Home | Birds in History | Shipwrecks, Vicious Dogs and Escaped Birds….the Odd History of the Canary (Serinus canaria)

Shipwrecks, Vicious Dogs and Escaped Birds….the Odd History of the Canary (Serinus canaria)


CanaryWith their calm dispositions, bright colors and cheerful songs, canaries seem extremely well suited to domestic life. Indeed, they are our most popular songbird…but the history of their entry into our lives is steeped in drama.

Canaries in the Wild
Wild canaries differ greatly from those we are accustomed to seeing, being clad in a rather plain greenish-brown. For such a cosmopolitan bird, they have an extremely small natural range, being found only on the Canary Islands, Madeira and the Azores, about 360 miles off Africa’s northwestern coast. A large introduced population also thrives on Bermuda, off the coast of North Carolina.

Early History as Pets
Canaries were being kept as pets by people native to Madeira when the ancient Romans first stumbled upon the island. They christened Madeira and/or the nearby islands Canaria insula. “Canaria” (Canis=dog) was a reference to the island’s free-ranging endemic dogs, a large, aggressive race which is believed to have been the forebears of the present day presa canario breed.

Spain took possession of the islands in the late 1400’s and, in 1478, took some canaries (the birds were named after the island, and not vice-versa) back to Europe. The Spaniards jealously guarded the prized songsters, breeding them but selling only males.

A Shipwreck Fosters a Cage Bird Sensation
In the mid 1500’s a Spanish ship carrying canaries in its cargo ran aground on Italy’s Elba Island. The birds escaped and established residence on the island. This delighted the enterprising Italians, who captured some and, unlike the Spaniards, began selling them to all comers. The French and the Dutch soon became noted canary breeders, but it was the Germans who really took the hobby to new heights. Soon, many regions in Germany were producing strains of canaries that differed greatly in color, feather structure and singing abilities.

You can read more about the history of Germany’s famed Harz Roller Canary and other varieties at:


  1. avatar

    Howdy, I stumbled on to your blog by accident and loved the info on Canaries. I have two wild canaries and a yellow bird. I’m very interested in Red Factor birds and would like to begin breeding for my own pleasure. Any info you could give me about proper diet/breeding would be appreciated. Thank you Ron Lindsey

  2. avatar

    Hello Ron,

    Frank Indiviglio here, thanks for your kind words.

    The easiest way to start off breeding canaries is with a pair, although you can keep 1 cock and 2 hens in a large cage. Breeding often occurs if the pair is housed together all year…however, a period apart in winter, followed by reintroduction in spring, will almost guarantee success.

    A roomy cage is best. The Blue Ribbon Series T-11, designed to accommodate a breeding pair or trio, is ideal. Keep the cage in a bright, sunny room. A full spectrum bird light is a good idea, as UVA is particularly important in promoting natural breeding behavior.

    Fiesta Food serves well as basic diet, as it provides a mix of seeds, nuts and dried fruits and vegetables. Your canaries should also be given small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables (nearly all are accepted) and liberal feedings of sprouts. An increase in protein based foods towards winter’s end and throughout the breeding season is important in bringing canaries into breeding condition. Egg food and canned insects are ideal. An occasional treat of small live mealworms, waxworms and crickets will also be appreciated.

    Please be in touch as you set up to breed, and we can discuss nest sites and other details.
    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  3. avatar
    Hye Jeong Grenier

    Great Story! I am looking to include more fruit and other foods in addition to seeds for my canary and singing finch.I have heard many different opinions and see that there is a large variety of foods on your websites. Which would be best to choose? THANK YOU.

  4. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog and the nice comment – I’m glad you enjoyed the story!

    You are wise to be thinking about adding variety to your birds’ diets. Although canaries and green singing finches can get by on seed alone, they need much more to remain in the peak of health and color and singing ability.

    Introduce fruits and all new food items gradually – one reason you may read advice counseling against greens, etc., is that people often give these suddenly to birds that have had seed alone for years. This can play havoc with the digestive system.

    However, once acclimated to the new diet, your birds should get a small amount of fruit or vegetables every day (i.e. a piece measuring ½” square), and sprouting greens (the Sprout Pot is very helpful in this regard) should always be available. You can use any type of fruit other than avocado, and vegetables such as grated carrots, corn, kale, etc. Freeze dried fruits can be used to add variety during times when availability is limited, or for convenience. The dried fruits and vegetables in Fiesta Canary Food will also go a long way in adding healthy variety to your pets’ diets.

    Many suggest protein-based foods only during the breeding season, but I have always provided such daily to nearly all finch species and canaries that I have kept in both private and public collections. Some birds will eat insects and such to the exclusion of all else, but otherwise a bit a daily protein is advisable. Canned silkworms and Higgins Egg Food are always a big hit; you can alternate these with small live crickets, mealworms, hard boiled egg and cottage cheese if desired.

    Softbill food, designed for toucans, mynas and other frugivorous birds, is an often over-looked but valuable addition to canary and finch diets, and most relish the taste. I suggest adding a bit of Pretty Bird Softbill Select in place of fresh fruits once or twice each week.

    Please write back if you need further information, and to let me know how your birds react to these foods.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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