A fancier of my acquaintance possessed a pair of wild bred Venezuelan Black Hooded Red Siskins. Not wanting to feed them anything “artificial,” the birds were not given any concentrates to improve color. These Siskins were fed seed, greens, carrot, and grated, hard boiled, egg. Under this diet, the cock moulted out a brassy shade of yellow, losing all traces of red. The Red Factor Color Bred canary derives its scarlet hue from its Red Siskin heritage. If the Siskin’s color is dependent on diet, clearly so must be the red of the canary hybrid.
In the wild state, birds eat a wide variety of insects and other arthropods, algaes, mosses, fruits, and berries. From these items, various carotenoids are metabolized and deposited in the plumage. Here in the North Eastern United States, the Virginia Cardinal fades noticeably in the Winter. During the cooler months, the birds diet is limited to seeds. The Flamingo consumes plankton that contains pigments. When deprived of their natural food, these birds moult out as white as a factory-farm chicken. Flamingos in Zoos are fed either beet juice or, more often in properly managed collections, commercially available coloring agents. It is neither unnatural or deceptive that the Red Factor needs special substances to develop optimum coloration.
It is as natural to provide the Red Factor Color bred with carotenoid concentrates as it is to provide the feeding hen with hard boiled egg. Does the wild canary consume boiled chicken egg to feed its young? No! Before domestication, the birds would feed their nestlings insects and wild plants. From the same sources would the wild Venezuelan Black Hooded Red Siskin obtain its brilliant color.
During the dark ages of canaryculture “color fed” birds were banned from exhibition. From the start there was disagreement over what constituted color feeding. Some considered even grated carrots to be a form of color feeding. Most allowed any form of fruit or vegetable but frowned on concentrates. Where red pepper, the color feeding standard of Type breeders, fit in was anybody’s guess. The rule was impossible to enforce and only served to create ill will. No one admitted to any form of color feeding. Some birds of extraordinary heritage that were not fed special diets, were not allowed to compete. At other shows, relying on the honor system, only the “cheats” could hope to win
Even today the novice is often misled by devious fanciers. Names will be omitted here to protect the guilty! At one show for Color Bred Canaries, I overheard a winning exhibitor who bought large quantities of chemical concentrates from me tell a newcomer, “Color feed? Oh no, I give only greens.” I will unequivocally state no Red Factor canary has won any show in the color bred section for at least forty years that was not color fed.
There are many myths surrounding Red Factor color feeding. Some enthusiasts mistakenly believe that carotenoids will injure the birds’ livers or in some other way shorten the birds life span. I have owned Red Factors that lived for over ten years and that were color fed. Go to a health food store. You will see Beta-Carotene prominently displayed as an additive for human diets. Beta-Carotene is an anti-oxidant and is believed to help in the prevention and healing of injury and disease, including cancer. Beta-Carotene is one of the mainstays for Red Factor color feeding.
The substances used for promoting color in Red Factors are all classified as fat soluble. What this means is that the organism has no simple mechanism for removing excesses from the system. The use of the color feeding agents improves the bird’s appearance and promotes health. Misuse and abuse can cause harm. Directions must be followed diligently concerning dosages. As a rule of thumb, any of the chemicals can be fed just until the birds develop a pink color in the droppings. This is a sign that the birds are not able absorb and utilize any more of the pigments.
Unfortunately, many fanciers refuse to read or follow directions. Water must always be given fresh every day. This is doubly true for water that contains color feeding compounds. The chemicals themselves must be stored in a cool, dark, dry place. Though they will not spoil, heat, light, and humidity cause the substances to lose potency. Refrigerated the substances will last indefinitely.
There is no minimum age to start color feeding. The fancier should provide the feeding hen with color promoting substances in both the water and the nestling food. In this way the young will leave the nest nearly as deep a shade of red as they will be after their first moult. Also, canaries color fed in the nest will fledge completely with red feathers. Youngsters not color fed until after they leave the nest retain white flights and tail feathers, thus the term unflighted.
The adult birds should be color fed at all times. There are several reasons for this. Some only color feed during the moult. The bird’s system must be saturated with the chemicals before the moult begins in order to develop the best possible color. The only way to ensure this is to continuously provide the concentrates. Red Factor Canaries require a higher percentage of carotenoids than is normally found in the diet. Also, if the birds are not provided with a constant source of pigments, when losing an odd feather, it will grow in a different shade. This will ruin the bird for exhibition.
There are three main chemicals used in color feeding Red Factor Color Bred Canaries: Canthaxanthin, Beta-Carotene, and other orange carotenoids. Canthaxanthin is the most powerful color promoting substance. Some breeders use Canthaxanthin as the sole chemical for color feeding. This is not the best course to take. Birds fed only Canthaxanthin will develop a dull brick shade of red. The proper ratio is to give the birds half Canthaxanthin and half Beta-Carotene. This way the birds will develop bright, fire engine red feathers. These concentrates should be constantly available in the water. The proper amount to give is one teaspoon of the blend to one-half gallon of water. About one weeks worth of water can be mixed up at a time. Refrigerate the unused portion. Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene can also be fed in the nestling food. Mix one teaspoon of the mix of Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene with one kilo of dry ingredients.
Feeding the carotenoids in the nestling food definitely is a good idea, but for the maximum color the water also needs to be treated. Of course, birds in the nest will only have the rearing food as a source of pigment. Until they fledge, the chicks don’t have access to the water dish. The adults do need soft food as a protein supplement year round, but one can’t depend on them eating enough of that each and every day to reach the best color. Adult birds, especially if the weather is warm during the molting season, do drink a lot of water. The drawback of this method is that additional effort is required. Automatic watering systems hooked up to the utility pipes can’t be used.
Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene are the basics of Red Factor color feeding. Other orange carotenoids are also available. When given in addition to Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene, a brighter red color is the result. Orange carotenoids are in an oil base. They are added to the nestling food or mixed with a treat seed like thistle or hemp. Mix one teaspoon of the oil with one pound of seed. Allow to stand over night before feeding. The seed will absorb the pigment.
When buying Canthaxanthin and Beta-Carotene demand pure ingredients. Sucrose, dextrose, and other sugars, vitamin C, and vitamin B are added only because they are cheap;they do not improve color. Many dealers over charge without mercy. Others do not store properly. With a little comparison shopping, pure chemicals can be obtained at reasonable prices. Buy only from a vendor that has a high turnover and refrigerates the product until the time of shipment.
Carotenoids are found in berries, beets, sweet potatoes, squashes, tomatoes, and cherries. The birds should also be fed these foods so that other pigments, perhaps not yet identified or synthesized, can be obtained by the birds. These fruits and vegetables are given in addition to the chemicals.
Canaries are being exhibited today that are the equal of the Venezuelan Black Hooded Red Siskin, as far as color is concerned. Type canaries, mostly Norwich and Borders, have been inter-bred with the Red Factor Color Bred to improve size and shape. The products of such crosses most be carefully selected and bred back into red stock to improve color. No method of color feeding will generate red birds if the hue is not latent in the pedigree.