The Tortoise and the Hare
Some Thoughts on Why Being the First Out of the Gate Isn’t Necessary to Win the Race
By Marie Miley-Russell ©2008
Published in the ASC Chapter 22, DRAGON Newsletter, January 2008
You know that canary breeding foolishness has overtaken a breeder when he or she complains that the national club leg bands have not arrived before the new year has even begun. Setting aside the questionable logic that a bird hatched in one year could possibly be the following year’s bird- one can hardly imagine saying that a human baby born anytime in December of 2007 was a 2008 baby- what exactly do these breeders believe that they are accomplishing?
While certain life situations may require squeezing in breeding season where possible, such as when one winters in Florida or is very busy during the spring, for the most part breeders who start early (before February) seem to do so primarily in the belief that they gain some competitive advantage. This is not necessarily the case- I have known of many birds who won shows in their first year that were hatched in April, May, and even June! And well known breeders such as Cliff Williams never bred before mid-March (he considered St. Patrick’s Day to be the best time of year to begin pairing birds) - and no one can argue with his success.
There also is an element of competitiveness in breeding early. Often in January I hear of breeders bragging about how many chicks they have on the perch... and also complaining about clear eggs and how this hen or that hen failed to do anything. One has to wonder who is truly at fault- the hen or the breeder who is trying to force his or her birds to breed when they are not truly ready. Does one really “win” by rushing?
When I began breeding, I thought that all breeders bred in late December and early January. I spent breeding seasons fighting with my birds and found myself exhausted and ready for the season to be over with by mid March, when the birds were just getting into gear! After many discussions with experienced and highly successful breeders, this is what I learned- starting later is more relaxing and more productive. Waiting until the birds are really ready results in fewer headaches for the breeder and just as many chicks at the end of a shorter season. Who doesn’t want to put less effort into breeding and experience the same outcome?
Beginning to breed coming right out of the show season is stressful for the birds- as a competitor busy traveling to a show each weekend, one has less time to focus on properly conditioning the hens and the males need time to relax and build up their strength after the stress of being exhibited. And it is stressful for the breeder- racing from showing, through the busy holidays, and straight into breeding is exhausting! A calm and relaxed couple of months will allow the birds and the breeder to get their feet under them and build up enthusiasm for the next season.
An anxious hen may begin to lay eggs- this is not a matter for concern as long as she is healthy and has adequate access to cuttlebone, exercise, and a nutritious diet. Despite what some believe, a hen does not have a limited potential to lay eggs and she will not “use up” her supply before breeding season. Take away anything that might cause her to think broody thoughts (seed cups are big broody-thought inducers and are best replaced with dishes on the floor of the cage) and let her lay her clutch of eggs. Usually a hen will lay a clutch and then get it out of her system for a while- assuming that she is not being fed an overly rich diet- but a tough case can be allowed a nest cup, nesting material, and time to sit on a clutch of infertile eggs until boredom overcomes her nesting instincts and she abandons the nest. I tend to view this as a last resort, since sitting in a nest is not great for a hen which should be exercising and building up her strength for the strains of the upcoming breeding season. The key to successfully mating a hen which lays several clutches of eggs before being paired is pairing her at the right time between cycles- not too close to the last egg she lays in the previous cycle and not too close to the first egg of the next. While hens have individual peculiarities, usually about a week after a hen has completed her last cycle she is ready to be paired. (Some hens will cycle quicker and others slower- knowing ones birds is a large part of successful breeding.)
Many articles about canary breeding discuss the appearance of the birds’ vents as indicators of breeding readiness. While this is a fairly accurate method, I have found it to be particularly unhelpful for those will little hands-on experience. So how then can you know when your hens are ready? Beyond the increased general activity level you will see in the birds, here are a few ways to tell:
· hens squat when males sing;
· hens call to the males frequently and their calls become more plaintive in nature;
· hens “rubber band”- fly away from a perch and immediately return to it as though they are attached to the perch with a rubber band;
· when a nest cup is introduced to the flight, a hen in condition will not only investigate the cup she will sit in it and wiggle her bottom around;
· hens build a nest within a day of bring placed in a breeding cage;
· hens lose feathers on their bellies (this is called developing a “brood patch”. The brood patch allows the hen to rest her hot belly against her eggs in the nest in order to incubate them and is the single best indicator of breeding condition..); and
· when a male is introduced to a hen’s cage she squats and invites him to mate right away (however, some birds are shy breeders and will not mate with a breeder in the room).
Remember to consider the “total picture” that your hens are presenting- a single behavior or even a couple of them do not necessarily indicate perfect readiness. Hens must rehearse for awhile before they are ready for the “big event”! And beware the trap of “paper-carrying hens”, which is frequently touted as an indicator of breeding condition. Some hens just love to shred and carry scraps of paper and even some males will do this to occupy their time.
How can you tell when your males are ready? A few hints:
· The song the male sings becomes louder, harsher, and more repetitive. He may hold notes longer than usual as well. (This is called “hard song” and despite its grating sound to the ears of breeders, is enormously attractive to hens);
· some males may regurgitate food into their leg bands and between their toes (simulating “feeding behavior”); and
· males drop their wings when singing and may dance along the perch.
In my experience as long as a male is healthy and the length of daylight is sufficient, he’s ready to breed. Whether or not he will be fertile is another issue... Males must be sufficiently conditioned as well to ensure that their testosterone levels are optimal and their physical condition will not interfere with their ability to fertilize eggs (i.e. obese males often have problems mating- while the birds manage to work it out eventually and do mate successfully, fertility is usually affected).
A few ways to tell if your birds are NOT ready:
· If your hens are fooling around with nesting material and accomplishing little but scattering it all over.
· If the birds are squabbling excessively, one or both of them may not be completely in condition. If the male is chasing the hen aggressively and the hen is flying away as though she is in fear for her life, PULL THE MALE. She isn’t ready!
· If the hen gets derailed somewhere along the way- lays infertile, “clear” eggs, builds a nest and then fails to lay eggs, lays eggs and fails to incubate, incubates eggs and fails to feed.... Assuming that the hen is healthy, many of these sorts of problems come from poor breeding condition in either her or in her mate.
As for the time of year, mid to late February is far better than January to begin and early March is even better. I have a breeder friend who rarely pairs his birds before the end of February and every year he breeds well over 100 chicks before wrapping up in late May. His hens are allowed only a single clutch and it is the rare one which has a nest of fewer than four chicks. Following his example, the last several years I have waited until mid-February to begin pairing birds and the difference is enormous. Rather than throwing out nest after nest of clear eggs and tending to nests of one or two chicks, I find myself in the considerably happier position of trying to hold the birds back so their numbers do not overrun me! Last year I bred 60+ birds before I had gotten through the majority of the hens I wanted to breed and it was a real task turning the birds “off” when I was ready to finish. I can tell you from experience that it takes no more work to tend a cage with 4-5 chicks than a cage with a single chick and is much more satisfying! This year I will wait even longer- until the end of February or even the beginning of March.
Has this delay in breeding affected my show season success? On the contrary- I did better this year than ever before. All of my birds were singing well in advance of caging up in September and none of my males were in hard song before the end of the season. And I was able to enjoy my holiday season and look forward to another few months of relaxation!
While breeders may certainly choose to breed on whatever schedule they wish, they should give consideration to delaying their breeding seasons. By doing so they may find that they easily outpace their fellow breeders and enjoy their efforts a great deal more!
This website and all its contents are the intellectual property of Marie Miley-Russell. All rights are reserved. ©2004-2013
Questions or comments
about this site may be directed to