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Natural and

Artificial Lighting

for Pet Canaries

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by R C McDonald
Copyright 2004

It used to be, that keeping canaries was a pretty reliable project - a pet
canary would sing all year long, except during the summer when he
was moulting. Breeders knew just when in the spring they could
expect their birds to want their nests, and that there would be time
for only two or so nests before it was time for the summer moult.

Of course, that was before the advent of artificial light. Nowadays,
canaries are only predictable if all they are seeing is natural daylight,
or lights which are on only during the daytime. That can be a big if,
too! Generally though, the lengthening days of spring signals the start
of breeding season for canaries.

Those who get eggs and/or chicks at other times of the year, have
used artificial lighting before or after darkness outdoors. This makes
the birds react as if the season is different than it really is.

Many breeders deliberately use artificial lighting to get a jump on the
season. According to my experience, this is not the advantage you'd
tend to think, as early-season clutches seem to have a higher
percentage of infertile eggs than will occur later on, and often the
better birds will be those who hatch later in the season.

One of the biggest problems for many newcomers to keeping canaries
is learning to understand that their canaries literally react physically to
the length of the days they are experiencing.

People are also photo-sensitive, if to a rather minor degree. Still,
each winter will bring new cases of the disease known as SAD,
that is, Seasonal Affective Disorder. This is a kind of depression that
has been tied, in humans, to a lack of sufficient natural light.

Most of us don't tend to think much about any of this, though - we
are too busy! We think nothing of hopping up in the middle of the
night and flipping on the lights, to jot down a note, or finish a task.
The fact is, though, that if much of that light is seen by your pet
canary, it will stimulate him physically, the same way daylight does.

His system reacts as if it is suddenly dawn. This triggers his internal
'clock' to start producing the physical changes which go with the
day and the season in which days of that length occur. For a look
at the kind of day lengths canaries evolved for, visit this chart.

Some birds, especially pets in families whose lights swing back and
forth unpredictably, are never allowed to complete these annual
changes comfortably and in their own time, but are instead physically
pushed into suddenly beginning or ending them at the whim of their
human family's convenience. This is very stressful for any canary,
and over a long term, can lead to health problems, and a much
shorter lifespan than otherwise might be seen.

Every year, many canaries are tricked into thinking it is spring
when the holiday season comes along and suddenly there is more
light and longer 'days', due to their human family's increased holiday
socialization. Every year I hear of more 'surprise' Christmas hatchlings,
and every year, some of them die, because once the holiday season
is over, the house lights tend to go back to more normal timing,
and suddenly the canary finds itself experiencing shorter days again.

In nature, the days becoming shorter means that the summer solstice
has passed, and that winter is on its way - this is a signal to a
canary to get those feathers replaced and renewed, fast, before
the weather becomes changeable and unreliable. The birds go into
a 'winter' moult, thinking it is midsummer, and usually this also
means that parent birds will stop feeding any babies still in the nest.

This kind of scenario has made a lot of trouble for newcomers to
canary-keeping over the years, and will probably continue to do
so for some time yet. The only way out is to try to learn to
understand the kind of effect lighting has on a canary. Once you
have lived with them for a few years and watched the incredible
annual changes they go through, it becomes a little easier to
understand how completely this stimulus acts on their physical
and mental systems.

Perhaps the biggest hurdle newcomers to keeping canaries must
learn, is that if they are to successfully keep their canaries healthy,
fit, and singing, their convenience will have to play second fiddle
to their canaries' needs.

When it comes to lighting, creative minds can find ways to get around
such limits as when lights need to be on or off, using such handy
items as an extra-heavy cage cover, or a separate bird room where
even full houselights won't bother a sleeping canary. The fact still
remains that such accommodation has to become a standard
consideration, for those interested in keeping their canaries happy
and healthy - whether a single pet, or a large flock.

One factor often left out of this equation is that of mental stimulation
and attitude. Canaries are quite intelligent for their size, and some
canary hens in particular can tend to take sudden notions. (many
men will insist this is a trait all females share).

In my experience, some hens adore the idea of babies, and think
of them year round. At the slightest sign that it might be getting
close to breeding season, they will be busily building nests, and
trolling for a response from the males around them. Other hens
couldn't give a flit, and breed only when their bodies physically
force them to.

My conclusion? They may all have similar physical systems, but
each and every canary is as much an individual as we humans are.
People are all physically similar too - but that has never stopped all
of us from being individuals, each unique in our own special way.
My observation suggests that this is equally true of all of the winged,
furred or scaled creatures who share the planet with us.

Given that fact, it is my belief that it behooves us to learn all we can
about how to understand and relate to this complex little creature
known as the 'common canary'. After all, how else will we find out
what else they still have to teach us?

by R C McDonald
Copyright 2004
Reprinted with Permission

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