Canaries are popular pet birds known for their beautiful plumage and melodious songs. But where do these colorful creatures originally come from? Tracing the origin and history of canaries provides insight into how they became one of the most beloved avian pets today.
The domestic canary finds its ancestry in the Canary Islands, an archipelago located off the northwestern coast of Africa. Wild canaries still inhabit these islands today, living much as they have for thousands of years. Over time, humans captured, bred, and spread canaries far beyond their native range. Through selective breeding, a wide variety of domesticated canary breeds emerged, bearing little resemblance to their wild progenitors. Yet the captivating songs and vibrant colors of pet canaries maintain an enduring link to their island ancestors.
The Wild Canary
The Atlantic canary (Serinus canaria), commonly called the wild canary, naturally occurs on the Canary Islands, Azores, and Madeira. This small finch reaches 4 to 5 inches in length and bears yellow-green plumage with brown streaking on its back. The wild canary inhabits a range of habitats, including forests, woodlands, coastlines, and human settlements. It feeds on seeds, fruits, and insects.
The Canary Islands themselves draw their name from the Latin “Insula Canaria,” meaning “Island of the Dogs”. 1 Ancient Romans likely derived this name from a native tribe called the “Canarii,” or “dog people,” rather than the canary birds. Wild canaries populated the Canaries long before humans, as evidenced by fossils dating back to the Miocene epoch over 5 million years ago.
The indigenous people of the Canary Islands, known as Guanches, kept the wild canaries as pets due to their melodious songs. Spanish sailors first brought domesticated canaries to Europe in the 1400s after conquering the Canary Islands 2. The birds quickly gained popularity across European courts. Monks also began breeding canaries, selling only the males since they were better singers.
Restricting sales to male canaries kept supplies low, increasing the birds’ value. By the 1500s, canaries became firmly established as sought-after cage birds. Their popularity spread as Spanish sailors brought them to new lands. Today’s domestic canaries descend from wild birds native to the Canary Islands rather than mainland Europe.
Selective breeding of canaries began in earnest in the 17th century 3. Monks in European monasteries performed the earliest controlled breeding. Italian breeders later acquired female canaries and pioneered new color varieties. From Italy, domestic canaries spread through trade across Europe.
Selective breeding programs have created several distinct domestic canary types:
- Color-bred canaries, prized for color mutations like red, orange, yellow, white, brown, and black
- Type canaries, bred for unique body shapes and feathering
- Song canaries, selectively bred for their singing ability
Wild canaries are never naturally found in the bright, solid colors exhibited by color-bred varieties. Nor do wild canaries display the crests, frills, and altered proportions seen in type canaries. Song canaries retain the most resemblance to their wild ancestors in physical appearance but excel in vocal talents.
Canaries first became fashionable as pets among royal courts in the 1500s. Lower classes later acquired canaries as their popularity grew. Keeping canaries as pets peaked in the 1800s. Certain breeds, like the Harz Roller canary, remain popular today.
Canaries once served a practical purpose as “sentinel species” in coal mines. Miners brought caged canaries into mines to detect carbon monoxide. The canaries would become sick from the odorless gas before humans, alerting the miners to exit the tunnels. This practice continued into the 1980s until replaced by electronic detectors.
Today, canaries remain common household pets and show birds. Selective breeding continues to produce new color patterns, body types, and song characteristics. The variety of domestic canaries bears little resemblance to the wild ancestor except in song, a legacy that continues to delight canary enthusiasts.
Canary Habitats and Geography
Understanding the types of environments where wild canaries live provides insight into properly caring for pet canaries.
As described earlier, wild Atlantic canaries inhabit the Canary Islands, Azores, and Madeira Islands. These archipelagos sit off the coast of Portugal and Morocco. The Canaries lie just 60 miles west of Morocco at their closest point.
Wild canaries occupy a wide range of habitats across their native islands, including:
- Pine and oak forests
- Open woodlands
- Human settlements like parks and gardens
They most commonly occur in semi-open areas with small trees. Canaries frequently live alongside humans and will visit bird feeders.
On the Canary Islands, wild canaries inhabit elevations ranging from sea level up to 1,500 meters. In Madeira, they are found from sea level to 1,100 meters high. Canaries can thrive across a broad range of elevations.
Food and Feeding
The diet of wild canaries consists primarily of seeds from grasses, weeds, and shrubs. They also feed on figs and other fruits. While mostly vegetarian, canaries occasionally eat insects like beetles, spiders, and aphids. Providing pet canaries a varied diet with seeds, fruits, veggies, and proteins will meet their nutritional needs.
The Atlantic canary evolved on several remote island chains off the coast of Africa over millions of years. Indigenous islanders first kept these songbirds as pets. Through selective breeding driven by the canary’s melodious song and bright plumage, humans created a domesticated bird that spread across the world. While extensive variability exists among the breeds, all canaries trace their ancestry to the wild birds of the Canary Islands. Providing ample space for flight, a varied diet, and proper socialization allows pet canaries to thrive, expressing the captivating traits passed down from their wild progenitors. The canary’s island origins remain evident in their grace, colors, and song.