Gateway to the Classics: Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by Anna Botsford Comstock
Handbook of Nature Study: Birds by  Anna Botsford Comstock

The Canary and the Goldfinch

Teacher's Story

dropcap image N childhood the language of birds and animals is learned unconsciously. What child, who cares for a canary, does not understand its notes which mean loneliness, hunger, eagerness, joy, scolding, fright, love and song!

The pair of canaries found in most cages are not natural mates. The union is one de convenance,  forced upon them by people who know little of bird affinities. We could hardly expect that such a mating would be always happy. The singer, as the male is called, is usually arbitrary and tyrannical and does not hesitate to lay chastising beak upon his spouse. The expression of affection of the two is usually very practical, consisting of feeding each other with many beguiling notes and much fluttering of wings. The singer may have several songs; whether he has many or few depends upon his education; he usually shows exultation when singing by throwing the head back like a prima-donna, to let the music well forth. He is usually brighter yellow in color with more brilliantly black markings than his mate; she usually has much gray in her plumage. But there are about fifty varieties of canaries and each has distinct color and markings.

Canaries should be given a more varied diet than most people think. The seeds we buy or that we gather from the plantain or wild grasses, they eat eagerly. They like fresh, green leaves of lettuce and chickweed and other tender herbage; they enjoy bread and milk occasionally. There should always be a piece of cuttle-fish bone or sand and gravel where they can get it, as they need grit for digestion. Above all, they should have fresh water. Hard-boiled egg is given them while nesting. The canary seed which we buy for them is the product of a grass in the Canary Islands. Hemp and rape seed are also sold for canary food.

The canary's beak is wide and sharp and fitted for shelling seeds; it is not a beak fitted for capturing insects. The canary, when drinking, does not have to lift the beak so high in the air in order to swallow the water as do some birds. The nostrils are in the beak and are easily seen; the ear is hidden by the feathers. The canary is a fascinating little creature when it shows interest in an object; it has such a knowing look, and its perfectly round, black eyes are so intelligent and cunning. If the canary winks, the act is so rapid as to be seen with difficulty, but when drowsy, the little inner lid appears at the inner corner of its eye and the outer lids close so that we may be sure that they are there; the lower lid covers more of the eye than the upper.

The legs and toes are covered with scale armor; the toes have long, curved claws that are neither strong nor sharp but are especially fitted for holding to the perch; the long hind toe with its stronger claw makes complete the grasp on the twig. When the canary is hopping about on the bottom of the cage we can see that its toes are more fitted for holding to the perch than for walking.

When the canary bathes, it ducks its head and makes a great splashing with its wings and likes to get thoroughly wet. Afterward, it sits all bedraggled and "humped up" for a time and then usually preens its feathers as they dry. When going to sleep, it at first fluffs out its feathers and squats on the perch, draws back its head and looks very drowsy. Later it tucks its head under its wing for the night and then looks like a little ball of feathers on the perch.

Canaries make a great fuss when building their nest. A pasteboard box is usually given them with cotton and string for lining; usually one pulls out what the other puts in; and they both industriously tear the paper from the bottom of the cage to add to their building material. Finally, a make-shift of a nest is completed and the eggs are laid. If the singer is a good husband, he helps incubate the eggs and feeds his mate and sings to her frequently; but often he is quite the reverse and abuses her abominably. The nest of the caged bird is very different in appearance from the neat nests of grass, plant down, and moss which the wild ancestors of these birds made in some safe retreat in the shrubs or evergreens of the Canary Islands. The canary eggs are pale blue, marked with reddish-brown. The incubation period is 13 to 14 days. The young are as scrawny and ugly as most little birds and are fed upon food partially digested in the parents' stomachs. Their first plumage resembles that of the mother usually.

In their wild state in the Canary and Azore Islands, the canaries are olive green above with golden yellow breasts. When the heat of spring begins, they move up the mountains to cooler levels and come down again in the winter. They may rear three or four broods on their way up the mountains, stopping at successive heights as the season advances, until finally they reach the high peaks.

The Goldfinch or Thistle Bird

The goldfinches are bird midgets but their songs are so sweet and reedy that they seem to fill the world with music more effectually than many larger birds. They are fond of the seeds of wild grass, and especially so of thistle seed; and they throng the pastures and fence corners where the thistles hold sway. In summer, the male has bright yellow plumage with a little black cap "pulled down over his nose" like that of a grenadier. He has also a black tail and wings with white-tipped coverts and primaries. The tail feathers have white on their inner webs also, which does not show when the tail is closed. The female has the head and back brown and the under parts yellowish white, with wings and tail resembling those of the male except that they are not so vividly black. In winter the male dons a dress more like that of his mate; he loses his black cap but keeps his black wings and tail.


A pair of goldfinches.

(Courtesy of Audubon Educational Leaflet  No. 17).

The song of the goldfinch is exquisite and he sings during the entire period of his golden dress; he sings while flying as well as when at rest. The flight is in itself beautiful, being wave-like up and down, in graceful curves. Mr. Chapman says when on the down half of the curve the male sings "Per-chick or-ree." The goldfinch's call notes and alarm notes are very much like those of the canary.

Since the goldfinches live so largely upon seeds of grasses, they stay with us in small numbers during the winter. During this period both parents and young are dressed in olive green, and their sweet call notes are a surprise to us of a cold, snowy morning, for they are associated in our memory with summer. The male dons his winter suit in October.

The goldfinch nest is a mass of fluffiness. These are the only birds that make feather beds for their young. But, perhaps, we should say beds of down, since it is the thistle down which is used for this mattress. The outside of the nest consists of fine shreds of bark or fine grass closely woven; but the inner portion is a mat of thistle down—an inch and a half thick of cushion for a nest which has an opening of scarcely three inches; sometimes the outside is ornamented with lichens. The nest is usually placed in some bush or tree, often in an evergreen, and not more than 5 or 6 feet from the ground; but sometimes it is placed 30 feet high. The eggs are from four to six in number and bluish white in color. The female builds the nest, her mate cheering her with song meanwhile; he feeds her while she is incubating and helps feed the young. A strange thing about the nesting habits of the goldfinches is that the nest is not built until August. It has been surmised that this nesting season is delayed until there is an abundance of thistle down for building material. Audubon Leaflet No. 17 gives special information about these birds and also furnishes an outline of the birds for the pupils to color.

Lesson IX

The Canary and the Goldfinch

Leading thought—The canary is a very close relative of the common wild goldfinch. If we compare the habits of the two we can understand how a canary might live if it were free.

Method—Bring a canary to the schoolroom and ask for observations. Request the pupils to compare the canary with the goldfinches which are common in the summer. The canary offers opportunity for very close observation which will prove excellent training for the pupils for beginning bird study.


1. If there are two canaries in the cage are they always pleasant to each other? Which one is the "boss?" How do they show displeasure or bad temper? How do they show affection for each other?

2. Which one is the singer? Does the other one ever attempt to sing? What other notes do the canaries make besides singing? How do they greet you when you bring their food? What do they say when they are lonesome and hungry?

3. Does the singer have more than one song? How does he act while singing? Why does he throw back his head like an opera singer when singing?

4. Are the canaries all the same color? What is the difference in color between the singer and the mother bird? Describe the colors of each in your note book as follows: Top and sides of head, back, tail, wings, throat, breast and under parts?

5. What does the canary eat? What sort of seeds do we buy for it? What seeds do we gather for it in our garden? Do the goldfinches live on the same seeds? What does the canary do to the seeds before eating them? What tools does he use to take off the shells?

6. Notice the shape of the canary's beak. Is it long and strong like a robin's? Is it wide and sharp so that it can shell seeds? If you should put an insect in the cage would the canary eat it?

7. Why do we give the canary cuttlebone? Note how it takes off pieces of the bone. Could it do this if its beak were not sharp?

8. Note the actions of the birds when they drink. Why do they do this?

9. Can you see the nostrils? Where are they situated? Why can you not see the ear?

10. When the canary is interested in looking at a thing how does it act? Look closely at its eyes. Does it wink? How does it close its eyes? When it is drowsy can you see the little inner lid come from the corner of the eye nearest the beak? Is this the only lid?

11. How are the legs and feet covered? Describe the toes. Compare the length of the claw with the length of the toe. What is the shape of the claw? Do you think that such shaped claws and feet are better fitted for holding to a branch than for walking? Note the arrangement of the toes when the bird is on its perch. Is the hind toe longer and stronger? If so, why? Do the canaries hop or walk about the bottom of the cage?

12. What is the attitude of the canary when it goes to sleep at night? How does it act when it takes a bath? How does it get the water over its head? Over its back? What does it do after the bath? If we forget to put in the bath dish how does the bird get its bath?

Nesting Habits To Be Observed in the Spring

13. When the canaries are ready to build a nest what material do we furnish them for it? Does the father bird help the mother to build the nest? Do they strip off the paper on the bottom of the cage for nest material? Describe the nest when it is finished.

14. Describe the eggs carefully. Does the father bird assist in sitting on the eggs? Does he feed the mother bird when she is sitting?

15. How long after the eggs are laid before the young ones hatch? Do both parents feed the young? Do they swallow the food first and partially digest it before giving it to the young?

16. How do the very young birds look? What is their appearance when they leave the nest? Does the color of their plumage resemble that of the father or the mother?

17. Where did the canaries originally come from? Find the place on the map.

Supplementary reading—"A Caged Bird," Sarah Orne Jewett in Songs of Nature, p. 75; True Bird Stories, Miller.

The Goldfinch

Leading thought—Goldfinches are seen at their best in late summer or September when they appear in flocks wherever the thistle seeds are found in abundance. Goldfinches so resemble the canaries in form, color, song and habits that they are called wild canaries.

Method—The questions for this lesson should be given to the pupils before the end of school in June. The answers to the questions should be put in their field note-books and the results be reported to the teacher in class when the school begins in the autumn.


1. Where do you find the goldfinches feeding? How can you distinguish the father from the mother birds and from the young ones in color?

2. Describe the colors of the male goldfinch and also of the female as follows: Crown, back of head, back, tail, wings, throat, breast and lower parts. Describe in particular the black cap of the male.

3. Do you know the song of the goldfinch? Is it like the song of the canary? What other notes has the goldfinch?

4. Describe the peculiar flight of the goldfinches. Do they fly high in the air? Do you see them singly or in flocks usually?

5. Where do the goldfinches stay during the winter? What change takes place in the coat of the male during the winter? Why? What do they live upon during the winter?

6. At what time of year do the goldfinches build their nests? Why do they build these so much later than other birds? Describe the nest. Where is it placed? How far above the ground? How far from a stream or other water? Of what is the outside made? The lining? What is the general appearance of the nest? Do you think the goldfinches wait until the thistles are ripe in order to gather plenty of food for their young, or to get the thistle down for their nests? What is the color of the eggs?

Supplementary reading—True Bird Stories, Miller, pp. 6, 9, 26, 45. The Second Book of Birds, Miller, p. 82; Our Birds and Their Nestlings, Walker, pp. 180, 200.

Sometimes goldfinches one by one will drop

From low-hung branches; little space they stop,

But sip, and twitter, and their feathers sleek,

Then off at once, as in a wanton freak;

Or perhaps, to show their black and golden wings;

Pausing upon their yellow flutterings.

—John Keats.

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