Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis)

Identification

Cape Canaries are small, brightly-coloured birds. Males and females can be difficult to tell apart; you must look closely! Both sexes have yellow faces, but in males, the yellow runs all the way to the top of the head, forming a cap. In females, the top of the head is grey. There are a few other subtle differences to note: females have more dark streaks on their backs than males, and tend to be a paler yellow underneath.

Identification guide for male and female Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis)
Female Cape Canary. Gregg & Desire Darling, St Francis Bay, Eastern Cape. 11 September 2015. BirdPix 20281
Inset photo: Male Cape Canary. Kyle Finn, Knysna, Western Cape. 15 July 2014. BirdPix 88030

Juvenile Cape Canaries look quite different to adults; they are a dull, pale yellowish colour, and have heavy streaks all over their heads and bodies.

Identification guide for juvenile Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis)
Juvenile Cape Canary. Dieter Oschadleus, Paarl, Western Cape. 21 December 2016. BirdPix 33111
Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis) at different stages of development
L to R: Cape Canary immature, subadult, adult. Giles Mulholland, Nelspruit, Mpumalanga.
Immature: 6 December 2011. BirdPix 134701; Subadult: 13 June 2014. BirdPix 134703;
Adult: 22 June 2013. BirdPix 134702

You may have heard the expression “sing like a canary,” and for this species, the words are fitting! Cape Canaries belong to a group of birds called songbirds. Songbirds have specially developed vocal organs which allow them to produce complex songs, and Cape Canaries are no exception. Their ceaseless, cascading song is an iconic part of urban garden soundscapes. You can listen to their song here.

Habitat

Cape Canaries feed primarily on seeds, but will also eat fruits, flowers, and insects. They utilize a variety of habitats ranging from grassland, forest edges, and coastal sand dunes to residential gardens, agricultural fields and urban parks. Thanks to their seed-eating diet, Cape Canaries are commonly found at bird feeders.

Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis) feeding on seeds
Male Cape Canary feeding on seeds. Gerald Wingate, Bellville, Western Cape. 19 November 2019. BirdPix 97784

Distribution

Because of their reliance on seeds and flowering plants, these birds are largely absent from the dry interior of southern Africa. This SABAP2 distribution map shows the wide belt of land they inhabit. 

SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis)
SABAP2 distribution map for Cape Canary, downloaded 27 October 2021. Details for map interpretation here.

Cape Canaries are endemic; they are only found in southern Africa, and nowhere else in the world! Though their distribution reaches up into parts of Zimbabwe and Mozambique, Cape Canaries do not occur further north.

Behaviour

Cape Canaries are seldom seen (or heard) alone—they are gregarious. When breeding, these birds may be seen in small family groups or male-female pairs; outside of the breeding season, they often congregate in large flocks, sometimes with other seed-eating bird species. They are often seen foraging, searching for seeds in small groups or flocks.

Cape Canary (Serinus canicollis) is a gregarious species
Flock of Cape Canaries. Dave Rimmer, Underberg, KwaZulu-Natal. 10 August 2015. BirdPix 21660

 Cape Canaries are sometimes easier to hear than to see—though they may choose conspicuous perches when singing, males will just as often sing from the tops of tall trees.

Cape Canaries usually nest alone, but if there is a lack of suitable places to build nests, several pairs of birds may nest in the same clump of trees. Females do most of the construction work, selecting a branch in a bush or tree and using a mixture of small twigs, leaves, roots, mosses, and even string to make a sturdy cup-shaped nest. The inside is lined with soft seeds, feathers, and hair.

Further resources

Species text in the first bird atlas (1997)

Virtual Museum (BirdPix > Search VM > By Scientific or Common Name)

More common names: Kaapse Kanarie (Afrikaans); Serin du Cap (French); Gelbscheitelgirlitz (German); Canario del Cap (Italian); Serín dorsigrís (Spanish)

Recommended citation format: Daniel KA 2021. Cape Canary Serinus canicollis. Biodiversity and Development Institute. Available online at https://thebdi.org/2021/10/27/cape-canary-serinus-canicollis/

Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel
Karis Daniel has been fascinated by birds since she was young, but while she was at university they became a passion. On a study abroad programme in South Africa, she was captivated by the diversity and abundance of bird life she encountered, and ultimately found herself drawn back to study them further. She completed her undergraduate studies at Wilson College in Pennsylvania. In 2017, she also received the opportunity to study wildlife ecology and conservation at the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute, where she completed her honours research and developed a focus on conservation science. Karis is currently a PhD candidate at the University of Cape Town.