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Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I

Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

When we think of tame birds, it is most often the parrots and mynas that come to mind. Canaries and other finches, on the other hand, are largely thought of as pets to enjoy for their bright colors, active ways and cheerful songs. To a great extent, these perceptions hold true…but not entirely. Just as there are parrots that would frustrate the patience of famed animal trainer Gunther-Gable Williams himself, there are finches that become wonderfully tame and trusting.

Good Candidates

Most who have tried to tame finches agree that canaries and the closely-related green singing finches make the best candidates. Their calm demeanors, modified by thousands of generations in captivity, are a great asset to the first time bird-trainer.

A friend once showed me a number of photos of 2 incredibly tame zebra finches owned by her father in Taiwan. The birds slept in his pocket, responded to several commands, and seemed to solicit petting and other attention. She assured me that trained finches were quite common in her father’s community, and in other places on the island as well. In any event, zebra finches have long captive histories, and some individuals seem unusually calm even without much close contact.

How Nature Affects Training

When attempting to tame your pet finch, it is important to keep its nature and natural history in mind. Finches are smaller than the majority of the predators in their habitats….even spiders and frogs make meals of them on occasion. Most are, consequently, alert, high-strung and quick to take flight.

It is important to avoid sudden movements and noises around your finches …move slowly and speak in low tones. Keeping your birds at eye level is a good idea, as most become stressed by movements above their heads. In the beginning, avoid direct eye contact, which birds may associate with danger. I first read of this tip in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder (Martin, 1963)…the advice was later echoed by experienced co-workers at import facilities and the Bronx Zoo, and has proven very useful to me.

Make the same low sound or whistle each time you enter the room, and spend as much time as possible in the area…sitting quietly, in the main, for the first few days. Watch your birds for clues as to when it is time to move on with the process. Once they stop flitting about and begin feeding, bathing and preening in your presence, you can begin to try some closer contact.

Moving to Free Flight Training


It is nearly impossible to tame finches in their cage…your hand within their territory will be too threatening. The best technique is to allow them liberty in a bird-safe (cover windows, mirrors, etc.) room. Do this only after your pets have accepted their cage as a safe haven and regard it as their territory. The time period involved will vary, but 4-6 weeks is a good starting point.

When first releasing your finches, slowly insert an 18 inch perch through the bars near the cage door, and then open the door. This will allow the birds to exit slowly…many birds (and most animals for that matter), are reluctant to just burst into unfamiliar territory. Finches will prefer to hop out onto the perch for a look around, and may take a surprisingly long time to leave their cage completely.

Never attempt to chase your bird from its cage, as even one bad experience, especially with species other than canaries, can easily ruin your chances of gaining your pet’s trust.

Be sure to have a comfortable perch (i.e. another cage top, potted tree or well-secured natural branch) set up some distance from the cage as well, so that the finch will have somewhere to alight.

Returning to the Cage

Now that the finch is flitting about the room, how does one get it to go back home? Please check Part II of this article next week for tips on hand-taming and returning your bird to its cage.

For a different perspective on bird training, please see my article, Hand Taming Wild Birds.

I would be very pleased to hear about your own finch taming efforts…feel free to brag! Please write in with your comments and questions. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.

Check out Part II of this article for additional information.

46 comments

  1. avatar

    Frank,

    I recently came into possesion of (3) young male Finches. According to the previous owner’s family they are approximately 1 year old. I have recently noticed that (2) of the birds that are in the same cage have been acting very aggresive towards one another. Actually it is more the larger bird (Chip) going after the smaller (Putt). I am not sure if this is simply a situation where one is trying to establish dominance over the other or is it something I need to be concerned about. The reason the birds are separated into (2) cages in the first place is because they both teamed up on the smallest of the bunch (Jazz) prior to coming into our home.

    Any help you could provide or pointers on what I should do would be greatly appreciated.

  2. avatar

    Hello Jason, Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    Unfortunately, it’s very difficult to house male finches of nearly any species together unless a large, planted aviary is available. The scenario you describe is typical…two may cooperate in attacking one bird, but once that individual is removed they often turn upon each other.

    In the confines of a cage, even mild aggression is a serious matter, since the subordinate animal cannot, as it would in nature, flee to a new territory. The aggressor will continue his attacks as long as the other is present, and injuries or stress-related illnesses are a certainty.

    Your only viable option is to separate the birds. Sometimes, even being in the same room with a dominant animal, despite being in a different cage, can be stressful to other males, and may cause them to become ill, so please keep an eye on their behavior and feeding.

    Please be in touch if you need any further information.

    Good luck and best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  3. avatar

    Hello Frank
    I was wondering is it possible to use this method for multiple canaries in aviary…

    because i already got a 4 months old female canary, all she can do is hop onto my hand to eat. but i’m grateful and will not rush.
    do you think she can get tamer and more trusting if i release her in aviary with 2 more canaries?

    thank you

  4. avatar

    Hello Raymond, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog. Very good question – birds vary in their reactions to others, but what often happens is that shyer birds may mimic bolder ones. So in your case, it may be the original bird that teaches the others; while keeping birds in pairs or groups can relieve stress and render them more confident, it’s not certain that your bird would change quickly. Having her feed from the hand is a great step forward, she will likely become more trusting in time, alone or with others. Another point to consider is that in groups birds sometimes pay more attention to one another, and may be more difficult to train, especially at breeding season (this is more of a concrern with parrots than canaries, however).

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    hello again Frank, thank you for the advice

    i decided to let my canary fly out in my bedroom.
    she’s usually placed on the terrace, will the changing of environment be scary for her?

    i only have sundays to let her out.
    would that be okay?

    anything else i should know?
    thank you

  6. avatar

    Hello Raymond, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the feedback. The change can stress your bird; best way to approach is to bring the cage into the room, and allow the bird to leave at will. A perch wedged into the bars by the door, and extending out, may encourage her. Be aware that it may take time for her to re-enter the cage; favorite treats, and keeping her a bit hungry, may help. If you need to physically catch her, do this in the evening, when you can dim the lights and just scoop her up.

    Unseen window glass is the most common hazard, but there are other considerations. Please check out this article on Bird-Proofing a Home and be in touch if you need more info.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio

  7. avatar

    Hello again Frank!
    I’m so excited, I just got 2 young canaries, about 1,5 months old.
    Right now they’re quarantined, i put them in separate cages but they’re still in the same room, and their cages are next to each other.
    Can they still be tamed? Or do i really need to separate them in different rooms?

    Oh yea, when they’re still under the breeder’s care, they’re put in the same cage. Once I separated them they seem to be quite “sad” so i felt kinda bad… Still, separate them? or can they stay in the same room?
    thanks Frank

  8. avatar

    Hello Raymond

    Nice to hear from you again and glad to hear your news. They may be more confident when kept in the same room, so it’s best to do that. They are young and in separate cages and so may respond well to you also.

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  9. avatar

    Thanks for the advice Frank,
    so I shall keep them next to each other…

    thing is, most if the time i see them busy looking at each other… How do i get them to pay more attention to me? so they can be more trusting…

  10. avatar

    Hello Raymond

    Thanks, my pleasure.

    There really are no set-in-stone rules; each bird will be different. You’ll need to experiment – try working with them when they are near each other, try in separate rooms, and so on. Canaries do not become as stressed as parrots do when separated, unless they are a mated pair, so there’s a good degree of flexibility when working with them. They are also not as social as parrots so do not “need” contact with people when alone…food is therefore very helpful in gaining their trust and interest.

    Please let me know if you need any further information. Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  11. avatar

    Hello,
    I was wondering when there(zebra finches)coulers or spots start to come through I go mine 1 day ago and there only 4 weeks old.Also ive got a drinking butt but in the pet shop they just had a little bowl and I have never seen them drink in there new home is that normal???I’am also a bit scared of leting them out of there cage in a few weeks to fly around my bedroom(is that a safe place?)do you have any tips???And how can I clean them??????

    Thanks again,
    Abbie

  12. avatar

    Hello Abbie,

    A great many color phases and patterns have been developed by breeders. Finches that appear to be of “typical” coloration often carry a variety of these other genes that affect their plumage, so it’s nearly impossible to predict what they will look like upon maturity.

    Zebra finches are native to very arid habitats; they need water, but often seem not to drink much. As long as it is available, they will take what they need.

    Follow the steps in this article and Part II, but keep in mind that personalities vary a great deal and finches are often high strung and shy. Once loose in a room, it will be difficult to get them to return if they are not already somewhat calm and used to you. If you’ve not done it before, it would be best to have an experienced person on hand, perhaps from a local bird club if possible? Rooms must be checked for hazards, such as small spaces where they may get stuck, glass into which they can fly, etc.

    You might enjoy this article on Zebra Finch Natural History.

    Enjoy, and please let me know if you need further info, Frank

  13. avatar

    Hello,
    yester day I noteced that they have layed an egg in the food (should I buy a nest?)and then this morning they moved it on to the floor of the cage(should I move it back?)and they aren’t realy sitting on the egg only for 5secconds evry 10 mins Is this normal and how long does it take for an egg to hatch?

    Thank you,
    Abbie

  14. avatar

    Hi Abbie,

    Yes, provide a nest….they probably will not incubate the egg on the floor – might try awhile, as you describe, but egg needs constant incubation and they will be ill at ease w/o a nest.

    Enjoy and pl keep me posted, Frank

  15. avatar

    we have 12 finches around a yr old can they be let go and survive

  16. avatar

    Hello Larry,

    Captive birds should not be released, even within their natural range; parasites and other micro-organisms that cause no harm to captives can be devastating to the same or other species in the wild. This has been documented many times among a variety of animals; animals bred for release programs by zoos are subjected to extensive tests beforehand, but even so we use this option only as a last resort. Please let me know if you need help in finding a local bird club or other group that may be able to assist you in placing the birds.

    Best, Frank

  17. avatar

    I have found that you can hand tame Zebra Finches only one way. To breed the birds yourself. I always only keep the fist egg to turn blue and then discard the rest. When the baby finch is 6 days old I start taking it out of the nest for a half hour twice daily and cupping my hand like a nest letting it lay in my palm. I also feed it crushed up hard boiled egg once a day. If the baby has siblings it will not work because it will see you as the guy who separates it from them and will hate you for it. This method works for me every single time, to the point where the bids are so tame that I don’t even keep them in cages. I will wake up in the morning with my finch literally sleeping in my bed.

  18. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks very much for your interest and for passing along your experiences. “Partial” hand-rearing has been used with some success by parrot keepers as well; the process stresses some birds, but otherwise is often successful.

    best regards, Frank

  19. avatar

    Hello,
    I recently got a male zebra finch and a female zebra finch. They bred and had three eggs but then one got covered up with the bedding. I’m wondering how I should hatch them…? I don’t really have enough space for 3 more finches, so I was thinking of a) releasing them b) taking the eggs out c) donating them to Petco/Petsmart d) hatching them and giving them to friends.

    Thanks, Jacobjdong

  20. avatar

    Hello,

    If the parents are not incubating the eggs, it would be best to discard them. It is very difficult to hand-raise finch nestlings. Captive birds should never be released (also illegal to do so in ,many places).

    Best, Frank

  21. avatar

    Hello,

    The parents are incubating the eggs, but with the cotton on them.

    Thanks,
    jacobjdong

  22. avatar

    Hello,

    Probably best to assume that eggs will hatched if left. Check first with pet store if you plan to go that route, as many, esp. larger chain stores, will not accept donated animals. Best, Frank

  23. avatar

    Hello,

    I checked with Petco, and they have plenty of donated pets.

  24. avatar

    Hello, Thanks for the feedback, Best, Frank

  25. avatar

    My eggs hatched yesterday!
    All of them have hatched except one. They’re really small, the eggs are probably eaten, and I’m putting a small dish at the bottom with a pile of organic millet. Is that what I should be feeding them??? I really don’t want them to die!!

    Please reply,
    Jacob

  26. avatar

    Good to hear Jacob. They can raise the young on their normal seed diet, but it is best to add some sprouts and the other foods mentioned in this article. Please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  27. avatar

    Hello,

    I just got a canary. I’m new to canaries. However I had tamed squirrels and rabbits.

    Now I want to tame canary also. I want it to sit on my hand and sing. How can I do that. As I have seen some of videos on youtube, I was so much excited.

    vicky

  28. avatar

    Hello,

    Thanks for your interest. Your experience with other animals should be useful; bear in mind that canaries, unless hand reared, will tend to more high strung and less amenable to being enclosed in the hand than will small mammals. Approaching, chasing or forcing contact will set back the process, as it will be perceived as a threat. please see Part II as well as this article and let me know if you need any more info.

    Enjoy, Best, Frank

  29. avatar

    Hello,

    Thank you for your feedback. Well I do understand whatever you have said. As I have already experienced it. I got this Canary almost like 6 months back. I have named it Chip. I ha changed the cage and got a bigger one so that atleast it has room for flying. I also put sand paper on the cage floor. However for a month it was okay. Now Chip is making small pieces of sand paper and then spilling it in his water cup. Which makes water cup dirty? So I have to change it every 5 hours. Changing water is not an issue. Issue is this action (does it imply to some kind of stress) or why Chip is doing this.

  30. avatar

    Hi Vicky,

    My pleasure. Young females, and some males, often “practice” nest building; in doing so they usually pile papers etc in water or food bowls. If you provide a nesting cup, the bird may try to build an actual nest, but if its a female then she may sit an “incubate”, perhaps even produce eggs. Best to leave as is, the bird will likely stop in time. Here is some further info; enjoy and please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  31. avatar

    Hi, I have a female American Gold Finch that alove so much and I would like to catch a male Gold finch so they can breed in the cage I enjoy there songs and the plumage , Do you think it is possible to breed them in captivity? thank u

  32. avatar

    Hello,

    American Goldfinches are bred by some European hobbyists but may not legally be captured or kept as pets in the USA (injured birds may be possessed by licensed rehabilitators). However, the closely related European Goldfinch is legal to keep in the USA and is sometimes available for purchase. Please let me know if you need links to potential suppliers,

    Best, Frank

  33. avatar

    yes please do if it is not too much work for you thank you so much

  34. avatar

    Hi,

    Try Softbills for Sale and BirdsExpress; Good luck and please keep me posted, Best, Frank

  35. avatar

    hello,
    I was wondering if you could help me out again because one of my birds has lost all its feathers underneith it’s belly and not regrowing them-is this normal?its been happend about a month ago.
    thank you,
    Abbie
    .P.S. Sadly there eggs did not hach :-(

  36. avatar

    Hi Abbie,

    It’s not normal; feather loss or failure to regrow, however, can be linked to a variety of factors..parasites, skin disease, diet, stress. Unfortunately, it’s not possible to diagnose w/o a vet exam. Please let me kn ow if you need help in locating an avian veterinarian. Best, Frank

  37. avatar

    hello frank

    about a month ago we saved a little immature common house sparrow from a glue trap and have been housing the guy in a larger cage, feeding him the proper diet and all that but even after a month of constant work and trying, the most progress we’ve seen with him is less panic at our approach, weve been told that releasing the little guy is illegal since they are an “invasive species” id really like him to be hand tamed having owned birds before, ive raised 3 parakeets and all were fairly easy to train and handle but the same methods i used for them are having little to no effect, (treats, constantly being by the cage, talking to him, singing, and giving him a small area within the cage i cant see him so he doesnt feel so surrounded.)

    im at a loss. what should i do? release him after winter? keep working at it? hes seems a lot healthier since we saved him and hes bulked up since when we got him he was skin and bone.

    and id rather not take him to a animal shelter… since ive read that a lot of places just kill them since they are classified as “pests”

    hope to hear back and thank you for reading ^^

  38. avatar

    Hello,

    They are not native but well-established throughout the continental USA; beyond invasive at this point! ..you won’t be affecting the environment but your state wildlife agency could advise you if you are concerned about legalities. Keets are highly social and have been bred in captivity for thousands of generations, so the considerations are different. Sparrows can be tough unless hand-reared; adults may tame down in a huge flight cage, but w/o plenty of space they tend to remain high strung. A local wildlife rehabilitator may take him, although they may be prevented from dpoing so by state law…please let me know if you need help in finding one. Release may be best option…they re-adjust right away so no concerns there, esp. if you wait until spring,. Best, Frank

  39. avatar

    Hi Frank
    I have a couple questions about canaries, as a new canary mom. The first is in regards to mirrors. I have acquired a 3yr old female fife canary from a nearby aviary. She is quite chirpy and seems happy. We put a very small toy mirror in her cage and she seems a little obsessed with it now. She just flies from the perch mirror to an adjacent perch and back again, pecking/preening the mirror. She doesn’t bother with her swing or nest as she did before. I am getting conflicting opinions on the mirror matter. Some say that it may make her depressed or agitated, and to remove it, others say it will keep her company. What’s the verdict? Is she lonely?
    The other question is about cuttlebone. I have one in the cage right above her food bowl, but I have yet to see her use it. I usually see her rub her beak across her perch after eating. I know these are important for beak health and calcium intake, any advice?

    Thank you!

  40. avatar

    Hi Leah,

    Thanks for bringing up the mirror question, as use is often misunderstood; they can be used to encourage birds to exercise, but in no way function as a companion; in your case, the mirror is stressful and should be removed (can be seen as an intruder, potential mate etc).

    Dark leafy greens and fruits are good CA sources…add to diet slowly if bird has not has these before. You can also try a mineral block or powdered CA supplement.

    Enjoy, best, Frank

  41. avatar

    Thank you Frank. I actually removed it last night as I was covering her cage and this morning she did seem less “preoccupied”.

    I am interested in hand taming her, so this article is really helpful. I’m sure I’ll be back to pick your brain!

    LEah

  42. avatar

    Good to hear, Leah. Thanks for writing back..I look forward to updates, enjoy, Frank

  43. avatar

    Hello Frank,
    I am so thankful to have found you! I appreciate what your doing to help so many of us that have come to enjoy this bird hobby. I started breeding Zebra Finches with my Dad when I was a teenager. My husband and I have started doing it again. We have one large flight cage and 1 small flight cage. I work with local pet store here in Missouri in exchange for supplies. It works out good. However, I noticed that the popularity of finches has declined since my dad and I did it. My problem that I have never experienced before is this. I have 1 male and 1 female pair in the smaller flight cage. They have been together at least six months and have an established nest which they have layed at lest 4 sets of eggs. I have had to discard all of the eggs because my pet store was not in need of any more birds. Last week they layed 1 egg. Yesterday I noticed the the Male taking nesting hair out of the nest and putting it into a feeding cup. This morning I woke to an egg in the feeding cup layed by the female. Why are they doing this? I have never had a pair do this before. do you know?? Thanks for any help you can give. Chris

  44. avatar

    Hello Christine,

    Thanks for the kind words. Yes, as you’ve noticed, the popularity of finches of all kinds has declined here in the US. When I was a child, even small local pets stores here in NYC stocked many species. Unfortunately, parrot ownership continues to grow, despite the fact that few owners are equipped to care for them properly.

    I’ve had finches change nests sites for no apparent reason (well, not apparent to me, anyway!)…hard to say why; wild birds will do this instinctively – nest hygeine, predator avoidance, etc; captivity modifies instincts, but they do play a role. in some behaviors. A new nest site or 2 placed into the cage may spark them to choose a better place than the food cup.

    You might enjoy this on Zebra Finch natural history (link to Part I is in text)

    Enjoy and please keep me posted, best, Frank

  45. avatar

    Hello Frank,

    How you doing? I am planning to buy 2 light yellow canaries (unsure of their gender), they are 3months old. My question is , is it still possible that I can tame them? Because the breeder told me that if I wanted to tame a canary , I should be getting a week old chick.
    Hoping for your reply Frank!

    Thanks!

  46. avatar

    Hello,

    Always easier with chicks of any species, but you can work with canaries that are older; in any event, hand-rearing chicks very difficult. personalities vary a great deal, and canaries are not social in the same way as parrots, so they tend not to bond as closely with people; but good to try, less stress for birds if they become used to you to any degree. enjoy and pl keep me posted, frank

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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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