Canaries and Other Cage-Bird Friends

By Alexander Wetmore
Originally appeared in the December 1938 issue of the National Geographic Magazine

This Web version COPYRIGHT 2004

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A CHINESE GENTLEMAN TAKES HIS BIRD FOR AN AIRING
Attached to the end of a knobby stick, the pet may flutter, preen, or sing. If street commotion frightens him, he is popped into the dim privacy of the cloth-covered cage in his master’s left hand. The dignified stroller’s large round “specs” are a sign of learning. Chinese cage birds include Java sparrows, titmice, bulbuls, native thrushes, doves, and starlings.
Photograph by Willard Price

HUMAN pleasure in song, sprightly movement, and color – these are the basic reasons for the hundreds of thousands of small cage birds that are found in homes and aviaries throughout the world.

The canary, most universally loved of these songsters, has been transported from its place of origin in the Canary Islands to every country in the world, and the vast number now found in captivity must certainly exceed those having in the original wild state, proof of the success of their domestication.

A MID-PACIFIC ISLE OF SONG
Years ago canaries are said to have been introduced by accident on the island of Elba and to have established themselves there until bird trappers caught, caged, and sold them all.

Now the only wild colony of canaries that I know of on earth outside of their native islands is found on one of the isles of the Midway group of the Hawaiian chain. Midway has recently become well known as a stop on the route of the transpacific Clipper planes.

Landing at Midway from a naval mine sweeper on an April afternoon in 1923, I followed a tree-lined walk from a little wharf to the buildings of the cable station.

To my delight I found a pleasant grass-grown plaza backed by a windbreak of casuarina trees and ornamented with shrubs and flowers. Here was a man-made oasis of green built on an island of barren sand with fertile earth brought out as ships’ ballast from Honolulu.

Earth, grass, trees, shrubs, and flowers – even the weeds in the vegetable garden – were introductions, and with them had come other things.

As I looked about I saw many small yellow birds flying here and there canaries living wild!

But not until I heard their chorus of song at dawn the following morning did I fully appreciate that here was a true colony of these birds living in a state of nature. Dozens of them flew about in the shrubbery and over the lawns, and their sweet voices came from every side.

All are believed to be the offspring of one or more pairs of yellow canaries released on the island by Mr. D. Morrison of the cable company in 1909. As they moved about, they appeared small and weak in comparison with the robust Laysan finches brought here from Laysan Island, but they seemed thoroughly established and had no enemies. All that I saw were clear yellow in color.

CANARIES TAKE SINGING LESSONS
German canary fanciers have long been noted for the attention that they give to the production of beautiful songsters and have developed the roller canary, famous for its notes.

The true roller canary is a bird of small size that is predominantly green or mixed in color, varying from this to clear yellow. The song is a series of soft trills, so sweet and pleasing in tone as to be beyond description. Outstanding singers are highly prized and command good prices.

Young male roller canaries are caged separately as soon as they have completed the first molt, and are kept in a quiet room in subdued light. An adult male of perfect song is kept with them and sings steadily. With his constant example the young ones practice their notes.

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Judges Cast A Critical Eye Over The Field At England’s Western Counties Cage-Bird Show
Bird fanciers take just as serious an interest in developing individual pets with perfect “points” as do owners of highly bred cattle, horses, cats, or dogs. Judges select winners on such features as wingspread, color of feathers, shape of legs, neck, and back. This contest took place at Plymouth’s Corn Exchange in November, 1933. Aviculture is especially popular in England and France.
Photograph by Globe

BAD SINGERS “GET THE GONG”
The birds are under close observation, and should one develop harsh notes or undesirable calls, he is removed immediately so that he may not be copied by his imitative companions. Frequently a bird organ, arranged to play soft rolling trills indefinitely, is used in this training.

Under such conditions the young rollers develop their notes, called technically “tours,” the different trills being characterized as bell rolls, water rolls, and so on, until finally the finished songster is produced. St. Andreasberg, in the Harz Mountains of Germany, has long been the center for breeding roller canaries, though now they are produced in other countries, too

The ordinary roller canary has a repertoire of from five to ten of the various trills recognized by the expert. A larger number is unusual.

Although roller canaries are thus carefully trained in the finer points of their profession, the sweet song of this variety is inherited. That fact has been proved by experiments in which young birds were reared in sound-proof cages completely isolated from the songs of other birds. In time the males developed the type of song of the roller canary.

“COLOR FEEDING” TURNS CANARIES ORANGE
About seventy years ago lovers of canaries were astonished to see in the hands of a few breeders birds of a beautiful deep-orange color. They were products of a process called “color feeding.” For years those who had this secret guarded it carefully, but finally it became known that the intensified color was the result of adding red pepper to the diet during the period of molt.

Color feeding is simple. Birds of good natural hue are selected and, at the very beginning of the molt, in addition to the regular diet of seed and greens, they are given a food prepared by mixing one part of finely ground sweet red pepper to two parts of egg food (made from equal parts of hard-boiled egg, chopped fine or grated, and dry bread crumbs, unsalted cracker crumbs, or ground zwieback). Some fanciers add to this a drop or two of olive oil and a little sugar.

A teaspoonful of the color food is fed each day through the entire period of molt until all the body feathers are fully grown, and then it is gradually discontinued. Care is taken to feed only freshly prepared food in which the egg is not stale.

As the new feathers come in, they are noticeably deeper and richer in color than the old ones. The enhanced color is due to an element taken from the pepper and remains until the next change of feathers.

Most birds eat the color food greedily and those that do not seem to care for it at first are usually quick to acquire a taste for it if the ordinary food supply is cut down for a day or two.

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NO LAUGHING MATTER IS THE JUDGING OF CANARY CARUSOS
This is a tense moment in the annual Tournament of Song at Benneckenstein, in the Harz Mountains of northern Germany, a region renowned for the breeding of sweet-voiced canaries. A holiday is declared and families from near and far bring their finest pet vocalists, picnic out of doors, and crowd around the judging tables. Cages are cloth-covered (left foreground) to keep the temperamental performers quiet and undisturbed by the excitement.
Photograph from Pix

PET BIRDS SHARE CAMPS OF SAVAGES

Although the canary is the most popular, thousands of persons delight in the companionship of many other kinds of small birds.
Birds as pets are found with the most primitive of people. Around any aboriginal hunter’s camp one may see live birds of various kinds, ordinarily young ones that have been picked up in the wild after the parent birds have been killed or on chance encounters.

Often these birds live in a state of complete freedom, wandering in and out of tents or huts at will and securing much of their own food. Eventually some may be eaten, some may return presently to the wild, while others live content with the companionship of man.

It is such circumstances, without question, that led, hundreds of years ago, to the domestication of the fowl, turkey, duck, goose, and pigeon, which now have such great value in the the of man.

A FEW FEATHERED PERSONALITIES
Captive birds in primitive regions include many that are not suited for more settled sections. In the Gran Chaco of South America a baby rhea brought to me by an Anguete Indian immediately adopted me and was so intent on being close beside me that I never succeeded in getting a good photograph of it because it was always too near the camera lens. On cool mornings it lay across my slippered feet for warmth, and as I wrote and worked it leaned contentedly against my legs.

In various tropical countries I have seen many semidomesticated birds – parakeets that flew or climbed in and out of native houses; strange, large-headed plovers known as “thick-knees,” kept in patios to eat the cockroaches; and little native sparrows that skipped in and out of doorways to search for crumbs.

I recall also the scores of wild birds that I kept for study and as pets around a little field laboratory on the Bear River Marshes in Utah. A California gull that I cured of a sickness became as tame as any domestic fowl, though it lived at freedom. A young great blue heron that grew enormously came at evening to rest on my knee and to poke curiously with its long bill at my glasses. A Canada goose with deformed wing feathers accepted me as an equal three days after its capture and followed me constantly like a dog. With these were hundreds of wild ducks of a variety of kinds, some of which fed from my hand and then returned voluntarily to their pens.

A PRIVATE AVIARY AND ITS BIRDS
Aviculture, the practice of keeping and rearing birds in captivity, has many devotees, from the housewife who raises a few canaries in her living room to the land-owner with broad estates who delights in exotic species of birds brought from distant countries. Some of these collections rival zoological gardens in their extent.

The country home of my friend Jean Delacour is found at Cleres in the north of France. The chateau, located in a little valley, is surrounded by broad lawns. Beyond are spacious meadows through which meanders a little stream, and behind the house are the vine-clad ruins of an older building dating back hundreds of years.

Several conservatories, crowded with tropical plants grown in moist atmosphere under glass, form the homes of scores of little birds of kinds seldom seen in captivity because of the difficulty of keeping them without special provision for their maintenance.

A dozen kinds of brilliant hummingbirds dart back and forth through open windows from the shaded greenhouses to outdoor flights cnclosed by wire where they enjoy the sun. With them are even more brilliant sunbirds from the Orient, tropical orioles, bright-colored pittas, and dozens of other small birds, all living in evident health and happiness.

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TIERS OF CANARIES DRINK WATER BY THE TUBFUL
From the tin tub an attendant fills the bottle, then thrusts the nozzle into a water dish within one of the wicker cages in which the birds travel. Hundreds of canaries, one to a “compartment” and almost all males, are stacked in a German warehouse awaiting shipment to markets throughout the world. “Sticks” of six or seven cages are held together by a flat strip of wood run through the tops of the barred cells and fastened at each end with wooden pins.
Photography by Ewing Galloway

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HERE, LITERALLY, THE GREEKS ARE BRINGING GIFTS
Pertinent are phrases from Vergil’s Aeneid when jovial sailors of the Greek steamer Koumoundouros, berthed at Walsh Bay, Sydney, Australia, flaunt caged birds purchased in South America and prohibited in the continent “down under.” If any of the pets escaped, their owners would be subject to a heavy fine. Australia, still battling the pest of immigrant rabbits, has passed strict regulations against the introduction, without special permit, of exotic birds and animals.
Picture by International News

As I walked through, one afternoon last May, I heard constant outbursts of song from birds familiar as museum specimens, but whose songs and calls were entirely new to me.

On a slope beyond, I found a row of gaudy, long-tailed macaws living in the open air, chained to poles in such a way that they could climb about with ease. A pair or two flew about completely free.

Among the trees covering the hill above the house are extensive aviaries filled with birds of many kinds. Here I saw lories and other strange and curious parrots from various tropical lands, an unusual jay from the Ryukyu Islands of Japan, flycatchers from South America, yellow-billed magpies and mountain bluebirds from California, and scores of unusual birds from other parts of the world, living here in spacious, shrub-grown quarters side by side. Many were nesting and rearing young.

As we strolled about, viewing strange birds at every turn, a white mother gibbon came down from the trees to walk along the top wire of a high fence, with arms extended to maintain her balance. Her two black babies, less sure of themselves, scampered along the wire mesh beneath her. Other gibbons lived in the tall trees of two islands in a little lake, where their antics as they swung through the branches were most amusing. Formerly all had ranged at freedom, but this had to be checked when the band began visiting the church in the village to ring the bell at inopportune times.

The lake, the stream, and the meadows were filled with waterfowl. Geese of a dozen kinds, a screamer from Argentina, long-legged cranes, and curve-billed ibises stalked about in the grass. Dozens of ducks of many varieties, including such difficult species as eiders and shovellers, swam in the water, and flocks of flamingos waded in the shallows. Across a road were sheltered, fenced pools for other waterfowl. The entire collection was one to equal that of any zoo.

By Alexander Wetmore
Originally appeared in the December 1938 issue of the National Geographic Magazine

This Web version COPYRIGHT 2004

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CANARIES CAT ROOSTER, AND PARROT GREET CUSTOMERS ON A PET-SHOP DOORSTEP
Small monkeys, cats, and birds all live together in harmony at a store in Funchal, Madeira Islands. From its place of origin in Madeira, the Azores, and the Canary Islands, the canary has been transported to every country in the world.
Photograph by Wilhelm Tobien

AVICULTURE IS POPULAR IN BIRD-LOVING ENGLAND
While aviculture is rapidly spreading in America, it probably has more devotees in England than elsewhere in the world at present. In any home in London it is common to see a large aviary cage or two, with from one to a dozen birds, and in country establishments aviaries of varying size are the regular accompaniment of the other interests that pertain to life.
Such aviaries may range from a flight or two to extensive parks like that of my friend Mr. Alfred Ezra at Foxwarren Park, in Surrey, where last May, among scores of smaller birds, I saw such rare species as the pink-headed duck from India, a pair of Stanley cranes with a nest and young, and great sarus cranes at freedom flying with trumpet calls over the meadows.

“SOFT-BILLS” NEED EXTRA CARE
There are two principal categories of birds in the vocabulary of those interested in species suited for cage and aviary-the “hard-bills,” including those that feed on seeds, and the “soft-bills,” which normally eat insects and fruits. The sced-eating species are those most common in captivity, as their food is easily obtained and their care entails a minimum of labor. These include the common canary and a host of sparrows, weaver birds, and others.

The soft-bills are found in the hands of those who have more leisure and who often become highly expert in the handling and carc of difficult and unusual species.

A common food palatable to many soft-bills is manufactured from bread crumbs to which grated hard-boiled egg, dried beef heart, grated carrot, cottage cheese, dried insect preparations, and various other in- gredients are added according to the needs of the birds concerned. Many soft-billed species subsist largely on fruits.

These statements are not a formula for the preparation of a standard food for aviary use, but are merely an indication of the types required for different kinds of birds. The details of the proper prepara- tion of soft foods are available in standard treatises on aviculture, which contain also information regarding the care of cages, the handling and breeding of birds, diseases, and the many other details that confront the bird keeper.

Bird and pet stores, with their interesting displays, are familiar to most of us, and some may have seen the larger establishments of wholesale dealers, where hundreds of canaries sing happily in little individual wicker cages, or scores of weaver birds and other small species live in fluttering confusion in larger quarters. A more unusual sight is one of the bird markets of tropical America.

BRILLIANT TROPICAL BIRDS FOR SALE
One day last winter as I passed the great central market in Caracas, capital of Venezuela, I came to an outdoor section where row on row of wicker and wire cages, each with its captive birds, were ranged on the pavement or on low benches elevated above the ground. The air was warm and the owners of this display rested in the shade in endless conversation with friends and possible customers.

In the cages were brilliant little tanagers dressed in yellow, gold, green, and blue. blue honey creepers, others with yellow breasts, an occasional cardinal from the desert area about Barquisimeto, native meadowlarks from the fields near Maracav. red siskins, others dressed in yellow and black, troupials, large light-gray mockingbirds, euphonias, saffron finches, a few hummingbirds, and, of course, canaries, all feeding, preening, and fluttering about, calling and even singing amid all the busy confusion of the city.

Residents and visitors paused frequently to admire the birds or to inquire a price. Every home that I entered in the city had httle aviaries standing in the patio, or small cages with birds hung in a window. And I was continually attracted by strange bird notes, to find that they came from a captive of some species rare in zoological gardens in the north, or one that I had not seen in life before.

From such sources in foreign countries dealers obtain the birds that become established in our homes and zoos.

BIRDS’ HUES TUNE UP AN ARTISTS COLOR SENSE

A SAMPAN’S DECK IS FOOK KEE’S BARGAIN COUNTER

LIKE A MISPLACED HAYSTACK IS THE SOCIABLE WEAVERS’ COMMUNAL HOME

BIRDS IN CAGES HANGING ON THE WALLS OF HOUSES BRING SPRINGTIME MELODY TO A PARIS SIDE STREET

A WEAVER BIRD DISPLAYS ITS LOOPS AND KNOTS

A NATIVE BIRD FANCIERS’ CLUB MEETS TO MATCH PETS

NO CAGE CONFINES THIS GUARDIAN GOLDFINCH; HE WEARS A HALTER HELD BY A SLACK “REIN”

FOR NOVELTY, WINGED WARES CAN’T MATCH THE “BIRDIE” IN THE CAMERA

“TAKE HOME A CANARY TO CAROL ON CHRISTMAS AND SING IN THE NEW YEAR”

JAZZ TUNES INSPIRE A CANARY CHORUS

LITTLE MISS AMERICA WELCOMES BIRDS FROM FOREIGN LANDS

Serin Finch

Canary

Bullfinch

Linnet

European Siskin

European Goldfinch

Strawberry Finch

Bengalee

Java Sparrow

Whydah

Red-billed Weaver

Orange Weaver

Combasou

Zebra Finch

Diamond Finch

Gouldian Finch

Nuns (Munias)

Bronze Nun

Cutthroat Finch

Cordon Bleu

Zebra Waxbill

Common Waxhill

Red-crested Cardinal

Shama Thrush

White-eared Bulbul

Myna

Red-billed Hill Tit

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