Canaries - Feeding

By Gregory Rich, DVM; Laurie Hess, DVM; Rick Axelson, DVM

General information

Our knowledge of bird nutrition is constantly evolving due to heightened awareness of nutrition’s importance and increased research into birds’ different needs. Like all other animals, birds need a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, minerals, and water. Different species of birds often require different foods.

Should I be concerned about what my canary eats?

Due to poor avian nutrition education before owning a pet bird, proper nutrition is commonly neglected with pet birds. You should discuss your canary’s nutrition with an avian veterinarian. Too often, owners assume they are feeding a proper diet to their canary when they are not. Many bird food packages state, “Complete Avian Nutrition,” but they may be misleading because no regulatory body certifies avian nutrition products.

"Your bird's health depends on how well it is fed."

Poor nutrition is a common reason for many health problems in birds. You should continually strive to improve your bird's diet by educating yourself about veterinary-recommended diets for birds. Birds need more than seed and water to stay healthy. Your bird's health depends on how well it is fed. Your bird is not smart enough to pick out a healthy diet. Like humans, birds will gravitate to what tastes good, which is often a diet with increased fat content, leading to several nutritional imbalances.

What do wild canaries eat?

Wild canaries are generally seed eaters and consume various seeds (including grass seeds). In the wild, since season dictates seed availability, there are times of the year when insects and certain fruits, berries, and vegetation will constitute the bulk of a canary’s diet.

What should I feed my canary?

Pet canaries should always be fed a well-balanced and varied diet. Canaries eating large amounts of seed are vulnerable to obesity and other nutritional problems. Small pieces of green leafy vegetables, such as parsley, carrot tops, kale, red leaf lettuce, or endive, can be offered several times a week.

Wild canaries would eat a great variety of seed types in the wild as different plants come into season. Commercially available seed mixes for pet canaries may contain 2-5 different kinds of seeds. However, these seeds are high in fat and carbohydrates and deficient or imbalanced in many nutrients.

An all-seed diet is not nutritionally complete for a canary. Poor nutrition can lead to ill health and potentially shorten the life of your canary. Canaries tend to selectively eat only one or two of their favorite types of seed from a mixture. Millet seed, often offered by owners as a millet spray or branch, is often chosen preferentially. Millet is just another form of seed and is not nutritionally complete.

Honey sticks are also often offered, but once again, these are just seeds that are stuck together with sugar and honey and are nutritionally imbalanced. Molting, song, and conditioning foods are also available for canaries. These products are simply different combinations of more seeds that are predominantly fat, and that should not be offered to canaries. Healthy molts, vibrant song, and strong condition are best achieved when canaries are offered a well-balanced pelleted diet formulated for canaries, along with a minimal seed and a small portion of fresh greens.

Seeds are highly palatable and preferentially sought after but nutritionally incomplete. Seeds should only be a small part of a canary’s diet and never be the only component of the diet.

"Seeds should only be a small part of a canary’s diet and never be the only component of the diet."

As a guideline, most canaries can be maintained on 1-2 teaspoons per bird per day of a combination of a pelleted diet with a small amount of various seeds offered in a shallow dish or food bowl. If there is more than one canary in the cage, separate dishes or food bowls should be used to ensure that all birds have equal access to food. In a flock situation, the feeding dish should be large enough to allow several birds to eat at the same time.

Several types of commercially formulated pelleted diets in various colors, shapes, and sizes have been developed to meet all birds’ nutritional needs. Pellets are the ideal diet that provides the minimum daily requirements for most birds. Birds on an all-seed diet should be slowly weaned off seeds and onto a pelleted diet. Ideally, pellets will represent approximately 75-80% of your bird's diet. Mature canaries raised on seed diets may be difficult to convert to pellets. Different pelleted formulations are available for different life stages and for managing certain diseases. Hand-raised babies are generally the easiest to start on a pelleted diet.

"Ideally, pellets will represent approximately 75-80% of your bird's diet."

Converting seed-eating birds onto a formulated diet is not always easy. Initially, birds may not recognize pellets as food. Birds may be offered pellets in a bowl separate from other food, ideally first thing in the morning when they are hungriest. If they do not eat them right away, birds may be slowly weaned off seeds over a few weeks while pellets are constantly available in a separate dish or mixed in one. When converting a seed-eating bird to a pelleted diet, it is critically important to weigh your bird daily to ensure that it is not losing weight. Converting a canary to a predominantly pelleted diet can be stressful for you and your canary. Consult your veterinarian if you encounter any problems with this transition or with the health of your bird.

Fruits and Vegetables
Fruits, vegetables, and leafy greens should account for approximately 20-25% of the daily diet. Iceberg or head lettuce and celery offer very little nutritional value and should not be offered. Avocado is reported to be potentially toxic to some birds and should never be fed to your bird.

Before feeding, fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly to remove chemicals and bacteria. They should be cut into tiny pieces appropriate to the size of the bird. It is not necessary to take the skin off. Offer fruits and vegetables in a separate dish. Remove uneaten vegetables or fruits after 24 hours to prevent spoilage. If your bird appears to develop a particular fancy for one food item, reduce the volume of this food, or stop feeding it temporarily to encourage the bird to eat other foods.

Fresh, clean water must always be available. Depending on the quality of your tap water, consider the use of bottled water. Dishes must be cleaned thoroughly every day with soap and water.

What about 'people food'?

As a rule, your canary can eat any wholesome, nutritious food that you and your family eat in very small quantities. Follow the general guidelines discussed above. Cooked vegetables are an excellent treat, but NO BUTTER, NO SALT, NO COOKING OIL. Processed foods such as cheeses, cookies, crackers, and candy should never be offered to your bird. Products containing caffeine and alcoholic beverages may be toxic to birds and should not be offered.

Will my bird have any different nutritional needs throughout its life?

Birds that are extremely young, stressed, injured, laying eggs, or raising young may have certain special requirements. There are specially formulated pelleted foods available for birds with specific nutritional requirements. Consult your veterinarian regarding these situations.

Does my bird need extra vitamins, minerals, or amino acids?

Your veterinarian can help you assess your bird's diet and particular needs. Birds eating 75-80% of their diet from pelleted food generally do not require supplements. Specific vitamins or minerals may be more important at various times in a bird's life (e.g., egg laying may necessitate calcium supplementation). Speak to your veterinarian regarding your bird’s specific needs. Various vitamin and mineral supplements, as well as omega fatty acid supplements, are available for birds and should only be given under the guidance of a veterinarian knowledgeable about birds.

"Birds eating 75-80% of their diet from pelleted food generally do not require supplements."

Birds on all-seed diets may be given powdered supplements until they are transitioned to a pelleted diet. Placing these powders on the outside of seeds is of little value since canaries remove the outer hulls from seeds before ingesting them. Small amounts of powdered vitamin supplements may be administered on moist food but are generally not necessary once the bird has been converted to pellets.

Does my bird need gravel or grit?

Canaries do not need gravel or grit because they remove the seed’s outer hull before ingesting the kernel. Previously, it was believed that grit was necessary for the mechanical breakdown of food in the gizzard to aid digestion. However, we now know that only birds like pigeons and doves that consume whole seeds without removing the outer hull need gravel to help digestion. Some birds will overconsume grit when offered and develop gastrointestinal tract obstructions that are potentially life-threatening. Because of this, grit and gravel SHOULD NOT be offered to canaries.

Fruits, vegetables, and legumes suitable for canaries include:

apple cherries (not the pit) pear apricots Bok choy peas asparagus coconut peppers (red/green & hot) banana corn pineapple cooked beans: cucumber plum         chickpeas dandelion leaves pomegranate         kidney dates potato         lentils endive pumpkin         lima fig rapini         mung grapes raspberry         navy grapefruit rice (brown)         soy kale romaine lettuce beet kiwi spinach blueberry melons sprouted seeds broccoli mango squash Brussel's sprouts nectarines strawberry cabbage orange sweet potato cantaloupe papaya tomato carrot parsnip zucchini carrot tops peaches  

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