Our knowledge of bird nutrition is constantly evolving due to both heightened awareness of the importance of nutrition and to increased research into birds’ different needs. As with 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?
Nutrition is commonly neglected with pet birds. You should discuss your bird's nutrition with your veterinarian. Too often, owners assume they are feeding a proper diet to their canary when in fact they are not. Poor nutrition is a common reason for many health problems in birds. Bird owners should continually strive to improve their bird’s diets. This means educating themselves about the latest recommendations in proper nutrition – something a veterinarian well-versed in bird care can help with. Just like us, birds can survive on poor quality food; the goal, however, should be to help our birds thrive and flourish, not just survive. Like us, a bird's health depends a great deal on how well it is fed.
What does my canary naturally eat?
Wild canaries are generally seed eaters and consume a variety of 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 canaries’ diets.
What should I feed my canary?
Pet canaries should be fed a well-balanced and varied diet at all times. Canaries eating large amounts seed are vulnerable to obesity and other nutritional problems.
"Canaries eating large amounts of seed are vulnerable to obesity and other nutritional problems."
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 types of seed tend to be high in fat and carbohydrates and are 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 1 or 2 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 too, are also often offered; but once again, these are just seeds that are stuck together with sugar and honey and are nutritionally imbalanced. Molting foods, song foods, 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 achieved when canaries are offered well-balanced pelleted diets formulated for canaries, along with a very limited amount of seeds, and a small amount of fresh greens.
"Healthy molts, vibrant song, and strong condition are achieved when birds are offered well balanced pelleted diets formulated for canaries."
Seeds are highly palatable, preferentially sought after, but nutritionally incomplete. Seeds should only be a small part of a canary’s diet but should never be the entire diet.
How much seed do I offer?
As a guideline, most canaries can be maintained on 1-2 level measure teaspoons per bird per day of various types of seeds, offered in a shallow dish. If there is more than one canary in the cage, separate dishes should be used for each bird 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 one time.
Should I feed my canary a pelleted diet?
"Pellets are the ideal diet."
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 for most birds, so seed-eating birds should be slowly weaned off seeds and on to pelleted diets. Pellets should ideally represent approximately 75-80% of the bird's diet. Mature canaries raised on seed diets may be particularly difficult to convert to a pelleted diet. Different pelleted formulations are available for different life stages and for the management of certain diseases. Hand-raised babies are generally the easiest to start on a pelleted diet.
How do I convert my bird to a pelleted 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 any other food and ideally first thing in the morning, when they are hungriest. If they do not eat them right way, birds may be slowly weaned off seeds over a period of a few weeks while pellets are constantly available in a separate dish.
- Pellets and seed should not be mixed together, as birds will simply pick out the seeds that they like best. It may take days, weeks, or months to modify a bird's diet. Pelleted food may be crushed up into a powder and sprinkled over moist food to get a bird to taste the pellets. Gradually, pellets may be crushed less fine and mixed with smaller amounts of table food until table food is no longer needed to get the bird to eat pellets.
- Small birds, such as canaries, should be weighed daily as they are converted over to pelleted diets to ensure that they are not losing large amounts of weight. Converting a canary to a predominantly pelleted diet can be a stressful time for both you and your canary.
- Consult your veterinarian if you encounter any problems with this transition or with the health of your bird.
Should my canary eat fruits and vegetables?
Fruits, vegetables, and greens should account for approximately 20-25% of the daily diet. Pale vegetables, with a high water composition (e.g., iceberg or head lettuce and celery) offer very little nutritional value and should not be offered. Avocado is reported to be potentially toxic and should never be fed to a bird.
Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly to remove chemicals before feeding. They should be cut into very small 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. 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 be available at all times. Depending on the quality of your tap water, you might consider the use of bottled water. Dishes must be cleaned thoroughly every day with soap and water.
What about people food?
As a rule, any wholesome, nutritious food that you and your family eat your bird can eat in very small quantities. Follow the general guidelines discussed above. Some birds enjoy a small amount of lean cooked meat, fish, egg, or cheese occasionally. Dairy products should be consumed in moderation, as birds are lactose-intolerant. Junk food, chocolate, very salty foods (chips, pretzels, popcorn), and 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 its particular needs. Birds eating 75-80% of the diet in the form of pelleted food generally do not require supplements. Specific vitamins or minerals may be more important at various times during 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 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 outer hull of the seed before ingesting the kernel. Previously, it was believed that grit was necessary for the mechanical breakdown of food in the gizzard, as an aid to digestion. However, we now know that only birds like pigeons and doves that consume seeds whole, without removing the outer hull, need gravel to help with digestion. Some birds in fact, will overconsume grit when it is offered and develop gastrointestinal tract obstructions that are potentially life threatening. Because of this, grit and gravel should not be offered to canaries.
What pointers should I remember about feeding my canary?
Always monitor the amount of food each bird eats every day.
Offer fresh water every day.
Offer a variety of fresh foods, such as small amounts of fruits and vegetables, every day.
Clean all food and water dishes daily.
No to a food item one day does not mean no forever – keep trying as one day your bird may surprise you and eat the item.
Some suggested food items include: