Avian Expert Articles

Finch Or Canary — What’s The Difference?

Photo of a white finchThe zebra finch and canary are the most popular birds kept by pet owners, after budgies and cockatiels. They both also have a long history in captivity, as does the society finch. Let’s take a look at how these birds are alike and how they differ.


If you’re considering adding a finch or a canary to your family, you might be surprised to find that a canary is a finch. So you are only choosing among finches, really. Zebra finches, society finches, also called Bengalese finches, and canaries actually have a lot in common.

Though they are both finches, canaries and society finches as we know them don’t actually exist in the wild! Society finches were raised by the Chinese and Japanese for hundreds of years. After all this time raised as captive pets, they have changed from whatever wild finch is their forebear, and they are eminently suited to life in a cage or aviary. Canaries have been kept for hundreds of years as well. The Spanish first started keeping, breeding and trading in the singing finches native to the Canary Islands. Over time, canaries have developed into numerous breeds, none of which bear a resemblance to wild finches anymore. Even though canaries are not found in their pet forms in nature, there is one spot where they have been released and thrive. In 1911 canaries were released in the Hawaiian Islands, and there are still some on the Midway Atoll. Yes, bright yellow “Tweety” birds,

A yellow Song CanaryThe term “canary” for our companion finches comes from the name applied to the Canary Islands, located off the coast of Africa in the eastern Atlantic. These islands were named after the large dogs on the islands, in Latin canaria. So the canary finch is named after dogs.

Canaries, society finches and zebra finches are all cage birds and wonderful companions – to watch. For the most part, they won’t perch on your finger or obey commands. They will live in flight cages and you will observe them, listen to them and care for them. Because these are mainly caged pets or aviary birds, be sure to provide a large environment for them so that they can fly and have plenty of room to move about.

Both finches and canaries do well on a diet based on small seeds, and a formulated diet. In addition finch keepers usually supply egg food for their companions, and calcium in the form of oyster shell or grated cuttlebone, or chicken eggshells that are dried in the oven and crushed.

All of these birds enjoy bathing. It’s simple to encourage them. Put a shallow saucer of water on the bottom of their aviary or cage, and let them go for it. The birds will especially enjoy bathing during hot weather. They air dry fine; bathing stimulates grooming, keeping your finches looking their best.

All of these species have been favorites in captivity, and through many years of captive breeding, mutation colors have developed. Society finches range from dark to light browns, white and cream; each one is colored differently, in fact. Zebra finches come in a variety of brown/gray/chestnut and white mutations. American zebra finches are mostly the size of their wild counterparts, about 4 inches long. Zebra finches called “German” or “English” are those that have been bred for exhibition and are often larger or longer than the typical zebra finch.

In canaries, there are not only color mutations, but difference in shapes. Canary breeds have been established, much as in domesticated dogs or cats. Canaries are bred for either their song, color or their type. They range in color from white to gray to red and sherbet-orange. Some have patterning on their feathers, and in the type canaries their body type and feather quality vary considerably. No, canaries aren’t all plain yellow finches.


Though zebra finches, society finches and canaries are all finches, they originated in different parts of the world. We already mentioned that canaries are the descendants of finches from the Canary Islands off Africa. Canaries with a reddish tint are hybrids between these finches and the Venezuelan black-hooded red siskin. Society finches were kept in China and Japan, but are sometimes bred to other finches. Zebra finches are natives of the arid Australian desert.

One of the big differences among these birds is the fact that zebra finches are sexually dimorphic. At least in their wild, or normal color, the males and females differ in color once they reach maturity at 3 months old. The males have the zebra striping, a chestnut ear patch, chestnut flanks and bright red beak, while the female is a subdued brown with a lighter colored beak. You can’t tell male and female canaries or society finches apart by color.

Each of these companion birds has a different temperament. Society finches are… well, social! They like to be in groups. Though they don’t need a nest box, if there is one available they pile up inside it. They have a passive temperament and can be kept with other birds. Zebra finches are “pushy” and may quarrel among themselves; they do like to be kept in pairs and in small flocks, but in a mixed aviary they should be kept with other busybody species. Canaries are territorial and solitary. The best situation for a companion canary is to keep a solitary male for its singing ability. Female canaries rarely sing, and they raise their clutches on their own without a male contributing to chick rearing.

Though none of these finches talk, the canary is a fair imitator of sounds. A male can pick up beeps and tones and the calls of other birds as he is creating a repertoire for himself. That is not true of the other two finches. Both the society and zebra finch males also sing, though their “song” is a bubbly, grating, beeping sound. Listen to some on YouTube. Not anything like the trills and melodic songs of canaries.

Finch Or Canary For You?

It’s a personal choice which species you choose. Consider their housing and song when making your choice. On Facebook, Silla De Gato said, “society and zebra finches are very social — you can toss almost any of them together and they will happily coexist (may have their turf wars but will work it out), canaries can be very territorial.”

Ginny Tata-Phillips mentioned supplements to a formulated diet she offers her canaries and finches. “Yes, they eat egg food, but I usually give them crumbled hardboiled egg. They love cooked brown rice mixed with frozen corn.  They love Romaine lettuce but are not too fond of other greens  — I have tried parsley, kale and celery leaves.  They eat (8 of them) 1/4 slice of whole grain wheat bread per day.”

2 thoughts on “Finch Or Canary — What’s The Difference?

  1. Thank you, Diane, for this news and somewhat “inside story.”

    My great uncle kept canaries and was quite devoted to their care. This was in Havana, Cuba where I was raised. And we have relatives in the Islas Canarias.


  2. I had a male canary who I found outside my apt building for years, he was a delight. I actually got another canary as a companion – and yes it was a male also. They became inseparable. They followed each other around, took baths at the same time in dishes and called for one another while flying around (safely) my apt. True, they didn’t sing often but watching them hang out together was a delight. When one was ill, the other sat on top of his hospital cage. When I trimmed toenails, the other one flighted on me protectively. It was wild. They often came out of the cage to fly and always returned after awhile, they loved being out and it gave them exercise. And also – compared to my parrots – my 2 canaries ate every veggie thing I gave them. Kale, spinach, dandelion, broccoli, red peppers, carrots- all devoured. They also ate rice and pasta, egg and wheat bread…but they were my best veg eaters. Iv’e been told that I did not have typical male canaries!! I loved having those little companions.

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