The goal of every canary breeder is to improve his stock. Unfortunately, so much time and energy is invested in simply keeping the birds alive that improvement is impossible. Miserable breeding results, too often accepted as the norm, also stop the fancier from upgrading his birds.
Numbers are important in aviculture. The frequently recommended small but high quality stud is impractical. Even the long established breeder produces only a small percentage of top quality birds. Thus to get a quantity of high quality young, it is necessary to breed a much greater number of mediocre birds. Darwin, in his monumental work, noted that evolution proceeds most rapidly in large populations. Also the small stud quickly becomes too highly inbred, forcing the fancier to constantly seek outcrosses or to suffer a decline in vigor.
In this article I will give the method by which I maintain and breed my birds. Though mainly intended for the canary fancier, these rules may easily be modified to include all seed eating birds. Aviculture requires a great deal of time and effort and a little information which is absolutely necessary. This information I can provide but each fancier must provide his own labor.
Nutrition is the most important aspect of aviculture. Every canary must be provided with a fortified blend of canary seed, rape seed, golden German millet, oat groats, thistle, steel cut oats, flax, sesame, and hemp. This mix may be more costly than the usual “black and white,” but, in the long run, pays dividends. Birds fed a vitamin, mineral, and protein enriched blend produce more fertile eggs, better feed the chicks, are less likely to pluck the feathers of the young, and are more resistant to disease. The extra young produced more than pay back the few cents a day it costs to feed a top quality mix.
The seed mixes of all birds can be vitamin fortified through wheat germ oil and cod liver oil. A complete diet including a wide variety of fresh foods also is very important. Aviculturists need to take vitamins seriously. Vitamins are essential for the metabolic functions of all living things. When seed is not vitamin fortified birds are not able to reap the full benefit from the nutrition present in the feed. Vitamin enriched feed is a must for optimum growth, maintenance, reproduction, and health.
Some counter that vitamin enriched seed is not “natural.” The natural diet of seed eating birds is very rarely dry seed. For the better part of the year, all seed eating birds consume the milky seed directly from the plant. This seed is at its nutritional best. The vitamin content of even the best processed seed is nether consistent or adequate enough to assure optimal nutrition. Natural factors, such as drought, insects, excessive moisture, disease, and molds, make the vitamin levels of seed uncertain. Man made variables, the storage, transportation, and processing of feed, conspire to rob the seed of the vitamins needed by birds. Research has proven that the vitamin supplementation of seed is a must to achieve peak production
Pelleted feeds, seemingly an answer, fall short of the mark. Pellets have a place as supplements and in commercial production. If by a “complete diet,” the manufacturers mean that birds are able to survive and raise young on their products, then they are correct. If by complete is meant being able to rear vigorous show winners, without the addition of vitamins, fruits, vegetables, or eggs to the ration, then pellets fail miserably. No one knows all the elements that are required in any cage bird diet. Only the cockatiel has been the subject of recent university research. Human diet, intensively studied for millennia, is constantly being revised and updated. Canaries fed on pellets alone, particularly red factors, show rough plumage. The droppings of canaries on pellets are often loose.
The seed should be given to the birds in a deep dish. Fountain style feeders encourage the birds to pick out their favorite seeds. This is wasteful and leads to an unbalanced diet. The mix should only be changed when all the seed is consumed. The hulls should be blown off the top daily.
The birds should also get a small amount of fruits, vegetables, and greens. I use apples, oranges, bananas, green peppers, canned corn, fresh corn on the cob, cooked broccoli, raw spinach, raw dandelions, raw collard greens, raw Swiss chard, pears, peaches, strawberries, and cherries. The various berries are very good, especially for red factor birds, but these fruits are very expensive. Iceberg lettuce is useless and should not be fed.
Ideally, all produce should be home grown. Organically grown fruits and vegetables are free of dangerous pesticides, Any insects add an extra touch of protein; the birds relish them. Rinse store bought fruits and vegetables in an effort, albeit most often in vain, to remove all chemicals.
Soaked seeds are an absolute necessity for the feeding hen and for the newly weaned young. They are a treat for all birds. Cracked corn, wheat, buckwheat, and safflower, normally too large and hard, are made acceptable to canaries by soaking. Soaking breaks down complex carbohydrates rendering the seed more palatable and more highly digestible. This is done by taking a special soak seed mix and adding two parts, or more, of water and refrigerating. Soak for at least twenty-four hours. Rinse well and strain before feeding.
Sprouts are not the same thing as soaked seed. Not all seeds can be sprouted. Most bird seeds are treated with preservatives and vitamins and will not germinate. Seeds for sprouting should be kept separate for various species of plants have different germinating times and requirements. In addition to the regular bird seeds, many seeds for sprouting are available in health food stores. My favorite is the Chinese mung bean which is very easy to sprout and possesses a high degree of palatability for the birds. I have also used soy beans for sprouting. My birds do not like alfalfa sprouts.
Sprouting seed is the simplest way to provide your birds with fresh greens. For a few birds only a quarter cup of seeds should be sprouted at a time. Seeds increase in volume tremendously when sprouted. Place the seeds in a clean glass jar. Fill with tap water and let stand at room temperature for twenty-four hours. Rinse and drain completely. Repeat the rinsing and draining completely daily until the seed has sprouted. If a foul odor or mold develops, discard. Preparations are available to prevent spoilage. Rinsing and draining well is very important. Any surplus sprouts may be refrigerated up to a week.
A proper nestling food is very important. The best bet for the beginner is to purchase a good quality dry nestling food with which many local fanciers are experiencing good results. I have found it economically unfeasible, as well as time consuming to mix my own. A treat dish of dry nestling food should be before the birds at all times. This serves as a treat and protein supplement out of the breeding season. In this way the birds are also trained to eat the nestling mix. Whenever given a new food, birds will ignore it for a few days. If you wait until the nestlings hatch before giving the rearing food, the babies will starve by the time the parents sample it. When the birds have young, give them as much dry nestling food as they want.
Nestling food can also be mixed with egg. To four cups of dry nestling food, add one pound grated carrots, and one dozen grated hard boiled eggs. Chop the eggs in a food processor shells and all. This is for about fifty feeding hens. Boil the eggs for twelve to fourteen minutes to ensure that no fowl diseases are transmitted to the canaries.
This mixture is given in an amount that the birds will eat in one hour. All birds get one treat cup per day of this egg mix. The supply for birds with feeding young is constantly renewed during the day. The nestling food with egg spoils very rapidly, particularly during the Summer. It would be best to prepare the egg mix fresh every day. If this is not possible, refrigerate the excess immediately.
It has been stated that birds will die from overeating soft foods. This is nonsense. That birds will be killed by fresh, nutritious foods is the height of absurdity. It is true that birds will die from eating rotten nestling food. Just like tropical fish, birds die not from overeating but from overfeeding.
Grit and cuttlebone are before the birds at all times.
I must emphasize that there is not one diet for the adult bird, one for the nesting hen, one for the young bird, and yet another for the molting bird. Each and every bird must get a balanced diet each and every day of the year. It is foolish to think that birds may be bred on a diet of seed and water. Try living on bread and water yourself! It is ridiculous to keep a bird on a plain seed and water diet for nine months and then to “gear up” for the breeding season. This misplaced economy is responsible for the majority of breeding failures:hens not coming into breeding condition, eggbound hens, dead in the shell young, and non-feeding hens. The percentage of protein in the diet willincrease during molting and nesting, but the list of items in the diet should not vary.
I do not feed any milk to my birds but do add small amounts of yogurt to the nesting egg food. Bread soaked in milk is a very primitive nesting food. I question that birds can completely digest milk.
The original staple of the captive canary was freshly gathered milky seeds and seed heads. Plaintain, Chickweed, Shepherd’s Purse, Anne’s Lace, Charlock, Smartweed, Dandelion, and Thistle have all been recommended as canary foods. The old time poverty stricken British miner or farmer, our ancestors in the Fancy, maintained their beloved pets in perfect health solely on such a diet. Only by gathering these foods were they able to afford to feed the birds.
Today we are not allowed such a luxury. Plants in both rural and urban areas are fouled by engine exhausts, factory fumes and by the spraying of pesticides and herbicides. Feeding roadside plants can cause lead poisoning. The only safe way to feed milky seeds is to grow them yourself. I raise the small sunflower seed for this purpose. This plant can be found growing wild. Seeds may be collected and cultivated in an area that is known to be safe. This food is very rich and should only be offered in small quantities. This will help to bring about a most beautiful feather sheen.
A practical way to house canaries is the commercially available wire cages with metal trays. The seed and water dishes should fit into the cage-front. This sort of cage is easily serviced without bothering the birds. There should be a provision for two dividers, one solid and one of screen. Since it is all metal, this cage is easily sterilized.
Custom cages constructed out of 1” X ½” welded wire mesh (16 gauge, galvanized before welding) and j-clips is the best plan for any substantial project. The welded wire is purchased in 100 ft, rolls. Three sections are cut for each cage. The long piece is bent at three right angles. The edges are fastened together with j-clips to form two sides. The remaining two pieces are then attached with j-clips . Holes are then cut for the door, nest box hole, and feed dishes (grit, seed and soft food). The cages can be painted using a roller with black polyurethane paint. This is not necessary, but vastly improved visibility is the result. Painting, of course, needs to be done in a well-ventilated area far removed from the birds. These cages can be attached with u-bolts to 4 pieces of ¾” electrical conduit pipe acting as supports / legs. Debris falls through the wire bottom either to a galvanized steel pan or to a sheet of disposable plastic film, like that used to protect floors when painting. As a hand does not have to enter the cage for daily maintenance, the birds’ territory is not invaded.
The box style cage may also be used but to no real advantage. Only in a location subject to drafts will the cage with solid wood sides be superior. Box cages are no longer a bargain. The material to construct these cages might easily cost more than the conventional metal cages. The construction of the box cage is time consuming and laborious. They are also impossible to sterilize and require more maintenance, at the very least a yearly painting.
I have found flight cages to be unnecessary. Supposedly birds in a flight a healthier for they are thought to get more exercise. This is not the case. In the flights birds tend to sit in one spot all day. It is difficult for them to move about, for each tends to maintain a territory. In a cage they will keep active jumping from perch to perch all day long. Canaries do best in a cage around 24 inches in length by 10 inches square, one bird to the cage, except during the breeding season.
Young birds and hens may be put into a flight. Cocks over a year old should not. They may attack and kill each other. The hens and young may also be harassed and mutilated. In any event, flights must be constantly inspected for birds failing or going light. Large populations bring unbearable pecking order pressures on individual birds. These low men on the totem pole will rapidly fail. Placed in individual cages they will often recover. Despite all precautions, occasional unexplained mortality will occur in any flight.
Birds can contaminate open fountain drinkers or water dishes. With the fountains, if the birds place nesting material or a feather in the drinker, all the water can wick out. Gravity water bottles (as used for mice) are much, much better. Ones designed for birds, with a ball bearing end, are available. Edstrom automatic drinkers are even better yet. With either system, canaries and finches require something of a training period. The birds given the new dispensers and the usual waterers are at first left off for an hour or so, with the time increased each day. Once the birds are observed using the new system, dishes or fountains are no longer provided. In a flight, generally one bird gets the idea quickly and the others follow the leader. Water bottles or fountains, at the very least, need to be rinsed out every day. An improvement is to have a duplicate washed set of waterers that can be refilled for use each day. As the Edstrom system connects to the plumbing, no maintenance, changing or cleaning is required.
Every breeding season attaching the nest liner to the nest is a disagreeable chore. Sewing is very troublesome. I have used ELMERS glue. That works, but it is difficult to change the pad-the whole nest has to be soaked to remove the old glue. A local breeder has come up with a better idea. A small hole is drilled in the bottom of the canary nest. A hole is cut in the bottom of the felt nest liner. The nest pad is then attached to the nest with a brass fastener, the kind with the two “legs” that are used to hold papers together. This way the pads can be efficiently and quickly changed.
Wooden finch nest boxes are time consuming to construct and to clean. It is very easy to make small boxes out of 1/2″ x 1″ welded wire. Cover the wire boxes with cardboard using twist ties to fasten the cardboard onto the wire. When cleaning, simply discard the soiled cardboard and sterilize the wire basket. A wide range of sizes and styles are easily fabricated using these materials.
The bird room itself should be a peaceful and relatively dry environment. Optimally, it should be located above ground and away from flashing lights and noises at night. Unfortunately, most of us are forced to locate our aviaries within earshot of screaming babies and rock music. That the birds survive and reproduce under these conditions is a miracle! It is certainly not to be recommended.
The temperature of the bird room should regularly be between sixty and sixty-five degrees. This should be raised, gradually, to seventy-two degrees during the breeding season. Canaries will live and breed under colder conditions, but this is minimum survival, not the best conditions that we should strive to provide.
For artificial light in the bird room, full-spectrum fluorescent bulbs are most commonly used. LED illumination are a more modern option. The fixtures are to be controlled by an automatic timer a regularly set for eight hours of light per day. This will be slowly increased, for the breeding season, to seventeen hours of light for each twenty-four hour period. The birds will start to show a desire to breed from about fourteen hours of light for each day, but at this point are not really ready to breed. If the cocks and hens are united too soon, the entire first round of eggs may be infertile. The pairs should be set up at sixteen hours of light. The slight wait is required to insure fertility. Seventeen hours of light gives the hen that much extra time to feed the young. Birds must have proper rest. Turning the lights on and off can be a death sentence.
It is usually recommended to increase the light only a few minutes each day. With the mechanical timers this is not possible in practice, since these devices are accurate only to the half hour. The old-fashioned timers must be periodically checked, set, reset, and lubricated. Eventually they wear out. New computerized, remote-control timers are available. These space age instruments are accurate to the minute and can independently control many fixtures. They can also dim incandescent bulbs. This allows dusk and dawn schemes to be implemented.
Sanitation can not be overlooked. The paper in the trays must be changed at least once a week. More often is better yet. All water and soft food dishes must be washed out every day and frequently sterilized. A dish washing machine is best. The floor of the bird room is to be kept swept and mopped clean.
Hand in hand with sanitation goes disease prevention and control. I write prevention and control because treatment is only to be done under a veterinarian’s supervision. All sick birds are to be isolated and professional assistance sought. The shotgun approach of antibiotics, sulfa drugs, vitamins, and god only knows what else has killed as many birds as germs.
All new stock must be quarantined. The cage and fixtures of a sick bird have to be well scrubbed and disinfected. All wooden items, like perches must be discarded.
Mites, feather lice, and flies may be controlled by spraying a .05% solution of pyrethrum. This may be dispensed by means of a hand held mister. This pesticide concentration can be sprayed as a mist directly on the birds and cages from a distance of eighteen inches. A stronger mixture, .1% may be used on the floors and walls of the room, but not on the birds. Ivermectin, through a veterinarian, is used to cure mites and lice.
The aviculturist should endeavor to make the birds’ quarters mosquito free. These pests are at the very least a source of irritation. These insect bites are unsightly and perhaps permanently mutilating. Mosquitoes are a very serious source of infection. Through them our birds may be infected with Pox, Newcastle, or Ornithosis.
By following this outline anyone can experience success. It is now up to the fancier to implement the rules.