Out of all the letters reaching me probably more contain requests for advice on baldness than on any other ailment to which a canary is subject. I say "ailment for in most cases the loss of feathers is due to some factor upsetting the normal physiological function of the moult. There are a great many things that can do this. Wrong diet, wrong management, over-breeding all help to swell the number of birds with featherless heads and necks; wrong advice put out by those who should know better, even if they do not, does not decrease the number.
Before we can understand just why a bird does not have the feathers that nature intended, it is necessary for us to understand something of nature's process by which the normal bird is supplied with its feathers. Nature has provided that a bird shall grow one coat of feathers each year. In the wild state this takes place in our latitude and in the northern hemisphere in the latter part of July, in August, and the first part of September. The moult begins at the hottest period of the year and ends at the time when the first cool weather of autumn may be expected. These facts should be kept in mind for they furnish us with the only reliable means of controlling the moult that is now known. When a bird is placed in a room having an abnormally high temperature, or when he is subjected to sudden variations in temperature he will almost always go into the moult. The temperature changes appear to upset the functioning of the thyroid gland which governs to some extent all growth activities, although there are other glands that play an equally important part. Really it is a balance between the activities of a number of glands that govern the state of the body. And in this question of feathers the sex glands are of primary importance. When the sex glands are active the bird does not moult. The male will be in full song and the female will be in breeding condition. They will both be very active and have a high rate of metabolism (the process by which food is converted into energy).
More info on Canary molting can be found here.
When the sex glands are active there is also increased activity in the thyroid gland. When the thyroid gland is inactive the bird cannot be brought into breeding condition, will be sluggish, inactive and will put on fat with great ease. Males and females alike will sit around with the feathers held loosely. They are not sick; but the males will not sing and the females will not mate. They go into moult easily when placed in a room having too high a temperature. This last state corresponds to the winter condition of birds in the wild state. It is a natural provision whereby the body decreases its activities during the months of bad weather and stores up fuel as a protection against interrupted food supply. The loosely carried feathers enable the bird to keep itself warm with the expenditure of the least amount of energy, and every grain of fat that it carries may be needed to sustain life should it be caught in a blizzard.
Now it is a commonly observed fact that where two physiological functions depend upon each other as cause and effect, the existence of either will tend to bring about the existence of the other. The existence of the moult will stop breeding, the existence of too much fat will also stop breeding, while stimulation of the sex glands will stop moulting and lead to the reduction of fat. While birds live in the natural state the bodily functions fall into a natural order, but when man takes a hand this order is very often upset and it becomes impossible to say which comes first. It is like the classical problem of the chicken or the egg. This will be better understood in connection with the actual causes of upset moult that will presently be given.
Kinds of Baldness:
There are five kinds of baldness known in canaries.
(1) Congenital Baldness:
There are two ways this may be brought about. When two crested birds are bred together they often throw chicks having deformed head featherings. Some of these chicks may have great masses of feathers on their head while others may have bald spots. Such bald spots are present from the time that the bird hatches. They never have had any feathers or even fuzz on them. When a crested bird is mated to birds having no crested blood and this is carried on over several generations the crest becomes smaller with each generation and will develop defects, such as clefts of naked spots in the center. A continuation of such breeding methods may lead to birds that are totally bald on the tops of their heads. In this case there must be crested blood, and crested birds. It matters not whether inbreeding or outbreeding leads to the baldness; it is in every case a defective crest that we see when we look at the bald head. Only the head is affected. The second way in which baldness can be brought about by breeding is where two yellow birds are mated together. I use the term "yellow" here in its technical sense, meaning a bird that has the color extended uniformly throughout the web of the feathers, as distinguished from the buff bird that has a colorless edging around the web of each feather. When two yellow birds are mated together the feathers become thinner, narrower, harder, more brittle and shorter. This does not happen in the wild state for the simple reason that in the wild state the canary is dark green with almost no trace of yellow except here and there yellowish green. The yellow canary is an albino like the yellow parakeets that are also not found wild. Where this line of breeding is continued for some years the feathers become so short and brittle that the birds will seem to be half naked most of the time. For congenital baldness there is no cure. If the crested bird that is bald is of value, it may be bred to a crest bred bird with good head feathers and will produce some normal young. If the short feathered yellow bird is of value it may be bred to a heavily feathered buff bird and produce normal feathers.
(2) Baldness Due to Upset Moult:
Roller breeders often have this in their young males. Most young males are changed to the singing cages at the time they are feathering their heads at the end of the baby moult. Some of them are apt to be well advanced in their song and the breeder is over anxious to get t, hem into the singing cages and on to a song diet before they develop faults that will make them worthless as show birds. The birds are transferred a little too soon and the diet changed a little too drastically. The result is that the bird comes into full song almost at once and at the same time stops moulting the head feathers. The baby feathers that are still on the head and neck will not stand the wear placed upon them. They soon wear out and the bird is bald. This same thing may happen with any moulting bird. A cold room, a too stimulating diet that brings the bird into breeding condition before the moult is ended, may stop the bird from moulting all of its feathers and then if a new moult is not forced the bird will go bald.
(3) Baldness Due to Exhaustion:
This is a modification of the case described above, though more serious. Many breeders, especially the novices, will overfeed their hens at the end of the breeding season. They may want that extra nest of birds or they may merely be ignorant and think that they are being kind to their birds. The over-fed hen stays in breeding condition. Often it happens that she has started to moult while raising a nest of birds and has been stimulated in order to save the birds. Often she has been bred for five, six, or even eight nests with no regard to her condition. She does not moult, the feathers that she has wear out, and she is left naked. In many cases she has been so exhausted that should she be forced into a moult she will die, because she is unable to metabolize the materials necessary for the production of feathers.
(4) Baldness Due to Lack of the Food Necessary for Feather Production:
Many persons who keep singers do not realize that a bird needs special food during the moulting season and do not give the bird the food necessary to make the feathers. They feed him on some stale package seed and discolored lettuce leaves and expect him to grow a coat of feathers on that. Well he usually tries and makes a fair job of it, but he ruins his digestion in the process, and is very apt to die just about the time he gets nicely feathered. But in some cases he saves his digestion and goes bald.
(5) Baldness Due to the Loss or Destruction of Feathers:
Birds normally grow but one coat of body feathers per year. If the large feathers are pulled out or damaged they will be replaced at anytime, for nature has been wise enough to provide against the loss of flight power (which would mean the loss of life in the wild state) which would follow if a bird could not replace its flight feathers at any time; but the body feathers, and often the tail feathers, once lost, are not as a rule replaced until the next moult. The body feathers may be lost by hand washing a bird and removing all the oil from the feathers and then not removing all the soap. The feathers become dry and brittle and soon the bird is bald. They may be lost by fighting, feather plucking, or excessive lice and mite infection. And I believe that they may be lost because of feather mites. There are those who would have us believe that every case of baldness is due to feather mites. Possibly I am not a close observer, but, frankly, I have never seen a case of baldness due to this cause and doubt very much whether those who report this have actually ever seen such a case or could tell what a feather mite looks like. How many anterior claws has it and how many posterior horns or hairs? This does not mean that I doubt the existence of a depluming mite. It is a common infection of poultry and pigeons and is very closely related to the scaly leg mite. They look very much alike but the feather mite is only about half as large as the scaly leg mite, that is, about 1/100 of an inch long, exclusive of projecting processes, and the feather mite about 1/200 of an inch long exclusive of projecting processes. Neither of them causes much trouble in canaries and both are easily exterminated by a very simple means which I have described elsewhere.
Treatment of Baldness:
(1) There is no treatment of congenital baldness that can ever be effective. It would be as impossible to make such a bird grow feathers on skin having no feather follicle as it would be to make a man grow three legs or an extra ear or nose.
(2) It is only necessary to remoult birds that have become bald because of interrupted moult. This can be done by placing the birds in a very warm place as a rule, or by moving them from place to place daily for several weeks. I think that it is usually the best plan to treat the bird so as to keep it in perfect health and wait for the next moult to correct its appearance.
(3) The case of t0ne bird exhausted from over breeding is not so simple. It is often impossible to force such birds into moult by the usual processes, and I have found that the best method is to turn such birds into flight for six months or more and then, if they do not remoult themselves, to try to cause them to remoult. It is useless to try to breed such birds, for in that condition they cannot produce chicks that will live, though once they have gotten to moult fully they are as good as they ever were. I have been experimenting on the action of thyroid gland products in the control of this condition. There is a drug produced from the thyroid glands of cattle and sheep that is known as Thyroid Residue. It comes in liquid form and must be diluted with water and alcohol in equal parts in the ratio of one part of the drug to twenty parts of the solvent before using it on a canary. The dose of this one to twenty solution is one to three drops to the ounce of drinking water. Its physiological effect is to decrease the activity of the thyroid gland and the sex gland. My experiments with this drug are incomplete, so that I cannot say just how valuable it will prove in this respect.
(4) The only thing to do in cases where a bird has not had the necessary food is first to build up the health of the bird and then cause it to remoult.
(5) The only sensible treatment of a bird that has lost any or all of its feathers from some external cause is to remove the cause and then wait for the next moult to correct the bird's appearance. Dosing the bird with dangerous drugs (most of the drugs sold for this purpose are preparations of potassium chlorate) or dabbing it with blisters (the salves sold for this purpose are mostly blisters made from carbolic acid and vaseline, or sulphur) is needless cruelty. Blistering the skin will in some cases make the feathers grow on the blistered part, but when a bird has lost enough feathers to make it bald the use of a blister Over the entire area would probably kill the bird.
The Moulting of Breeding Stock:
Almost every breeder has some birds that fall into moult and then stop at the end of the breeding season. Some of these birds will later be unable to complete the moult; they will continue in breeding condition until they exhaust themselves and are ruined. This condition is due to failure on the part of the breeder to follow the correct routine at the end of the breeding season. For the benefit of breeders having this moulting trouble in their flocks I will describe a system that I have found to work very well. When I get ready to discontinue breeding, four flights, each large enough to hold from 16 to 20 birds, are made ready. Two of these flights are so arranged that they can be darkened at any time of the day. As the hen comes into condition, she is taken away, and the cock left to wean the last nest of birds alone. The hen is placed at once in one of these flights. The food is cut down at once to canary and rape in the seed cups, with green food and cuttlebone as the only extras. These birds are not given the light until 8:00 or 9:00 o'clock in the morning; they are put to bed at 2:00, 3:00, or 4:00 o'clock in the afternoon. During the middle of the day they are given a bath in the direct sunshine.
When the males finish weaning the chicks, they are put into the other darkening flight and given the same treatment except that I have found it best to give them a little tonic seed and a little egg food every day. About one ounce egg cup full of the two mixed together for each ten birds is enough. Once each week the cages are washed and sterilized, as are all my cages, and at this time every one of these birds is inspected closely. I note the amount of weight lost and the growth of new feathers. As soon as each bird is moulting well, and the abdomen has lost its fat, it is placed in the second flight, males in one, females in another. In this second flight the amount of egg food and tonic seed is increased two or three times and the eating day lengthened in order to keep the birds in good condition and provide them with the necessary food elements to make their new coat; but great caution is exercised in order to see that no bird is too greatly reduced on the one hand and that none come back into breeding condition on the other. Any hen that goes into a very violent moult and is evidently not getting enough food in this second flight to carry her over is put into the young hens' flight. Any hen that exhibits signs of breeding condition while in flight number two is put back into flight number one at once. The same treatment is given to the cocks. None of the cocks is returned to the singing cages until the moult is over.
By the use of the method for the last two years I have had but one hen "stuck in moult" and have not had a single male stop singing during the moult or fail to feather perfectly. Not one bird has been lost during moult in that time. As the males complete their moult they are returned to the singing cages and as the females, both old and young, complete the moult they are put into their winter flight and provided with their winter diet, which is seed, green food, and egg with tonic seed twice each week. The eating day of the females is limited to about 7 or 8 hours out of the 24 during the entire winter. Hens wintered by this method do not come into breeding condition in January. Some of them may not be ready to breed until April; but when they are ready, there are no dead babies in the nests, for the hens are in perfect condition themselves and can produce perfect chicks and give them perfect care. One infrequent cause of baldness in canaries, which may be mentioned here for the sake of completeness, is a skin disease due to infection with a pathogenic mould (fungus) that is very closely related to ring-worm in human beings.
Taken from the book "Diseases of Canaries" by Robert Stroud.
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