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Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


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.


Check out Part II of this article for additional information.

Common Ravens (Corvus corax) at Work – the World’s Smartest Birds?

Looking much like out-sized crows, to which they are related, Common Ravens are Common Ravenconsidered by many ornithologists (biologists who study birds) to be the most intelligent of the world’s 9,000+ bird species. People have apparently held this view from the earliest of times, as the folktales and legends of many races are filled with tales attributing great powers and cunning ways to these impressive birds.

We now have many indications of just how smart birds can be – a number use tools, and some have adjusted to changing conditions and have passed along their newly-acquired knowledge to other birds (more on that in future articles, but please write in if you’d like details). And, of course, parrot owners can fill volumes with tales of their birds’ learning abilities.

One of the most startling observations I’ve run across involved Ravens. One winter not long ago, people ice-fishing in northern Europe (I believe it was in Finland) began to find their hooks, devoid of bait and fish, lying on the ice near the hole that had been cut to allow access to the water below (fishing on an ice-covered lake during Finland’s winter is a cold business to say the least, so the lines were left untended while the fisherman wisely defrosted in nearby huts).

At first, neighboring fishermen were blamed, but some spying uncovered the real culprits. Ravens, apparently after watching people bait their hooks, learned to lift the lines with their beaks.

Keep in mind first that the birds had to associate the end of the line, now well below water, with food. The lines were quite long but, amazingly, the Ravens learned to stand on the slack each time it was laid down on the ice, so that it would not slide back into the water – and they figured this all out in the time that people were warming up and not watching!

The bait-thieves were likely helped in their efforts by the cooperative bond that develops between paired Ravens. Those observing the birds noted that one always kept watch while the other hauled up the line. As Ravens sometimes feed together, without posting a sentry, one is tempted to wonder – did they “know” to expect trouble?!

I once kept an injured Fish Crow (Corvus ossifragus), relative of the Raven, for a time. The bird took all of 20 minutes to learn how to open the latch on his cage’s door. Once I secured the latch with a lock, he would check the lock (once only) by rattling it, and no longer bothered with the latch itself. When I purposely left the lock unfastened, he immediately flipped it off and then lifted the latch.

Parrot owners are always great resources when it comes to “smart bird” stories.

You can learn a great deal about Raven natural history at:

Image referenced from Wikipedia, uploaded by Franco Atirador in Feb. 2007, and using the GNU Free Documentation License. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Image:Raven_croak.jpg

Self Recognition and Impulse Control in Birds


Research this month (June, 2008) at Japan’s Keio University has proven what pet keepers have long known – that birds possess much more intelligence than they are given credit for.

The work showed that pigeons have a well developed sense of “self”, and can distinguish their own images from those of another pigeon after a delay of up to 7 seconds. This places them ahead of most human 3 year olds, who fail at self-recognition tests after a 2 second delay. Amazingly, the pigeons were also taught to distinguish the paintings of Van Gogh from those of Chagall – a task at which, I am embarrassed to say, I would likely fail!

Prior to these findings, only mammals with highly-developed brains, such as chimpanzees, elephants, dolphins and (possibly) dogs, were known to be capable of recognizing their own images.

In another interesting project, Rohr University Bochum (Germany) biologists were able to determine that pigeons moderated their choice of a large versus a small reward based upon how long it took for each reward to be delivered. The research revealed that pigeon impulse-control is regulated by a single forebrain neuron, and could have important implications for the treatment of addictive and attention-deficit related disorders in humans.

Parrots seem, at least on the surface, to exceed pigeons in their learning abilities – I imagine that we will eventually learn that they have other very advanced capabilities as well.


An interesting article concerning the similarities between how birds and people perceive the world around them is posted at:

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