The majority of caged birds sold in pet stores fall under one of two categories: the hookbills, which includes all parrot species from parakeets to macaws; and the softbills, which are birds mainly in the finch family, including canaries. Softbills can be the perfect bird for those looking for a pet that is easy to keep and a joy to listen to, as the males in this group can sing the most beautiful songs.
Unlike parrots, finches—including canaries—are not the type of birds that will perch on a finger and interact outside their cage with the owner, but they can still make for delightful pets. They are fun to watch, as they are very active, and some are incredibly beautiful, such as the Gouldian finch, which is a living, feathered rainbow of color. Of course, the most popular finch to own is the canary—no other bird can compete with a canary’s incredible singing capabilities.
Today, canaries comprise many different breeds that can generally be separated into three groups: the "type" variety, which is bred with certain physical characteristics, such as the crested canary; the "color" group, which includes birds of many different colors, like the popular bright yellow canary and the incredible red-factor that needs to be fed a specialized color food to remain bright red-orange; and lastly, the song canaries—the most popular group. As the name implies, song canaries are bred to be the most extraordinary singers.
The most popular pet canary in the U.S. is the American singer, which not only can have a beautiful voice but also tends to be easy to keep. As with most bird species, only mature male canaries sing, while females produce only a single "cheep" vocalization. Sometimes, a male bird will stop singing, and this usually occurs while molting, stressed or sick. In other instances, a bird that is kept alone with no other males present to compete against or females to impress will not sing. However, playing canary song can often bring a healthy male back to full singing mode.
Many other male finch species can sing, as well, although not as robustly or loudly as canaries can. Still, these species can make great pets for customers looking for a quieter bird. Zebra finches are the most common softbills sold in pet stores. They are entertaining to watch, hardy, come in an assortment of beautiful color mutations and can be very easy to breed, as males are much more colorful. Society and Gouldian finches are also very popular pets. Gouldians are a bit harder to keep and breed, thus they are more expensive, but these incredibly colorful birds are worth the premium prices they yield.
It is best to keep pairs of finches when possible, as they are very social. Although some birds, like zebra finches, can become aggressive toward other birds of the same species, especially if housed in a small cage or if there are two males and only one female. Most finch species can be mixed in a large flight cage, which has the advantage of keeping aggression down and can make a wonderful display. If only a pair or a single bird is kept, the cage should be large enough for the birds to be able to fly, which will help them stay physically fit.
All finches eat seeds in the wild, so pet finches will do well on a high-quality finch or canary seed mix. Birds that eat seed as their main diet will need a quality vitamin/mineral/amino-acid supplement added to their diet daily. As an alternative, owners can feed their pet birds finch pellets as the main diet. If they are eating mainly pellets, then no supplements are usually required.
Finches should also be given some vegetables and protein. Some good foods to consider include sprouted seeds, cut-up veggies, such as cooked peas, carrots, corn and fresh greens, and fruit such as minced berries. Unlike hookbills—such as large parrots that can crack hard nuts and chew up large food items—softbills like finches need their food in small pieces to be able to eat easily.
Commercially prepared egg foods, like biscuits or crumbles, as well as hard-boiled eggs and mealworms are important sources of protein for finches and should be offered all year round, but especially when breeding. Calcium is also a dietary requirement for these pets. Cuttlebones are a good source of this mineral, and they help keep birds’ beaks in good shape. When breeding, female birds require extra calcium for proper egg formation and good health.
Like other caged birds, finches need to have plenty of fresh, clean water for drinking and bathing on occasion. All food and water dishes should be cleaned and disinfected as needed to keep the birds healthy—usually two to three times a week, especially for water dishes.
Unlike most parrot species, finches do not need interaction from their owners to stay happy and healthy, therefore they are great pets for time-pressed customers who don’t require a tame pet but want a bird they can enjoy watching and listening to when home.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.