Canaries are very easy to care for: they do not require constant attention, are not destructive, are perfectly happy as a single bird and the males have beautiful songs. They are great birds for beginners and are relatively inexpensive. The canary is generally between 4 3/4″ to 8″ (12-20 cm) in length. Their plumage is very bright starting in the yellows, yellow-greens, greens, and shades of orange to shades of red. The average lifespan of a canary is 10-15 years, though there have been canaries that have lived up to 20 years!
The ancestor of the domesticated canary we see today can be found in the Canary Islands, Azores and Madeira. Since 1478, when they were first imported into Europe, the domestic canary breeds have changed based on the commercial popularity of some breeds over others, but domestic pet canaries are distributed throughout the world.
Care and feeding
Fresh food and water must be provided daily. A canary cannot live for a 24-hour period without water! Fresh canary seed is their everyday food and vitamin coated seed mixes are readily available at a pet store. A single canary will eat about one teaspoon of seed a day and canaries will rarely overeat, though they may need to eat a bit more when the weather is cold or during molt. It is important to provide your canary with a variety of food, not just seed. Pelleted diets are also available and contain vitamins and more protein than seed, making additional supplementation unnecessary. However birds not raised on a pelleted diet may not recognize it as food, so may not accept it.
Daily supplements that canaries like to eat include greens such as kale, broccoli, dandelions, spinach, celery, peas, and watercress. Small amounts of fruits such as apples, oranges, grapes, bananas, and melons can also be offered. About once a week offer an additional protein supplement such as egg biscuit. Every few days you can also provide some song food to help develop vocal cords. Canary treats of seed with honey, fruits and vegetables are fun for your bird too, as well as nutritious. Provide a cuttlebone or a mineral block, which will provide calcium and required nutrients for a strong beak and bones. The lime in the cuttlebone also aids in digestion. Grit is not necessary for canaries since they hull their seeds.
Their nails will occasionally need to be trimmed, but be careful never to clip into the vein as the bird can quickly bleed to death. Bird nail trimmers and styptic powder to stop the bleeding are available at pet shops. Please consult your vet prior to trimming nails for the first time.
Canaries like wide open spaces so provide your pet with a roomy cage. They are flyers rather than climbers, and therefore require larger cages relative to their size than many of the hook bills. Round cages should never be used with any kind of flying bird since the shape makes it difficult to place perches parallel to each other, and restricts the birds, making it difficult for them to move naturally. A good size cage for a single bird is 16″ tall and 30” long. Remember, canaries like to fly back and forth, not necessarily up and down. Place the cage on a stand or hang it from a wall bracket at eye level or at about 6 feet off the floor. Be sure the spot you pick has good light and is well ventilated, though free from drafts. It should be away from doors and windows where direct exposure to sunlight can make it overly warm, but placed close to at least one wall to enhance a feeling of security. Average daytime temperatures can range from between 60oF to 70oF with nighttime temperatures down to 40oF. As a rule of thumb, ambient temperatures comfortable for you should be adequate for your bird. Whether your bird is sick or healthy, be sure to watch for tell-tale signs of temperature-related discomfort: cold birds will often remain fluffed up for extended periods of time, and overheated birds will hold their wings away from their bodies and pant. The cage should be covered at night to prevent drafts and disturbances.
Provide two or three good softwood perches about 3/8″ to 3/4″ in diameter at either end of the cage. Tree branches of a similar size also make good perches and will help to wear the claws down naturally. Perches should have some texture to them to prevent slipping however, do not use sandpaper perch covers as they can cause serious foot irritation and infection. Also provide dishes for food, water, and treats as well as an area for a bath. Keep these dishes away from perches so they do not collect bird droppings.
Although canaries require very little time, a clean environment as well as fresh food and water daily is a must to prevent disease and illness. The basic cage care includes daily cleaning/changing of the water and food dishes and changing the cage papers. Plain newspaper is fine on the cage bottom. NEVER USE CAT LITTER! Canaries will eat it and die! Weekly, wash and dry the entire cage, including the perches using warm soapy water or a bird cage disinfectant. If you choose to use bleach, dilute one part bleach to 32 parts water and let sit for 10 minutes. Rinse very well.
Canaries have very sweet personalities. They will not harm children, visitors, or other pets. Canaries generally are more territorial than social and will be happiest as a solitary bird. They should never be housed with larger, more aggressive birds such as cockatiels, parrots or lovebirds.
Most of the time, canaries are simply enjoyed for their beauty and singing. However, some canaries are allowed out of their cage to perch or are show canaries and therefore require taming or training. Canaries can learn some simple tricks such as playing with a toy, but they are quite timid and it takes a lot of patience. If they are exposed to sounds when they are young, male canaries can also learn to mimic sounds such as a telephone ring or a doorbell. If you wish to tame or train your canary, it is best to buy a single bird. It is also easier to tame a young bird. When you need to hold your canary, place your palm on it’s back and wrap your fingers around the bird with your thumb and forefinger on either side of its head. Canaries rarely bite, and even if they do, they do not have a harmful or dangerous bite. Taming or training a canary requires a lot of patience and persistent effort.
Canaries prefer to be able to move around and it is important to their health and well being that they be able to fly from perch to perch. Keep the cage accessories to a minimum to allow free movement. A single toy, mirror, and a couple of branches/perches will be plenty and you can change them around periodically to provide variety.
In the wild, canaries love to roll in dew-dampened grasses for a bath. You can give your pet a treat by occasionally putting in damp dandelion leaves or grasses in the bottom of the cage for a few hours. A shallow bath is a great joy for a canary. This should be in addition to any water dishes in the cage. Plastic planter dishes work great- fill it with lukewarm water and place on the cage floor away from any perches. Clean it daily as you would the bird’s other dishes.
Canaries are very hardy birds and almost all illnesses can be traced to improper diet, dirty cages, and drafts. A balanced diet and plenty of exercise will prevent most canary illnesses. If a canary becomes ill it will lose weight rapidly, so it is essential that you know your bird and watch for real drastic changes as indications of illness.
Some signs of illness to be aware of are droppings that are not black and white, feathers that are ruffled, lack of appetite, wheezing, molting out of season, male does not sing, and lethargy. Some of the common illnesses and injuries your canary could contract are broken wings or legs, cuts and open wounds, overgrown beaks and nails, ingrown feathers (feather lumps), feather picking, false molt caused by mishandling or a poor diet, confinement cramps in the legs from a cage that is too small, weight loss, heat stroke, shock, concussion, egg binding, diarrhea, mites, colds, baldness, scaly legs, sore eyes, tumors, loss of song, constipation and diarrhea. Contact your vet immediately if you suspect any injuries to your feather friend!
Jack Hanna’s Ultimate Guide to Pets, 1996