The breeding season is, in my view, the most enjoyable of all the seasons - the thrill of seeing the first egg and then the first chick takes some beating. With sound preparation birds should be coming into breeding condition early to mid March - the most obvious signs your birds are ready for the forthcoming season are when cocks sing lustfully and hens start to pick up wood shavings (or newspaper) from the cage floor.
Your build up to the season should be gradual - starting at the end of the show season with the selection of the following years breeding team.
Selecting the breeding Team
Determining the best can be a real challenge - developing the "eye" for a good fife takes a while but studying both your own birds and others you'll soon get the hang of what to look for and what to improve in your own stud. Show success is one factor to look for, but shouldn't be the only consideration, for some reason certain birds look like world beaters in your own birdroom but can go to pieces in front of a judge.
I do my first draft of pairings in October - at the start of the show season - I'll review the visual quality of the birds and then the parentage and quality of the siblings. Ideally you want to retain birds that are from "good" families by that I mean that their brothers and sisters are of similar quality and also worth retaining.
At this time of year (October) you can also judge what birds you may need to bring in to your stud. Advice on bringing in outcrosses (Birds from other breeders studs) differs, I have heard of some breeders who will only bring in a hen as an outcross, where as others will bring in a strong cock bird to improve a particular fault.
Clearly once you've reviewed the overall quality you'll need to decide how many birds you plan to retain - you should then ensure you have the correct mix of yellow and buff feathered birds (yellow and buff pairings are the norm in fife canaries - the terms "yellow and buff" refers to the feather type rather than the colour - for example yellow feathered birds can in fact be green, blue, white, cinnamon or indeed clear in colour).
Most fife breeders, myself included, keep a range of colours from clears, variegated, greens, the odd blue and cinnamon birds. Quality should always be the deciding factor regardless of the colour - the real challenge of course is to have the quality across the range of colours - and this is how many of the top breeders have developed their stud.
Taking all of the above into consideration the final area I'll look at is the future shape and direction of the stud - by this I mean what pairs / trios I'll need to run next year to ensure there are suitable birds from which to select from for the following breeding season.
Pairs or Trios? Breeding Techniques
I use trios for a couple of reasons - the first is when I have an exceptionally good cock bird that I want to maximise the number of youngsters he produces for the show bench (in some cases I will run a cock with 3 or more hens). The second area and an outcome of running trios is the opportunity to start your own line breeding programme the following season - using the half brother, half sister parings.
I have already mentioned the outcross, other terminology used in the breeding programme includes, inbreeding and line breeding - there are many books on the subject far more detailed than I'll go into on this site and well worth a read in short the following will give you an overview.
I have a line breeding programme particularly well established in my clear line. Line breeding is the breeding of birds within one line of descent - ie nephew to auntie, half brother to half sister, cousin to cousin etc etc. The benefit of a line breeding programme is that after a number of years the vast majority of the birds will possess similar characteristics - obviously the key to a successful line breeding programme is to ensure that the characteristics are ones you want your birds to have!. Inbreeding is the pairing of father to daughter, brother to sister, mother to son I have used this infrequently where I have wanted to "retain" the genes of an exceptionally good cock bird.
Starting the breeding season
The hens are given a further two weeks in the flight cages to ensure they're in tip top condition. I then place the hens in the empty cages, complete with nest pans, next to their intended mates. With pairs after a day or so I'll pull back the wooden divider - just enough so the cock can call to and feed the hen but not enough to enable him to enter her cage. After a few more days I'll pull the divider back letting the cock in - in most cases the cock will tread (mate) the hen immediately - even when this does not happen I'll leave the cock bird in, unless the hen is overly aggressive to him (which usually indicates she is not quite in condition). The cock remains with the hen throughout the rest of the season.
With trios I'll watch the activity of the hens more carefully - when I see a bird showing an interest in the nest pan I'll run the cock bird in - again the cock will normally tread the hen within the first few moments of being in the cage - after he has mated I will return him to his cage before running him with a second hen later in the evening. I'll continue this process until the first egg is laid.
Setting eggs, Incubation and Hatching
A fife hen will lay between 4 and 6 eggs in a clutch (although I have had hens lay only 2 eggs in a clutch), normally eggs will be laid each morning until the clutch is complete. The majority of canary breeders, and I am no different, will remove each egg as it is laid and replace it with a plastic dummy egg. The full clutch can then be replaced for incubation - this should ensure that all the chicks hatch on the same day.
Incubation takes between 12 and 14 days - I keep a look out for shells on the floor from 12 days. On the first sign of the chicks I offer some greenfood (spinach or watercress) and egg food, after three days I offer soaked seed.
Fifes are generally good parents and will rear a nest of chicks without any fuss as long as a fresh supply of green and egg food is available (I offer mine first thing in the morning and on my return from work).
The first few days of a young fifes life are critical -whilst not wanting to disturb the hen too much I make daily checks on the young chicks to ensure that all have full crops (the crop is just below the beak of the bird and enables you to see that young birds are being fed) the other check is on the number of chicks. I have found on a number of occasions a two or three day old chick that has been accidentally ejected from the nest seemingly dead on the cage floor - simply take the youngster in your hand and blow warmly on it - remarkably I (and indeed I know of many birdkeeping friends) who have "revived" birds in this way - to return them to the nest and see them raised to adulthood.
At two weeks old young fifes will start to venture out of the nest - I replace the round egg drawers with small plastic trays (pictured on the site) so the young fifes have easier access to their food. At 16 -17 days young fifes will start to pick up there own food, although most are still reliant on the parents to provide the main feed of the day.
It's at this time that the fife hen will show signs of wanting to go to nest again - to encourage this I provide a second nest pan at the opposite end of the breeding cage. The cock will continue to feed the young fifes as the hen starts her second round in earnest.
Most books offer advice that young canaries should be removed from their parents at 21 days - I prefer to remove my young when I'm confident that they're feeding themselves - be that at 19 or 23 days.
The birds are then rung with split metal rings, with the details logged in my record book, before being transferred into their weaning cages.
At about 4 weeks old I start to introduce small hard seed to the young fifes as a complement rather than replacement of their diet. I prefer to use a mixture of conditioning seed and Haiths Kraker tonic mix - these smaller and richly nourishing seeds give the fifes a great start. Between 5-6 weeks the young fifes are moved into flight cages and mixed canary seed is added to the diet.