The Miracle of Breeding Canaries
Breeding color canaries can be a lot of fun. It is a glorious event to see the eggs develop and hatch into tiny little creatures that immediately start begging for food. One may refer to it as instinct, but I prefer to see in such behavior the life giving hand of God directing every step from the drive to mate, to the “instinctive” building of the perfect nest, to the incubation of the eggs, their periodic turning so that they are uniformly warmed, to the realization that the little open mouth just hatched must be fed. The most amazing thing is to see new hens, who have not ever been exposed to an example of this behavior, “instinctively” know what to do and go on to raise a full nest of little canaries, sometimes as many as six. We have bred many hens who were ten months old when they first became mothers and we never cease to be amazed by the perfection of their actions, all without tutors, books, or even videos.
General Guidelines for breeding by feather types
Responsible breeding is very important to the creation of quality canaries. Examine your birds for characteristics you want to reproduce and for traits you do not want to have in your offspring. Do not breed to get rid of those traits, you will just propagate them. Breed to enhance what is best. Breeding is fun and an adventure, but remember that you will quickly need more cages and unless you want all those birds, you will have to find homes for them. It is recommended you do not breed hard feather to hard feather (intensive to intensive) canaries. Best pairing is a soft feathered (frost) to a hard feathered (intensive) canary. Two soft feathered birds can be bred to each other. It is also important to keep the colors as pure as possible. Do not breed yellow to red factor because both traits will be diluted. Breed melanin birds to melanin birds and clear to clear or variegated birds will be achieved. Learn the rules of breeding (and then you will know why and when to break them).
Typically the hen lays 4 to 6 speckled eggs (one per day). The last egg is a bit bluer. The hatchling on the left, struggling out of the shell, is a red-factor canary. A few minutes later she was begging for food. Shortly after hatching the down dries up and the fuzzy babies beg for food.
Incubation takes 13 1/2 days. Typically my hens start round the clock incubation when they have laid their third egg. That is when I start counting down to the day the first egg is most likely to hatch. Sometimes several babies hatch within a few hours, or there may be a day or two with no hatchlings.
Leave any unhatched eggs in the nest for 3-5 days to offer support to the new babies, especially if there is only one baby. Wait 3-4 days after the last hatch before disposing of unhatched eggs unless you have candled them and know them to be infertile or non-viable.
At 48 hours this bronze canary looks very strange indeed! However, they grow very fast, and on its 17th day, she took her first short flight. By the 30th day, she was fully weaned and continued to grow for several more weeks. At six months canaries are adults.
Depending on growth rate, we band with a closed leg band on day 5th-7th. This identifies our birds with our initials, birth year, and assigns a number. This way, records are kept on each bird, and we know something about the genetic traits of each bird.
There are many elaborate recommendations regarding the best way to bring birds into mating condition. Some recommendations include placing them in separate cages, and setting up a very detailed schedule for adjusting the lights differently for the males and females. Others are as simple as putting them in a divided cage until they show signs of mating behavior, which will happen in the Spring when the daylight hours increase. Read a variety of recommendations and then get to know your birds and adapt to what works the best for you. You get to determine if you will use artificial lights and “push” the breeding, or if you will stay with daylight hours and follow nature more closely.
In general, there will be no mating until the number of daylight hours reaches 12- 12 1/2. We use that as the primary method of conditioning birds for mating. This is followed by offering variety in their diet, and conditioning foods like Pentamine and an increased amount of green vegetables. Like with humans, some birds have a strong attraction for certain birds and dislike for others within their same species. If they like each other, they will mate immediately. An interesting experience in our aviary was last year when I had males in one flight cage and females in another that could not see each other. The lights had just been increased dramatically over a period of 2 weeks (which was faster than recommended but the birds had been signaling they were ready even though they were in winter hours). I noticed a particular male singing and a certain female responding with a chirp. They could not see each other. I was not ready to breed them yet (but the birds were), so I took a double breeder cage and decided to put them on each side of the partition so they could get to know each other and eventually, some weeks later, they would mate. The birds had another idea because I placed the male in, then the female, and was getting the partition (yes I did it in reverse order), when they mated. It took less than 10 minutes from the time they saw each other! Both were first timers since they were less than a year old. I had to hurry up and give them a nest and nesting material and get ready for babies ahead of what my own timetable had prescribed. The hen went on to lay six eggs, and during the 2006 season, they had three rounds of chicks with nearly 100% hatches. It was hard for me to turn her off from laying as Summer approached.
On the other hand, with another breeding pair, the hen lived with the male for several weeks until one day she accepted him and built her nest. She only wanted to breed twice in a season. She has done this for 3 straight years. Other hens, do not accept a particular male no matter what. Get to know your birds and adjust accordingly. Give them privacy and have a double cage with a divider in case they fight. Then you can let the male court her through the divider and you will see signs that let you judge when the time is right to remove the divider. Some signs of readiness include a male that feeds her through the bars, and a female that assumes the mating position when the male sings, tears paper, and carries nesting material. Most often, when the lights reach their point and trigger the hormones necessary for mating behavior, place the female in the male’s cage and let nature take its course, but watch out for extreme fighting (not just little squabbles) and separate for a time if this happens.
We use 5″ Handmade Cotton Rope Bird Breeding Nest. You can see examples of this from the pictures. We typically support the nest by either having it rest on a metal holder or by tying it to the top of the cage with a hook and string through the middle front, while securing the hooks on the back, through the bars of the cage. Those nests can tip if not secured properly and we do not like to have eggs crashing to the cage floor when the birds get too fussy or careless. Nesting material can be purchased or created from pieces of a burlap bag, strings cut to less than 2″, paper towel and newspaper shreds, and cotton pieces. Many times we use soft moss sold in craft stores. Place the nest in the cage and let the birds work on the nest. If by the time they start laying eggs the nest is a mess, or if they cannot build a good one, help them along a bit.
Some books recommend removing eggs as they are being laid and replaced with fake eggs until the bird is done laying, then returning the real eggs when the hen starts to incubate. We do not follow this method, in general. We find that the hens will start sitting on the eggs without interruption around the 3rd egg, and most eggs seem to hatch pretty close together. If eggs are removed, they must have air circulation and be turned a few times per day. It is easy to forget or damage them accidentally. We make individual exceptions if the hen continually destroys the nest in order to rebuild and tends to bury the eggs underneath the nest. We then replace them temporarily until they have perfected the nest and settled down.
The hen typically sits on the eggs by herself while the male feeds her. However, this pair of birds was hilarious. The male, Sunshine, loved to sit on the eggs while the hen was out for a few minutes, and she had to kick him out. When she settled in, he would sit on top of her.
These five canaries in this nest are Opals. The 3 facing the front are males with dark beaks and legs, and the two lighter ones are females. One of the males grew up to be Lemon.
Our practice is to leave the male in from the time of mating through the time of weaning the chicks. Unless we need to have the male fertilize another hen, they stay together. He will typically feed the hen while she sits on the nest and will help feed the chicks. We do not offer egg during the incubation period as this is implicated with lowering of the incubation temperature. However, as soon as the first hatchling emerges, we offer soft foods like a commercial egg food for rearing, or homemade egg biscuits, and sprouted seed, as well as pellet food. We leave a variety of food in the cage, so there is no time when the parents are without something. Broccoli and corn are not offered until after the chicks are banded.
The chicks require constant feeding after birth. It is amazing how quickly they double in size. When they are born, there is enough absorbed egg yolk sack that they can survive all night without feeding (if they hatch in the early evening). Most likely, they are fed within 6 hours. This is a very difficult time for the bird owners, especially when canary breeding is new. Anxiety about the hen not feeding and the poor hatchling starving to death makes things worse. Fight the temptation to interfere. Give the hen time to adjust and start feeding. If there is a male with her, she will stay on the nest and beg for food and after a few minutes of having been fed, she will in turn feed the baby. The other eggs continue to incubate with no interruption. She will also many times eat the eggshell from the hatchling (this is good as it gives her extra calcium). Leave her alone. New hens, or even experienced hens with newborns, tend to not feed while being watched. Occasionally a baby will have to be fostered to another hen or hand fed because he fails to grow properly, but avoid this if possible; in general it is a bad idea. Sometimes there is something wrong with the hatchling, and should not survive. The parents somehow knows this. Once I tried to maintain a baby alive when he was thrown out of the nest by the parents . After I put him back he was thrown out again. I fostered him with another hen who fed the chick once and threw him out of the nest. This was so incredible to me and I was angry at the birds, so I finally put him under a 3rd hen who adopted him for a few minutes and then threw him out also. I could not see why, but I hand fed for a couple of days while he was under a hen who did not feed but kept him warm, only to realize that his neck was deformed and he could not feed properly.
For Red factor birds we color feed most of the year via coloring in the water, but at rearing time we color feed by mixing the red coloring, Canthaxanthin, in the soft food. This ensures that the chicks will have optimum color development in the wing and tail feathers.
By the time the birds are 17 days old they venture out of the nest but they continue to be fed by the parents. This is about the time the hen starts mating again and attention must be paid to her behavior. Some of our hens willingly start building another nest on a different corner of the cage. Other hens insist on building it underneath the chicks. When you lift the chicks to inspect them or clean the nest, you find perfectly lined up nesting material where you had cleaned the day before. Sometimes they will go as far as laying eggs under the chicks. Get to know the habits of your birds and adjust accordingly. We will separate the chicks when the hen plucks the feathers of the babies in order to line their new nest. Also, if the hens get aggressive with the chicks that continue to nest even when they have learned to fly it is time to separate them.
If we determine the hen needs space, we will move the hen to the other side of the divider with a new nest and leave the male with the chicks to feed. In the early morning for about one or two hours, and in the late afternoon (for about the same time period) the male is moved to the hen’s cage so they can mate. He is returned to the side with the chicks so he can feed them before the lights go out. This is continued until the hen has laid her 3rd egg and then the chicks and dad are moved to a weaning cage. We have weaned babies by their 21st day, but we have also left them with the dad for periods of time up to their 30th day. Chicks cannot eat seed and must be given soft egg food and other rearing food. Their beak is not hard enough to break up the seed for at least 6 weeks. As soon as the dad has done his job, we return him to the hen so he can feed her while she incubates the next round of eggs.
We provide clean water and water/color combination always in pet water bottles so it stays clean and fresh. We use bottles used for hamsters and even larger rabbit size. The larger bottles are better because the red color sometimes sediments and “freezes” the little valve in the very small bottles. We take the babies and touch their beak to the bottle tip so they can recognize the liquid and we also make sure the male teaches by example. This is a small detail that is overlooked and can cause dehydration very quickly if they are weaned too quickly.
These red factor babies raise their necks and open their mouths and beg to be fed. Until the 10th day or later the hen sits on them most of the time to keep them warm.
The three red canaries on the right are just a month old and on their own. One is trying to nap but was disturbed by the photographer! We call this the fluffy-cute stage.