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.