Caring For Canaries


Canaries (Serinus canaria domestica) - Boder, Red Factor, Norwich, Fife, Gloster, Roller, Lizard, Yorkshire.

Domestic canaries evolved from wild finches that still live on islands in the Atlantic Ocean off the coast of Spain.  They were originally brought to Europe by sailors in the 17th Century because of the beautiful singing ability of the cockbirds (males).

By simultaneously using different parts of their syrinx (voice apparatus located in their chest) male canaries can sing remarkable duets with themselves, a skill common to all canaries but for which the Roller Canary (developed in the 1800s in Germany but also kept in Australia) is especially renowned. Female canaries have nowhere near the vocal repertoire of the males, whose song is actually a territorial call.

In addition to being selectively bred for their song, pet canaries have also been bred for type (shape) with the Border Canary being the typical, traditional plain bodied canary and Fifes similar but smaller. Lizard Canaries come in gold and silver and are named because of their feather patterning that resembles a lizard’s skin. Other types that are commonly kept in Australia include Norwich, a large variety with thick feathering; Australian Plainheads which are related to Norwich; Yorkshires, a long bodied variety whose eggs often have to be fostered under Border Canaries and Glosters, a petit canary that comes in two forms, coronas (with a little ‘fringe’) and consorts (without the fringe).  If breeding Gloster canaries, coronas should always be crossed with consorts as coronas carry a lethal gene and if coronas are bred to coronas 25% of the offspring will typically die.

For a long time after their introduction into Europe canaries only came in shades of green, brown and then yellow. A red canary was akin to a Black Swan, for the Europeans they just didn’t exist and to bred or find one was the ultimate challenge. By crossing canaries with a related species, the now endangered Black Hooded Red Siskin of Venuzula, breeders were able to introduce red (well really deep orange) colour genes into their birds and ‘Red Factor’ canaries came into existence. Unlike red parrots but like flamingos kept in captivity, Red Factor canaries require special colour food containing carotenoids to be fed during moulting to retain and enhance their red colour. Breeding ‘colour’ canaries, which includes such varieties as Inos, Bronze, Ivory, Satinette and others as well as Red Factors has a keen following in Australia.

In addition to the specific varieties mentioned above pet shops sell plain, crossbred, ‘moggie’ canaries which are generally hardy little chaps that, like people, come in a wide variety of colours and vocal abilities.

Housing Canaries

As individual pets, canaries can be comfortably kept in aviaries or in cages. While friendly with people, like other finches they are more of a ‘hands off’ bird than budgies or cockatiels. They can be kept on their own or, in some cases, with other canaries or small gentle species such as neophema parrots or other finches but care needs to be taken to ensure compatibility.   Some canaries, especially males during springtime, can be aggressive towards other canaries and altercations, especially if there is a disparity in size, can result in injury or death. Having a large cage or aviary with toys and natural branches for perches allows for enrichment for all the occupants as well as allowing less dominant birds space to hid or get away from an aggressor and reduce the chances of injury.

Canary Diet

Canaries are seed eaters but this does NOT mean that they should be fed a seed only diet, which is lacking in essential vitamins (e.g. Vitamin A), minerals (e.g. calcium), amino acids and trace elements.   Seed diets should be supplemented with a variety of green and orange vegetables such as silver beet, spinach, boy choy, carrot and brocolli that are rich in nutrients, such as vitamin A, that seed-only diets lack. There is nothing toxic about lettuce, cucumber or celery and they can be fed in moderation but they do not contain Vitamin A so are not as good as vegetables that have this. Feeding commercially available formulated crumble is an alternative way to get these vitamins and trace elements but a single type of food will not suit every canary any more than a single type of food will suit every human. Some seed mixes have granules containing vitamins, mineral and trace elements but not every bird will eat the granules. Apart from individual preferences and differences in metabolism, nutritional requirements will vary depending on temperature, life stage, whether the bird is moulting or breeding etc.

For both enrichment and to satisfy nutritional needs, we recommend canaries be offered a seed mix formulated for canaries (e.g. a mix of canary seed, millet, pannicum, hulled oats, rape, linseed and hemp) as well as fresh vegetables, as well as crumble. Don’t feed avocado as some varieties of avocado are toxic to canaries. Fresh water should be available at all times and a calcium/mineral block or cuttlefish bone should be hung in the cage.

Dangers for Canaries

Canaries are especially prone to foot and leg injuries because of their tiny legs and toes. Be sure that claws are kept trimmed as long claws can catch on the cage and result in broken legs. Avoid using cotton wool or fabrics with fine fibres as these can become entwined around toes and cut off circulation. If you notice lumps on your canary’s feet check carefully for fibres, if deeply imbedded these may need to be removed under anaesthesia.

Take care if housing canaries near a kitchen as they are susceptible to inhalant toxins, such as overheated Teflon, which can kill them.

Breeding and Life Cycle of Canaries

Canaries typically come into a breeding condition with lengthening daylight hours. Males will typically sing loudly and have pointed vents while females are not such good singers and have only slightly mounded vents. Hen canaries typically lay 4-5 eggs in an open bowl nest and need to be provided with e.g. coconut fibre or hessian material with which to line the nest. Do not use cotton wool as the fine fibres may entangle feet and cause loss of toes. Canaries may bred in a quiet, sheltered, open cage but breeder cabinets are preferable. Incubation is 14 days, with chicks fledging at around 18 days after hatching. Life expectancy is 6-15 years but we have had 2 canaries at our clinic who have lived past 20 years.

Top 10 Disease Problems in Canaries - as seen by the canary vet.

  1. Air sac mites (Sternastoma) are common in canaries and cause gurgling respiration (‘rales’) which can be heard if the canary is held to the ear. There are a number of possible treatments, including applying moxidectin or ivomectin topically.
  2. Other Respiratory Diseases. Apart from air sac mites, respiratory disease in canaries may be caused by e.g. inhaled toxins, bacterial infections, viral infections, Mycoplasma infections or Chlamydophila (also called psittacosis, a disease humans can catch from birds). Treatment will depend on the diagnosis.
  3. ‘Going Light’ is a name bird keepers have traditionally given to birds that lose weight over a period while continuing to eat. It is not a single disease. In canaries most common causes include Macrorhabdus  (formerly known as ‘megabacteria’), bacterial infections and Candidiasis. Tests on the dropping are generally the first step in determining the cause.
  4. Diarrhoea and deaths, especially in juveniles – is most often caused by coccidian parasites. We see two forms, Isospora which remains in the intestinal tract and canary Atoxaplasma which also affects other body organs such as the liver and spleen. Bacterial, viral or Candidia (yeast) infections could also cause these problems. Tests on the canary droppings or, in some cases, a canary autopsy is needed to determine the cause.
  5. ‘Black Spot’ is a name canary keepers have traditionally given to conditions where the liver is enlarged and dark causing a ‘black spot’ on the abdomen. It is not a single disease but can be seen with, e.g.  Atoxoplasma, or viral infections such as circovirus or bacterial diseases. Tests on the droppings or, in some cases, an autopsy is needed to determine the cause.
  6. ‘Tassle foot’, ‘Scaly leg’ and ‘old canary hyperkeratosis’ – are conditions where there is excessive or deranged scale on canaries’ legs and feet. This may be caused by a microscopic mite, Cnemidokoptes or in some cases it may be genetic or associated with poor nutrition and birds may require ongoing foot and leg care. Microscopic examination of the scales is needed to determine the cause. Scaly leg is typically treated by applying moxidectin or ivomectin to bare skin.
  7. Feather cysts/ feather folliculomas – are common in some varieties of canaries, particularly those with thick dense feathering like Norwich canaries. Instead of forming a normal feather the lining of the feather follicle is abnormal produces a cyst instead. Multiple cysts may be formed on different parts of the body. Surgical removal may be needed in some cases
  8. Egg binding may be caused e.g. by large eggs, too low calcium, young or old birds or cold weather. See … for recommendations for emergency care.
  9. Deaths in nestlings – most often caused by bacterial infections (e.g.  E. coli) or viral infections such as circovirus or polyomavirus
  10. Canary pox is caused by a virus transmitted by mosquitoes and causes lumps around the head and feet. Incidence increases in wet years when mosquitoes are prevalent

Canary Medications

As an aviary the following are some of the more common,   treatable conditions that should be thought of and considered before the breeding season and before allowing new birds into a collection.

Deworming canaries

  • Moxivet 1 drop onto the bird / 30g per bird, once for roundworms and scaly-face/leg  mites Knemidokoptes and air sac mite
  • Moxivet Plus – 0.03 ml per 25 g bird or 1 drop into the beak / 30 g does all of the above including tapeworm once
  • Bird Wormer – Contains Levamisole dosed into the water at 5 ml/ 100ml water for 24 hours.

Coccidiosis in Canaries

  • Baycox contains toltazural dose for canaries is  3ml per litre water for 2 days changing water daily or for individual birds about 0.02ml/25g bird which is about a very small drop orally  once a day for 2 days.
  • Coccivet –Contains amprolium dosed for 3 days.
  • Canker is very uncommon and not routinely treated for.

Megabacteria in Canaries

In adult birds, The canary Vet sees weight loss and depression and  “going light” . The organism inhabits the lower portion of the proventriculus within the superficial mucosal glands at the isthmus. Disease may be dependent either on the pathogenicity of different strains or the individual susceptibility of the infected birds.

Canary Veterinary check for megabacteria includes multiple  microscopic examinations dropping samples depending on the number of birds.  Canary Megabac is  an easy diagnosis on Autopsy when Histopathology is done.

Treatments of Megbacateria in canaries  includes twice daily dosing with Amphoterecin liquid  or in water Anti-fungal medications.  Easily digestible food and digestive enzymes and macrobiotics for canaries are helpful.

Canary Respiratory Disease

  • Doxybitic : A  doxycycline  antibiotic with add vitamins and minerals lacking in most seed diets. Added to the drinking water.
  • Linco-spectin

Canary Malnutrition & Canary Supplements

Nutritional problems need to be monitored and corrected.  This applies ongoing and is especially important in the lead up to the breeding season .

Calcium supplementation for the Canary.

  • A good quality calcium based grit like shell grit .
  • Calcibird – with calcium Vit d3 and magnesium.
  • Crushed egg shell – that is Baked to sterilize it.
  • Canary crumble and pellets are complete diets

Vitamin Mineral supplements for canaries

Depends a lot on each situation

  • Premoult 5 is a product we have found useful.

External Parasites in Canaries

A  Permethrin containing product – most have a good residual action.  Need a light spray on the birds and roosting perches.

Consider lining the breeding box with a permethrin powder.

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