Friday, June 6, 2008


Canaries by David De Souza

Before I bred shamas, I bred canaries. This must have been about 28 years ago. I had read in the classified advertisements that a person named S. Wee had canaries for sale. I lived then in Thomson Road and his home was just a few miles away. I visited him. This was several years before his retirement from his job. On retirement, he opened a bird kiosk at Watten Estate and ceased to keep or breed canaries at his home.

He was a successful canary breeder and had what seemed to be a few hundred canaries. He was most hospitable. He did not try to persuade me to buy but would voluntarily take out a caged canary for me to view and listen to its song. He would then take out another and patiently answer my questions. Thus I spent a pleasant evening listening to his birds and learning from him before eventually buying a male.

Wee’s canaries were the common or nondescript type of song canary but he had specially imported them and they had a more pleasant rolling song than the canaries available from the bird-shops. We (and the shops) used to refer to the bird-shop canaries as “Roller Choppers”. These birds would sing a rolling song followed by a series of “chop, chop, chop” before rolling again. Of course, there is no sub-species of canaries known as Roller Choppers. The only song canaries are Rollers, Waterslagers, Timbrados and the American Song Canary.

I pause here as some of you may want to know the differences in the songs of the various sub-species of song canary.

From S. Wee I learnt how to breed canaries. It was easy. A pair will breed readily in a 1’ x 2’ cage. They will also breed freely in a community of canaries with each pair choosing its own nesting location and squabbling over it. Community breeding has its disadvantages since, unless the aviary is spacious, squabbling can result in loss of chicks. Anyway, I tried breeding the canaries in cages and had immediate success. Eventually I had several pairs nesting at any one time. The chicks were given to friends.

After succeeding with Wee’s canaries, I became curious about the Roller. However, there were no true Roller canaries available in Singapore. This is still the position in Singapore today. I asked the bird-shop owners why true Rollers were not imported into Singapore. I was told that the song was too soft in the sense of “not loud enough” and people in Singapore did not find such song attractive.

On a holiday trip to the UK with my wife about 25 years ago, I took the trouble to find a Roller Canary society in London and phoned its secretary. I said that I was in London on a visit and asked if he or anyone else had Rollers for sale. He did not but he was really nice and said that he would phone members of his society who might have Rollers and get back to me. He referred me to a breeder in Yorkshire whom he said was breeding Rollers that had swept the field in competitions.

I made an appointment and my wife and I took the train one winter’s afternoon to Yorkshire and a taxi from the station to the home of the canary breeder. We arrived in time for tea and he insisted that we have tea and scones before taking us to a heated bird-room in his garden where his birds were housed. They were singing well and I found the song fascinating. The true Roller’s song is almost a whisper that can hardly be heard across a large room. It sounds much like the song of our Roller-choppers but the chops are less and softer and the rolls are more melodious.

I mentioned to the breeder that the secretary of the society had recommended him as having been extremely successful in Roller song competitions in the UK and I asked how he had achieved this. He replied that he had previously used stock that was available in the UK for his breeding program but he had had only limited success in song competitions. He came to the conclusion that there was no future in breeding from the available birds and that he would need to look outside the country if he wished to improve his stock. About 5 years previous to our meeting, he had made inquiries as to the most successful Roller canary breeder in Germany. He had then taken a trip to Germany and purchased stock birds from the breeder and followed his advice on the pairing of the birds.

The Yorkshire breeder had planned his breeding program with the help of the advice he had received from the German breeder and within the short space of 5 years, his birds had won all the top prizes. He also said that with the knowledge and experience that he had gained, he was in a position to know the type of birds that were needed to further improve his breeding program. He intended to add to his birds from the German breeder from whom he had originally bought the birds or from other breeders to improve the song or correct the faults that his original line of birds from Germany breeder might have. I was keen on buying stock Rollers from him. He had birds for sale but he was not interested in exporting so I was not able to buy from him.

Back home I continued to breed my Roller Choppers until an unfortunate event occurred. The canaries love to eat Chinese Lettuce and they would be offered this vegetable several days a week. One day, I bought this vegetable from the supermarket at Yaohan Thomson and fed it to my birds without thorough washing. After about half-an-hour, my birds started to fall to the cage floor and many died within a short period. I was at a loss to know the cause until I realised that the Chinese Lettuce must have had a large dose of insecticide still remaining on it.

About half my birds survived but the breeding for the year was a washout. Thereafter, I substantially reduced my breeding program since I had no intention of selling the birds.

Around 1987, I became a member of the Avicultural Society of Singapore and got to know a person by the name of Guus ___ ___. He was employed by a Dutch newspaper to gather news from this region but there were rumours that his job was only a cover and he was in reality a secret agent for the Dutch government. I doubt there was any truth to these rumours. Anyway, he and I became friends. I told him of my interest in Waterslagers and to my surprise he said that he had relatives who would shortly be coming to Singapore from Holland and, if I wished, they could hand-carry a Waterslager for me. They did so and I waited at Changi Airport when they arrived in Singapore. They had the canary with them in a small cage. It was a wonderful singer with a score sheet to testify to the quality of his song. I kept it for many years.

Sometime time later, Guus told me that the world champion Waterslager from Holland was available for sale and that I could get it for about S$1,000.00. The bird would come with the trophy. Imagine this, the world champion for S$1,000.00 and compare this to the price of the shamas. Of course, this was about 17 years ago.

Several years ago, I phoned the president of the Timbrado Canary Association in Spain as I was interested in getting this type of bird to introduced their bell-like song to my shamas. He told me that the members would sell their surplus birds for US$10.00 to US$15.00 each but they were not interested in exporting their birds because of the paperwork and trouble they would be put to. I never got a top class Timbrado. From time to time, Timbrados are available from the bird shops at Serangoon North in Singapore. I would think that they are far below the quality of the birds from serious breeders who do not breed for the pet trade but to improve the quality of their bird’s song.

Presently, I do not own a canary. The last canary I had was about 4 years ago. I got it to teach my shamas their rolling song. When my shamas had learnt it, I gave it away. My interest in birds in the past 20 years has been primarily shamas. I found the song of the canary too predictable and after a while, I became less interested in what to me was a repetitive type of song. Whilst I have kept canaries and songbirds of other species during this time, they were primarily to teach their song to my shamas and then I have passed them on to my friends.

David De Souza

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