I took my canary for a walk today.

A neighbor friend saw me outside swinging my bird cage with canary included, and asked, “And where are you two going today?!”

Busted! Most people are at REAL jobs during the day, and so I feel free to walk around the courtyard in my raggedy shorts that are too short, and goofy top. Not to mention carrying my birdcage. But she caught me, on her way to work!

Photo by Elizabeth Dilts.

But I had my reasons for taking my canary for a walk. I recently read that canaries need a lot of Vitamin D – because they have a higher need for calcium than, say, my parakeet. And even though I carry the canary to my sunniest window every day, you can’t get that vitamin through glass. It’s also good exercise for their legs and feet and wings, to keep their balance in a swinging cage. So I’ve been taking him on walks.

I’m not the only one. Several years ago I had read in Bird Talk about canary owners in the Far East taking their birds for a walk, and meeting in a park, and this colorful idea had stuck in my mind. They must really love their birds! Surprisingly, it was hard for me to find more about this online, even though it turns out that it’s in China. This blogger noted that:

The men in this picture are resting on the curb beside their caged canaries, which they’ve taken out of the home, walked to the park and hanged in the trees. There are probably 20-30 birds in bamboo cages hanging in the trees near their owners.

My canary has never been outside, as far as I know, except perhaps from the breeder to the owner. And when I go away for a few days, I take him to a friend to look after him. But that’s about it.

I don’t stay outside long – as you may have noticed from my weather reports, I hate the heat, and the constant sun here. But a little bit is okay.

And once my canary got over his obsessive fear of the machine gun stuck to my forehead? (ie, my visor, which is probably a disguise like a beak, to look like a bird – all of which is NOT RIGHT, he thinks)- he just loves it, looking all around, noticing other birds, and of course getting unfiltered sun.

Update: Elizabeth Dilts, linked to the photo above,? wrote some more about it in a new post today!

I was surprised by this tradition when I first arrived in Shanghai, but it’s very common. I now live in Tianjin, farther north and near Beijing, where it is not as common here. That may be because of the very poor air quality or the much cooler climate. However, I’ve asked my Chinese friends who are from south of the Yangtze and each said it is very common. Men usually take their birds out in the early morning, from 6:30 a.m. to about 9 a.m. The birds hang in cages in the trees, which makes me wonder how much sunlight the birds actually absorb.
Originally, I thought this habit was just another way older people socialize in the mornings here.

(Or, how my neighbor and I socialize here in LA!)

But Elizabeth brings up a good point: certainly canaries shouldn’t be left in the sun, ever. Like all birds, they need at least a portion of the cage to be in shade. On one terribly hot day, I was drying my hair outside, and he was next to me. All of a sudden he started panting, breathing through his mouth, as dogs do, trying to cool down. That was frightening, and I immediately brought him inside to cool down. WARNING: all birds can overheat quite quickly, so do not ever leave them in the sun without shade in the cage!!

Photo is by Patricia, in Picasa. As usual, Google has made it impossible to contact any of the Picasa photographers, has a ?symbol up for the photo, and YET STILL HAS HIGH RES OF THE PHOTO AND INVITES YOU TO SEND IT AND PRINT IT!! Google is a TOTAL thief, and I will write more about copyright later. Anyway, I just used it small, and would be happy to use her real name if I ever find her.

*Since I wrote this a month ago, I’ve found other references to people taking birds in cages for a walk, and have added these notes.

From the Washington Post:

As the morning stretched on, old men waddled around with wire bird cages in hand. An expat had explained the rationale of “walking” a caged bird: The bird’s exercise comes from gripping its swaying perch.

From the Shangai Star, this was fascinating:

WHEN American traveller Archie Bell arrived in Shanghai in the early years of the 20th century, a pleasing street scene attracted him. A group of Chinese men were walking in the streets holding birdcages in their hands.

People may have turned a blind eye to such scene when they first encountered them, thinking perhaps that the man was just bringing the bird home to please his wife. But once they met the 20th or 30th bird-cage carrier, they may have found it rather strange, according to the book “The Spell of China” written by Archie Bell.

In Bell’s eyes, these men went out for walks with their pet birds, because it was a custom passed on from generation to generation. Even today, it can still easily be seen that many of China’s elderly men like to pass their time in this way.

In nearly every household, despite their cramped conditions, an empty space would be left for feeding one or several birds, tied by cords and living in clean birdcages hanging in the gardens.

On festive occasions, people in the city often went to temples or to places with ponds and gardens to breathe the fresh air, taking their birds with them.

This unique scene also aroused the attention of Alicia Bewicke Little, who wrote in her book, “The Land of The Blue Gown”, that the existence of each tree seemed to be solely for the purpose of hanging birdcages. Even people who could not afford to plant trees had a long bamboo pole with attachments from which to hang the birdcages.

In their daily lives, Chinese people took great pleasure from the company of song birds. And the happiness and sadness of birds awoke considerable sympathy among them, Little wrote.

This is from an Olympics blog from this summer:

Carrying pretty wooden cages, often with velvet covers, white haired men fill the streets as they make their way to the nearest park, swinging their cages as they walk, an effective way to maximize a walk for the bird I am told. Once they’ve arrived at a park, they most usually find a suitable place to loiter, or friends who have already found a suitable place to loiter, and then they neatly place their cage and bird on a nearby branch and sit down for a nice long chat. Some men like to whistle to their birds, but most just sit quietly with a friend or two talking.


  1. mark heath said:

    I hate the heat as well. Luckily, being a hermit, it’s always cool in my cave.

    October 31, 2008
  2. Well, it might be your obligation to walk your bat, then, Mark.

    November 2, 2008
  3. Candy said:

    Hi, Donna,

    I do love your birdwalking story. This fall I walked around the block near my house and heard some unusual birdsong. There are tall trees and feeders on that street, so I went hunting with binoculars for the source, thinking I’d discovered some exotic migrating–parakeet!–hanging in a cage on a sheltered porch, communing with the natives, happy as the proverbial lark. He probably would have loved a walk, too.

    It snowed 6 inches here yesterday, Donna. The neighborhood looks like Narnia. . .

    February 4, 2009
  4. Candy, I’ve seen one pair of parakeets also happy out on the front porch all day! (Actually on the side – not in the direct sun, of course.)

    But I don’t think they like snow as much as I do.

    February 19, 2009

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