Part 7: how to tell males from females

Unlike any other variety of type (or posture) canary, identifying the sex of a Lizard canary is easy. 

Biologists refer to it as sexual dimorphism; one of those scientific phrases that says in two words what would otherwise need a full sentence.  In simple English it means that the sexes of a particular species look different from one another. Familiar examples amongst British garden birds are the blackbird, the chaffinch and the bullfinch.

Amongst canaries, there are only two that I can think of: the dimorphic colour canary (which is based on a type of feather) and the Lizard canary (which involves feather, pigment, melanins and more).  Of course there are exceptions (more of them later), but 99% of Lizards are easy to place into one of four categories: gold cocks, gold hens, silver cocks and silver hens. Can it really be that simple?  Let’s see.

First, let’s distinguish between golds and silvers.  Although they sound like colour pigments, they arise from two types of feather; the equivalent of ‘yellow’ and ‘buff’ in type canaries, or ‘intensive’ and ‘non-intensive’ in colour canaries. In golds, the feather structure is fine and compact; the pigment is deposited right up to the edge of the vanes.  In silvers, the feather structure is broader, and the pigment tends to fall short of the extremities. Thus golds appear to have a more intense colour, while the silvers tend to have a frosty appearance.

The real colour derives from two groups of pigments: lipochromes, ranging from yellow to red, which are produced from carotenoids in the birds’ diet; and melanins which are responsible for the greys, browns and blacks.  All classic Lizard canaries have a yellow ground colour, whether they are colour-fed or not.  The latter, as shown here, acquire a reddish colour (an orange-chestnut in practice) by the addition of red canthaxanthin (usually synthetic) to the diet during the moult.  I am not going to go into the metabolism of these pigments here, but their intensity and distribution are influenced by the sex of the Lizard canary.

In its simplest form, this can be summarised as

a)  hens tend to display more melanins (and phaeomelanins) than the cocks, especially on the breast;

b)  cocks tend to be brighter and deeper in colour than hens.

Of course, there’s more to sexing Lizards than that, but rather than go into a lengthy description, let’s have a look at some real examples.

A gold cock.

Male gold Lizard canary (colour-fed)
Male gold Lizard canary (colour-fed)

Colour: very bright and deep colour everywhere; gold edge to the spangles.

Rowings: a few on the breast and flanks.

Type: the gold cock often has a fit and muscular look with broad shoulders, an aggressive stance, and a ‘mean’ eye.  N.B. do not confuse ‘fit’ with ‘skinny’ birds.

The bird shown here is a good example; you could never mistake it for a gold hen..

A silver cock.

Male silver Lizard canary (colour-fed)
Male silver Lizard canary (colour-fed)

Colour: bright and deep colour, especially on the breast, head and rump; silver edge to the spangles; slight frosty collar around the neck.

Rowings: vary from minimal to extensive.  The best can compete with a good silver hen.

Type: also looks muscular, but usually bulkier than a gold cock.  Also has a ‘mean’ eye.

The bird shown here is an excellent example; it’s rowings are well above average, but you still wouldn’t mistake it for a silver hen.

A gold hen.

A female gold Lizard canary (colour-fed)
A female gold Lizard canary (colour-fed)

Colour: deep gold, but duller than a gold cock (thanks to a suffusion of phaeomelanin brown); gold edge to the spangles, sometimes a little frosty; slight golden haze around the neck; cap may fade slightly at the back.

Rowings: vary from modest to extensive; should be considerably more than an typical gold cock.

Type: more rounded than a gold cock, sometimes buxom; a ‘soft’ eye.

The bird shown here is an outstanding example. Its colour is not far off that of a gold cock, but the dusky tint and the density of the rowings ensure that there is no risk of mistaken identity.

A silver hen.

A female silver Lizard canary (colour-fed)
A female silver Lizard canary (colour-fed)

Colour: the least colourful of the four; deep pigment limited to the head, breast and rump; cap often fades from a bright pigment above the beak to almost white at the back of the skull; silver edge to the spangles; frosty collar more pronounced than a silver cock, almost white in poor examples.

Rowings: should be extensive, extending across the breast, and running from the neck to the vent, but often fall short.

Type: usually the most rounded of the four, well-filled, sometimes plump; a ‘soft’ eye.

The bird shown here is a typical example of a good silver hen, but the more profuse rowings and duller colour distinguish it from a silver cock.

Please note that while some features are good clues as to the sex of a Lizard canary, they are not necessarily desirable in a show bird. Let me give you three examples:

Just because a gold cock has relatively few rowings, it does not mean that we should ignore them.  A gold cock with good rowings is a big plus.

Just because many silver hens have caps that fade towards the back, it doesn’t mean that it is acceptable.  The standard calls for colour to be ‘deep and even’ (my emphasis); this applies as much to the cap as any other part of the Lizard; there are no exemptions.

Just because a silver hen has extensive rowings, it does not necessarily mean that it is a good show bird.  The clarity and definition of the rowings is just as important, although some people overlook this point.

Finally, there will always be exceptions to these rules; those 50/50 birds that you are not sure are cocks or hens.  More about them in a future post.

Footnote:

My thanks to Nigel Hastead for the photographs. The gold hen shown above was Best Lizard at the 2014 LCA Classic.

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