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OK Bird Lady, tell me why won't my Pet Canary Sing?
by R C McDonald
Copyright © 2004
Prequel; Clarifying the Question
Are you sure your bird is a male canary? Many hen canaries can sing
quite well. Although a hen is not physically capable of the trademark
long trills and warbles of the males, some can and do learn to mimic
these sounds so well that even a trained ear may have a hard time
telling the difference. Each year many hens are mistakenly sold as males.
Is yous bird moulting?
Many canaries do not sing during this time, which should happen once
a year, usually in the summer. A normal moult should last no more
than six to eight weeks.
Are you sure that the cage furnishings, and food are appropriate for
a canaryís use, and that the diet is adequate?
Are you sure no drafts are present?
An unnoticed draft of either warm or cold air has been the cause of
many a canaryís loss of song! If you are sure that the above causes do
not enter into the picture, then the next thing is to....
Check with an Avian vet. Sometimes canaries stop singing because they
are ill. If you suspect that this may be the case, it is wise to check with
an expert, rather than try to treat the bird yourself. You will, after all,
very likely guess wrong!
The Social Factor
Canaries have much more capacity for intelligent thought than most
people realize. In their native habitat, they are faced with decisions and
problems many times a day; where to eat and drink, how to avoid
predators, what relations they will have with others creatures both
within and outside the flock...all these challenges and more must
be met on an everyday basis.
Hundreds of generations of evolution under these conditions has given
the canary not only the capacity to deal with this amount of stimulation
but also, in my observations, the need for it. Traditionally, canaries were
kept in small cages. It was believed that a bird which was given too
large a cage would spend too much time playing, and not enough
It is true that a canary in a small cage will sing a lot, especially at first.
Lacking company and room, he will spend all his time announcing
his presence to the world.
In the wild, this activity would bring other males to challenge his right
to be present and hens to be courted and wooed. Wild birds must
also learn to deal with the many other species with which they
share their world.
In a household environment this simply does not happen. Many canary
owners are content to leave him in his cage and rarely interact with him
other than when his needs are being attended to.
Canaries are driven by the need to establish and dominate a territory.
His song is an announcement to the world that he is prepared to defend
his right to and ownership of his territory to all comers. If he does not
feel there is a chance for him to have the right to his own little bit of
the world, he is not likely to try to stake his claim.
So how does one go about eliciting a response from a canary who
has proven to be healthy, and male, but who will not sing? As you
have probably realized by now the answer for each bird may not
necessarily be simple or straightforward.
First the physical environment of the cage must be scrutinized. The
area must be free of either warm or cool drafts no matter what the
time of year. There should be no objects, large or small, in the area
immediately over the cage. Placement should be neither too high or
too low, being ideally at slightly below head height for a human
standing next to the cage.
Seed cups and drinkers must be visible and easy to use. Don't use
the covered cups unless you know your bird will use them; more
than one canary has starved to death because he would not put his
head in a little hole to eat. Perches should be situated so that the seed,
water, and vegetables stay clean; this is one of the easiest ways of
all to prevent problems with disease or pests.
The cage should be neither isolated nor in the middle of everything. As
with most aspects of life, a happy medium is the ideal. The bird
should be able to see family activity without feeling overwhelmed
or threatened by it.
Sunshine is always enjoyed by canaries, but there must be shade
available at all times as well. Anyone who has not seen a canary
enjoying a sunbath is in for a treat!
Home Tweet Home
Next, look at the cage itself and its contents. Is the cage large enough,
and appropriately shaped for a canary to use the space? Is it too
crowded for the bird? Does it make the bird feel safe and at home,
or threatened and exposed?
The traditional round cage is the last cage you want to have for a canary.
Even a larger round cage will be difficult to adapt to a canaryís needs,
and because of this will also tend to get dirty faster and make the
bird feel less at home.
Canaries, you see, like most small birds which are adapted for flying
rather than climbing, move primarily back and forth. A rectangular
cage allows for a perch at either end, so that the bird may move
naturally. If the perches are far enough apart, he will be able to fly a
little, and get some exercise and fun.
A round cage simply does not allow this. The result is that the canary
is deprived of one of his most natural, instinctive movements. This
restriction will often produce a bird which feels threatened and/or
exposed, although this can be hard to discern unless you have had
some practice with canary body language; similar to, and yet different
from that used by the psittacine (parrot) family.
Because such birds cannot play or move freely, they quite often become
rather badly cage-bound, subject to panic attacks at the slightest
change in their environment or routine. This is probably the main
source of the common belief that canaries are delicate and sensitive;
in actual fact, when cared for properly, the canary is one of the
hardiest and most adaptable of all the songbirds.
The ideal (not always attainable but a good goal) cage for a canary
will be rectangular, forty inches or more long, at least fifteen to twenty
inches wide, and twenty-five or more inches tall, with bar spacing of
no more than one-half inch. It should have a perch at either end,
placed about four inches in from the bars and at at about a third
of the cage height.
If a swing is to be included, it should be placed so that it does not
interfere with the birdís movements between the two fixed perches.
Central placement ensures that the cage liner rather than dishes or
perches are soiled.
I like to provide a little shelter by way of a light colored cloth hung
across one end of the cage. It is not necessary for this cloth to cover
the entire end of the cage as long as it is arranged so that a portion
of one of the perches is relatively private.
This mimics the natural shelter which would be available to a bird
perching in a tree. While many tree branches are exposed, it is
always possible to find a little nook, shaded by leaves or other branches.
Water must be available at all times. A canary without access to water
will probably not live for more than 24 hours; less if the weather is hot.
Canaries are exceptionally sensitive to traces of undesirable elements
in water, so if there is any doubt about the quality of the water source,
I like to use only bottled water. Because regular bottled water can also
carry bacteria, I often use distilled water, which has been sterilized
in the process of distillation.
Bath time will be greatly appreciated by your canary - I sometimes
think my birds act more like they are half fish - and, if possible, should
be offered once a day, in the summertime at least.
Please donít let your bird go for any more than two or three days
without a bath if you cannot give him one every day. Put his tub up
in the morning, and take it down after an hour or so, to prevent him
drinking the used water. This way, too, you can be sure that his
plumage will be thoroughly dry before evening comes. Wet feathers
at night will mean you will have a sick bird in short order!
The Bread of Life
Seed should be as fresh as possible. Once exposed to air whole seed
will go stale quite quickly, much as bread will. If you must buy large
amounts, try to freeze as much as possible, and remove small
amounts as needed. Freezing the seed not only keeps it fresh for
far longer than any other method (including refrigeration) it also has
the added benefit of killing any insect larvae which may be present.
A good canary mix will contain about 80% canary grass seed. The
rest of the mix should be mostly canola and flax. Small amounts of
other seeds, such as lettuce, teasel and poppy may be present, but
what you should not see is white or yellow millets. Most canaries
cannot crack these larger, harder shelled millets, but they are often
used as filler in the cheaper seed mixes.
You should blow the chaff off the top of the seed in the cup at least
once a day if the bird lets it accumulate there; more than one bird
has starved to death with a full cup of seed because they will not
try to eat what they canít see is there!
I have always found that most canaries are not always the messy
eaters many people seem to believe them to be. Given properly
fresh seed, they may stop throwing it everywhere and settle
down to eat it.
Imagine, if you will, that you are very hungry and somebody has
given you a loaf of stale bread. The best slices will be in the middle
of the loaf - would you not eat these first? This is all that many of
these canaries are doing; searching through a cup full of stale seed
for the fresher-tasting bits.
I have never heard of people feeding oatmeal to canaries anywhere
else but in Scotland - of course! - but as far as I am concerned this
is a valuable grain, and very useful to canaries. Most cannot eat it
unless it is hulled and crushed or rolled, but once it is served in a
form they can handle they devour it with relish. It is similar to canary
grass seed in nutritional content, but is higher in carbohydrates.
This makes rolled oats a useful diet supplement in cold weather and
during the moult, when the extra energy is needed by the bird. Be
aware that, as with the treat seed and song food mixes, that too
much fat or too many carbos can make your bird fat and unhealthy,
especially if he does not get a lot of exercise.
Give any one of these items no more than once or twice a week unless
the bird is weaning, breeding, or moulting, in which case every day
is all right, but only for the duration of the condition.
Vitamins and minerals are an absolute necessity for indoor cage birds.
You can offer vitamins the traditional way, via addition to the water,
but I try to discourage this method for canaries. They are suspicious
of any new taste or color in the water, and will probably not drink
enough to do them much good. After the first few hours, the vitamins
will be decomposing and are no longer available for digestion. This
also renders the cups slimy and can make them difficult to clean.
I like to offer powdered vitamins such as Hagenís Prime sprinkled
on their fruit, veggies, or greens. This product is tasty to the birds,
by comparison with many others. As an added attraction, it contains
trace elements and avian-specific beneficial bacteria and enzymes.
If you live in the U.S., you can find the nearest dealer to you here.
Contrary to popular opinion, many birds do not require grit to
help them digest their seed - research has shown this to be true
only of birds who swallow their seed whole, rather than husking
it as do most birds, including canaries.
A good supply of minerals, however, is necessary, along with the
vitamins without which the minerals cannot digest. Luckily, these
are easily provided by using either a 'mineralized' oyster shell 'gravel'
mix, served in its own cup, or free access to both a cuttlebone and
an mineral block. These may be ignored for months on end, and
then suddenly the bird will begin to use them. It is the rare canary
indeed who will not at least sometimes use a cuttlebone or mineral block.
I myself often use baked eggshells - every time I use a raw egg, I
set the shell aside to dry out. When I have a heap of these, they go
into the oven at 250 degrees Farenheit for at least a half hour, to
be sure any bacteria are dead. (bake the shells any hotter, and they
smell horrid - any cooler, and they will not be properly sterilized).
When they come out of the oven, I crunch them up, and put a little
cup in each bird's cage. It is a rare canary indeed who does not
love these, and they provide a good balance of the necessary
minerals needed to maintain health.
Please, Play With Your Food
One of the best toys you can give your canary is a variety of vegetables
to chew on. As well as chopping them up and serving mixed in a
dish, try being creative and make your bird work a little for his goodies.
Try slices, wedges, or chunks, squeezed through the bars above a
perch or wedged into a clip. Use apple, broccoli, corn on the cob
(sliced with the cob into round chunks), carrots or beets, kohlrabi
(a favorite), or any other such similar veggie. These will all be
relished by canaries once they understand that it is food.
Another good way to offer these foods is on a bird skewer. These
are sold in pet stores, and come with a nut on the end to hold the
food on the skewer, and, incidentally, to prevent any accidents
with the sharper end. Most birds I have known love chewing
on their own veggie shish-kabob.
Most people have no idea how much vegetation a canary prefers
to consume. Up to fifty or sixty percent of his body weight a day
can quite safely consist of vegetables and greens; it is a myth that
this can cause diarrhea, except perhaps if the bird has seen no
such food for a long time and eats too much.
I personally have never had any problems associated with allowing
my birds to eat as much vegetation as they want; and I never or
rarely have problems common to many traditional breeders, who
carefully limit the amount of vegetables and greenery their birds
have access to. A coincidence? I don't think so.
As well as the vegetables, offer a dish of chopped greenery at least
every other day or so. If you have a Red Factor Canary, now is
the time to add lots of grated carrots to his greens every day, to
maintain good color. Use nutritious greens such as winter kale,
savoy cabbages, romaine lettuce, Italian rapini, leafy endive, culinary
dandelion, and other such power - packed greens. A favored
delicacy with my birds is the Chinese sprouting broccoli 'Gui Lan'.
Almost any dark leafy green is good, even such things as carrot,
turnip, or beet tops. Be aware, though, that some greens, such as
spinach, beets, and chard, can bind with calcium and slow or prevent
its digestion. I never serve these greens when I have hens laying
eggs, for example.
You also need to remember that canaries are extremely sensitive to
chemical pesticides and fertilizers. Because of this fact I try to
ensure that anything fed my birds is, if at all possible, organically
grown, or at least very thoroughly washed!
Most canaries are unabashed and utter pigs about eating anything green.
This means that chopped greens are useful for mixing with new or
unusually colored vegetables. When first served grated carrots,
beets, or turnip, my birds would not touch them, but when I began
serving them mixed with chopped greens the birds soon got used
to them. Now it is more common to see them picking the grated
veggies out of the mix to eat first!
Canaries love to play! Simple toys such as hanging chains with beads
to slide about are greatly appreciated, as is any toy with interesting
things to poke at or tug on. One favorite must be the simplest of
all - two or three pieces of natural fiber kitchen twine cut four or
five inches long and tied about a cage wire two or three inches
over a perch, with the ends hanging loose inside the cage. Most
canaries will spend quite a lot of time preening and tugging on the
It is my opinion that a canary should always have at least one swing.
The movement mimics that of the lighter branches at the top of a tree,
and they seem to find it relaxing. They also seem to like the fact
that swings must be hung from the roof of the cage. This gives
them a high perch from which to oversee household activities.
One toy, commonly given to hookbills from small to large which
should never be given to a canary is a mirror. For some reason so far
unfathomable to humankind, a mirror is apparently utterly irresistable
to a canary, and many will spend all their time in front of it, forgetting
to eat, drink, or move about. Nobody I have ever met has been
able to give me a reasonable explanation as to why this can happen,
but yet many canary owners have verified this odd fact.
The Leg You Stand
Perches are another way to offer variety in a canaryís environment.
There are many safe kinds to choose from, from the many non-toxic
species that can give you natural branches to the huge variety of all
shapes and sizes available in the pet stores. I like to keep a larger
amount than I am actually using on hand, so that a soiled perch may
easily be replaced with a fresh one.
Plastic tree branches are easy to wash and offer as much variety of
footing as the real thing. This is very important for the overall health
of the foot. Perches which offer a variety of grips allow the foot to
exercise and stretch naturally. Make sure that the surfaces do not
get too smooth and slippery - an occasional roughing up with coarse
sandpaper will ensure a good non-slip grip.
Real tree branches are nice to have, if you care to go out and collect
them, but a few precautions must be observed. You must be
absolutely certain that the tree is of a non-toxic species. It should
be at least a hundred feet or more away from a road, further if
there is a busy highway nearby.
Some of my favorites are apple, mountain ash, alder, aspen, and
willow. Curly hazelnut or willow is fun for the birds too! I remove
all the leaves and scrub the branches thoroughly with a stiff brush and
plenty of soap and water before they ever enter the house. Then they
are given a long soak in the bathtub, in a mixture of cold water with
about 5 percent bleach added. Using cold water means you and
your birds can avoid inhaling the dangerous fumes that would be
spread through the house if you used hot water - these fumes are
not good for either you or your birds!
After a long soak I drain the tub and rinse the branches several times
with cold water before a final rinse of scalding hot water to remove
the last traces of bleach. The branches are cut to a bit longer than
needed and left to dry at room temperature. I do not like to oven dry
perches; they can split and crack if dried too fast, and those tiny little
cracks can catch a toenail and trap your canary faster than you can
say "kazaam". It never seems to happen when youíre looking, either...
Rope perches are good too, but care must be taken that the bird's nails
are kept trimmed, so as not to catch on the fibres. For the same
reason, the rope must be replaced immediately once it begins to fray.
Normally, most canaries will moult once a year, usually in the heat
of the summer. This period should last about six to eight weeks at the
most; if your canary is throwing feathers for longer than that, see an
avian vet, as he may have a problem; prolonged moulting is not normal.
You will find that your canary will be less energetic than usual during
this time, and probably will not sing much, if at all. He will greatly
appreciate any extra coddling you can throw his way in the form of
extra-nutritious treats, an extra-reliable schedule, a predictable
environment, and lots of seed, vegetables, and greens. Soaked
seed with nestling food is a particularly good source of nutrition
during this time.
Try as much as possible to protect your canary from extra stress
when he is moulting, for his sake as well as yours; sudden shocks
to a moulting bird can lead to sudden feather loss over large areas
of the skin. The feathers in this area take longer than usual to begin
to regrow, and in the meantime you are left with a half-clothed bird,
vulnerable to every stray draft and breeze that comes along.
Your Feathered Child
Last, but not least, let your canary know that he is a member of your
household. Speak to him every day. See that he has some form of
interaction with all the members of your household, even if itís only
pausing near his cage to speak to him occasionally.
Gaze gently at your bird when youíre nearby, and always speak or
make some small noise or other. A predator will approach silently
and will usually be staring at his prey - such an approach will make
any canary understandably nervous!
Sound is very important to any creature evolved in a forested
environment, and they should never be kept in too quiet an area. To
all birds native to forests, silence means just one thing - thereís
a predator nearby!
This is the only time you will ever hear silence in any forest. One and
all, to forest creatures, noise is golden. Many people leave a radio
playing near their canary when they are not home; this assures him
that he has not been left at the mercy of an unseen predator
somewhere within a quiet house.
Although independent by nature, all canaries exist within the larger
framework and social order of the flock. Anyone who wishes to
have a happy, healthy, singing canary must convince the bird that he
is able to establish a place for himself within his human flock.
Having accomplished this successfully, you are liable to find yourself
possessed of such a lively, vibrant little songster that you just may find
other people asking you to help them with the question "Why
wonít my canary sing?"
"Everyone always asks me why my birds are such beautiful singers
and breed such magnificent babies...I tell them that I learned from
Robirda! While they give their birds all kinds of 'magical' formulas,
I just follow your guide to 'keep it simple.' My birds are now very
healthy, and there has been no recurrence of the infection.
Thank Goodness!" R.C., Florida
by R C McDonald
Copyright © 2004 Reprinted with Permission
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