Canaries bred solely for their color usually tend to be on the smaller side of the canary-size-scale, usually averaging around 5.5inches. As with any bird, the color is fully controlled by the genes responsible for pigmentation. The means that there are dozens of different variations on the color theme, as crossing between two pigments will often create a new color. The key to understanding is the palette itself, and the wonderful results of pigmentation (or the lack of it). A wild canary has three “layers” of color - an underlying yellow, turned slightly green by the brown melanin pigment, and topped off with shades of black melanin.
Different Color Factors in Canaries
- Melanin helps darken colors, and in Canaries is responsible for black and brown colors. It can be present in varying degrees, and correspondingly different levels of variegation.
- Lipochrome (Ino-Factor) Canaries lack the black and brown "layers", and are stripped back to their base color. There are three base types amongst pet Canaries –
- the classic yellow (Lutino), derived from the color present in the wild Canary;
- the Red Factor (Rubino), whose rosy tint derives from a genetically imported red pigment, the result of South American Red Siskins being introduced into the gene pool by cross-breeding with Canaries;
- white, in which base colour pigments are lacking (Note: most white Canaries are not albinos, which lack pigmentation in their eyes, skin, legs and beak, not just their feathers).
These five factors - Black melanin, brown melanin, lipochrome yellow, lipochrome red and white - are the basis of the seemingly never-ending variations in canary color and plumage.
Canary Color Variegation
The presence of melanin brings great variation to Canary colors and markings. There are several classifications used by breeders to categorize birds according to the levels of pigment. The following are these classifications.
- Clear. These birds completely lack melanin, and as a result have no variegation in their colors.
- Self. These birds are the polar opposite of the clear type, these all-melanin birds lack any lipochrome colors (red or yellow based).
- Ticked. These birds have little, localised patches of melanin throughout their plumage.
- Foul. Undoubtedly the least flattering name of them all, these birds have a few light feathers on an otherwise dark coat.
- Variegated. A catch-all category used for anything that falls between ticked and foul Canary types. This category is further divided, with “lightly variegated” bird has less than 50% dark feathers, a “medium variegated” has between 50 and 75% dark feathers and a “heavily variegated” has more than 75% dark coloration - but still less than 100%.
Color Canaries for Shows
When it comes to shows, these are the categories that each bird will fall into. (Note: This isn’t a list of types as such, as many of these categories can apply to yellow or red-based birds, and they can be crested/uncrested etc...
- Green. These birds have a yellow base color with lots of melanin creating greens and blacks. These are the same colors that can be found in wild canaries.
- Yellow Melanin. These birds have less pigment than greens, resulting in an almost all-yellow bird with flecks of dark areas around the plumage.
- Red Factor Melanin. These birds are the “red versions” of the Yellow Melanin, having red as their base color rather than yellow. This is accompanied with dark pigmentation.
- Yellow Lipochrome. These birds are the “tweety Pie” type of Canary. Usually what one would imagine when thinking about canaries. Totally yellow, little to no dark pigmentation.
- Red Factor Lipochrome. These are birds with no melanin, but which have red factor rather than yellow. This results in shades ranging from pinks through to oranges and darker shades of red.
Pied Red Canary
- Blue FactorThese birds actually have a white or yellow base color, tinted by a trick of the light rather than actual darkening by melanin. This may sound quite odd, but the bird’s feather hooklets actually reflect the light in such a way as to produce the appearance of different colors - the green and purple tinges seen on starlings and magpies is a good example of this. In yellow base canaries, ther result of this is green, whereas in white birds the effect is a blueish grey.
- Silver Factor. These birds are very similar to blue factor birds, but they have less melanin resulting in a more washed out, silvery look to the feathers,
- Dominant White and Recessive White. These two birds look similar, the difference between the two being the dominant or recessive nature of their genes. Their feathers completely lack melanin and lipochrome. This results in a totally white bird. They have dark eyes, unlike an albino bird.
- Pastel Factor. Known as “dilute factor”, melanin in these birds is reduced, and as a result the plumage is a pastel shade.
- Ivory Factor.Another dilute factor bird, all the melanin in the Canaries has been reduced, resulting in all the colors being somewhat washed out.
- Opal Factor. Opal canaries carry two sets of a recessive gene that dilutes melanin, making blacks grey and washing out all browns.
- Cinnamon. Black pigmentation is absent in Cinnamons, which sport browns on a yellow base.
- Fawn. These birds are practically the same as cinnamons but they have a white base and not a yellow one.
- Agate. In Agates it is the brown pigment that is absent, meaning that the blacks and greys are left to color the bird.
- Isabel. This type has both black and brown pigments at work, but results in birds distinct from standard Green, Yellow and Red types.
- Satinet. These birds have only localised pigmentation on the back .
- Albino. As with any other animal, an albino Canary lacks all pigmentation. The result of this is a completely white bird with pink skin, eyes and legs. Canaries with a dominant albino gene rather than a recessive one will have dark eyes instead of the usual pink eyes.
- Ino. These birds are again the result of the complexities of genetics. These birds essentially have an albino makeup, but sport dark red eyes and some pigments present.
- Phaeo. These canarres don’t have any blacks or greys present in them, and the brown pigment that they do have is concentrated on the edges of their feathers.
- Onyx. A very dark bird, has lots of black pigment and no browns to lighten the effect.
- Eumo. These birds, just like the Onyx, lack brown pigment, but the bird has less black pigment resulting in a lighter colored bird.
- Pied. This is a general term referring to a bird with areas where the base color is absent (e.g. white patches behind the yellow or red). These birds also have localised splashed of pigment around their bodies.
- There is also a Dimorphic Factor, a gene that can complicate the color by making cocks and hens of each type different.
Pied Red Canary
This list isn’t the end of the story, but it does help us to understand the basic ground on which other genetic variations are built.
Graeme, 1 June 2021
I am trying to gather some info. on how to breed Onyx canaries, for insertion into my Victorian Canary Club (Australia) newsletter. I understand that these birds are regarded as black canaries. Can you assist me? I thank you in anticipation of your reply. Regards, Graeme Kendrick - President