IN PRAISE OF THE PET CANARY:
Story by R.C. McDonald
In my mind, there are few creatures on God's green earth as sweet natured, beautiful, unassuming or as easy to keep as the pet canary.
These days, in North America, pet canaries are not as common as they once were. Ever eager to try something new, bird owners have gone hunting for an ever more exotic pet, and somewhere in all this the canary quietly began its fade into the background of the pet trade. Too many pet shops these days carry little or nothing in the way of quality canary supplies. In most cases this quite accurately reflects the trade, for the small merchant has little choice but to follow the demands of the customers.
Many canary breeders have, all unwittingly, played a part in the decline of the canary as a favored pet by focusing the majority of their attention on the (admittedly fascinating) aspects of breeding. For example, consider the desires and goals of the show-bird breeder. He or she looks over the chicks, but cannot properly tell when they are young if they will become the bird the breeder's been trying to breed or not. The breeder almost always wishes to wait at least until the birds have grown their first set of adult feathers before even thinking about selling any of them.
The young birds are kept in large flights with others of their age, which is great for muscle development, but does very little to accustom them to a friendly human presence. Any contact with humankind is generally brief and impersonal, usually at feeding and cleaning time, or else when being administered medicine. Soon the babies will be sexed and put in a rigorous round of show training, and if they are good enough, an even more rigorous round of shows.
It is often only after the shows are over and the next breeding season is drawing near that the birds are again sorted, and the ones that will not be needed for breeding are sold. In my mind, at this point they are not, and rarely ever will become, what I would consider a good pet canary. Their habits of interacting with their own and humankind are ingrained with the force of constant repetition. Time and again, I have been told by people who own or have owned one of these birds that canaries are very difficult to tame, and that all they are good for is to sit in a cage and sing. While it is true that canaries do this extremely well, it is in no way the limit of their potential.
The canary has an amazing capacity to learn, if given the chance, and is so far the only creature known to science that has been proven to be able to regenerate its brain cells, thus enormously increasing its capacity to learn in relation to its brain size and complexity. The fact remains that it is much easier to tame and train these birds when they are young, before they have formed a solid opinion of the world. I believe that breeders who refuse to sell any of their birds before 0 months of age are, in the long run, butting the throat of the canary fancy.
A bird to tame - Beautiful as canaries are, many people find a bird that does nothing but sit in a cage and sing boring, especially when the bird adamantly refuses all advances of friendship. To a bird like this, people are anything but potential pals, and although they may make superb breeders, it is very rare for one of them to become a good pet bird.
When choosing a young bird you wish to tame, it is important to observe several birds for a while, in order to determine their nature. One method I have used involves taking a handful of a favored treat, such as fresh young dandelion leaves, putting your hand in the cage, holding the greens so that they are easily visible to the birds, and watching their reactions closely.
Most of the youngsters will flock off to the far end of the cage, and they will either frantically try to escape or else peer suspiciously at you. Often, though, there will be an odd bird or two that will instead approach quite closely, studying you. That trait of studying the situation is one you want to see in a bird that you will be attempting to train. A canary that has this attitude will usually practically train itself, being eager to elicit the desire response from you (in this case, access to those yummy greens).
I find that it helps immensely to work with only one canary at a time, away from the presence of any other birds that may be in the house. They would probably keep distracting it, slowing or even stopping the learning process. You want all its attention to be focused on you while you are working with it. Always move slowly and calmly, letting it see what you are doing. Several short sessions are always preferable to one long one. If it gets tired or overly stressed, it will forget everything it has just learned.
Its actions will tell you a large part of what he is feeling; tightly slicked - down feathers and an open beak (like a dog panting) means stress and fear. If you see these similar reactions, stop immediately and let the bird rest. I like to leave a bit of a treat behind in the cage at this point, to teach it that some good can come out of the training sessions.
As time goes on, it will begin to look forward to your training sessions, at first just to get them over with and get to the treat part, but eventually it will learn to enjoy interacting with you, as well.
You want to initiate more of a conditioning process in many ways, rather than the more direct training you might give a dog. Let the canary become familiar with its surroundings, and always reward it with a bit of a treat when it performs as desired. Never chase a bird you are trying to tame! The canary must come to you willingly, even if you have to lure it there. Positive rather than negative reinforcement is crucial. If you keep a regular routing and always train at the same time of the day, your canary will quickly get used to the whole thing and will anticipate its session with you.
As you have probably realized by now, canaries are creatures of habit. Once a routing is established, they rarely break it, unless something drastic happens to shock them out of it. I cannot emphasize too strongly the importance of positive reinforcement in establishing the routines you wish the bird to learn. It is the basis on which the success or failure of your training attempts will hinge. The reward will be a sweeter miracle than you could ever expect; the trust of a tiny, feathered scrap of the sky, with a personality as vivid as its color.
In order to ensure that you know what I'm talking about, I'd like you to imagine this picture: It's evening, and you are returning home after another day's work. As you approach the house, you hear the canary trilling along with the radio, which you have left on low volume to keep it company. As you enter the house, the bird warbles its delight at seeing you, and it bounces over to the door of its cage, waiting for you to come over and say hello. It hops eagerly only your hand as you open the cage door, and flits up to your shoulder to exchange "kisses". You check the seed and water and then go about your evening routine. The canary supervises all this with great interest from its vantage point on your shoulder, occasionally leaving its perch to steal a nibble of this or that, but mostly just singing sweet merry nothing into your ear. It has its dinner while you eat, and afterward you relax together in the living room and play awhile. Always, whatever it does, one eye is on you and what you're doing, and its play is as centered around pleasing you as it is itself.
Sound too good to be true? Well, I know it's possible, because it's a similar routine to the one my first pet canary and I developed during the years we spent together. It is a surprisingly warm and affectionate relationship, much more so than I had been able to imagine prior to having him in my life. Even though he has been gone for a few years now, I still miss him terribly. Although I have trained other canaries and helped still other to learn to train their people, I will never forget the lessons he taught me about what a real pet canary can be capable of.
Hand-Taming - I suppose that there are a multitude of ways to hand-tame a canary, but I have only found one that has so far worked all of the time. This method is based as much, if not more, on a canary's psychology as it is on technique, and is usually speeded up with the judicial application of a few favored treats to sweeten the dish.
Canaries are a member of the finch family, and with them, share some basic actions and responses to different situations. A typical response to aggression form another bird, for example, it to remove oneself from the conflict (either before or after defending oneself) to the opposite (usually) side of the cage or flight, where some vigorous beak -whetting takes place. Finch psychologists say that this is a form of displaced aggression. Taking its anger out on the perch instead of another bird preserves the flock's health and well-being.
Another response is typical when nervous and confused. When startled, many finches will panic and try to escape as far away as possible as soon as possible. Others will freeze. Eventually, they will unwind from the "panic" stage to the "nervous" stage when they recognize the intrusion of an alien, but non-threatening, object into their lives. The nervousness is shown by a restless hopping back and forth between two relatively close perches. This is in order to keep the metabolism active in case the situation should change, requiring sudden flight.
The answer to hand-taming a canary is simple. You are bound to make the bird nervous anyway, so you might as well take advantage of understanding its responses. First, decide on your schedule, and keep to it. A regular pattern to its life will help your canary keep steady, enabling it to learn its lessons faster and more thoroughly. One or two training sessions a day of about 10 or 15 minutes each is adequate.
Remove your bird and its cage from their usual surroundings. Then calmly remove all food from the cage and all perches buy one. I find it helps to never give any bird I want to tame any sort of treat outside of taming times; keep the diet regular and good, but bland. If the bird panics at the sudden changes, let it settle for a few minutes and regain its equilibrium. Place a treat you know your bird likes in between the tips of your fingers, and put your hand in the cage, lining up your hand so that the edge of your hand makes an obvious perch, with that enticing bit of lettuce or apple or whatever at one end of it. (I usually use lettuce - most canaries are absolutely piggy about a tender, leafy-type green).
The bird should calm down fairly quickly. If it doesn't, and instead stands on its perch panting, the bird is extremely stressed. Immediately stop everything you are doing, and return the bird to where it is normally kept long enough for it to recover from its stress. Leave a bit of the treat you were holding in your fingers in the cage to help teach that good things can happen when things look scary, too.
If all goes well, though, and you have carefully blocked off all means of escape from the cage, including any gaps around the space you are putting your hand through (a desperate-to-escape member of the finch family can squeeze through some mighty small spaces!), you will soon have your bird where you want - that is, in a small area, with only tow perches available to it; its own, and your hand. I like to accompany all this with a steady stream of low murmuring comments. It really doesn't matter what you say; the idea is to provide a soothing background type of noise. This lets the bird know that it is safe. To a forest-type bird, silence is anything but golden. The only time it is quiet in a forest is when there is a predator around. Sudden silence will always make a bird sit up and look around, to find out where the predator is.
So there you are, standing there murmuring to a bird cage, when all of a sudden it happens: The bird lands on your hand and starts to munch on whatever you are holding. What do you do next? Well, the first thing you don't do is move, not even the teeniest bit. If the canary gets the notion that a hands is an unstable perch, it'll take it a good long while to unlearn it. You want it to come to the conclusion that a hand is a nice safe place to stand. The first time in particular, just hold still, even if it tickles. Let the bird decide for itself that it's time to park on the other perch before you move your hand in the slightest. Then slowly remove your hand from the cage, get another little bit of a treat, put it in the cage, replace the food and water, return the cage and bird to their usual location, and then you can sit back and heave that big sigh! Getting your canary to recognize your hand as an okay place to sit is the worst hurdle in hand-taming a canary. Once you're over that, it is just a matter of slowly getting it accustomed to the routines you want it to learn.
Words As A Cue - Cue words can help, too. They should be short (one or two syllables) and distinctive sounding enough that the bird can easily recognize them. For example, one canary I trained was a very forward-moving, aggressive little bird. All his motions were vigorous and bold, and he never held back. He would jump onto my hand so hard that you'd hear a little "plop" when he landed. The phrase "Plop, plop" sort of snuck into those comforting little murmurings that I mentioned earlier. A few days later he was acting distracted and not showing much interest in his taming session, when I said something along the lines of, "Come on, little plops." To my extreme surprise, he automatically hopped forward when he heard the word, "plop". Hearing that word every time he bounced over to my hand had conditioned him to associate the action with the word, so when he heard the word, the action was automatically included in his response!
Once your bird is used to sitting on your hand, and knows that it also brings food and water into the cage at your directions (most small birds tend to see the had as a separate being, different from you face) then you can begin to accustom it to sitting on a moving hand. Begin by slowly moving your hand toward the other perch in the cage. If the canary hops off when the hand begins to move, fine; slowly let your hand drift back to the other perch position and wait for it to come back. Eventually, it will sit still for this; then you move your hand so that it is a tad lower than the other perch and right next to it. Say the cue word that you've chosen for getting the bird to hop onto your hand and begin to slowly lower your hand.
If the canary didn't hop off when it hears the cue word when the other perch was at his chest level, it almost surely will as your hand slowly drops and the other perch comes close to head level. Canaries and many other finches are nervous about having anything closely over their heads; the instinct is to get on top of whatever it is. Once it is on the other perch, bring your hand up to its chest, hold your hand just in front of the bird and repeat your cue word. Then drift back to your other perch position and let is munch on a treat. Keep repeating this exercise over a few days until it is moving easily and on command on and off of your hand. Then, and only then, may you begin to bring the bird out of the cage on your hand. You may teach it to sit on your shoulder using a similar process, but it is not advisable to let it get used to sitting on your head.
Never forget that a house is full of dangers for a small bird. It is your responsibility to check any room you allow your birt to fly free in for any dangers, and eliminate them. Canaries are quite capable of learning what is and what is not allowed, but it is up to you to keep an eye on them whenever they are out of their cages.
If you use patience, always move slowly and calmly, and let the bird see what you are doing, never surprise it, and always reward the bird when it deserves it, you will soon be the proud possessor of a tame, bratty, bossy, loving, funny, inventive, curious, helpful, endearing, adorable and all-around cute little canary. I will practically guarantee that once you have lived with and been owned by one of these birds, you, too will be singing the praises of the pet canary.