If we are to advance our understanding of these delicate little songsters, it is up to us all to share, and add to, the common pool of knowledge. This is why I’d like to share with you some of the more valuable advice and insights on canaries that have been proffered to me over the years. Most of it is deceptively simple – the kind of thing that makes you wonder, “Why didn’t I think of that?” It is my hope that these pointers will be as great an assistance to you as they were to me, and that you will make a point one day of passing them on in turn.
Canaries are marvelously complicated little birds. Many’s the successful finch, cockatiel, or budgie breeder I’ve seen advance with high hopes and cheerful dreams into the realm of breeding canaries, thinking that since they’d already mastered breeding one or more types of bird, how much more difficult could it be to raise the common canary? These people are almost always shocked to find that successfully raising healthy canaries is nowhere near as simple as they had presumed it to be.
Countless beginning breeders have found themselves plagued with problems both major and minor. Often problems are encountered getting the birds in condition to breed; once this is accomplished the balancing act continues, for now the birds must successfully incubate, hatch, and rear their young.
If their needs are not met, the birds will fail. The specter of failure can include egg-binding, infertile eggs, dead-in-shell, non-feeding parents, or even birds who will breed, or feed, themselves to death. The variations can seem endless; just when you think you’ve got it figured out, they will throw another curve at you.
Daylight and Canaries
Canaries are photo-sensitive. They are affected by the changing lengths of the days in the temperate zones of the planet as the seasons progress through the year. Their bodies have evolved to allow them to adapt to the different environments created by the changing seasons, using exposure to light as the trigger. This means that they become ready to breed in response to the physical stimulus that the lengthening days of springtime creates in their systems. Warmth has been proven to be only a secondary factor; it can aid in advancing the strength of the breeding response, but it is not itself a major factor.
Understanding that these birds are photo-sensitive means that the most reliable method of bringing them into breeding condition is to gradually increase the length of their days, beginning about three months before you wish to begin breeding. Keep the birds at about 10 hours of light a day for at least a month, preferrable two; this is their ‘winter’. Once their artificial ‘winter’ is over, begin increasing the length of their days in fifteen minute increments every other week. (If your timer is limited to half-hour increments, increase by a half hour every month. Although you can rush the birds into breeding condition by increasing the day lengths faster, it is not a good idea for the long-term health of the birds, or the fertility of the eggs.)
As the length of day hits 11 hours the birds will be active and busy, the hens in constant motion, the cocks singing heartily while pugnatiously defending their territory. By the time 12 hours a day has arrived the hens are strewing nesting material everywhere; soon the eggs will begin to arrive. Some breeds of canary may need more than this to reach full breeding form, particularly the larger ones such as the Norwich, which can require daylengths of 13 hours a day to successfully hatch and rear babies. Either way, continue increasing the light at a slow and steady pace until the birds have around 13.5 hours of daylight each day. Click here to see a lighting chart
About Canary Hens
Canary hens strengthen themselves for the stress and rigors of breeding season by flying. Her entire system depends on her being as strong and healthy as possible before beginning the cycle of laying her eggs. If a canary hen is denied the opportunity to fly she will very often be physically unable to come into breeding condition, no matter how good her diet is or how long her days last.
Her eggs will consist of up to 25% of her body mass. Her muscles will have to be strong and elastic in order to pass the eggs safely through her system. The muscles which will be subjected to this ordeal are the same muscles she uses to pull herself through the air, her breast muscles, which run the entire length of her body from the keel to the sternum.
I have always tried to allow my hens as much flight time as possible, in as large a space as possible, and they have rewarded me with regular production of large, healthy clutches. I consider an ideal flying space for a canary hen to be a minimum of three feet square by at least five to six feet tall. It is my belief that the extra effort required to lift them to the top perches of the flight strengthens them much faster than any amount of horizontal flight.
In order to see that they do not get too flighty, my hens are periodically rotated into smaller breeding-sized cages of around fifteen inches high and tall, and about three feet long. Each hen usually spends about one week a month in the smaller cage, and the other three weeks in the flight cage until breeding season comes along. This also ensures that the needed periodic health-inspection-and-toenail-clipping takes place on a regular basis.
About Canary Eggs
Canary hens require calcium in order to form their eggs. This means that either cuttlebone, mineral gravel, or baked sterile eggshell bits must always be available to them.
One thing to remember, though; calcium requires that Vitamin D be available within the bird’s system, or the calcium is not digestible. If the birds don’t have access to sunshine which is not filtered through leaded glass windows, this essential vitamin must be provided for them by other means. I prefer to use dry powdered vitamins. They are readily consumed when sprinkled over soft foods, fruit, or greens (I myself usually offer a little prepared cous-cous, and just mix in the dry vitamin supplement before serving). Liquid vitamins given in the water is an unreliable method to use with canaries, as they break down swiftly when in soluble form, and the birds will probably not drink enough to be of great use to them in that short period of time.
A useful tool which helps the birds produce their own Vitamin D, as they do with sunshine, is full-spectrum lighting. These lights are invaluable for indoor birds, and help to increase the general levels of health, well-being, and disease resistance. They have been manufactured to emit light in the same spectrum as natural daylight. I feel that since our birds have evolved for thousands of years under this particular spectrum, who are we to try to improve on what Nature has adapted so well?
I find that it is usually easiest to breed canaries in pairs. The one thing that is always true about canary hens, though, is that each hen is a law unto herself. Her wants and needs, and her ways of expressing them, may be drastically different from her sister’s. Some of my canaries have formed bonded pairs (particularly with the Glosters and the Red Factors), and if given free choice where to roam, these birds are never seen alone. Where one is, the other is not far away. In my experience, pairs like this make the best parents.
The assistance provided the hard-working canary hen by an affectionate and dedicated male cannot be over-emphasized. His assistance in feeding, and especially weaning, allows the hen to return to nest and incubate a second clutch of chicks while the male weans the babies from the first. This type of cooperation allows these pairs to raise more babies with less stress on the hen, giving you overall improvement on the general level of health along with very good production of healthy chicks.
Other pairs may hate each other at first sight, and yet may be gradually persuaded to accept each other, and yet other pairs will have nothing to do with each other no matter what you do.
It has long been thought that canaries, like sparrows and many other small birds, did not stay particularly loyal to their mates, but recent research shows that this is probably not true. A study in 2006 that included DNA fingerprinting tests showed that not only was there not any extra-pair copulation, but that the hens actively rejected advances by any male other than their mate. They came to the conclusion that canary hens assess the quality of the males outside of breeding season, optimizing their mate choices based on learned preferences.
The best advice I’ve ever received about solving problems with hens? An old-timer once told me “I like to sit and watch ‘em, and try to put myself in their place, try and understand what I’d want if I was them. Then I try to figger out what they’d tell me if they spoke English insteada Canary…then I do it, and watch ‘em to see how they like it. All ya gotta do is keep tryin’ till ya get it right…”
It may sound simple, but simple observation can tell you volumes if you pay attention. The only guarantee you will have as you approach breeding season with these little beauties is that they will allow you to hone your sleuthing skills to the point where any of Sherlock Holmes puzzles will seem tame by comparison.
A bad night can ruin your day
If possible, try to arrange for a ‘twilight’ period of 5 to 15 minutes long before turning the lights off. An alternative is to give the birds a sound cue that darkness is coming.
A friend of mine has a radio in her birdroom on a separate timer from the lights; it is turned off about 15 minutes before her lights go out. The birds swiftly learned this sound cue, and now all of her hens are covering their eggs before her lights go out for the evening.
If the hen is not on the nest before the lights go out, the eggs may not survive, since canaries see little or nothing in the dark, and she will not be able to find her way back to the nest in the dark.
Often a canary hen will begin incubating her eggs before the entire clutch is laid. This results in chicks hatching days apart, and can be fatal for the younger, much-smaller chicks.
In order to prevent this, most breeders will take each egg as laid, replacing it in the nest with a fake, or ‘pot’ egg. Handle the eggs gently from end-to-end and there should be no need for a spoon. Any egg which crumbles upon being gently handled has too little calcium in the shell. If this happens, check that the hen is using the supplies you have provided, and that enough vitamins are present for proper digestion. Some hens may require extra minerals added to their food or water, in the form of drops or liquid concentrate.
Always make sure your hands are cleaned, rinsed, and dried before handling any eggs.
Handling the eggs
Nests should always be hung so that they are easily removable. Take the entire nest after the egg is laid into another room, remove the egg, and store it in a cup of seed, replacing it in the nest with a pot egg. The canary hen will be so glad to see her nest back she will probably not notice the egg has been switched, which is most definitely not the case if you do this where she can see you! If you have more than one canary hen, make sure you label each clutch’s container so as to make sure to return the right eggs to the right hen.
How do you know when the entire clutch is laid? Actually, that’s one of the easiest parts. Most hens’ final egg, once dry, will be bluer than the rest of the clutch. The average number of eggs to a clutch is four, but I have had hens who regularly laid three, five, or six eggs per clutch.
In the case of young hens, I limit the clutch size to the first four eggs, and set her with one egg a day earlier than the other three. This way one chick will hatch a day early, giving the often-nervous young mother a chance to practice feeding one demanding young mouth instead of being overwhelmed by a nestful.
The difference in size of one day between the chicks will not be so drastic with the other three hatching together the following day.
Setting the eggs
Canary hens lay their eggs early in the morning. Wait until they hop off the nest to get some breakfast before you take the nest to switch the egg.
Always ‘set’ (return the eggs to) the hen with her eggs in the early morning – the chicks will hatch roughly the same time of day, around 13 days later, depending on how closely the hen sits on her eggs.
The more time she spends off them, the later the eggs will hatch. Incubation for any species of bird is a set number of hours. They simply stop developing when the conditions are not right, and resume development when proper conditions return. This allow the hen to leave the eggs long enough each day to eat and perform her other necessary duties without harming the eggs.
Prolonged abandonment will kill the eggs, but it is impossible to tell just how long the eggs can live uncovered. This depends on too complex an arrangement of factors for anyone to tell for sure. If I have to temporarily store eggs I hope to be live, I try to keep them at about 50 degrees, and turn them a half turn lengthwise per day. Do not turn the eggs side to side, this will do more harm than good.
Hatching in the morning allows the chicks to receive the maximum possible amount of food before lights out. This can make a world of difference regarding their ability to survive and thrive.
Never have the daylength shorter than twelve hours a day when there are chicks in the nest; they may not survive a longer night.
Burlap makes the best nesting material. The best method of preparing it I have found involves first a thorough washing with soap and bleach in the washing machine; after this run the material through another cycle in plain water. Then it is dried and cut into 3 inch squares and shredded. The shredded material is piled in a large bowl and covered in boiling water, stirred lightly, and left to soak until the temperature allows the fibres to be lifted out, lightly wrung, and spread to dry on a stack of newspapers.
This may sound like a lot of work, but the end product is well worth it – a lovely, sterile, fluffy, light-beige material which the hens love. They build fantastic nests with this material, and as it resists absorbing moisture, the hens can easily keep the nests clean until the chicks are old enough to lift their rear ends high enough to deposit their waste over the edge of the nest.
If the hen stops cleaning the nest and the chicks are not depositing on or over the edge, it means the nest is too deep. Take the nest and the chicks, place the chicks on a warm towel, and pack a bit of nesting material into the bottom of the nest. You want the depth of the nest to be about equal or a little less than the length of the youngsters’ legs when extended. Return the chicks to the nest, and the nest to the parents, and everybody will be happier.
Banding the babies
The chicks are the right age to band the first day they begin to deposit on the rim of the nest. Often this is also when the hen stops cleaning the nest, so in this case there is no need to worry about her chucking foreign material out of the nest, as often happens when the chicks are banded too young. (All too often the ‘foreign material’ will still have the chick attached!) If the hen is still cleaning the nest, then you must convince her that the band belongs where it is; I find the easiest method is to band the chicks just before lights-out.
Make sure that the chicks have had their evening feeding, then take the entire nest into another room where you have some clean table space, a good light, and a warm towel to set the chicks on. Keep your elbows on the table and the chick you are currently banding over the towel in case you accidentally drop it – it wouldn’t be the first time a wriggley youngster has gotten away! When you have all the chicks banded, return them to the nest and return the nest to the parents just before the lights are due to go out.
If you time it right, she will just have time to hop in before lights-out, and in the morning she will ignore the bands on her babies legs as if they have been there all along. I have had several occasions to use this trick, and, if timed right, it has worked every time.
Well, there you have some of the best advice ever given me. I would not be breeding canaries today if it were not for the folks who took it upon themselves to help out the rank beginner that I was. Rather than keeping the ‘secrets’ of their success, they spent time and effort educating me. I did not realize it at the time, but that in itself was one of the greatest gifts of all – no bird keeper ever has much (if any) time to spare!
So use any of the above tips you need, but don’t stop there. Hand them on when you have the opportunity; add to them the tricks of the trade you will garner as you go; we will all benefit from the shared-and-added-to knowledge, and your birds will thank you in more ways than you ever thought possible.
Happy Canary Breeding!
by R C ‘Robirda’ McDonald
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