I have an antique cookbook that described to Victorian ladies how to care for their canaries (no, not how to serve them). There's a whole chapter on the subject, right along with Caring for the Invalid, Camping Out, Daughters, and House Painting. The front pages of my book are all gone, so there are no indications of the name or of the author, but I am hopeful that it is now in the public domain. As my copy is gradually disintegrating, I am happy to copy the text out while the book can still be carefully handled. The information in this article should be taken in its proper historical perspective, but it doesn't seem too far wrong to me. -LS
Care of Canaries
A tuneful, sweet-voiced canary bird is one of the choicest and most delightful pets that a cultured lady can possess. It is a source of much refined pleasure and amusement, and well repays the care necessary to make it a hardy, happy and melodious member of the household.
The following simple instructions in the care of canaries will be found useful to all lovers of the feathered songsters.
Choosing the Birds
Don't be particular as to color; brown or mottled birds often prove the best singers. Avoid birds with red eyes; they are delicate and not easily kept in song. Tameness is not a sign of excellence; a bird that is moderately shy and spry will be likely to turn out best. Look for melody and sweetness rather than shrill, loud tones, if the canary is intended for a private house. Be sure the little fellow's legs and feet are clean and perfect -- and when you buy a bird, take it home yourself, and not leave it for the dealers to send. Thus you will be sure to get the one you select. For singing, get a male bird. The sex may be determined in a brood containing both male and female, by comparing the birds. The male's plumage is brightest in color; his head is larger and longer; his body more slender; his neck longer; his legs longer and straighter than those of the female, and the feathers about his temples and eyes are brighter than elsewhere upon his body.
Carry your bird home carefully and gently. Have its cage ready and furnished with seed and water. Let it step of its own accord out of the temporary cage into its new home. Place a light in front of the cage, and without going too near or seeming to watch the bird, chirp or whistle to encourage it. The chances are that it will begin to sing at once. If it sulks a little at the start, so much the better; but if the shyness continues after the first day, catch the bird and immerse it in the water of its bath-tub' then leave it to itself. In drying and smoothing its feathers it will forget its homesickness and make itself comfortable.
The wire bell-shaped cage is best for song birds. Brass is better than painted wire. In addition to the bath-tub and seed-cup, the cage should have two or three perches, of cane or hard wood, made round and smooth. these should be placed across the cage in such positions that one will never be exactly over another to catch the litter. Keep the perches clean by frequent washings with yellow soap and water, and never return to the cage until thoroughly dry. At least twice a week, the bottom of the cage must be taken off and washed, and the bottom covered with fine sand or gravel. Be careful never to use salt water sand. Never hang the cage in a draft of air (as in an open window), or in the hot sun, without protecting the bird by some sort of shelter on the windy side and at the top. Never hang the cage out of doors in wet weather. In the winter, never leave the cage in a room without a fire. Don't leave the care of your bird and cage to servants.
Let the water be fresh daily. Canaries will not bathe in stale or dirty water. The bath-tub should be of such size that it will pass easily throught the cage door -- and it should be removed as soon as the bird has bathed. If you have a wire cage with a bottom that hooks on, a good plan is to fill the bath-tub and set it on the floor, or on an old table. Then unhook the bottom of the cage, and place the cage with the bird in it over the bath-tub. The bird will soon come down from its perch and use the bath -- and when the bottom is replaced the cage will be perfectly clean and dry. If you put the bath-tub inthe cage, dry up all splashes of water after the bird has finished bathing.
Food and Water
Simple diet is better for songbirds than dainties, like cake, sugar, and other "goodies." A mixture of rape and canary, with a little hemp seed (less of the latter in summer than in winter). If the bird is young the hemp seend should be cracked before using. In summer the cage should be supplied with green food, such as cabbage, turnip tops, chick-weed, plantain stems, celery, watercress, etc. In winter use a little sweet apple, and occasionally a trifle of boiled carrot or cauliflower, without salt. Birds also enjoy piecesof water cracker or pilot bread suspended in the cage, and particularly a cuttle-fish bone, which is useful to them for the lime it contains. The seed box of the cage should be filled at night, for the bird's day is from sunrise to sunset and he wants breakfast early, before you are up in the morning. Always see that the cup is well filled. Birds frequently suffer intolerably from thirst after having scattered and wasted the water.
Breeding cages should be of polished wood with one end and one side of wire. The floor should be covered with oilcloth or stiff paper which can be removed, cleansed and re-sanded as required. A small box for nests so fastened that you can take it out at will should be placed near the wooden corner of the cage about half way up; and material for nest, such as soft moss, wool, feathers, new cotton or hair, should be attached loosely to the wires where the bird can get them.
Canaries pair about the middle of March or April. Select a vigorous, handsome pair, and having first kept them in separate cages within sight of each other for a few days, put them in the cage. Place the cage in a light, airy room with even temperature, and out of draughts of cold air. In case the hen forsakes her nest after having laid her full number of eggs and begun to sit on them, remove the nest and put in a fresh one and let her take a new start. Canaries usually lay from four to six eggs, and they sit for thirteen days.
While the bird is sitting she should have plenty of food; and on the day the hatching is expected, put into the cage a little grated bread soaked in water and pressed dry, and part of a finely-chopped hard-boiled egg should also be put in the cage. These viands are for the young birds. They should be placed in the cage at night or early in the morning, and great care should be taken to change them often enough so that they will not get sour.
Healthy young birds will look red, and their crops will be full. If they seem pale and emaciated, it is time to suspect vermin, and you should change the nest at once, smoothing out the new one before putting the infants into it by rolling a hot hen's egg about in it. When twelve days old the young canaries begin to get feathers of their own and help themselves; and when they are a month old they may be taken from the parent cage to another near at hand and within sight.
Their cage should never be without green food. Fresh hard-boiled eggs and grated bread, dipped in water and pressed, is the best food for them. Give them a chance to bathe daily; sprinkle them gently with water from a brush if they refuse to get into the tub; and let them have as much soft (not too hot) sunshine as possible. While in the sun there should always be a shady nook in the cage -- a leafy branch or two, making a trembling shadow, is the best. If possible, let them have plenty of green food, and some insects, ant's eggs, etc.
When the young birds are two weeks old, their parents often begin to get ready to prepare for the next brood; and if indications of such a state of things are seen, a new nest box and materials should be put in the breeding cage. The male will take care of the young birds while the mother busies herself with preparations for an increase of the family.