How many feathers does a canary have? From the research undertaken by Hutt and Ball in 1938, the answer is probably between 1,500 and 2,000. The colour and quality of the feathers are important features of any show canary, but only in the Lizard does every one of those feathers have to be of the right size, shape and colour; with the correct degree of variegation; held in the correct position; and form a precise pattern – especially while under the scrutiny of a judge!
So what do these feathers actually look like? Here is a montage that shows six of the most important types. They are all moulted feathers, and come from a number of birds.
Type 1 are flight feathers: long and strong to enable the bird to fly (the tail feathers are similar). 1b shows the dark upper side and 1c the underside, which is a silvery grey. When they overlap one another, these feathers create the impression of being almost black with a grey-brown fringe. 1a is from an over-year bird, and shows the characteristic white tip that only appears at the second moult.
Flight feathers gain their strength from interlocking barbs and barbules in the feather vanes which produce a very strong but lightweight structure. When folded against the body they appear very dark, but when fanned they are almost transparent and shimmer with light. The Lizard has many surprises.
Type 2 are the lacings, the scapular feathers and the median coverts, located where the wings adjoin the shoulders. Note the broad proportions and the stark contrast of light edges against the dark vanes of these feathers. This contrast is most pronounced in silver Lizards but should also be evident in the golds. The lacings are probably the most under-rated feathers in the plumage of the Lizard: they hardly ever get mentioned; yet historically they are an important feature and deserve greater attention. You can read more about them here.
Type 3 are breast feathers. These feathers have a soft dark underflue close to the base of the feather, which is usually hidden from view. The outer feather – the part that we see when looking at a bird – is more rigid, due to the presence of barbules which interlock to give the feather vanes greater strength. Here we can see yellow pigment with dark melanins closer to the shaft. These are the markings that form rowings; the melanin and colour will vary according to the sex and feather type of the bird.
The breast feathers of a gold cock may look a deep antique yellow, but blow on them and they reveal a dark secret. The underflue should be inky-black. The striking overlay of yellow on black, with a thin inter-layer of white, helps to explain why the Lizard’s colour is unique.
Type 4 are the spangles, the feathers that run from the head, down the back, to the rump of the Lizard. These are the most important show feature in the Lizard canary. There are many similarities with the breast feathers, but these feathers are more compact; the dark centre and light fringes are broader; and the contrast between light and dark is more pronounced. The true pigment (i.e. gold or silver) is only visible at the very extremities of the feathers.
The spangling is created by the way in which each feather overlaps its neighbour. This illustration from Blakston’s Illustrated Book of Canaries and Cage Birds (1878-81) shows how it works better than any written description. Note, however, that the spangled effect is achieved not only by the feathers overlapping, but also by being kept firmly in place by their neighbours, so that all the spangles are held in a neat line.
Spangles are the most important feature of the Lizard canary, but faults are common. Many Lizards have spangles that are indistinct or don’t line up; or are so fine that they form continuous stripes (known to Lizard breeders as “tramlines”); or that have been plucked and re-grown with a coarse fringe. Sometimes only one or two chains of spangles are affected, sometimes all of them. Sometimes the spangles on the left side are excellent, while those on the right are defective (and vice versa). It can be very exasperating, but without straight chains of distinct and uniform spangles, a Lizard canary will always struggle to catch the eye of a judge.
Type 5 are the feathers on the cap. Not only are they the smallest feathers on the Lizard canary, but they also display one crucial difference from all the others: the underflue is white. A white underflue anywhere else is a sign of a foul marked bird, a serious fault. Note too, that the yellow is different from the antique yellow of the breast (type 3) feathers. This is partly because of the white underflue (which acts in a similar fashion to a light undercoat in paintwork), and partly because of the feather structure, which reflects less blue light.
Type 6 are not true feathers at all, but semi-plumes. They have quite a loose fluffy structure because their primary purpose is to provide insulation. They lie in between the main contour feathers and are not visible under normal circumstances. They also help to give the plumage “body” by bulking out the contour feathers and creating that desirable cobby look.
The only semi-plumes that are sometimes seen are those that lie close to the wings. They can be flicked out and protrude beyond the body feathers. This is only a temporary fault, but it does detract from the smooth contours of a show bird. The semi-plumes of the Lizard should be dark.
The above are the six most obvious types of feather found in the Lizard. There are several others that create their own patterns, even though they don’t have specific names. Have another look at the portrait of the ideal Lizard and note the striations on the cheeks; the dark crescent under the chin; and the arrow-like markings under the tail. They should all be present and clearly defined, but just like the lacings, hardly anyone ever talks about them. I do.
We must not forget that however correct the individual feathers may be, it is their combined effect that is all-important. In the best examples, the feathers have a silky bloom that is a joy to behold. They blend to form smooth flowing contours, and provide a broad canvas on which the intricate pattern of the plumage can be displayed to full effect.
Some people seem to believe that a Lizard is synonymous with good feather quality, but that is not true. There are plenty of poor specimens around: feathers too coarse or too fine; a fold across the breast; a split in the back; a frill around the neck . . . I could go on. As in all things, Lizard breeders must be vigilant to maintain all the essential characteristics of the breed. Taking feather quality for granted is asking for trouble.
The above article is a revised edition of an article published in Cage and Aviary Birds on 29 October 2014 (issue number 5827). You can obtain the original article in digital format here.
My thanks to Rob Innes for clarifying the differences between coverts, median coverts and scapulars.