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Feature Articles

Roller Canaries

From an Interview with Jerome Bremmers

Lovely Varigated Buff Roller
Lovely Varigated Buff Roller

Roller canaries are described as "The Opera Singers of the Canary World." Considering this description, we begin to appreciate, that the Rollers song is the foremost requisite of a good bird. Originally Spanish explorers brought wild canaries from the Canary Islands, Azores and Madeira to Spain at the end of the 15th century. The Spaniards bred from these canaries and sold this progeny to many during their very slow travels through Europe. In the 17th century canaries were sold in Italy and in the beginning of the 18th century some of these birds found their way to the Hartz mountains in Germany. These birds were sold as companions to mine workers and others, that lived in the mountains. In this location Roller canaries have been bred and trained to a high degree, for several centuries. Because of this dedication by such bird keepers, the Roller canaries song has been worked on and improved to the degree it is today. Breeders would enter their birds into competitions to see which bird was the best singer.

Generally it is accepted that the Roller canary, (also known as the Hartzer canary or Song canary) is the oldest form of the modern canary breeds. While developing this breed, it was discovered that the canary can copy songs of other birds and to capitalise on this habit, the beautiful song of the Nightingale was focused on. Breeders found that by bringing the nightingale into a premature moult and back into song at the same time as young Rollers also came into song, that these young birds copied parts of the nightingales song. This then is where the Roller gets its beautiful water tours from. Rollers are particularly popular in Belgium, where they have been further developed. The Roller tours are now something fixed genetically in this breed and are heredity, but selective breeding must be undertaken to continue getting good birds.

Keeping and Managing Rollers
As with all other breeds of canaries Rollers are hardy and easy to cater for. They are a smaller canary breed, about the same size as a Gloster canary. Basic requirements include feeding the birds, canary or a canary mixture, as well as rape seed at certain times of the year. Grit, cuttlebone and fresh water daily. A bath a least once a week, and a regular variety of greens should be given. Birds are usually kept in small aviaries or flights during the non breeding season and when breeding, are paired up by placing them in cabinets, although colony breeding is an option some also use. Softfood and other extras are given as with all canaries at rearing time, with the object of getting as many good quality young birds on the perch as possible.

The Rollers Song
Unlike other canary breeds that sing with their beak open, Rollers sing with their beak closed. It is a soft gentle song, very pleasant and inoffensive. Evidence of a bird singing is only seen when we look at the throat area, where feathers look puffed up. This song consists of 12 rolls or tours, and with help and training, you can recognise each one. The tours or rolls are broken up into, sections such as the gluke, flutes, bell roll and bell tours, which are usually the easiest elements to identify. Other parts of the Rollers song will take a little time to get familiar with. In New Zealand there is a system known as the '100 point system', that judges use to score a Rollers song.

Group Of Rollers
Group Of Rollers

Most breeders are assisted in training young birds to sing, by the use of a tutor. The tutor is another adult bird that has the ability to sing all the right tours and rolls expected of a good bird. By placing young birds in with this bird and others that also sing in a similar manner, they are trained to sing like them. I select birds as soon as youngsters are through the moult. The selection is made from birds I know have been bred from good lines. I place these in training cages and bring them inside away from other birds. This doesn't mean its up to the tutor birds to teach them the song completely, as they already have this singing ability bred into them. You could say these tutors help them refine their singing skills. Other young birds may be selected to be trained, as they are observed whistling through the season.

All roller canaries on show must sing individually to be scored. Birds that do not sing are unable to be scored and therefore cannot be given any points. If we haven't already realised it yet, its only the cockbirds then that are able to be showed. This is one disadvantage of this breed. With all other canary breeds, there is the opportunity to show henbirds as well, as they are all bred to 'Type'. This involves size, shape, form, etc. As Rollers are judged purely on song, it is only cockbirds that can accomplish this, and these can be showed irrespective of what the birds look like.

This still means a bird must not be deformed in anyway, but although it would probably not happen often, a bird that has accidentally lost a toe or even foot and is still superlative at singing could still win on the show bench. In fact I have seen birds do exactly that !!

Many might associate Roller canaries with the colour, 'green' and its certainly true that many good rollers are predominately green, however this is not always the case. Green birds do tend to be better songsters and special care must be taken when breeding from white coloured birds. I never breed light birds to white birds, as young from these pairings tend to sing in higher notes or registers. Its important to breed young that have deeper tours and this favoured trait is seen to be associated with green or heavier variegated birds. To appreciate the importance of this, we note that judges score the first three tours from a maximum of 12, and these are deeper notes, whereas when you get to the last two tours , which are much higher notes, these are not scored so highly and can only be given a maximum of 2.

Buff Roller, slightly varigated bird
Buff Roller, slightly varigated bird

A further word of warning when it comes to mating selected pairs together. Don't think that by putting any two Rollers together, that good birds can be expected from them. Selected good cocks must be paired to the right hens. Be careful if buying new hens from a sale and bringing them home to pair to your birds. The song can be lost altogether if we are not cautious.

As a beginner to Roller canaries, being able to clearly identify all the different tours and rolls as we have described, takes practice and training. By listening to a recording of the birds songs and the description of these over and over, eventually some may go on to may qualify to serve as a judge, yet another stage to enjoying this special breed.

Judging Birds
Rollers have a special show cage unlike other canary breeds. This is mainly due to the fact that it has doors that open and close on the front. Opening these doors simulate a day dawning, which is usually the signal to the bird to start its song. Some judges may get three or four birds at a time, depending on how many he has to judge, and placing these birds about a metre away on a judging table he waits for a minimum of 8 minutes, for the bird to sing. If there is only a few birds to judge he will possibly wait longer, but he must give all birds the same length of time to sing. If birds don't sing in the time allowed, the cage is given a sticker saying it did not sing in the time allowed.

This highlights the need for breeders to undertake training their birds well at home, before ever taking them to a show.
Its important birds become familiar with the opening and closing of the doors, so that they realise, that when the doors are open, allowing the light in, this is the time to sing, something that will hopefully happen when they are on show.

Further training should be given to help the bird not be distracted by anything when doing this. For example they should be taken into the house and shifted around a bit, so that they get used to being in any position. Its also a good idea to put them in the car and take them for a drive and then bring them back home and see how they respond when we then open the doors. The object of all this is to help your birds cope with any given situation and yet still be able to sing well when on display, no matter how far they have travelled or what distraction may be in front of them, including different people. They have to be used to different judges and stewards that will be present at various shows.

When judging the birds, it is quite acceptable for the judge to start the birds off by whistling himself. Or if he is unable to whistle, he may carry a tape recording of a roller singing and by playing this, the birds will start singing themselves. Young birds especially often need prompted this way when first being showed.

Roller canaries may not have the largest following in New Zealand, but they are still very popular all over the country and there are usually reasonable numbers of them at most shows. For me its the song of the roller that makes it so special. Many may think its too involved to learn all about the things we have spoken about in this article and so perhaps shy away from starting out with Rollers, but for those that do get started, they are usually hooked for the rest of their
life !!

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