage. This gives them a high perch from which to oversee household activities.
One toy, commonly given to hookbills from small to large which should never be given to a canary is a mirror. A mirror is apparently utterly irresistable to a canary, and many will spend all their time in front of it, forgetting to eat, drink, or move about. The reason's simple; canaries are territorial, and sing to proclaim their ownership of their territory. The mirror makes them think another bird's there, which means they clearly don't own their territory. They tend to get obsessed and frustrated since they can't get that bird to respond correctly -and an unhappy canary isn't a singing canary. (note that shiny surfaces can sometimes cause similar problems)
The Leg You Stand On
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Perches are another way to offer variety in a canary’s environment. There are many safe kinds to choose from, from the many non-toxic species that can give you natural branches to the huge variety of all shapes and sizes available in the pet stores. I like to keep a larger amount than I am actually using on hand, so that a soiled perch may easily be replaced with a fresh one.
Plastic tree branches are easy to wash and offer as much variety of footing as the real thing. This is very important for the overall health of the foot. Perches which offer a variety of grips allow the foot to exercise and stretch naturally. Make sure that the surfaces do not get too smooth and slippery - an occasional roughing up with coarse sandpaper will ensure a good non-slip grip.
Real tree branches are nice to have, if you care to go out and collect them, but a few precautions must be observed. You must be absolutely certain that the tree is of a non-toxic species. It should be at least a hundred feet or more away from a road, further if there is a busy highway nearby.
Some of my favourites are apple, mountain ash, alder, aspen, and willow. Curly hazelnut or willow is fun for the birds too! I remove all the leaves and scrub the branches thoroughly with a stiff brush and plenty of soap and water before they ever enter the house. Then they are given a long soak in the bathtub, in a mixture of cold water with about 5 percent bleach added. Using cold water means you and your birds can avoid inhaling the dangerous fumes that would be spread through the house if you used hot water - these fumes are not good for either you or your birds!
After a long soak I drain the tub and rinse the branches several times with cold water before a final rinse of scalding hot water to remove the last traces of bleach. The branches are cut to a bit longer than needed and left to dry at room temperature. I do not like to oven dry perches; they can split and crack if dried too fast, and those tiny little cracks can catch a toenail and trap your canary faster than you can say "kazaam". It never seems to happen when you’re looking, either...
Rope perches are good too, but care must be taken that the bird's nails are kept trimmed, so as not to catch on the fibres. For the same reason, the rope must be replaced immediately once it begins to fray.
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Normally, most canaries will moult once a year, usually in the heat of the summer. This period should last about six to eight weeks at the most; if your canary is throwing feathers for longer than that, see an avian vet, as he may have a problem; prolonged moulting is not normal.
You will find that your canary will be less energetic than usual during this time, and probably will not sing much, if at all. He will greatly appreciate any extra coddling you can throw his way in the form of extra-nutritious treats, an extra-reliable schedule, a predictable environment, and lots of seed, vegetables, and greens. Soaked seed with nestling food is a particularly good source of nutrition during this time.
Try as much as possible to protect your canary from extra stress when he is moulting, for his sake as well as yours; sudden shocks to a moulting bird can lead to sudden feather loss over large areas of the skin. The feathers in this area take longer than usual to begin to regrow, and in the meantime you are left with a half-naked bird, vulnerable to every stray draft and breeze that comes along.
Your Feathered Child Back Top Next
Last, but not least, let your canary know that he is a member of your household. Speak to him every day. See that he has some form of interaction with all the members of your household, even if it’s only pausing near his cage to speak to him occasionally.
Gaze gently at your bird when you’re nearby, and always speak or make some small noise or other. A predator will approach silently and will usually be staring at his prey - such an approach will make any canary understandably nervous!
Sound is very important to any creature evolved in a forested environment, and they should never be kept in too quiet an area. To all birds native to forests, silence means just one thing - there’s a predator nearby!
This is the only time you will ever hear silence in any forest. One and all, to forest creatures, noise is golden. Many people leave a radio playing near their canary when they are not home; this assures him that he has not been left at the mercy of an unseen predator somewhere within a quiet house.
Although independent by nature, all canaries exist within the larger framework and social order of the flock. Anyone who wishes to have a happy, healthy, singing canary must convince the bird that he is able to establish a place for himself within his human flock.
Having accomplished this successfully, you are liable to find yourself possessed of such a lively, vibrant little songster that you just may find other people asking you to help them with the question "Why won’t my canary sing?"
by R. C. "Robirda" McDonald
Copyright © 1990-2013
All Rights Reserved.
"Everyone always asks me why my birds are such beautiful singers and breed such magnificent babies...I tell them that I learned from Robirda! While they give their birds all kinds of 'magical' formulas, I just follow your guide to 'keep it simple.' My birds are now very healthy, and there has been no recurrence of the infection. Thank Goodness!" R.C., Florida
"I ordered 'Canary Tales' by Linda Hogan last year...Although I fully recommend buying the book, I find Robirda's book much more complete, easier to read with less difficulty finding information."