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Canaries 101

The Martha Stewart Show, January 2010

If you would like to add a bird to your family but don't have a lot of time to devote to touching and petting it, petkeeper Marc Morrone recommends a canary.

Selectively bred for about 400 years to entertain humans, canaries were originally discovered in the Canary Islands off the coast of Africa. Imported to Europe by early explorers, this popular bird is now known for its brilliant color; American singer canaries, bred for their song and size, come in shades of red, white, yellow, and variegated mixtures of each.

Male canaries sing when they are in top condition and want to breed; female canaries do not sing at all. They sing best when kept alone; if together, they are prone to fighting. When a bird is molting, or changing his feathers, his resistance is down and the energy normally devoted to singing is instead focused on growing feathers. You'll notice that most pet stores don't have birds for sale in June, July, or August, as these are the months their beautiful song is rarely heard.

Keep the Cage Simple
When it comes to a canary cage, simpler is better. While these charming birds need a large enough space to exercise their wings, Marc advises against a particularly tall cage -- look for something long enough that the canary can hop back and forth a bit. The birdcage should be kept clean, with a grill on the bottom that can store gravel, paper lining, and crushed corn cobs in a tray underneath. Add a concrete perch to help keep their nails from getting too long. A cuttlebone on the side of the cage is an ideal way to ensure your bird gets essential mineral salts. Be sure to also add fresh greens, fruit, or weeds to the cage.

Maintain Fresh Food and Water
Canaries eat seeds, charcoal, and oyster shells, though some like pellet food. They get minerals from a protein-filled egg-food mixture, which is particularly important when the bird is having babies or molting. Marc recommends a mix of fresh seeds and keeping fattening biscuits to a minimum.

Millet spray is good for canaries as a psychological toy, but they do not depend on its nutrition. As a rule of thumb, the water you give your canary should be clean enough for you to drink it at all times. Be sure to change the water every day and wash out the dish with soap and water to prevent the formation of bacteria (the main reason birds get sick in captivity).

Bring On the Bath
You can attach a bird bath to the inside of the cage if you like, but be sure to remove it as soon as the bird gets out of the bath. As an alternative, Marc suggests misting them once a day with warm water from a spray bottle -- that's all it takes to keep their feathers in good condition.

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