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In Praise of the Pet Canary

Handtaming Your Pet Canary

1.   The Sweetest Singers    
2.   An Uncommon Bird
3.   Show Off Your Birds!
4.   Habit Bound
5.   Or Not
6.   Independant Thinkers
7.   Slow but Sure
8.   Encouraging Habits
9.   Picture This
10. Togetherness
11.   First Things First
12.   Understanding Your Canary
13.   Using His Instincts
14.   Patience And Consistency
15.   The Stress Test
16.   The Final Step
17.   Now What?
18.   Moving On
19.   A Handy Trick
20.   Flying Free
21.   Sweet Success
Duffer the Canary Daddy
birds on a wire

The Sweetest Singers       next      top

To my mind there are very few creatures on God's green earth as sweet-natured, beautiful, unassuming, and as easy to keep as the pet canary.

Very few other creatures will eat but a teaspoon or so of seed a day, plus a little greens or fruit, that will yet sing their heart out for you, and still be as easy to care for.

However, many people seem to think that they are difficult to keep, or, having acquired one, find that they have a lot of trouble discovering just what these pretty little members of the finch family need in order to thrive.

For those poor souls who wish to find some information on how to tame them, well, let's just say that there's not much to be had. Information on breeding canaries is only a little easier to find, and very often training, taming and keeping end up being done largely by trial and error, with widely varying degrees of success.

birds on a wire

An Uncommon Bird       next      back      top

These days, pet canaries are not as common as they once were.

Ever eager to try something new, John Q. Public has gone hunting for an ever more exotic pet, and somewhere in all this the canary quietly began its fade into the background of the pet trade.

Too many pet shops these days carry little or nothing in the way of quality canary supplies, and in most cases this quite accurately reflects the trade, for the small merchant has little choice but to follow the demands of his customers.

To my mind, many canary breeders have, all unwittingly, played a part in the decline of the canary as a favoured pet by focusing most of their attention on breeding and showing, to the exclusion of all other facets of the trade.

What am I talking about?

birds on a wire

Show Off Your Birds       next       back       top

Well, for example, consider the desires and goals of a show-bird breeder. He looks over his chicks, but he cannot properly tell when they are young if they will become the bird he's been trying to breed or not.

He almost always wishes to wait at least until his birds have grown their first set of adult feathers before thinking about selling any of them.

The young birds are kept in large flights with others of their age, which is great for muscle development but does very little to accustom them to a friendly human presence.

Any contact with humankind is generally brief and impersonal, usually at feeding-and-cleaning time, or else when being administered medicine. Soon they will be sexed and put in a rigorous round of show training, and if they are good enough, an even more strenuous round of shows.

birds on a wire

Habit Bound       next       back       top

It is often only after the shows are over and the next breeding season is drawing near that the birds are again sorted, and the ones which will not be needed for breeding are sold.

To my mind, at this point they are not what I would call a good pet canary. Their habits of interacting with their own and human kind are ingrained into them with the force of constant repetition.

Time and again I have been told by people who own or have owned one of these birds that canaries are very difficult to tame, and that all they are good for is to sit in a cage and sing.

While it is true that canaries do this extremely well, that is in no way the limit of their potential.

The canary has an amazing capacity to learn, if given the chance, and is so far the only creature known to science which has been proven to be able to regenerate its brain cells, thus enormously increasing its capacity to learn in relation to its brain size and complexity.

birds on a wire

Or Not       next       back       top

The fact is, it is much easier to tame a canary when it is younger, before it has formed a solid opinion of the world. I believe that breeders who refuse to sell any of their birds before nine months of age to prospective pet owners are, in the long run, cutting the throat of the Canary Fancy.

Beautiful as they are, many people find a bird who does nothing but sit in a cage and sing boring, especially when that bird adamantly refuses all advances of friendship. And who could blame him, after having gone through the trials described above? To a bird like this, people are anything but potential pals, and although they may make superb breeders, it is very rare for one of these birds to become a good pet.

When choosing a young bird you wish to tame, it is important to observe them awhile, in order to be able to determine their nature. An easy method I have used involves getting a handful of a favoured treat, such as fresh young dandelion leaves. Put your hand into the cage, holding the greens so that they are easily visible to the birds, and watch their reactions closely.

birds on a wire

Independant Thinkers       next       back       top

Most of the youngsters will flock off to the far end of the cage, and will either be frantically trying to escape, or else peering suspiciously at you.

Often, though, there will be the odd bird or two which will instead approach quite closely, studying you and the treat in much the same way you are studying them.

This trait of studying the situation is the one you want to see in a bird you want to train. A canary which has this attitude will usually practically train itself, being eager to elicit the desired response from you (in this case, access to those yummy greens).

I find that it helps immensely to work with only one canary at a time, away from any other birds. They will usually serve only to distract him. You want his attention to be focused on you and you alone while you are working with him.

birds on a wire

Slow But Sure       next       back       top

Always move slowly and calmly, letting him see what you are doing, and don't expect too much out of him at one time.

Several short sessions are always preferable to one long one, as if he gets tired or over-stressed, he'll forget everything he's just learned.

His actions will tell you a large part of what he is feeling; tightly sleeked down feathers and an open beak (like a dog pants) means stress! fear!

If you see these or similar reactions, stop immediately and let the bird rest. I like to leave a tiny bit of the treat behind in the cage at this point, to encourage him to draw the conclusion that some good can come out interacting with people.

As time goes on, he will begin to look forward to your training sessions, at first just to get it over with and get to the treat part, but eventually he will learn to enjoy your company.

birds on a wire

Encouraging Habits       next       back       top

You want to initiate more of a conditioning process in many ways, rather than the more direct training you might give a dog. Let him get to feel familiar with his surroundings, and always reward him with a bit of a treat when he performs as desired. NEVER EVER CHASE HIM!

He must come to you willingly, even if you must lure him there. Positive rather than negative reinforcement is crucial. If you keep a regular routine and always train at the same time of the day you will find he will quickly get used to the whole thing and will anticipate his session with you, eager to 'train' his human to provide him with all those fun things to do and goodies to eat.

As you have probably realized by now, canaries are creatures of habit, and once a routine is established, they rarely break it, unless something drastic happens to shock them out of it. I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of positive reinforcement in establishing the routines you wish the bird to learn. This is the basis on which the success or failure of your training attempts will hinge.

birds on a wire

Picture This       next       back       top

The reward will be a sweeter miracle than you could ever expect; the trust of a tiny, feathered scrap of the sky, with a personality as vivid as his colour. In order to ensure that you know what I'm talking about I'd like to leave you with this picture.

It's evening, and you are returning home after another day's work. As you approach the house you hear your canary trilling along with the radio, left on low volume to keep him company. As you enter the house, he warbles his delight at seeing you, and bounces over to the door of his cage, waiting for you to come over and say hello. He hops eagerly onto your hand as you open his cage door, and flits up to your shoulder to exchange 'kisses'.

You check his seed and water and then go about your evening routines. He supervises all this with great interest from his vantage point on your shoulder, occasionally leaving his perch to steal a nibble of this or that, but mostly just singing sweet merry nothings into your ear.

birds on a wire

Togetherness       next       back       top

He has his dinner while you eat, and afterwards you will relax together in the livingroom and play together awhile. Always, whatever he does, one eye is on you and what you're doing, and his play is as centered around pleasing you as it is himself. He knows when it is bedtime, and returns to his 'house' by himself, perhaps even flying back out to scold you if you're a little late putting his cover on.

Sound too good to be true? Well, I know it's possible, because it's a similar routine to the one my first pet canary and I developed over the years we spent together. It was a surprisingly warm and affectionate relationship, much more so than I would have ever imagined prior to having him in my life, and even though he has been gone for several years now, I still miss him terribly.

Although I have trained other canaries, and helped still others to learn to train their people, I will never forget the lessons he taught me about what a real pet canary can be capable of.

birds on a wire

First Things First       next       back       top

So now that you've decided to learn to handtame your canary, just where do you start?

There are a couple of things you should check right away. First, do you know how old your bird is? If you have bought your canary from a pet store, there is no reliable way to know his age unless he carries what is known as 'closed band', a steel ring on his leg. Usually these bands will show the initials of the club which issued them and the year they were issued. Sometimes they even carry the breeder's initials. Many breeders put these on their chicks to prove the year of hatching.

Why should you check his age? For the very simple reason that, if you really want a truely tame canary, you should start with as young a bird as possible. A canary six weeks to six months of age will mean that you will have a much easier time of it convincing him to accept you as a pal. Of course, it is more difficult to tell if you are getting a male canary when the chicks are so young, but never mind that - canary hens make nice pets too! As a matter of fact, over the years, many of my favourite birds have been canary hens.

birds on a wire

Understanding Your Canary       next       back       top

Any breeder can usually help you to acquire a young bird suitable for taming, but before you start, just one more thing. Take him to an avian vet to make sure he is healthy. (Please, do not go to a regular vet who says, oh yes, I do birds too!) An avian vet specializes in treating birds and exotic animals and will be able to give you a clean bill of health more accurately and probably more cheaply.

Now that you are assured that he is healthy and young you can proceed.

I suppose that there are many ways of handtaming canaries, but I have found a few facts which have helped my efforts in this direction enormously. The main key to success is the resolve to be persistent and consistent. Patience helps a lot!

The best of these methods is based as much if not more on a canary's psychology as it is technique, and is usually speeded up with the judicial application of a few favoured treats to sweeten the dish.

Canaries, you see, are a member of the finch family, and, with them, share some basic actions and responses to different situations.

birds on a wire

Using His Instincts       next       back       top

For example, a typically seen response to aggression from another bird sees the attacked bird remove himself from the area to the opposite (usually) side of the cage or flight, where some vigorous beak-whetting takes place. Finch psychologists say that this is a form of displaced aggression. Taking his anger out on the perch instead of another bird preserves the flock's health and well-being.

Another response is typical when nervous and confused. When startled, many finches will panic, and try to escape as far away as possible as soon as possible. Others will freeze. Sometimes the freeze response will segue into flight, but the most common response is nervousness.

At this stage, they recognize the intrusion of an alien but so far non-threatening object(s) into their lives. Their lack of comfort with this affair is shown by a restless hopping back and forth. This is in order to keep the metabolism active in case the situation should change and sudden flight be required.

The answer to handtaming a canary, then, is simple. You are bound to make him nervous anyway, so you might as well take advantage of understanding his responses.

birds on a wire

Patience And Consistency       next       back       top

First, decide on your schedule, and keep to it. A regular pattern to his life will help your canary keep steady, enabling him to learn his lessons faster and more thoroughly. One or two training sessions of about ten or fifteen minutes each per day should be adequate.

Remove your bird and his cage from their usual surroundings. Then calmly remove all food from the cage, and all perches but one. I find it helps if I make a point of never giving any bird I want to tame any sort of treat outside of taming times; keep their diet regular, adequate but bland.

If the bird panics at the sudden changes, let it settle for a few minutes and regain its equilibrium. Then, place a treat you know your bird likes in between the tips of your fingers, and put your hand in the cage, lining up your hand so that the edge of your hand makes an obvious perch, with that enticing bit of lettuce or apple or whatever at one end of it. (I usually use romaine lettuce- most canaries are absolutely piggy about a tender leafy type green.)

birds on a wire

The Stress Test       next       back       top

The bird should calm down fairly quickly. If it doesn't, and stands on it's perch or hangs off the wire 'panting', almost like a dog, this is a sign of extreme stress. If this occurs at any time you are working with a bird, immediately stop everything you are doing and return the bird to where it normally is kept, for long enough for it to recover. Leave a tiny bit of the treat you were holding in your fingers behind in the cage, to help teach the bird that good things can happen when things look scary too.

If all goes well and you have carefully blocked off all means of escape from the cage, including any gaps around the space you are putting your hand through, (a desperate-to-escape member of the finch family can squeeze through some mighty small spaces!) you will soon have your bird where you want him. That is, in a small area, with only two perches available to him; his own, and your hand.

The drive to hop back and forth will soon have him restless, and sooner or later, if you are patient, he will 'accidentally' land on your hand in his restlessness. Chances are he will pop right back off again, so fast you'd think he'd been scalded, but from that point on you are almost home.

birds on a wire

The Final Step       next       back       top

I find that you can usually almost see the thought processes going through their little heads once you are at this part. They've been hopping around for a few minutes now, with nary a bite of food (birds in the finch family eat a lot) and there's that yummy looking piece of lettuce just over there making matters worse.

'Gee, but it'd be grand to get a bite of that...but that hand is over there, too...on the other hand, (foot?) I was just over there and nothing happened...maybe if I'm real quick I can sneak a fast munch on the way by... and after a few minutes of this they generally manage to 'talk' themselves into giving it a try.

I like to accompany all this with a steady stream of low murmuring comments, it really doesn't matter what you say, the idea is to provide a soothing background type of noise. This lets the bird know that it is safe...to a forest-type bird, silence is anything but golden! The only time it is quiet in a forest is when there is a predator around. Sudden silence will always make a bird sit up and look around, to find out where the predator is.

birds on a wire

Now What?       next       back       top

So there you are, standing there murmuring to a bird cage, when all of a sudden it happens, and the bird lands on your hand and starts to munch on whatever you are holding. What do you do?

Well, the first thing you don't do is move; not even the teeniest bit. If he gets the notion that a hand is an unstable perch, it'll take him a good long while to unlearn it. You want him to come to the conclusion that a hand is a nice safe place to stand.

The first time in particular, just hold still, even if it tickles! Let him decide for himself that it's time to 'park' on the other perch before you move your hand in the slightest. Then S-L-O-W-L-Y remove your hand from the cage, get another little bit of a treat, put it in the cage, replace his food and water, return the cage and bird to their usual location, and then you can sit back and heave that big sigh!

Getting him to recognize your hand as an O.K. place to sit is the worst hurdle in handtaming a canary. Once you're over that, it is just a matter of slowly accustoming him to the routines you want him to learn. 'Cue' words can help, too; they should be short (one or two syllables) and distinctive enough sounding that the bird can easily recognize them.

birds on a wire

Moving On       next       back       top

For example, one canary I trained was a very forward-moving, aggressive little bird. All his motions were vigorous and bold, and he never held back. He would jump onto my hand so hard that you'd hear a little 'plop' when he landed, and the phrase 'plop-plop' sort of snuck into those comforting little murmurings that I mentioned earlier.

A few days later he was acting distracted, didn't show much interest in his taming session, and I said something along the lines of 'Come on, little plops,' and to my surprise he automatically hopped forward when he heard the word 'plop'.

Hearing that word every time he'd bounced over to my hand to snag a bite of lettuce had conditioned him to associate the action with the word, so when he heard the word, the action was automatically included in his response!

Once he's used to sitting on your hand, and knows that it also brings food and water into the cage at your direction (most small birds tend to see the hand as a separate being, different from the face that looks into their cages) then you can begin to accustom him to sitting on a moving hand.

birds on a wire

A Handy Trick       next       back       top

Begin by slowly moving your hand towards the other perch in the cage. If he hops off you begin to move, fine; slowly let your hand drift back to its 'other perch' position and wait for him to come back. Eventually he'll sit still for this; then slowly move your hand so that it is a tad lower than the other perch, and right next to it. Say your 'cue' word that you've picked for getting him to hop onto your hand, and begin to slowly lower your hand.

If he didn't hop off when he heard the cue word when the other perch was at his chest level, he almost surely will as your hand slowly drops and the other perch comes close to head level.

Canaries and many other finches are nervous about having anything closely over their heads; the instinct is to get on top of whatever it is. Once he is on the other perch, bring your hand up to his chest, hold it just in front of him and repeat your cue word. If he doesn't hop up immediately, very lightly bump his chest with your finger.

Once he is back on your hand, drift it back to your 'other perch' position and let him munch on a treat. Keep repeating this exercise over a few days until he is moving easily and on command on and off of your hand.

birds on a wire

Flying Free       next       back       top

Once he is entirely familiar with and comfortable with moving on and off your hand, may you begin to accustom him to being brought out of the cage while sitting on your hand. You may teach him to sit on your shoulder using a similar process, but it is not advisable to let him get used to sitting on your head. You may walk under something and forget to allow for the extra clearance!

Never forget that a house is full of dangers for a small bird. It is your responsibility to check any room you allow your bird to fly free in for any dangers, and eliminate or circumvent them. Canaries are quite capable of learning what is and what is not allowed, but it is up to you to keep an eye on them whenever they are out of their cages.

Please try to remember that even though he is quite intelligent, and has become tame and responsive to you, a canary is full of curiosity, and cannot be trusted to be out and about in your home when you are not nearby and keeping an eye on things. Like many children, pet canaries are endlessly curious - anything and everything is liable to end up in their mouths, and it is just as liable to be something dangerous for him, as not. Limit his freedom to those times when you can be nearby, so you may enjoy your time together for many years to come.

birds on a wire

Sweet Success       end       back       top

So, there you are. Assuming that you began with a young, healthy bird, you should begin to see results fairly soon. Make sure you always use patience, moving slowly and calmly, letting the bird see what you are doing. Never surprise him if you can help it and always reward him when he deserves it. Lure him to you if you must, but be sure you never chase him, so that he will never learn to see you in any other way but as his friend, pal, and provider.

I am willing to guarantee you that if you follow all these steps faithfully, you will soon be the proud possessor of a tame, bratty, bossy, loving, funny, inventive, curious, 'helpful', endearing, adorable, and all-round cute little canary. And I will practically guarantee that once you have lived with and been 'owned' by one of these birds, you too will join those of us who love to be heard singing the Praises of the Pet Canary!

by R. C. 'Robirda' McDonald
Copyright © Dec, 1994
web version posted Jan 3, 1999
last update June 6, 2013
All rights reserved.


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"I really enjoyed The Canary Angel. It was full of emotion and feeling, esp. for an animal lover like myself. Happy endings are always wonderful."

"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."

This site is dedicated to all of those who try to help others on our journey to a better
tomorrow, and especially to Jack Merkens, whose last words to me were "Promise
me you'll keep writing about those canaries! Never stop, ok? Promise!"
Okay, Jack. I promise.

Last update June 6, 2013.

Copyright © 1994-2013 by Robirda Online. All rights reserved.

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