Finches and Canaries
There are several reasons why some birds in the finch family are among the most popular species in the pet trade-and retailers should be well versed in them.
Recently, a customer asked me if there are any birds that are completely quiet. My answer was simple; there are no caged bird species available that do not make at least some noise. However, there are some pet birds, like those in the finch family, that are not as loud as parrots, and they are great options for many pet owners.
Generally, finches are among the most common group of birds sold in pet stores. They make great pets because they are not only fairly quiet but also easy to keep. Many finch species are available including the well known and popular canary, the easy-to-keep and low-priced zebra and society finch species, and one of the most beautiful birds kept in captivity—the Gouldian finch.
Canaries have been kept for hundreds of years, and therefore, there are many varieties available. These varieties are generally split into three groups: color, type and song.
Pet canaries in the color group are bred in a range of hues, including the very popular yellow, as well as white, cinnamon, grey/green, fawn, and red-factor—a bright orange-colored variety that should be fed a specific food supplement that helps keep its coloring vibrant. “Type” category canaries are bred to feature particular body types and characteristics—from short and skinny to large and rounded. Other distinctions within the “type” group include varied feather patterns like frilled and crested. The last group of canaries is in the song category. Although all male canaries can sing, the birds in this group were bred to be the best songsters, including the American singer breed.
Often, customers will want to keep just one male canary to enjoy its’ singing, but males may stop singing if there are no females around. Recordings of singing canaries can entice a single male start to sing again, as can bringing in a female or even another male in a separate cage. Males will naturally stop singing when they are molting as well. Note that really good songsters can sometimes be a bit loud, so they may not be the perfect choice if a customer wants a quieter bird.
Zebra finches are well known in the pet industry as a very hardy, easily bred species, which makes them inexpensive and perfect for beginners. The males have a lovely quiet song and like, almost all other finch species, they are very social and should be kept in pairs. When keeping more than two finches, the birds should be housed in a very large flight cage with three pairs or more to prevent any bird from becoming the lowest ranked and thus picked on by the others in the flock.
Many color varieties of zebra finches are available, although the naturally slate gray body with bright orange cheeks and black barring on the males is quite lovely. Females are easily identified, as they lack this coloring. Sometimes, it is harder to tell the difference in the sexes if they are both white with no other coloring, but the male always has a much redder beak. Zebras can also come in other colors such as fawn, silver, pied, and the very sharp looking black-cheeked.
Society finches are a lot like zebra finches in the sense that they are hardy and breed even more readily, making them great for new bird owners as well. Mainly seen in fawn and white, brown and white, and pure white, they are extremely social and should never be kept alone. Sexing these finches is not as easy as it is with zebras, but like all finches and most other soft-billed birds, it is the males that sing and not the females. Note these birds are such strong breeders and parents that they are often used to bring up other bird species.
Without a doubt, one of the most beautiful finches available in the pet industry is the Gouldian. With a purple breast, yellow stomach, green body and a head that can be black, red or even yellow, these birds are just stunning to look at, which makes them a very popular bird to keep. Many color varieties have been developed, but the natural wild coloration is spectacular. Note that although the females are as well colored as the males, their coloration is slightly duller, and they do not sing at all. Gouldians are not inexpensive like the zebra or society finches because they are not quite as easy to keep and breed, but they can do well if kept in proper conditions and fed the correct diet.
All the finches mentioned above should be kept in a cage in which they can fly a bit, even if only a single canary or a pair of one of the other finch species is kept. For Gouldians, it is essential that they be kept in a large cage where they can get plenty of exercise to stay healthy. Almost all of the birds mentioned above, except male canaries, can actually be kept together in multiple pairs in very large flight cages, which can make a very beautiful display.
Like other caged birds, finches need to be given a diet that is tailored for them. This usually includes a good canary or finch seed mix, along with pellets and greens like mustard, celery tops and lettuces—avoid iceberg lettuce, which has little nutritional value. Any veggies fed to finches need to be chopped up, as they are not like parrots with strong hooked bills that can chew up larger pieces of food. Fresh water always should be made available daily. Note that Gouldians need to get some quality protein, such as commercial egg food, diced boiled eggs and mealworms in their diet at all times—and especially when breeding.
Cages should also have a number of perches with diameters in various sizes, and many finches will enjoy fine rope to chew on, and swings and toys that are made with straw. Pet owners should also provide cuttlebones for their birds, and it is not a bad idea to add a pinch of grit to the food once or twice a week. Grit should never be offered in a separate dish as finches can impact their crops with the grit if feeling poorly and therefore won’t be able to digest any food.
Unlike other parrot species, finches are not to be tamed and taken out of their cage. Yet, they are fascinating to watch, as they are highly active and lively during the day. Meanwhile, the lovely vocalizations and melodic songs of many of these finches are soft and gentle enough to be enjoyed by pet owners without being disruptive or raucously noisy.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.