Feeding Canaries a Pellet Diet
by Ginger Wolnik

First published in the Pacific American Singer newsletter, volume 5, number 3, July 1998.

[ American Singer Canary ]
American Singer Canary (blue variegated)
photo by James Tirado

Why feed pellets to your canary? What are the advantages?

Complete nutrition was the main reason I tried it. Like most "seedeating" birds, it turns out that these finches from the CanaryIslands need more than just seed. Wild canaries also eat insects,fruits, plant leaves, and get direct sunshine which creates vitaminD. The typical pet canary gets an unlimited supply of just seed.Some get just a poor-quality box mix from the grocery store, which ismostly millet. However, even the best quality seed-only mix is not acomplete diet for long-term health. Canary breeders havetraditionally supplemented the seed diet with hard-boiled chickeneggs, vegetable greens, calcium from cuttlebone, and artificialvitamins. However, it can be difficult and a lot of work to ensure abalanced diet.

To make an analogy, if you were to feed a dog only muscle meat, itwould not get a balanced diet. Wild dogs (wolves) consume the entireanimal they kill: bones, organs, etc. They also eat some vegetablematter. Modern dog "kibble" is a convenient way to provide a dogwith a complete diet. So even though dog food is "unnatural," mostpeople accept it as the proper way to feed their canines. Similarly,bird pellets can be viewed as a convenient way to properly feed youravian pets. It is also ok to give your dog or bird appropriatetreats as long as the bulk of their diets contain proper nutrition.

In addition to the nutritional benefits, some other advantages ofpellets are:

Pellets can be stored at room temperature and left in the cage forweeks if the humidity is low. If the humidity is very high, it mightbe best to just feed enough for each day and perhaps disgard anyleftovers if it gets damp. I refrigerate pellets for long-term bulkstorage to keep the vitamins stable. (This is also recommended forvitamin-coated seed.) Tightly sealed containers that do not have alot of air space would be best for bulk storage.

What are the disadvantages of pellets?

One drawback is that pellets cost more than some seed mixes.However, this is partially offset because the whole pellet is edible;with seeds you also pay for the weight of the shells. With pelletsyou do not have to buy vitamins. If you buy pellets in bulk throughmail-order distributors, the cost becomes comparable. If you havefriends with birds, several of you can group together and share thecost - and savings.

Another disadvantage is that canaries enjoy eating and may get boredwith the same food. I feed pellets for the bulk of my bird's diet,but still supplement with fresh greens, some seeds, and egg food forvariety. If you do this, wait until your birds are fully convertedto make sure they have accepted the pellets as food. Some peopleoffer more than one variety of pellets and rotate brands to combatboredom.

Pellets may be hard to find. Before converting, pick a brand thatyou are able to get locally or mail order from at least twosuppliers. The manufacturer should be able to recommend distributorsin your area.

There are two types of bird pellets. Some are just compressed and somehave been "cooked." My experience has only been with Kaytee Exactpellets, which are cooked. There are many other brands available.You can phone or write to the manufacturers and ask for nutritionreports. Contact information is at the end of this article.

Sometimes, the biggest difficulty with pellets is getting your birdsto eat them! If you just provide some pellets as a "treat," yourbirds will probably ignore them. If they were raised on a seed diet,they will prefer seeds and will not eat pellets until they have beentrained to recognize it as food AND there is no seed to eat.

What's the best way to convert your birds to pellets?

One conversion method is to just take away all seed and only providepellets. However, a lone, pet bird could starve to death with this"cold turkey" approach. This method works best in a flight cage withmany birds that are used to a varied diet. It only takes one curiousbird to start eating the pellets and others will often copy. If youpurchase a bird that already eats pellets, you can use it to train theothers, but if seed is also in the cage, the new bird will probablyjust join the others and eat the seed.

Another easy way to convert a flock to is to wean your chicks ontopellets. Young canaries between 4-6 weeks old seem to be morewilling than adults to try strange foods. Mixing pellets into theirnestling food will get them to try it. I recommend giving them somesoaked seed to eat at this stage too so they will learn to crack seedshells. Even if you totally convert your birds to pellets, somedaythey could be owned by someone else who wants to feed them seed.

Another conversion method is to add the pellets to the seed mix andgradually increase the proportion of pellets. Others and I havefound this not to work well for canaries. They pick out the seedsand ignore the pellets, even when there are few seeds left to eat.They don't get enough to eat and frantically feed when a new batchappears with some seed in it, which is upsetting for the owner towatch. This is what discourages most canary owners from completingthe conversion.

Now I'll tell you my method for converting canaries to a pellet diet.My experience has only been with Kaytee Exact pellets, so I do notknow if this conversion method will work or is safe with other brands.

First, determine how much seed your canary eats in a day; it isprobably about ½ tablespoon each. Start providing just this dailyration in a large, shallow tray so the seeds spread out in one layer.It is important that all the seeds can be found and eaten withoutbeing buried by shells. Do NOT add pellets to this seed mix.Instead, provide plenty of dry pellets in a separate dish so thatthe bird can start eating when it is ready.

Next, find a moist crumbly food that the bird will eat, usuallymoistened nestling food. Since canaries are not raised on seed, thereis some type of crumbly, high-protein food that they were raised onand will like to eat. You can try a commercial mix such asCéDé, Quiko, Bisko, or Abba. Or you can try making yourown mix of cooked couscous or grated corn muffins. Do not leave amoist mix with real egg in their cage for more than a couple ofhours. On a warm day, it will spoil quickly!

Cut back on the amount of seeds per day to encourage the bird to eatthe "nestling" mix. Once you are certain the bird is eating thismoist food, you can start the pellet conversion process.

Soak a small amount of pellets in water for about 15 minutes, drainand add to the nestling food, mixing well so the pellets break apartand become part of the mixture. Start with about 25% pellets; useless if the bird doesn't eat that. This mixture can spoil; do not leaveit out all day, especially if the weather is warm! Once the bird haseaten this mixture for a couple of days, gradually increase thepercentage of soaked pellets each day, cutting back on the amount ofseed at the same time. Remember to use separate dishes! After aweek or so, the bird should just be eating soaked pellets and noseed.

The final step is to reduce the amount of moisture in thepellets. Soak for just 10 minutes for a few days, then soak thepellets for just 5 minutes. At this point, the pellets should be dryby the end of the day, so if the bird is still eating them, it isessentially converted!

Always keep a separate dish of dry pellets available in thecage at all times so that once they figure out this is food, they caneat all they want. Some canaries will put off eating them until forcedto, but others will surprise you by suddenly switching to the drypellets after just a couple of days!

Keep in mind that pellets are a "maintenance" food for pets ornon-breeding birds. To condition canaries for breeding and tofeed laying hens and birds who are feeding chicks, you shouldsupplement with a high-protein "nestling" formula.

The only pellets I've used are Kaytee Exact Maintenance for Finchesand Canaries. These come in two varieties: the "original" formulathat is light brown, and the "rainbow" formula that is variouscolors. They are the same nutritionally. I prefer the originalformula because the rainbow formula has a strong "fruity" odor thatI personally don't like. Others have reported that their canariespick out certain colors and throw the other colors away, whichdefeats some of the advantages of pellets! However, some peopleworry that their pet canary will become bored and like to provide thecolor variety, but this is a personal preference. The originalformula is sold in 14 oz. bags. Kaytee Exact also has a "small bird breedingformula" sold in 25 pound sacks which has a slightly higherpercentage of protein. The breeding formula pellets appear identicalto the maintenance formula, but when presented with both, my canariesseem to prefer the maintenance formula.

It has been reported to me that Roudybush crumbles do not soakwell because they turn into a mush very quickly. If you want to useRoudybush or any other brand with this problem, consider firstconverting a seed-only eating bird to Kaytee Exact. Then you canswitch to another brand after the bird is eating the dry pellets.Many pellet-eating canaries will accept another brand immediately,but make sure your bird is eating the new food before withholding thefamiliar brand. Gradually mixing the dry pellets should ease thetransition.

Now all my baby birds are weaned on pellets and all birds that Ipurchase get converted. I have even switched wild-caught finches toan all-pellet diet! The advantages are so great; I'll never go back tofeeding seed.

[ Kaytee Exact Original ]
Kaytee Exact Original
photo by Ginger Wolnik
Pellet Manufacturing Companies
Avi-Sci Dr. D's(800) 942-3438
Harrisons(800) 346-0269
Kaytee(800) 669-9580
Lafeber(800) 842-6445 (ext. 285)
Lake's Ultimate Avian Diets(800) 634-2473
Mazuri (Purina)(800) 227-8941
PrettybirdUS: (800) 356-5020
UK: 0800-614-394
Roudybush(800) 326-1726
Scenic Bird Foods(800) 327-7974
Zeigler Brothers(800) 841-6800
ZuPreem(800) 345-4767

Additional Information Not in Original Article

Here is another web site which compares pellet brands.Note, Small Hookbill formulas were compared, canary formulascould be different.
Comparison of Major Pellet Manufacturers

When researching pellets, ask what nutritional studies were donewith canaries. Most brands are formulated for hookbills, which needless protien. The term "designed for canaries" could mean it's in asize a canary can eat. It doesn't necessarily mean anything aboutnutrition. Also, just because a company says that canary owners orbreeders buy their brand doesn't mean it is nutritionally complete.Some canary breeders use hookbill pellets and suppliment with eggfood. Others just don't know better, or are more concerned about thetype of preservatives used or whether the ingredients are organic,neither have anything to do with whether the brand is nutritionallycomplete for canaries.

Pet sitters, especially those who might not be "bird" people findpellets easier and you don't have to worry about them thinking thebirds have food when the dishes are actually just full of shells.Not everyone can always get a good pet sitter, especially in anemergency. Everyone knows that food must be provided, but asurprising number of people don't notice that shells are not thefood! Then there's the case of the sitters who forget to show up orjust flake out. I always ask someone to stop by every day I'm gone,but once a neighbor just forgot the whole weekend. Since I left thetrays full of pellets and extra water tubes, everyone was fine. Asingle pet canary with a ball-tube drinker and a large dish ofpellets could probably go a week unattended, certainly notrecommended, but possible.

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