Dove, Pigeon, Canary & Finch 101

Find out everything you need to know about canaries, finches, doves and pigeons, and how they live and eat.

Canaries and finches (and doves, too) can make great pets. Via Zeet Jones/Flickr

Are you interested in pet birds, but not too keen on owning a parrot? Why not give doves, pigeons, canaries or finches a try? Learn all you need to know about these delightful little pet birds.

Canaries & Finches

1. What’s the difference between a finch and a canary?

There are virtually no differences between the two, as the canary (Serinus canaria) is a member of the family Fringillidae (or true finches), which are also commonly known in avicultural circles as the “cup-nesters.” The Serinus genus also contains the green- and gray-singing finches. Other notable canary-like species are the siskins, gold finches and green finches.

The other main group of finches is the Estrildidae family or the weaver finches. These finches construct a dome-shaped, closed nest and include such perennial favorites as the Gouldian finch and zebra finch.

2. Where is the best place to house finches/canaries? Can you keep them indoors?

Finches and canaries are very adaptable and can be housed both indoors and out. However, many are very delicate and do not do well in small cages. They thrive in larger free-flight cages and aviaries, whether indoors or doors — especially if breeding them is your goal. If you have the room, most finches can be kept indoors.

Another key consideration if finches are housed indoors is exposure to sunlight, which can be addressed by the use of full-spectrum lights designed for animal and bird use. Too much artificial lighting, however, might over-stimulate them to breed; lengthening daylight hours is a major stimulus to many birds to begin breeding, which might lead to exhaustion of the hen from egg-laying or over-amorous attention from the male.

A good powder source of vitamin D3 is also recommended for all birds housed inside for lengthy periods.

For canaries, a double-breeding cage (a wide cage with a divider that can be removed to allow two birds to share the same space) is recommended for inside breeding, as this allows you to separate the male should he prove to be disruptive or demanding of the female when she is sitting on eggs.

If you intend to keep finches inside in a smaller cage (rather than a flight cage) then zebra finches, Gouldians or Bengalese mannikins are better choices [bar spacing must be 1/4 inch].

If you house your finches or canaries outdoors, ensure that the birds have enough shelter if the weather suddenly becomes extreme.

If you plan on moving the birds from inside to outside on good-weather days, avoid drafts, keep them away from the eyes of ever-present predators — cats and birds of prey mainly — and don’t forget to bring them back inside at dusk, as they won’t be acclimated to the outdoor conditions like birds are that reside outdoors full-time.

3. Can you keep a male/female pair without worrying about them breeding and having offspring, or is it better to go with same-sex pairs?

Many people prefer to keep canaries in particular as single birds in small cages, and it is the male that is usually selected for his excellent singing voice.

Keeping a male and a female canary or finch pair in a small cage will inevitably result in breeding behavior, which might prove frustrating if you keep removing nesting material (whether provided or improvised by the birds) or eggs from the pair, so it is far better to simply keep a male by itself if intended as a pet.

Keeping two male together often leads to fighting once they begin to sing, which can turn deadly. In contrast, a single male in a cage will live for years given the best of food and supplements. Also, if a pair is kept together, the male is less inclined to sing until the breeding season commences, whereas a single male will often sing for most of the year if housed indoors.

4. What do you feed finches and canaries?

Canaries do well on a regular canary food seed mix, which includes red and/or yellow panicum, Siberian or Japanese millet, French white millet, panorama millet and plain canary seed. Most cup-nesting birds prefer a little more plain canary seed in their mix than the majority of finches. This mix can be supplemented in the winter with hulled oats (groats), but I do not advise feeding them into summer.

For a tonic, or breeding mix, a little niger, rape and maw (Poppy) seed mix can be fed separately, as all cup-nesters love this “oily” seed. Hulled oats or groats can be fed during the winter months, but I suggest discontinuing these over summer.
Freshly sprouted/soaked seed should also be fed and can be prepared mixed with a blended vegetable mix. Fresh greens like endive, romaine lettuce and a small amount of chard is advantageous, especially when mixed with many of the freshly picked seeding grasses from your locale. Add a good quality shell-grit mix supplemented with vitamin D3 plus access to fresh water daily, and all should go well.

5. Can you keep finches with canaries in a flight cage?

In the average smaller flight cages, I would not recommend keeping the two types together. All cup-nesters have a tendency toward being aggressive around the breeding season, and the common canary is no exception; it might dominate and even harm its smaller finch cousin when kept together in close confinement. Also, competition for nesting material can be fierce, and both species will destroy each other’s nest in a relentless quest for the perfect nest.

Finches and canaries are best kept together in the average-sized flight, a 10-foot flight that is around 3 feet wide, which gives both parties plenty of space to co-exist and breed.

6. Can I house a finch or canary with a budgie/parakeet or cockatiel?

The answer depends largely on the situation and type of housing. If the housing is a small flight (as outlined above) then finches and canaries would be fine housed with cockatiels. Do not house finches and canaries with budgies, regardless of the size of the enclosure or cage.

Cockatiels are one of the most placid of parrots, and I kept them with finches and canaries when I first started with birds. The only problems I had were when the zebra finches built nests in the cockatiel logs — with the cockatiel hen and her eggs on the inside.

Budgies, on the other hand, tend to be very aggressive, and I’ve been told that they will often nip the legs off both finches and canaries at times. They can be fine for long periods, then one day you find a maimed finch/canary, so it’s best to leave the budgies out of the finch/canary cage or aviary.

7. Can you train a finch or canary to sit on your finger?

Hand-reared finches (ones that were fed by hand as opposed to those reared by parents) tend to be tame for a short period but usually revert back to being wild, so they are usually unsuited as a true companion bird. Many people train canaries to sit correctly for the show table, so I imagine it is possible to train a canary to be hand-tamed. A hand-reared canary probably gives you the best opportunity for truly taming the bird.

I once hand-reared some English Chaffinches, and only one of these remained people friendly despite all being hand-raised from the same age. The one remained tame and would hop from his cage onto my hand and then around the room before returning to me to “roost.”

8. Do finches chatter all day or are they quiet at certain times of the day?

Depending upon the species, finches can be rather noisy or dead quiet. Many in the Mannikin family have a much muted call, and most of it is inaudible to our ears. However, at the other end of the scale is the ubiquitous zebra finch, which is renowned for its constant chatter — and I do stress the constant part. A pair will call, chatter and sing to each other most of the day, which might be a problem if they are indoors and have access to extended artificial lighting.

All pet birds have a down time, hence they very rarely chatter constantly. The loss of a mate, however, might cause a male to call more vigorously.

9) Do all canaries sing or do you need a song canary specifically?
Most male canaries will sing, and it is indeed rare to find one that does not. There are certainly specific types renowned for their song and the roller variety are particularly adept. The American singer is another well-known melodious variety.

A common practice in aviculture is to produce “mules,” or hybrids, between canaries and the European goldfinch, where the males are also virtuoso singers. Again, remember that only the males sing.

10. Can you house finches of different species together or should you stick with the same one?

The great thing with many members of the finch family is that several docile species can be kept together in a free-flight aviary. However, in a small cage, I recommend only keeping a pair (true pair or same-sex pairing) of the same species.

The list of finch species that mix together is large and would be the topic for an entire article in itself. Research books and websites to help you decide on a suitable mixed finch collection, depending upon which species are available in your area.

11. How do I clean my finch/canary cage without them escaping from it?

When selecting or constructing a cage, opt for one that has a removable tray at floor level, which can be easily removed for cleaning so you can keep the cage clean and free from contaminated seed husks and droppings.

If your cage is not constructed this way, obtain one that does have such an arrangement. If you need to catch your birds every time you clean the cage, then this is far too much stress for both you and your birds.

These days, it is also possible to obtain any number of clever designs of food and water containers that can be easily attached to the sides of your cage, which make changing food and water a stress-free task. Do not simply throw greens on the floor — attach them with a clothes peg to the side of the cage near the door to further reduce the need for you to physically encroach upon the birds in their territory.

12. How do I get my finch/canary back in the cage or aviary if it gets out?

Before even selecting a finch or canary for a cage, invest in a good-quality net, which can be obtained from most pet stores or online. Ideally, the net should be the open-weave type of fabric (denser material can be too easily seen by the bird and they know to avoid it) with plenty of padding around the rim of the net.

If your bird escapes, quickly close all doors and windows and, if possible, close the blinds and curtains so that the escapee does not fly into the window with disastrous results.

In an outdoor situation, catching a finch or canary proves to be much more difficult. In your favor is the fact that canaries and finches tend not to travel far from the aviary or house and will often hang around until recaptured. Many retailers sell simple automatic “flip-traps,” which are comprised of a counter-balanced tray that tips any bird that lands on it into a secure chamber below. Some also have a double chamber below the tray into which you can place the bird’s mate (or one of the same species) you wish to recapture.

Time is critical. The life of the escapee finch or canary is usually a very short one, as they can easily fall prey to a predatory bird or animal. To prevent your birds from escaping, your cage/aviary should have safety doors and secure door locks.

13. Do finches need a certain amount of sleep hours?

The exact function of sleep is still not completely understood, but finches and people both need their sleep.

The classic example was with a large number of finches I acquired where the gentlemen recommended keeping them on 24-hour daylight to allow them to feed and drink. By the second day, the birds were exhibiting all the classic signs of sleep-deprived people: nodding, drowsy with eyes closed and many were actually falling off the perch. Upon seeing this behavior, I switched them back to normal daylight/night cycles, and they were fine the next morning. As you can see, sleep is very important to finches.

Some people I know with hand-reared parrots often purchase or make a heavy duty “blackout cloth,” which is draped over the cage to prevent light from entering the cage/enclosure, while others simply move the birds into another quieter, darker room. You can do something similar, which will allow your birds to sleep while allowing you your late-night movies!

14. Can I take my canary with me when I go out of town, or do they not travel well?

In my opinion, canaries are not the toughest of species out of their comfort zone. The typical cage used for traveling exposes a canary to drafts. Place your bird in a safer, more secure draft-free carry cage for the travel, and then place it in its cage upon arrival.

Bring along a bottle of water from your primary water source (tap or bottle) for your canary — water quality can vary from place to place. I’ve never noticed canaries suffering from travel sickness, but you might also consider the age of your bird before deciding to take it along. Older birds might not travel as well as younger ones.

Doves & Pigeons

1. Should I keep a pair of doves or pigeons, or is it better to have only one?

The answer to this depends upon what you want the doves for. Doves, in general, do not make the best pets, so they are probably best kept as breeding pairs in an aviary or enclosure rather than in a cage.

In my opinion, a single dove makes a forlorn sight in a small cage given that the pairs always seem to be together in the aviary.

2. Can a dove or pigeon be housed indoors? If so, can I keep it in a parrot cage?

I believe doves are not suited to life in a small cage and are far better off in an aviary-type enclosure. Some people do keep the smaller lace-neck and turtle doves in parrot-sized cages but, for the more striking species like the Luzon bleeding-heart and members of the bronzewing family, I strongly urge an aviary.

3. Do doves and pigeons perch, or do they prefer to run around on the ground?

Pigeons are members of the Passerines or perching birds, so they do perch on branches. However, they spend most of their day on the ground pecking or dust bathing. With cape doves, which I currently keep, it is not uncommon to see them on the floor or on any of the ledges in the aviary, and we rarely see them simply perched.

4. Can you feed a pet dove or pet pigeon table foods?

Pigeons are not known for being overly fond of table foods, but if you have a species of fruit pigeons, I imagine they would relish food of a fruity nature, such as diced apple, diced pear, diced grapes (remove the seeds). Do not ever give them avocado.

5. Will a pet dove or pigeon coo all day?

During the breeding season, it is common for males to exhibit this form of behavior for extended periods. The Australian wonga pigeon takes this to extremes and sounds like a cooing generator emitting this noise day and night in its quest for a mate.

So, at certain times of the year, it is quite common for them to coo.

6. Can I house a dove or pigeon with other birds? If so, what types?

The answer to this question depends upon a number of factors, including the size of the pigeons you wish to keep, their nature (are they quiet or skittish?), the species of bird you wish to keep them with and, most importantly, the size of your aviary/enclosure.

The majority of parrots are too aggressive for most pigeons. Cockatiels and members of the Neophema family (scarlet-chested parakeet, elegant parrot, turquoise parrot, to name a few) are exceptions.

As for finches and canaries, they can be kept with the small doves like cape (masked) and diamond doves in smaller enclosures, but the size of the larger pigeons means that they would be unsuitable for most finch species. Collisions between finches and pigeons are invariably deadly for the finch. Pigeons hurtling from cover through the aviary would prove fatal to any finch in their path!

If your cage is heavily planted, then many pigeon species will hide in there, away from other inhabitants. However, their large size and behavior can prevent breeding success with finches and canaries (if that is your goal). If you want to mix doves with other species, you cannot go wrong with the beautiful nature of the cape or masked dove.

Article Categories:
Birds · Lifestyle