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canario timbrado

The Song Canary


By Sebastian Vallelunga

Song Direction

When choosing a song breed, one should listen to lots of birds. The best way to do this is to attend song contests if possible. I did just that at the 2002 National in Santa Clara, California. At one stop I was able to hear the four main song canary breeds raised in the United States. The following is what I found out:

A competition like the National, one might suppose, is so hectic and so busy as to make oneís task of finding out about the different breeds close to impossible. This is simply not so! If armed with a schedule, one cannot only hear some of the best song birds in the country, but one can also take in a large number of educational demonstrations, etc. Having expert judges identify and explain the various parts of the songs is an advantage that does not happen every day. Competitions are also great places for making contact with breeders and for finding out about where to get the right song cages and equipment for the various breeds. I found that the breeders and judges were both helpful and friendly, and they genuinely wanted to educate me about their favorite breeds.

There is a big difference among the songs of the various breeds of song canary; after much reflection, I have come to the conclusion that the main differences can be illustrated using what I call a set of song direction triangles. It has long been the custom to describe a canaryís song direction, and the implication is usually that direction could be illustrated as a straight line with whatever sort of song an author prefers at one end and its antithesis at the other. For example, if the author is either a waterslager or a roller fan, the two extremes are wet song and hollow song. One being preferred and the other reviled, or at least valued less. I think itís a bit more complicated than that, however.

First letís look at a song triangle representing a typical wild canary, Serinus canaria, one with no tendency to sing in any particular direction, but simply a good all around canary song:


The equilateral triangle signifies that the song of this particular bird can be called neutral, that is, it does not "lean" toward one direction or another. Its song is not mainly metallic, nor mainly watery, nor mainly hollow, but has characteristics of all three directions without being dominated by any one.

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Next, letís look at a song direction triangle depicting the song of a modern roller. After centuries of selection and development, the roller has perfected the hollow roll in its song. Therefore, the triangle must show a hollow direction of song:


The triangle is shown stretched in the hollow direction because of the rollerís leaning toward hollow song in its repertoire. And, the songs of each of the three main European song breeds can be depicted with a similar diagram.


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Next, the modern Belgian waterslager, with its distinctly watery song direction:

Finally, the classic timbrado, with its metallic song:

So far, this system of depicting canary song, too, seems very simplistic. But, as with everything in nature, canary song can be vastly more complex than it at first appears. For starters, both ornithologists and the breeders of contemporary Spanish timbrados will insist that the theoretical wild canary which sings a balanced song does not actually exist in any pure form in the wild. This is because nature had already been selecting the serin populations of the various islands of the Canaries, the Azores, and Madeira for certain song characteristics long before the domestication of these birds took place. There is an old adage among the song canary breeders that the hen determines the song, and the adage is much more accurate than any of the old timers ever realized in the case of the original wild birds. Mate selection among finches (as it is among many species of animals) is the province of the female. The males sing their songs, choose and defend their territories; it is the females which select or reject the males, in part based on these songs, and, therefore, the females are instrumental in determining which direction of song will thrive and which will die out in any given population. This is beyond what ornithologists call song dialect. This is a discernable genetic difference of potential song elements between the serins of various islands, or even between those of certain remote parts of the same larger islands. So, selection in song direction had actually begun to occur even before the first human breeder of song canaries came to be.

The genetically "hardwired" potentials that each male inherits are later turned into song by the processes of hormonal action and song learning. What the bird does with what he has inherited is, additionally, influenced by the models set for him by the adults he hears around him; his song is his personalized version of the model. The following of local examples of song, which can also vary from area to area, is called song dialect.

Other wild species of bird also develop song dialects. In order to illustrate this point, I rely on the work of Luis Baptista, who spent his life studying bird song right here at San Franciscoís California Academy of Sciences:

"One result of vocal tradition is the phenomenon of regional dialects which some birds share with man and with some cetaceans (e.g., Humpbacked Whales, Payne and Payne, 1985). Geographical dialects of the English language appear among humans in such variations as the nasal twang of a Brooklyn taxi driver and the drawl of a Kentucky mountaineer. An example of a geographical dialect in birds is found in the Ďrain-callí of the Chaffinch. Local populations only a few kilometers apart have distinctly different rain-calls (Sick, 1939; Detert and Bergman, 1984). Not surprisingly, dialects arise in both men and birds in much the same way. Young humans, and many young birds, shape their voice according to the dialect they hear their elders and companions use. They are no more inherited than the cockney accent of Ďmy fair lady,í Eliza Doolittle, of Shawís Pygmalion. And, as in the Chaffinch, once a dialect becomes established in the individual, even heroic efforts may fail to change it.

The White-crowned Sparrow, Zonotrichia leucophrys, shows distinct dialects in different geographical populations of the San Francisco Bay region (Marler and Tamura, 1964; Baptista, 1975), and in various parts of North America (Baptista, 1977; Baptista and King, 1980). At boundaries between two dialects, individuals may be Ďbilingual,í singing two dialects.

Despite the obvious plasticity of many birdsí dialects, they may persist for a long time." (J. Welty and L. Baptista, The Life of Birds, New York: Saunders, 1988, p. 234).

It should be noted that although it is just about impossible to change a mature white-crowned sparrowís song once established, canaries do regularly change their song while molting. Because of this it is possible, with a little patience and a lot of luck, to retrain at the right time. It should be remembered that the retraining will not change the birdís genes or song direction, however, and only slight changes are likely.

The next difficulty with the diagrams in this simplest form is that no song canary breed will sing exclusively in one direction or another; that is, a song breed doesnít stick exclusively to its single corner of the triangle. Even the roller breeders, who have come closest, include places for scoring water tours and metallic bell tours on their score sheet. And, each breedís song should be thought of as a range of sound along two adjacent sides of the triangle. Letís say a song breed is capable of emitting a tour cluster which leans toward a song direction. While I do not mean any of the diagrams to contain exhaustive lists of the tours each breed can sing, a more accurate depiction of the rollerís song direction triangle would look like:

Notice that these major tours of the roller are clustered around the hollow song direction angle. The rollerís version of water tours begin to head in the watery direction, but are still leaning toward the hollow end of the spectrum. The rollerís bell and hollow bell, while somewhat metallic, are still leaning toward the hollow song direction. Again, it is possible to create song direction triangles of this type for the waterslager and the timbrado also.

Waterslagers "sing water" and their triangle should look like this:

One should note in this case that water notes are what make a waterslager a waterslager, but that a good number of its tours are metallic. In particular, the steel notes sound very much like a hammer hitting an anvil, and therefore are placed rather high on the metallic side of the triangle. It should also be noted that there are two styles of waterslager, both of which fit this general diagram. The Belgian birds are being perfected for water tours and are singing somewhat fewer steel notes and other metallic tours, while the Dutch birds are said to retain the older song with its richer metallic notes.

Finally, we can also create a diagram for the Spanish timbrado. Although it should be noted here that there are actually three styles of song among the timbrados, all three may be characterized as more or less metallic in direction:

The three styles of timbrado are: the classic whose song is rich in metallic rolls or timbres metalicos which sit at the apex of the metallic direction for timbrados, the floreados which sing no rolled notes (including the metallic ones) while singing metallic high flutes and bells, etc., and the intermediate which sing only a few metallic rolls since they are about half way between the two.

Finally, this brings us to the fourth of the breeds of song canaries which are widely bred in the United States, the American singer. Although American singers are certainly song canaries, there is also a conformation and condition aspect to the standard by which these birds are judged in order to assure that their border canary ancestry is no more ignored than their roller ancestry is. Of the 100 possible points awarded to the birds, 30 are for conformation and condition. The body must be well-proportioned and bear good plumage, and the birds must be healthy, vigorous, and clean. Ideally, the American singer should have a stance somewhere between that of the border and the roller and retain some of the best physical features of the two breeds. With the song breeds already mentioned above, such things as appearance are only taken into consideration if they call a birdís ancestry or health into question.

The American singerís song is evaluated in a different way than are those of the other three breeds as well. And, this means that the American singer has a much wider range of possibilities to both enchant and frustrate its breeders. Rather than being evaluated on conformity to a set list of named tours, as are the songs of the other three breeds, American singer songs are evaluated on two criteria: freedom of song (a quantitative measure) and rendition of song (a qualitative measure). Breeders have developed American singers in each of the three directions of the triangle, and these birds can be found with a variety of distinctive voices. Those breeders who are up to the challenge of experimentation without strict boundaries are often successful American singer breeders.

American singers may be bred in any song direction to suit the breeder.

Breed Development

The Roller

There is much debate over which of the first three breeds is really the oldest, but there is no debating that the roller from Germany was the first of them to be widely known as the singing canary. Any canary book written in English before the 1980ís, for example, lists only roller and chopper voiced birds. The term chopper (a canary which intersperses "chops" or single syllable notes beginning with a "ch" sound: "chau", "chop", "chip", "chap", etc., in his songs) represented the unrefined song of the common canary as well as the various color, type, and position canaries whose voices were not the priority for breeders. Other types of song were virtually ignored until breeders began to import other song breeds to English speaking countries.

The roller was originally developed in the mining areas of Germany some 300 years ago, but it took a long time for the modern refinement of the hollow roll tour to occur.

The Waterslager

Also at about three hundred years ago, a French traveler in Belgium wrote in praise of the watery song of the canaries around the city of Mechelen. These birds were probably crossed with the large yellow canaries which were descended from a variety called the Old Dutch during the 19th century, giving the waterslager its color and robust look. Modern Belgian waterslagers are bred mostly for their water notes; while in Holland the nightingale and steel notes are preferred. All waterslagers, by definition, must sing water, however.

The Timbrado

The breeding of canaries went on in Spain from the very beginning of their importation to Europe. Eventually, this led to the development of the Canarios del Pais, the Canarios de Vich, and other local variations known for their songs. In the 1930ís, 1940ís, and 1950ís certain pioneer breeders also crossed these varieties back to the original wild type, leading to the formation of the Spanish timbrado. One could say that the timbrado is the oldest and newest of the song breeds at the same time.

The American Singer

The American singer is a breed which was "manufactured" with a plan in mind. The goal was to combine the best characteristics of a popular shape canary, the border, and the basic song of the enormously popular roller. The goal was to achieve a bird with an attractive shape and stance which also had a good singing voice, one a bit louder than the hollow-voiced roller had become. The resulting American singer, first exhibited in 1934, is about 69% roller and 31% border and is very well suited to American tastes for a good all around bird.

I hope that this simple survey of the song breeds and the differences in song direction has been helpful, but the best way to learn about canary song is to listen to canaries sing! So do take advantage of any song contests which will be staged in your area.



© Sebastian Vallelunga. May 23, 2003. All Rights Reserved.


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