How did canaries become popular as pets?

Although it's hard to believe, the dull greenish finches still to be seen on the Canary Islands off the west coast of Africa are the original ancestors of all today's canary breeds. Portuguese seafarers visiting these islands in the 1400s noticed the appealing song of these little birds. Soon, farmers were breeding wild canaries on the islands to send to Europe. They tried to restrict export to the cock birds with their attractive songs, and so keep a monopoly on this lucrative trade.

The attempt failed though, because aside from their song, there is no easy way to sex canaries and before long, they were being bred in mainland Europe. The Harz Mountain region of Germany became a centre for canary breeding where these birds were trained to mimic the sound of the mountain streams, giving an unrivalled clarity to their song. By the late 1600s, the singing ability of these Harz Mountain roller canaries, as they became known, was already considered to be superior to that of their wild cousins.

This link with water is still reflected in the singing requirements for roller canaries at competitions even today, with birds being judged on their abilities to sing song passages such as the bubbling water tour. The singing range of a domesticated canary may extend over nearly three octaves.

To discover about how canaries have been hybridised with other finches to create mules, which are highly-valued for their song, click here.