Bird’s eye view: the Roller canary (Cage & Aviary Birds 02.03.16)

In 1921 Hans Duncker was taking a walk and heard a nightingale sing.  Two things struck him as extraordinary: firstly it was August, long past the season when nightingales sang; secondly he was in the middle of Bremen, his home town.  The explanation, when he discovered it, was even more extraordinary.  The song was produced not by a nightingale, but by a canary! (1)

Hans Duncker went on to achieve fame as the creator of the red canary, but it is the owner of the ‘nightingale’ canary that is of interest here.  He was Karl Reich, a shopkeeper who kept a stud of song canaries that had a talent for mimicking the nightingale’s song.  That talent would have been of no value unless they could hear a nightingale sing, but Reich had learned the trick of ‘stopping’ (2) his nightingales so that they came into breeding condition several months later than usual and were singing in the autumn – at the same time as the young canaries were practising their song.  The youngsters would be kept away from other canaries and hear only the nightingale’s ‘jerks’ (as they were called in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries), which they duly emulated.  By selective breeding, Reich developed a line of canaries so adept at picking up these notes that he was able to dispense with the nightingale and rely on the best of the older canaries to teach the youngsters. These birds are known as ‘schoolmasters’ and Roller canary (3) enthusiasts still use this training system today.

It is a long time since I have read an article about Roller canaries in Cage and Aviary Birds.  Those that I remember tended to concentrate on song training, with detailed lists of the Roller’s tours (4), but Graham Wellstead’s article entitled ‘Rocky rollers?’ (C&AB 2 March 2016) presented a very different insight to the world of song canaries.

Graham’s assessment sounds rather familiar: the once pre-eminent Roller is in decline; it is a demanding variety with a complex song that both the bird and its breeder must learn; many of the birds offered for sale are from non-contest strains of unknown provenance; there are other song canaries available, often with claims of high quality, but no means of assessing the standard of their song; his conclusion is that without a dedicated following committed to maintaining the purity of its song, the Roller will ‘revert to the level of mongrels’.

The article is very well written, and the message is clear.  It is worth reading (5).  It obviously struck a chord (excuse the pun) with Rob Innes, who featured it in his editorial.  Rob not only precises Graham’s main points but adds an eloquent emphasis of his own “in order to safeguard the priceless legacy of the true roller song”.

Well said sir.  Substitute “Lizard’ for ‘Roller”, and ‘patterned plumage’ for ‘song’, and both Graham and Rob could have been writing about the Lizard canary.  Fortunately the classic Lizard is on the rise again, but the risks remain.

Rob, positive as ever, does come up with a suggestion and that is an ‘All-Variety Song Canary Club’, but adds a qualification “Pipe dream?  Daydream?”.  I suspect that for most Roller breeders it would be a ‘nightmare’!  If there is one thing about song canaries that makes them even more of a challenge than Lizards, it is the necessity of keeping them away from other birds so that their song is not ‘contaminated’ by unwanted notes or the wrong delivery.  Those notes might sound quite agreeable to you and me, but there are huge differences between the songs of the three varieties recognised by COM (6).  At the 2016 World Show, they were not only kept well away from the birds in the main exhibition hall, but also from each other.  Each breed was staged in a separate room, with a steward to ensure that the door was closed after someone entered!

Therein lies the problem.  An “All-Variety Song Canary Club’ would offer no benefit to breeders of the true Roller canary because their birds cannot mix with other varieties.  There might be a benefit to breeders of generic song canaries because they do have certain interests in common, but that should not be confused with safeguarding the ‘priceless legacy of the true roller song’.  There is only one way of doing that, and that is to keep the breed true.

Just like the Lizard canary.


  1. For the full story, see The Red Canary by Prof. Tim Birkhead.  Do not be mislead by the title, it goes far beyond red canaries.  This is the most wide ranging, thoroughly researched, and fascinating book ever written on canaries and the people and cultures that produced them.
  2. ‘Stopping’ involves controlling (stopping) the light so that the birds are fooled about the seasons.
  3. The Roller canary is the English equivalent of the Harz canary on the continent, although there are differences in the song standard.
  4. ‘Tours’ are the various song passages that a Roller canary is expected to perform in competition.
  5. You can obtain back copies of Cage & Aviary Birds here.
  6. The three varieties are the Harz (originally from Germany), the Waterslager (Belgium) and the Timbrados (Spain).  The Harz has the softest song, almost a murmur; the Waterslager has a bubbling song, as its name suggests; the Timbrados sounds closer to a typical canary (to my untutored ear).


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