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Canaries and Finches

An introduction to two popular bird breeds.

Martha Stewart Living, August 2001

Martha has some beautiful canaries and finches that were given to her by pet expert Marc Morrone. Canaries, of course, are famous for their singing. Finches are notable for their extraordinary colors and markings.

Canaries are divided into three major categories: type canaries -- such as the border fancy canary, fife canary, frilled canary, and gloster fancy canary -- which are bred primarily for their appearance; colored canaries, bred for their colorful plumage; and song canaries, such as the roller and the American singer canary, which are prized for their voices.

Finches are generally small birds, seldom exceeding six inches in length. They are not melodious, but their markings and colors are as unusual as they are beautiful. The red-cheeked cordon bleu finch (Uraeginthus bengalis), for example, has red ear patches. The diamond sparrow, or diamond finch (Stagonoplura guttata), is gray and black with red and white markings. And the zebra finch (Poephila guttata) is extremely colorful, with a striped tail reminiscent of its namesake.

When choosing a finch or canary, keep in mind that it must be kept clean and fed the right diet. These birds can live for up to a decade, but dirty cages and poor nutrition can shorten their life span. The cage's perches and base must be washed weekly; food and water cups must be washed out with soap and water. Make sure your bird does not come into contact with its own droppings; this is a primary source of infection, so keeping the bird's perches well below its water and food sources is of the utmost importance.

Your bird's feathers will look best if they're misted with water, particularly when your bird is molting. Misting a bird is better than giving it baths because birds often ingest water after they've bathed in it.

Following label directions, feed your bird a quality seed mix. But keep in mind that there is no single type of seed that will satisfy all of your bird's nutritional needs. A good canary mix will include hemp seed, canary-grass seed, flax seed, rapeseed, and oats; a good finch seed mix will include millet, canary-grass seed, grass, and weed seed. If you have a songbird, feed it a song food mixture that contains oily seeds like niger, rape, and hemp. Your bird should also be provided with a cuttlebone, which is a good source of calcium and vitamin D. Vitamin drops in the water, fresh leafy greens once or twice a week, and fruit such as apples or pears will enhance the health and well-being of your bird.

When choosing a cage, the most important thing to look for is width. Tower cages are tall and are suitable for most birds, but for finches and canaries to exercise properly, width, not height, is the most important factor. Place the cage at or just above eye level. The bird will feel safest interacting with you from this height. Don't place the cage too high, though, or it will be too hot for the bird.

To ensure that your bird can't squeeze out and escape, look for a cage with bars that are spaced no more than a 1/2 inch apart. The cage should be fitted with two well-spaced wooden perches. Make sure the perches aren't too thin; ideally, they should be 3/8 to 3/4 inch in diameter.

You will also need a concrete nail-trimming perch, a green's clip, a clip for millet spray, and a wire grill on the bottom of the cage that will allow the droppings to fall through. Newspaper or crushed corncobs can be used as bedding in the tray under the grill.

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