Breeding canaries can be a fun and interesting hobby. For beginners, the breeding-type canaries, such as glosters, are the easiest to start with because they breed more easily than some of the color and song varieties. Hen canaries are much less expensive than males because they do not sing as well, and a good selection should be readily available from hobby breeders.
Selection of breeding birds
When selecting canaries for breeding, look for young birds in good feather (not molting) that are active and alert. The best male breeding canaries are normally vigorous singers. Hens for breeding should also be active but may be broody, which means that they pull at paper, string, and other nesting materials or will lay their eggs in open feeding dishes. A soft-feathered bird will have feathers with a lighter, softer appearance, and a hard-feathered bird will have feathers that lay tight against its body. The color of a hard-feathered bird is often richer and darker. Do not breed two soft-feathered birds to each other because this can lead to feather cysts. With breeding-type canaries such as glosters, a crested bird should always be bred to a noncrested bird.
Generally, each pair of canaries should have its own cage in which to breed and raise its young. However, some canary males (especially the glosters) will happily breed two females and tend to their young at the same time. Special breeding cages with a middle section for the male and openings for him to move back and forth can be purchased from specialty stores and at bird shows. Male canaries are usually active parents, feeding first the mother while she sits on the nest and then the babies until they fledge.
During the breeding season, which is normally late winter and early spring, breeding canaries will need a higher protein level in their diet. In the wild, canaries breed when the spring rains cause their main diet of canary seeds to germinate. You can simulate this by germinating seeds and rinsing them yourself. Keep a supply on hand in the refrigerator. In addition, hard-boiled eggs can be offered. Be sure to remove any uneaten portion within a few hours to prevent spoiling. Canary hens will also need plenty of calcium in their diet to prevent egg binding. A cuttle bone should always be present, but during breeding season it is a good idea to also offer egg shell. Fresh greens should likewise be offered each day. Once the chicks hatch, it is important to offer egg food to the parents daily. A mix of hard-boiled egg yolk with cereal made for human infants is used by many breeders.
Nest type and materials
Canaries prefer a shallow open nest. Plastic nest pans are available from pet stores or other pet and bird supply businesses. They attach to the side of the cage and are best placed near the back so the birds have some privacy; however, be sure there is access to the nest so that you can keep an eye on the chicks once they hatch. Line the plastic nest with a nursing pad used for human mothers and tape it firmly to the nest pan. Even though the canary parents will work to create a nest, they are sometimes not good nest builders, and if insufficient lining is used for the nest, the eggs will not be able to incubate at the proper temperature. Provide plenty of natural nesting materials, such as cotton string, torn paper, lint from a dryer, or commercial nesting material. Be careful not to use material with nylon or polyester fibers that can get tangled on the adult canary’s feet. The fibers can become embedded into the flesh, causing the canary to lose one or both of its feet.
Canaries need to be brought into breeding readiness to successfully mate and produce fertile eggs. They are sensitive to light and need to molt each year. Keeping canaries in a room with full-spectrum lights on timers is the easiest way to bring them into breeding condition. After they molt, the length of time the lights are on should be increased every day by a few minutes until they have 12 hours of full light per day. If using a timer, be sure to have a small night light on so that the change is not abrupt because he birds will want to roost in the preferred spot. Additionally, iIf the lights turn off suddenly they can be injured by trying to find their perch in the dark. The males will indicate their readiness with a full song. They will also feed the hens. Hens will sometimes beg the males for food and will also start to tear at paper or other materials. When you see them carrying string and paper in their beaks, they are close to being ready to breed. Breeding usually takes place in the early morning on the floor of the cage.
Canaries normally produce one egg per day in the early morning. Their eggs are small and blue with light brown speckled markings on them. Most hens will lay between three and five eggs per brood but, on rare occasions, will lay a sixth egg. You know when the last egg has been laid because the color will be a little different than the previous eggs. As the hen lays each egg, take it out and put it in a safe place and replace it with either a marble or a commercially available plastic egg.
The laid eggs can be stored in a small box lined with tissue and placed in a drawer, but any safe place at room temperature will do. When the hen lays her last egg of the clutch, replace the marbles or fake eggs with the real eggs you have stored. This will allow all the eggs to start incubating on the same day so all the chicks will hatch together. If you don’t do this and allow her to keep all her eggs, the hen may start brooding too early and the babies will hatch over several days. The later hatchlings will usually die because the babies grow very fast, and even one or two days is a huge advantage to being fed, leaving the smaller ones to be crowded out and starve to death. After six days, use a small flashlight to determine if the eggs are fertile. Hold the flashlight up against the egg shell very gently. Fertile eggs will be dark red or so dark that you cannot see anything. Clear, unfertile eggs will appear almost transparent with a golden glow to them. Most breeders remove unfertile eggs to make room for the babies. Replace any you remove with an artificial egg. These can be removed later when the babies are strong enough to easily lift their heads.
Canaries should hatch on the 14th day after the final egg has been laid. Generally, they will hatch over night and if you listen carefully you will hear their peeping in the morning. Baby canaries are very small and, when curled up in the nest, are about the size of your thumbnail. Once they dry off, they are quite fuzzy with long down over their backs. Anytime the mother approaches the nest, healthy hungry babies will pop up and open their mouths to be fed. When they are well fed, they lie with their heads folded over their bodies. You will see a large lump on their necks where their crops are full. If you are feeding egg food the lump will be yellow because the skin is quite transparent. Do not be alarmed at the appearance because the larger the lump on the neck, the better the babies are being fed. If the mother isn’t feeding them enough, the lump will be nonexistent or may be small and long rather than bulbous.
Hungry babies need to be fed every couple of hours. Good parents will be very attentive, getting off the nest only to eat and drink and, then, to feed the babies. Healthy babies will be quite vocal when demanding food. If they make a weak attempt at attracting their parents for feeding, and you do not see a filled crop, you may need to supplement with hand feeding. Most canaries are good parents, but on occasion you may find some that don’t seem interested. This is more apt to happen with color-factored canaries. If you wish to band the babies, it should be done in the first two to three days. After that, their feet are too large to slip a closed band over. Hold each baby gently and fold the front toes together with the rear toe held back against the leg. Then slip the band over the toes and wiggle it back until it goes beyond the back toe. Bands printed with the year and individual numbers can be obtained from bird clubs and are used to facilitate breeder record keeping.
Careful observation is vital to rearing canary babies. Most mothers will feed their babies regularly, leading to babies that grow fast. They should appear to almost double in size overnight. Check several times a day to make sure their crops are full. If the crops are not filled regularly or if the parents seem to ignore the young when they open their mouths, you may need to supplement or even take the mother away and hand rear the babies. Some mothers have even been known to toss babies out of the nest. Baby canaries are fairly easy to hand rear if you are able to feed them every two hours during the day. To start, mix human infant rice cereal at a ratio of two parts warm water to one part cereal and add a small amount of hard-boiled egg yolk that has been finely chopped or put through a strainer. It should be liquid enough to draw up into a 1 ml syringe. Commercially available hand rearing formula can also be used. The food should be warm but not hot because the crops of the babies can easily be scalded. Put a small amount on the inside of your wrist to test it. It should feel warm but not hot. Leave the babies in the nest and tap them on the beak gently. As soon as they open their beaks, put a small amount (.1 ml) fairly deep into the mouth. As soon as they realize the syringe has food in it they should begin to beg for more. Feed each baby until the crop is full. Feed again when the crop has gone down in size by about 75 percent. Usually every two hours during the day the first week, and longer in between as they grow. A warming light is very important if the mother isn’t sitting on them.
Canary babies will begin to fledge, or fly, as their pin feathers unfold, usually around three weeks. The parents will usually continue to feed them for several weeks. Keep soaked seed available along with some egg and fresh greens until the chicks are eating regular seed. Be sure to remove any unused portions of soaked seed after a few hours and replace with fresh food. As soon as the babies are fledged, their parents begin to be interested in starting another brood and will often build a nest and begin laying while also still feeding their first batch of babies.
Shortly after their babies fledge, most canaries will become interested in nesting again. A second brood can be raised by a healthy young hen. If the hen is older, you may want to prevent her from raising a second brood by removing her nest and nesting materials. If she insists on laying eggs in her food dish, take them away from her so she cannot incubate them. Third broods are to be discouraged because it drains the health of the hen.
Elizabeth Wells, Ph.D. - Michigan State University