Conditioning Canaries

Trying to sort out just what procedures are involved in conditioning a canary can be very confusing to a newcomer, who is still trying to assimilate all the ins and outs of keeping this sometimes rather complex species, and usually prefers to pin down each definition with terms as exact as possible.

It doesn’t help matters that this word is used for entirely different actions, too! Canaries are conditioned for show; or they are conditioned for breeding. The procedure in each case is quite different, and again, often varies quite widely. Each fancier has his or her methods, often arrived at over years of trial and error, that work best for him or her; often each is firmly convinced that his or her method is the best.

In fact, what works best for who, really depends on a wide variety of factors, among them what breed you’re working with, along with the personality, inheritance, and gender of the bird.

Then there’s environmental considerations; what’s the local climate like, is it warm and humid, hot and dry, cool and dry, or something else entirely? Does the bird live in a birdroom with a controlled environment with other birds around, or is he a pet, sharing a household with a variety of humans and other pets? All of these factors and more, can and do affect the results achieved when conditioning a canary.

Conditioning a bird for showing is best learned from an expert in showing the type of showbird you want to work with, as techniques and needs will vary widely, depending on whether you’re working with type, colour, or a song breed.

Conditioning for breeding, however, is something almost every bird breeder has an opinion on – or, in the case of a new canary breeder, wants to have an opinion on.

Many of the older canary-keeping books refer to conditioning a canary for breeding season through the use of foods; certain items, when added to the diet, are supposed to help get the bird ‘in the mood’ – or if you like really bad puns, ‘egg him on’.

While it’s true that some foods can help to push a canary into breeding condition, doing so successfully can be tricky, as too much of these same foods can actually prevent breeding from happening properly, instead of enhancing it as intended.

For example; feeding extra amounts of oily seeds is often advised to help encourage canaries to come into condition for breeding. But feed too much of these seeds, and you can create a fat canary, and a canary who’s too fat, can’t breed. Oh sure, they’ll try – but any eggs will almost certainly be infertile.

Another example is wheat germ, high in vitamin E, which is often cited as a useful supplement to encourage canaries to come into breeding condition. While it’s true that vitamin E can help to encourage breeding and egg-laying behaviour, it’s also true – and seldom mentioned – that too much vitamin E can cause the birds to become so hyperactive that they will be unable to properly settle down to brooding and raising the babies!

Too much dietary E can cause over-aggression and restlessness. Males will become prone to disturbing the hen, and hens become less inclined to incubate their eggs or feed their youngsters, instead abandoning existing nests – even those containing fertile eggs, or live chicks! – in favour of more mating and more egg-laying.

I find it easier to understand the process of conditioning, by looking at the root idea behind it all. To learn how best to encourage a canary to come into breeding condition, let’s take a look at the natural system canaries and similar species have used for millennia.

For these creatures, breeding season is during the spring. The approach of spring is signalled in many ways; the lengthening of days brings warmer weather, and new growth to plants and the bugs that wild birds feed on. It also tends to bring plenty of water; besides rain, there is water everywhere from the melting snows and ice of winter.

As a result, spring brings wild canaries more than just longer days! Along with those lengthening days comes warmer weather, including plenty of water to bathe in, an abundance of small, soft-bodied high-protein insects to eat, and all the water-rich greens a canary can devour.

So if we want to ‘condition’ a bird for breeding, why not mimic these conditions?

The first and most important part of the recipe is the lighting. This has been covered in more detail in other articles, which you can find links to at the bottom of this article. For now, suffice it to say that if you want to breed canaries, you will have adopted a lighting schedule that, among other things, has your canaries seeing shorter days during their ‘winter’, then lengthening days to bring in ‘spring’.

As long as the canaries can’t see outside, the lights can be timed to as to create the seasons at whichever point of the year is more convenient to the breeder, so in fact midwinter might be closer to early summer in some birdrooms! But for now, let’s not confuse matters too much – suffice it to say that introducing ‘spring’ entails lengthening days.

The idea of feeding vitamin E to stimulate the desire to breed, comes directly from the ‘springtime’ scenario, too, although you might not realize it at first glance. It’s true, though – because springtime brings sprouting seeds galore, particularly amongst the grasses that wild canaries favour. What many people don’t realize, is that most sprouting seeds, particularly grass seeds, are naturally quite high in vitamin E.

Many old-timers will tell you they increase the amount of protein in the diet while conditioning their birds for breeding. This too derives from the same scenario of attempting to mimic the springtime conditions that wild birds rely on. In the wild, dietary protein is most likely to consist of small, soft-bodied insects, which tend to be more plentiful during the spring than at any other time of the year.

Such foods must be available to any birds wishing to raise chicks, and rarely will you find any species attempting to raise young when there is no such foods to offer them. Our canaries have learned to eat protein-rich nestling or egg foods instead of the insects their wilder cousins rely on, but the basic needs are still the same.

Another element of conditioning for breeding, one that is often overlooked, is water. Plentiful fresh clean water, preferably as cold as possible, needs to be available for both drinking and bathing, if you want to be sure to put your canaries reliably ‘in the mood’.

There’s still another element to consider, and it too is one that is often missed. In order to breed successfully, it’s necessary for a canary to be in tip-top shape, physically.

For this reason, many canary breeders will keep their breeding stock in large flights through the winter months, encouraging their birds to fly as much as possible. Flying strengthens the entire system, enhancing blood circulation and increasing oxygen conversion rates, as well as increasing general strength, muscle tone, and stamina.

For the hens, this exercise helps to ensure that they will be strong enough to be able to mate properly. In order to acquire fertilized eggs, a hen needs to be able to firmly grip the perch and maintain her stance during the mating process. This is much easier to do if she has developed some physical strength.

Good muscle tone will also assist her greatly when it comes time to lay her eggs, and afterwards, will help to see that she has enough stamina to get through the hard work of raising a nest of young after remaining almost entirely immobile during the two weeks she spends incubating her eggs.

Strength and flying agility is important for the males, too. During mating, it is necessary for the male to hover over his hen for that critical moment, in order to be able to ensure fertilization. It takes great strength and flying skill to be able to accomplish this task properly, otherwise the results are infertile eggs.

Even if they are not entirely healthy, most birds will make the attempt to breed, when the time comes – the instinctive drive to perpetuate the species will see to that. But a wise breeder will not rely on such a bird to produce, and a caring one will see that it is not allowed to exhaust itself making the attempt.

A hen who is not in tip-top shape may still lay eggs and sett on them, but she should be given fake eggs instead of real ones, so she will not have to go through the exhausting process of raising the young. If she has valuable bloodlines, she may be allowed to mate so her fertilized eggs may be fostered out to a stronger hen, but unless she is completely healthy, she should not be allowed to raise chicks herself.

In the end, conditioning your birds properly for breeding starts almost six months earlier, and stretches through the winter into the spring. But if it’s done properly, your birds will reward you with plentiful nests full of bright, healthy, active youngsters, who in their turn will fill your life with songs!

First published at
Copyright © Dec., 1998 by; R. C. ‘Robirda’ McDonald

Filed under: Canary Health, Greens, Nutrition & Diet, Recipes, Seed, Soft Food

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