The canary as a companion has deep roots in the American psyche, perhaps due to its contribution as a noxious gas detector in the coal mines of the 1800s and early 1900s or its use as the model for the feisty yellow cartoon character, Tweety Bird. Whatever the case, the canary has been a favorite among bird keepers for hundreds of years, and has been bred into more than 200 breeds, much like dogs have, each breed prized for a particular skill or appearance.
But for all its popularity over the centuries, the canary seems to have been pushed aside by the parrot, a relatively new companion animal to the average home. The parrot is known as a hands-on bird; the canary isn’t. Perhaps this is why some canary enthusiasts call them the “forgotten bird.”
Native Region / Natural Habitat
The canary was named for its place of origin, the Canary Islands; the islands were named after the dogs kept by the islands’ residents, more specifically after the Latin designation for dog, canis. The original canary was nothing more than a greenish-colored finch, nothing out of the ordinary – except for its song. Europeans fell in love with the canary’s song, and began importing them in the late 1500s. Eventually, the Europeans began breeding these birds and capitalizing on small mutations, developing canary breeds that hardly resemble each other today, and certainly don’t resemble their wild ancestor.
Personality & Behavior
Canary enthusiasts are among the most passionate of the bird keepers – they need more than a little zeal to master the hundreds of canary types, each with its own special traits. Canaries are bred for three basic characteristics: song, color, or type (appearance), though the male bird in each of these types will sing.
The song canaries are bred to perform skilled concertos, and many are bred to have a specific song, which they often show off at canary song competitions; popular song canaries include the American singer, the German roller, the Spanish timbrado, and the waterslagger. Color-bred canaries are bred for their color, and can be fed manufactured and naturally pigmented food to enhance color; the red factor and the yellow (clear) canary are the most popular in this category.
The type canaries are bred to have certain physical characteristics, such as a mop of “hair” or frills; popular type canary breeds include the border canary, the crested, the fife, the Gloster, the lizard, and the Norwich. Of course, these lists represent only a few of the many canaries available today.
Speech & Sounds
Most canary novices will want a canary that sings well, rather than a ravishing beauty with a mediocre song. Finding a good singer is tricky business, and takes skill and experience. The longest and sweetest songs come from the male canary when he has reached maturity at 6 months of age or more. Experts suggest hearing a bird sing before buying it, or consulting a respected breeder. Hens are also capable of singing, but not as well nor as often.
Care & Feeding
Though it is primarily a solitary species, a canary in the midst of breeding season will want to mate, and though some canaries will show little interest in anything but breeding, some do become fiercely attached to a mate. As for breeding behavior, canaries are like clocks that use the sun to show them when it’s time to nest. This natural behavior can be disadvantageous for the house canary, whose life is filled with artificial lighting.
Housing for any bird is an important factor for keeping it healthy, but proper housing for the canary is essential for keeping it happy and singing. Also, each canary should have its own cage, or the result could be deadly. Canaries are territorial and do not like to be housed together. Canaries can live more than 14 years with proper care.
Birdseed is not enough to keep a canary in its prime. A nutritious canary diet should consist of pellets, such as Lafeber Premium Daily Diet Pellets for Canaries.
Health & Common Conditions
Canaries are susceptible to mite infection, namely: air-sac mites (which are found in the bird’s respiratory system), scaly mites (which show as scaly buildup around the bird’s beak, eyes and/or legs), feather mites and red mites (nocturnal mites that crawl out during the night and feed on the bird’s blood). Mite infection is treatable if caught early on, so be proactive in seeking out treatment as soon as you suspect that your canary might have mites. Canary pox is a virus transmitted by mosquitoes that poses a serious threat to canaries, especially those housed outdoors (which is why many people recommend housing these birds indoors) with higher infection rates occurring during summer months.
Get a Canary
Canaries are a available for sale in many pet stores, from avian-specialty shops as well as direct from bird breeders. They are less likely to be available for adoption from avian-rescue organizations, which are more focussed on parrot species in need of homes.