By Laurie Hess, DVM, Dipl ABVP (Avian Practice)
If you are looking for relatively quiet, fairly easy to care for bird that is beautiful to watch and may even sing, you should consider a canary or a finch. Canaries and finches belong to the order of birds called passerines that includes thousands of different species, including wild songbirds. The identifying feature of this group compared with other birds is the arrangement of their toes, with three pointing forward and one back, to facilitate perching.
Both canaries and finches have been domesticated as pets for hundreds of years. They can make wonderful companions for families with children, as they don’t typically require the extensive handling and out-of-cage time that parrots require to live happily, and they don’t inflict the painful damaging bite that parrots can. Many of them, in fact, live happily with similar species in large enough cages and are shy about being handled. When given a large enough cage to jump and flutter around in, access to sunlight, and proper nutrition, these birds can make excellent family pets.
The History of the Finch
Within the group that makes up finches, there are several families of birds that comprise more than 140 species that are found in nearly every continent. Finches kept as pets are more often of the Family Estrildidae – the waxbills, weavers and sparrows. Finches come in a variety of colors and feather patterns, with perhaps the most common pet finches being the zebra finch, Gouldian finch, and society finch.
Zebra finches originate from the wild grasslands of Australia. They have black and white stripes over their chests – hence their name, “zebra.” Zebra finches are very social and typically do better when housed in pairs. They are generally active breeders. Usually friendly with other birds, zebra finches can sometimes act bold and dominant. Many of these birds recognize their owners’ faces and voices and respond with happy chirps and peeps. These finches are excellent choices for owners concerned about noise and limited space and typically live on average seven to ten years.
Gouldian finches are brightly colored, with the male exhibiting brilliant purple, yellow, green and turquoise feather patches that they use in an elaborate courtship display along with a complicated song pattern to attract the less colorful females. Gentle, calm, and with a relatively quiet song, Gouldian finches should be kept in pairs or groups. Like most finches, Gouldian finches typically prefer not to be handled but can be quite interactive and respond to the site and sound of their owners. On average, these finches live 8 to 12 years in captivity.
Society finches do not exist naturally in the wild but are a hybrid of two finch species first bred in China and India thousands of years ago. As they have been bred domestically for generations, they typically are one of the tamer finch species and may be trained to take food from a hand. They come in many color variations from all white to nearly all black. Most are some combination of brown and white. Unlike several other species of finch in which males and females look different, male and female society finches look the same. However, only males sing. They can live 10 to 15 years in captivity and even longer in some situations.
The History of the Canary
Canaries were initially brought to Europe by Spanish sailors and first bred in the 17th century. They are named after the Spanish Canary Islands and were valued by Spanish and English kings and aristocrats because of the ability of males to sing. Once the Italians and the British began breeding them, many different breeds arose, and these birds became popular pets all over Europe. In addition, during the early days of coal mining in the U.S., canaries were used as sentinels to alert miners to the presence of toxic gases, such as carbon monoxide, carbon dioxide, and methane, in the mine, as canaries exposed to these gases would die before miners were affected.
Pet canaries generally fall into three groups. Color-bred canaries are bred to create many different feather color mutations including orange, bronze, ivory, onyx and the well-known red factor. This is in contrast to wild canaries that are typically yellow-green. Type canaries are bred for their body shape, including the Australian plainhead, Lancashire, Yorkshire, and very popular Gloster (with feathers covering their foreheads like bangs). Finally, song canaries are bred for their distinct song patterns, including the American singer, Russian singer and familiar German roller. Depending on species, with proper care, canaries may live 10 to 15 years in captivity.
Caring for Your Finch or Canary
While many finches are very social and are best housed in pairs or groups, canaries are successfully housed singly. Male and female canaries both may sing, but males are typically better singers. In order to stimulate a male canary to sing, which males do typically to court females, he must feel like he is in competition with another male. Thus, housing a male in the vicinity of another male (even without a female around) will typically stimulate male canaries to sing competitively during breeding season in the spring.
Although canaries and finches are small birds that don’t take up huge amounts of space, they do require a large enough cage in which to fly, and if pairs of groups of finches are housed together, the cage needs to be larger to accommodate a greater number of birds. The cage bar spacing should be small enough (generally no more than half an inch wide) to prevent the birds from escaping or getting their heads caught. Horizontally-oriented cages, rather than tall vertical ones, typically are better at facilitating flight. Wood perches should be small in diameter (typically 3/8 of an inch for finches to no more than 3/4 of an inch for canaries). Sandpaper or other rough-surfaced perches should not be used, as they can be abrasive to small birds’ feet. Cages should be kept in well-ventilated areas (away from cooking fumes and other aerosols) and in areas with plenty of direct sunlight. Having distinct daily light and dark periods is important especially to canaries to modulate hormonal cycles to get them to sing.
In general, finches and canaries do well at room temperatures comfortable to most people, as long as they are out of direct drafts, such as from air conditioners. Of course, cages should be kept safe from predators – including predatory cats and dogs living in the house. Some finches and canaries also enjoy size-appropriate toys such as swings, bells and other hanging toys placed in the cage so as not to hinder flight. While most finches are not hand tamed, canaries can learn to perch on a finger, and most finches and canaries will vocalize in response to the sight of their owners.
Like other birds, all newly purchased or adopted finches and canaries should be checked out promptly by a bird-savvy veterinarian after they are acquired and every year after that. As these birds are small and get dehydrated easily, any finch or canary that isn’t eating well or that looks fluffed up should be examined by a veterinarian as soon as possible. Common medical conditions in canaries and finches include feather cysts (more common in canaries; in this condition, which is typically genetic, a feather grows under the skin like an in-grown hair), “tassel-foot” (or the development of dry, scaly, tassel-like projections of skin on the feet and/or face in response to mite infection or severe vitamin A deficiency), barbering (in which birds, more often finches, will chew off feathers from each other’s heads when they are stressed from overcrowding), and occasionally air sac mites (in which birds breathe quickly with open mouths from mites living in their respiratory tracts). Birds with any of these signs should be seen by a veterinarian immediately.
What do Finches and Canaries Eat?
In the wild, finches and canaries eat a variety of vegetation, insects, worms, as well as some seed. They do not eat all-seed diets, as many uninformed finch and canary owners often feed their pets. Rather, pet finches and canaries do best when offered a mixed diet of limited seed, minced produce (such as leafy greens, berries, apples, pears, peaches, shredded carrots, peppers, squash and sweet potato), a fortified, nutritionally-balanced pellet appropriately sized to very small birds, and occasional protein sources such as cooked egg.
One trick to try to get these birds to eat different types of foods, rather than just seeds or just produce, is to offer a variety of foods minced up small on a paper plate that the birds have to stand on to eat. This encourages them to try new foods. In addition to food variety, cuttlebone (a calcium source) is essential for breeding and egg-laying birds, and all birds need fresh water daily. Spray millet can be offered as a treat from time to time but should not make up a significant part of the diet.
Where to Buy a Finch or Canary
Finches and canaries are available from reputable breeders and stores nationwide. Many also can be found in need of homes at bird rescue facilities. When looking to purchase a finch or canary, a prospective owner should look for a bright, active, vocal bird with sleek feathers an upright body position. Fluffed, hunched birds with closed eyes are typically sick.
When cared for properly, these personable little birds can be excellent pets for anyone who wants a fairly low-maintenance pet that doesn’t take up a huge amount of space and that may not love to be handled but offers joy in the form of song.
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