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What bird is named after a group of islands? What bird did your grandmother probably have as a pet?

The canary (Serinus canarius) is the answer to both questions. Contrary to popular opinion, the Canary Islands were not named after canaries; it was just the opposite. When Spanish sailors discovered these wonderful birds, they loved the songs so much that they took some back to their country. From Spain, the canaries found their way into homes throughout Europe.

Today’s many breeds of canary have a common ancestor in the little brownish-green bird the sailors found on the Islands. Some of these breeds include American singer, German roller, Spanish timbrado, Belgium waterslagger, border canary, gloster (crested) canary, Norwich canary, Yorkshire canary, frilled canary, lizard canary, fife canary, and red-factor canary.

Although small in comparison to parrots, canaries need a cage 20 to 24 inches long, 12 to 16 inches wide, and 16 to 18 inches high. Never put a canary (or any bird for that matter) into a round cage. (Imagine how you would feel going around in circles all day. Canaries would feel the same way.) They need space to exercise properly. Bar spacing should also be considered. A rule of thumb is approximately 1/2 inch between bars, which would prevent both escapes from the cage or little heads getting caught between the bars. Cages usually come with food and water cups, perches, and a swing. Many perches that come with cages, however, are plastic and very narrow. Such perches could lead to foot problems for your canary. Use wooden perches of varying sizes to provide your bird’s feet with proper exercise. Above all, avoid using sand-covered perches sold in pet supply and grocery stores. These hurt birds’ feet and may compare to you standing on thumbtacks all day. Finally, place the cage in a draft-free area of your home.

Canary diets should include grains, seeds, pellets, fruits, and fresh vegetables, especially green veggies like broccoli and kale. Be sure to include a cuttlebone, but avoid gravel at all costs. Since birds shell their seeds, they do not need gravel. Under no circumstances should birds be given avocado or chocolate since these are toxic. Of course, fresh, clean water should be offered daily in a water tube for drinking and in a small bowl for bathing.

If you breed your canaries, use a double cage with a removable wire partition, which gives the male and female their “own” cage until they’re ready to breed. You can purchase a small nest cup (about 4 inches) and hang it in the cage. Provide nesting material such as short cotton threads. The female will lay between 4 and 6 eggs, approximately a day apart. Incubation time is about 13 or 14 days. The parents need to be fed egg protein and veggies to ensure the babies will get a proper diet. Once the babies hatch, both parents usually assume feeding duties, even continuing to feed the babies after they fledge in about 18 days. After about 4 weeks, the babies should be able to eat on their own.

Canary couples should not have more than two families a year, since the birds will exhaust themselves, especially the female, whose body can easily become depleted. Separate the couple by reinstalling the divider and removing all nesting materials. The babies can live together in a separate cage until they mature the following spring.

While some female canaries will sing softly, male canaries are outstanding singers and provide many hours of beautiful songs. Canaries also have been known to “pick up” repeated sounds from the homes where they live. One canary living close to a fire station began to imitate the siren. So, don’t be surprised when your canary sings whatever he hears.

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