Feeding Canaries a Pellet Diet
by Ginger Wolnik
Copyright 1998. All rights reserved.

First published in the Pacific American Singer newsletter, volume 5, number 3, July 1998.

[ American Singer Canary ]
American Singer Canary (blue variegated)
photo by James Tirado

Why feed pellets to your canary? What are the advantages?

Complete nutrition was the main reason I tried it. Like most "seed eating" birds, it turns out that these finches from the Canary Islands need more than just seed. Wild canaries also eat insects, fruits, plant leaves, and get direct sunshine which creates vitamin D. The typical pet canary gets an unlimited supply of just seed. Some get just a poor-quality box mix from the grocery store, which is mostly millet. However, even the best quality seed-only mix is not a complete diet for long-term health. Canary breeders have traditionally supplemented the seed diet with hard-boiled chicken eggs, vegetable greens, calcium from cuttlebone, and artificial vitamins. However, it can be difficult and a lot of work to ensure a balanced diet.

To make an analogy, if you were to feed a dog only muscle meat, it would not get a balanced diet. Wild dogs (wolves) consume the entire animal they kill: bones, organs, etc. They also eat some vegetable matter. Modern dog "kibble" is a convenient way to provide a dog with a complete diet. So even though dog food is "unnatural," most people accept it as the proper way to feed their canines. Similarly, bird pellets can be viewed as a convenient way to properly feed your avian pets. It is also ok to give your dog or bird appropriate treats as long as the bulk of their diets contain proper nutrition.

In addition to the nutritional benefits, some other advantages of pellets are:

Pellets can be stored at room temperature and left in the cage for weeks if the humidity is low. If the humidity is very high, it might be best to just feed enough for each day and perhaps disgard any leftovers if it gets damp. I refrigerate pellets for long-term bulk storage to keep the vitamins stable. (This is also recommended for vitamin-coated seed.) Tightly sealed containers that do not have a lot of air space would be best for bulk storage.

What are the disadvantages of pellets?

One drawback is that pellets cost more than some seed mixes. However, this is partially offset because the whole pellet is edible; with seeds you also pay for the weight of the shells. With pellets you do not have to buy vitamins. If you buy pellets in bulk through mail-order distributors, the cost becomes comparable. If you have friends with birds, several of you can group together and share the cost - and savings.

Another disadvantage is that canaries enjoy eating and may get bored with the same food. I feed pellets for the bulk of my bird's diet, but still supplement with fresh greens, some seeds, and egg food for variety. If you do this, wait until your birds are fully converted to make sure they have accepted the pellets as food. Some people offer more than one variety of pellets and rotate brands to combat boredom.

Pellets may be hard to find. Before converting, pick a brand that you are able to get locally or mail order from at least two suppliers. The manufacturer should be able to recommend distributors in your area.

There are two types of bird pellets. Some are just compressed and some have been "cooked." My experience has only been with Kaytee Exact pellets, which are cooked. There are many other brands available. You can phone or write to the manufacturers and ask for nutrition reports. Contact information is at the end of this article.

Sometimes, the biggest difficulty with pellets is getting your birds to eat them! If you just provide some pellets as a "treat," your birds will probably ignore them. If they were raised on a seed diet, they will prefer seeds and will not eat pellets until they have been trained to recognize it as food AND there is no seed to eat.

What's the best way to convert your birds to pellets?

One conversion method is to just take away all seed and only provide pellets. However, a lone, pet bird could starve to death with this "cold turkey" approach. This method works best in a flight cage with many birds that are used to a varied diet. It only takes one curious bird to start eating the pellets and others will often copy. If you purchase a bird that already eats pellets, you can use it to train the others, but if seed is also in the cage, the new bird will probably just join the others and eat the seed.

Another easy way to convert a flock to is to wean your chicks onto pellets. Young canaries between 4-6 weeks old seem to be more willing than adults to try strange foods. Mixing pellets into their nestling food will get them to try it. I recommend giving them some soaked seed to eat at this stage too so they will learn to crack seed shells. Even if you totally convert your birds to pellets, someday they could be owned by someone else who wants to feed them seed.

Another conversion method is to add the pellets to the seed mix and gradually increase the proportion of pellets. Others and I have found this not to work well for canaries. They pick out the seeds and ignore the pellets, even when there are few seeds left to eat. They don't get enough to eat and frantically feed when a new batch appears with some seed in it, which is upsetting for the owner to watch. This is what discourages most canary owners from completing the conversion.

Now I'll tell you my method for converting canaries to a pellet diet. My experience has only been with Kaytee Exact pellets, so I do not know if this conversion method will work or is safe with other brands.

First, determine how much seed your canary eats in a day; it is probably about ½ tablespoon each. Start providing just this daily ration in a large, shallow tray so the seeds spread out in one layer. It is important that all the seeds can be found and eaten without being buried by shells. Do NOT add pellets to this seed mix. Instead, provide plenty of dry pellets in a separate dish so that the bird can start eating when it is ready.

Next, find a moist crumbly food that the bird will eat, usually moistened nestling food. Since canaries are not raised on seed, there is some type of crumbly, high-protein food that they were raised on and will like to eat. You can try a commercial mix such as CéDé, Quiko, Bisko, or Abba. Or you can try making your own mix of cooked couscous or grated corn muffins. Do not leave a moist mix with real egg in their cage for more than a couple of hours. On a warm day, it will spoil quickly!

Cut back on the amount of seeds per day to encourage the bird to eat the "nestling" mix. Once you are certain the bird is eating this moist food, you can start the pellet conversion process.

Soak a small amount of pellets in water for about 15 minutes, drain and add to the nestling food, mixing well so the pellets break apart and become part of the mixture. Start with about 25% pellets; use less if the bird doesn't eat that. This mixture can spoil; do not leave it out all day, especially if the weather is warm! Once the bird has eaten this mixture for a couple of days, gradually increase the percentage of soaked pellets each day, cutting back on the amount of seed at the same time. Remember to use separate dishes! After a week or so, the bird should just be eating soaked pellets and no seed.

The final step is to reduce the amount of moisture in the pellets. Soak for just 10 minutes for a few days, then soak the pellets for just 5 minutes. At this point, the pellets should be dry by the end of the day, so if the bird is still eating them, it is essentially converted!

Always keep a separate dish of dry pellets available in the cage at all times so that once they figure out this is food, they can eat all they want. Some canaries will put off eating them until forced to, but others will surprise you by suddenly switching to the dry pellets after just a couple of days!

Keep in mind that pellets are a "maintenance" food for pets or non-breeding birds. To condition canaries for breeding and to feed laying hens and birds who are feeding chicks, you should supplement with a high-protein "nestling" formula.

The only pellets I've used are Kaytee Exact Maintenance for Finches and Canaries. These come in two varieties: the "original" formula that is light brown, and the "rainbow" formula that is various colors. They are the same nutritionally. I prefer the original formula because the rainbow formula has a strong "fruity" odor that I personally don't like. Others have reported that their canaries pick out certain colors and throw the other colors away, which defeats some of the advantages of pellets! However, some people worry that their pet canary will become bored and like to provide the color variety, but this is a personal preference. The original formula is sold in 14 oz. bags. Kaytee Exact also has a "small bird breeding formula" sold in 25 pound sacks which has a slightly higher percentage of protein. The breeding formula pellets appear identical to the maintenance formula, but when presented with both, my canaries seem to prefer the maintenance formula.

It has been reported to me that Roudybush crumbles do not soak well because they turn into a mush very quickly. If you want to use Roudybush or any other brand with this problem, consider first converting a seed-only eating bird to Kaytee Exact. Then you can switch to another brand after the bird is eating the dry pellets. Many pellet-eating canaries will accept another brand immediately, but make sure your bird is eating the new food before withholding the familiar brand. Gradually mixing the dry pellets should ease the transition.

Now all my baby birds are weaned on pellets and all birds that I purchase get converted. I have even switched wild-caught finches to an all-pellet diet! The advantages are so great; I'll never go back to feeding seed.

[ Kaytee Exact Original ]
Kaytee Exact Original
photo by Ginger Wolnik
Pellet Manufacturing Companies
Avi-Sci Dr. D's(800) 942-3438
Harrisons(800) 346-0269
Kaytee(800) 669-9580
Lafeber(800) 842-6445 (ext. 285)
Lake's Ultimate Avian Diets(800) 634-2473
Mazuri (Purina)(800) 227-8941
PrettybirdUS: (800) 356-5020
UK: 0800-614-394
Roudybush(800) 326-1726
Scenic Bird Foods(800) 327-7974
Zeigler Brothers(800) 841-6800
ZuPreem(800) 345-4767

Additional Information Not in Original Article

Here is another web site which compares pellet brands. Note, Small Hookbill formulas were compared, canary formulas could be different.
Comparison of Major Pellet Manufacturers

When researching pellets, ask what nutritional studies were done with canaries. Most brands are formulated for hookbills, which need less protien. The term "designed for canaries" could mean it's in a size a canary can eat. It doesn't necessarily mean anything about nutrition. Also, just because a company says that canary owners or breeders buy their brand doesn't mean it is nutritionally complete. Some canary breeders use hookbill pellets and suppliment with egg food. Others just don't know better, or are more concerned about the type of preservatives used or whether the ingredients are organic, neither have anything to do with whether the brand is nutritionally complete for canaries.

Pet sitters, especially those who might not be "bird" people find pellets easier and you don't have to worry about them thinking the birds have food when the dishes are actually just full of shells. Not everyone can always get a good pet sitter, especially in an emergency. Everyone knows that food must be provided, but a surprising number of people don't notice that shells are not the food! Then there's the case of the sitters who forget to show up or just flake out. I always ask someone to stop by every day I'm gone, but once a neighbor just forgot the whole weekend. Since I left the trays full of pellets and extra water tubes, everyone was fine. A single pet canary with a ball-tube drinker and a large dish of pellets could probably go a week unattended, certainly not recommended, but possible.

Return to PAS Articles Index