Why Doesn't My Canary Sing?
by Ginger Wolnik
First published in the Pet Companion, February 1997.
Revised July 2001.
A common frustration for the canary owner is a non-singing bird. For the newly acquired pet, a little time is all that is usually needed. Some canaries will sing their first morning in the new home, but many take up to two weeks to adjust to a new cage and environment. To avoid disappointment, buy a male that is at least 6 months but less than 3 years old. He should be the only bird in his roomy cage that is placed high in a well-lit, draft-free room.
A canary that stops singing after a while may be a female. Some young canary hens sing but they usually stop after their first baby molt. Other hens may sing sporadically throughout the year, but they rarely have the consistency or duration of males. If your bird tries to build a nest in the spring or ever lays an egg then you have a hen and you should not expect it to ever sing well.
A common mistake is to think your male canary is lonely and get it a mate. A hen in the cage may initially cause a lot of courting song, but she often inhibits the male from singing once she settles in. Similarly, if a mirror is put in the cage, there may be more song at first, followed by less singing. A worse problem is to put another male in the cage which will cause a lot of fighting. Both become exhausted and then neither sing.
Eventually, every canary enters a silent period. The first thing to consider is whether the bird is molting (losing feathers). Most canaries stop singing for a couple of months each summer while they concentrate their energy on replacing all of their feathers. Some young birds may sing during the molt, but as they get older they are less likely to. So, a summer molt is a normal and expected reason for canaries not to sing, even if they sang through a previous molt.
Canaries can also molt at other times of the year. Molting is usually triggered by exposure to more than 14 hours of light per day. Warmer temperatures also can start a molt. Finally, stress can cause molting to begin. A classic case is acquiring a bird in the winter that was kept in a large, outside aviary, then keeping him in a small cage in a warm room with the lights on. The stress of the new home, along with the heat and extra illumination are almost guaranteed to start a molt! After a couple of weeks, feathers start falling out and the bird no longer sings.
Once a molt has begun, the only thing you can do is wait about 2 months until it is over. It is important to feed your canary extra protein during this period. If the bird is on a seed diet, supplement it with egg-biscuits, which are available at pet supply stores. Soak in water before serving the biscuits.
After the molt is over, some older birds might not sing for a while. Try playing classical music or a tape of canary song to get your bird started again.
Canaries need to molt so don't try to prevent this to keep your bird singing. If you keep a canary in a room with a constant amount of light year round then after a couple of years it will probably die. To keep a bird healthy, vary the amount of light exposure as the seasons change to match the natural day length.
A canary that stops singing but is not molting is probably in poor health. Birds hide their illnesses so this can be the first and maybe only sign that they are not feeling well. Get a book on canary care if you don't already have one and make sure you are doing everything you can. For instance, proper nutrition is crucial to long term health. A seed-only diet is not sufficient for canaries. Supplement with egg-biscuits and vitamins or convert to pellets. The cage should be large enough to provide horizontal flight for exercise, otherwise the bird may become too fat to sing. A canary can also be too thin to sing. As a bird loses weight it puffs its feathers out more to keep warm, so ironically the owner thinks the bird is fat. Catch and hold your canary to diagnose this problem. If you can feel the bony ridge of the breastbone, it is too thin. Also check for parasites such as mites or lice.
A respiratory infection will keep a bird from singing. This can be caused by bacteria, virus, fungus, or air sac mites. A correct diagnosis should be made because antibiotics will not kill mites. Anti-parasite drugs will do nothing for a bacteria infection and the toxic chemicals involved may further weaken the bird needlessly. Prolonged or improper use of antibiotics may cause a fungus infection because normal bacteria that keep fungus under control will be killed. No drugs will cure a virus, but keeping the bird warm may enable his own immune system to fight the disease. If the bird recovers from any respiratory infection, it is possible that scars may prevent him from singing in the future.
Pain may cause a canary to stop singing. Perhaps it was startled and injured itself. If the toenails get too long, the feet might not be able to perch properly and this could be causing discomfort. Some canaries have a genetic predisposition to fits or seizures which can upset them. Observe the bird for a while (from a distance) to find out if it could be under any physical distress.
Between 5-10 years of age, the bird may become too old to sing much, although they may live for several years more.
Sometimes you never know exactly why your bird stopped singing. A good avian veterinarian may be able to discover an underlying illness or problem but this can involve a lot of expense. Be aware that most vets are not very experienced with canaries and many problems have no known cure. Hopefully, time or intervention will correct the condition and your bird will be singing again.
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