Breeding canaries can be a lot of fun. All it takes is the right sexes, equipment, food and a little luck.
Canaries can be difficult to sex. That is why I liked breeding mosaics, which are the only sexually dimorphic canaries. Males have full face masks and females generally don't. Even as youngsters, I could differentiate between mosaic cocks and hens because the cocks have an orangey hue around their faces.
If you are breeding non-mosaic canaries, you will have to watch your birds carefully to get an idea of whether they are cocks or hens. Males will start trying to sing at varying ages. My males usually start trying to sing by six weeks of age. Some hens sing too (though they usually start later in life), so this is not an entirely fool-proof method for determining the sex of a canary.
There are some general rules to follow when pairing certain types of canaries. For example, a crested bird (corona) should always be bred to a non-crested bird that is carrying the crest gene (consort). Red factor canaries should be bred intensive (non-frosted) x non-intensive (frosted). A bird that is frosted will have white tipping on its feathers and will usually appear lighter in color than an intensive. Canaries on the red line should be bred to other birds carrying the red gene and yellow birds are best bred to yellow or white ground birds. For the best colored young, red and yellow birds should not be bred together. White canaries which show a tinge of yellow on their wings (referred to as dominant white) should not be bred together or some of the babies may die. Mosaics should be bred to other mosaics, and excessively long feathered mosaics should be avoided. Melanin birds are those with a striped pattern to their feathers (example shown in the bird on the yellow seed cup pictured on this page). A clear bird (no stripes) paired to a melanin bird will produce variegated young. The hen pictured carrying nesting material on this page is a variegated canary.
Many canary breeders like to use divided cages to introduce a male and female. The hen is placed on one side with a little nesting material while the cock is placed on the opposite side with a plate full of greens and goodies. The nesting material encourages the hen to think of nesting, while the greens in the male's cage encourage the hen to beg the male for food. Once the male begins to feed the hen or "kiss" her through the bars, you can remove the wire divider and introduce the nest with more nesting material. When the hen is ready, she will invite the male to breed by peeping like a chick and simultaneously raising her back end. Some canaries will breed right away, while others may only breed in privacy or not at all. Some pairs will constantly fight and prove to be incompatible. If the hen fails to begin building a nest within a week or two, she may not like the male you have paired her with or she may not be ready to breed. In this case, separate the pair and try again in a couple weeks.
Some breeders remove the male after breeding and let the hen raise the chicks on her own. This is often done to maximize profit or genetics by breeding a single male to as many hens as possible. A hen can raise chicks on her own, but the chicks have a greater chance of surviving if their father helps to care for them. The father will feed the mother in the nest when the chicks are young, and the mother will then feed the chicks. Later, the father will take over parenting duties as the mother prepares a second nest. Occasionally I come across what I refer to as a "bum dad," essentially a canary father who will breed the hen but not feed his chicks. I usually part with these males quickly, as I do not want to genetically perpetuate this characteristic.
Canaries use open nests. I buy the oversized plastic nests from www.abbaseed.com. These can be washed and used year after year. I always sew a felt nest pad into the plastic nest before hanging it. I use small nylon cable ties to attach the nest securely. I hang the nest after introducing the male and female. Some breeders hang the nest in with the hen before introducing the male, but sometimes this encourages a hen to start laying before her eggs have been fertilized.
After hanging the nest, I supply the birds with 2 inch pieces of burlap and also the Sisal/coco/jute/cotton Quiko Nesting Material. I put some of this material in the nest and some on the bottom of the cage.
The hen usually lays from three to five eggs. First time and old hens might lay less eggs. The hen lays an egg each day until the clutch is complete. A hen may occasionally skip a day when laying. My hens regularly lay their eggs around 8:00 a.m. You can tell a hen is getting ready to lay by the swollen appearance of her abdomen. She may look as if she doesn't feel well. If this is the case, make sure the hen receives extra calcium by mixing it with her soft food. I always leave some form of calcium supplement in each of my bird's cages, but I add more calcium supplementation when the birds start breeding. I offer Petamine Breeding Formula, Miner-a-grit and cuttlebone. I sometimes shave cuttlebone with a cheese grater and mix these shavings with the laying hen's soft food. I also provide vitamins in the water during laying.
Setting refers to the time the hen gets serious about incubating her eggs. Hens do not usually sit on their eggs for any length of time on day one or two of laying. They usually set the nest on the third day of laying, although it can happen before or after the third egg is laid. Once a hen begins to sit tight, she will generally remain that way until her eggs hatch. She will only get up for bathroom and meal breaks. If she is with a male, he will often feed her in the nest. Most hens will remain sitting tight well past thirteen days after setting, which is when the eggs should begin to hatch.
Don't fret if your eggs do not hatch in thirteen days. Sometimes it takes a few more days for eggs to hatch. However, you can get an idea of whether your eggs are fertile or not a week or so before they are due to hatch. Seven days after setting, I shine a small, strong flashlight on the eggs while they are in the nest. Eggs that look dark and solid are fertile, while those that look see-through are not.
Only shine the flashlight on the eggs for a few seconds at a time. Some eggs that appeared infertile to me upon first candling have hatched, so do not be dismayed if your eggs appear infertile. In this case, try candling the eggs around ten days after the hen has set them. If the eggs still appear see-through at ten days after setting, they are infertile and should be discarded.
Sometimes there will be an infertile egg among fertile ones. Many breeders leave the infertile egg in the nest or replace it with a fake egg. The egg will be used by the hatchlings to hold themselves up.