AWS Articles

The Waterslager Canary

by Thomas B. Trujillo


The Waterslager Canary. Photo by Everett Putney

The Belgian Waterslager (Water Singer) song canary is one of the oldest established breeds of canaries in existence today. The earliest known reference to Waterslagers is in a French travelogue written in 1713. That author mentioned that while traveling through the Belgium, he had stopped at the town of Malinois (near Antwerp). He discovered many Protestant refugees living there that had been forced to flee France and the Spanish occupation of Holland. He was quite surprised to see that these refugees had fled with their slender yellow canaries. These birds were apparently prized as some of their most valued possessions. He wrote in his journal that after listening to their unusual song, which included the sounds of water, he could understand the reasons why.

Since that time, Waterslager fanciers have diligently protected their canaries through adversities such as economic upheavals and the numerous wars that have been fought in the European city of Belgium and on the fields of Flanders. Thanks to the dedication and love of their birds by these Belgian fanciers, Waterslagers have become the most popular of the three song canary breeds recognized by the world organization, Confederation Ornithologique Mondiale (COM).

Their popularity continues to soar throughout the world because this bird has so many desirable traits. Their repertoire includes water sounds and the sounds heard in the song of the European Nightingale. It also includes bell and flute sounds as refined as in any breed of song canaries. Waterslagers compose their "melodies" using one or a combination of these basic sounds, thereby creating songs of true beauty and intriguing variety.


The Sounds of the Waterslager

The different sounds that create the song of the Waterslager are often given a name phonetically similar to what the bird is actually heard singing. Klok is the name of the single water note and brings to mind a large drop falling a distance into a pool of still and deep water. The sound is actually softer and more similar to Wuut. When the bird sings a tour of Klok there will be a repetition of distinct and separate sounds like Wuuut .. Wuuut .. Wuuut.

Another water tour is Bollende which sounds like bubbling water. Here you can hear the single water notes emphasized but there is no noticeable pause between the notes. The "Bol" ( short for Bollende) tour when sung sounds like Wuut Wuut Wuut or Bluuu Bluuu Bluuu Bluuu.
The last water tour is Rollende in which the water notes are rolled and sound like boiling water. There is only enough emphasis in each rolling note to clearly distinguish the water sound in the tour. This sounds either like wutwutwutwutwut or blublublublublu.
A very different sound is the Chorr which is the equivalent to the bass roll in Rollers or the timbrÈ (deep ringing roll) in Spanish Timbrados. The Knorr tour is a deeper version of the Chorr. The tour begins with a C (Chorr) or K (Knorr) followed by a strong O sound and completed with a prolonged rolling R sound. This is quite an impressive tour.

A sound unique to the Belgian Waterslager is the Staaltone (steeltone). It is a metallic note resembling the sound of a metal hammer beating on a musical pipe or anvil. It can vary from a higher pitched ping to a lower pitched chong.

The Tjok note is one of the nightingale's notes and we can probably describe it as tchoke. The notes can be sung separate and distinct or can be rolled. As one small child at a show said, it sounds like a cute little train, 'tchok-tchok-tchok-tchok'.

The Waterslager also has the ability to create a variety of flute and bell notes and tou rs. Flute notes sound like a puff on a flute while a bell can sound like a phone or doorbell ringing. Some Waterslager breeders have been able to develop a particularly beautiful bell note which is frequently referred to as the church bell. It is composed of a double tiered sound like the church bell of tee-lung. The water sounds can also be heard in these notes and tours.



The Waterslager song is scored on a 300 point system rather than the 100 point system used for rollers and Spanish Timbrados. The judges in the various countries have their own particular methods of scoring and there can be some variation in scoring the same bird depending upon the locale. The Belgian judges appear to be the "toughest". The highest score that I have seen awarded in the country of Belgium was in the 130's. Such high scoring birds are very rare and most song contests do not have the benefit of one as an entry. Good fortune has been with me and I have had the opportunity to hear five Waterslagers that have scored in this range. In fact, during my exam to become a judge, I gave a score of over 130 to a Waterslager in a team competition. I was very nervous about giving such a score but felt a bit of relief when the judges giving the exam also scored the same bird in the130s.

How does a Waterslager scoring over 130 points sound? It has a clear, deep voice that holds each note or tour to an emotional level. One wants to applaud or yell out a strong YES! (or in my case BRAVO!). He sings seven or eight deep, and distinct Klok notes to draw your attention and then follows these with a sweet water roll. Then he sings a flute roll that has the reverberating hollowness heard in the best Rollers and spices it with token tours (the nightingale sounds) beginning as a roll and slowing to separate, deep tjoks. Before you start to miss the water sounds, he gives a rendition of Bollende, the bubbling water tour, followed by a "tightening" to a deep Knorr which is equivalent to a Roller's base roll.

Finally he shows off by striking his steeltones five or six times. He stops for a few seconds and begins again with a different composition of notes and tours spiced with hollow bells, glucke flutes and three or four church bell rings of tee-lung, tee lung. The more the bird sings the more the song becomes watery and one begins to hear notes and tours rarely heard from other fine Waterslagers. Regrettably, he will end his presentation, having demonstrated he can sing just about everything and sing it well. It is the variety of sound and the tonal quality of those sounds that makes him a star performer!

The Waterslager is still relatively unknown in North America and advice that applies to other song canaries may not apply equally well to the Waterslager. I do not believe, as some enthusiasts do, that different types of song canaries can be kept together without affecting their song quality. In my experience, the risk is too great.

The problem is that this intermingling interferes with you obtaining the best efforts of your birds. This is because the corruption of their unique song can be heard by the sounds of other birds creeping into their repertoire.

All canaries mimic sounds in their environment within a range determined by their genetics. I have seen Rollers quickly develop tours unacceptable in Roller competition because they have been kept in the same room as Waterslagers. I have heard Waterslagers kept with other types of canaries singing tours unacceptable in Waterslager competition. I have heard Waterslagers that were kept with Rollers sound sweeter and deeper as should be the case of the Rollers. However, these Waterslagers ultimately limited their natural variety of song as was also true in the case of the Rollers.

You (and the birds) are better off not allowing different breeds of song canaries to mix if you truly want to develop the best talents of your favorite type. Do not under any circumstances, consider cross breeding song canaries unless you just want to destroy the historical efforts of 400 years of dedicated bird breeders. Seasoned breeders are quick to tell you that when you bring in new blood lines from the same breed of song canary it may take many years to "settle" the bloodline back down. Bringing in completely new bloodlines (especially as varied as the currently developed breeds) will take even longer, if ever. All song canary breeds have an abundant supply of birds available. I would encourage the fanciers of each breed to focus on improving their favorite birds.

Most canary literature written in English, is authored by color and type canary breeders who emphasize feather texture, color and other physical standards. These factors do merit consideration in the selection of any breeding stock. However, in song canaries, the primary emphasis is the quality of song. This is especially difficult when one is not familiar with the song characteristics of a particular breed. If you really want to improve the song quality of your birds, you must invest the time and energy to learn the necessary requirements from reputable and experienced song bird breeders. Better yet, attend a song contest and acquire some first hand experience.

I have personally raised type and color canaries for years. In my experience, it is more difficult to live with a song canary with a faulty note than a color or type canary with a physical fault. A bird out of sight is out of mind, but one out of sight and still within hearing range is very annoying.
A good Waterslager even captivates the ear of the first time listener. We have all heard the sounds of water and a good Waterslager will imitate them to such a degree that the listener will immediately recognize the sounds. Even the staaltone has a harmony to it and it is not just a metallic "bang" sound.

A song canary is measured and judged by what it sings. "A Waterslager must sing water notes or it is not a Waterslager." This is how the Belgians characterize a Waterslager. Appearance or pedigrees do not mean a thing if the particular canary does not "sing water". However, the one bird that sings water by accident is of no value to the breeder if his offspring do not consistently inherit these innate abilities.

Waterslagers do have several physical characteristics that can offer some evidence or insight that one is at least observing a canary that could produce a Waterslager song and could possibility pass on this ability to its offspring.

All Waterslagers developed in Belgium have been limited in color to yellow. Recently, a dominant white mutation in these yellow birds has been produced. Ticking (as distinct from variegation) is common and acceptable if the dark areas do not cover over 25% of the bird's body. This ticking does not mean the presence of melanin in the bloodlines as seen in variegated birds. Tick markings are black or of a smudged appearance. The lack of melanin means there are no green or blue Waterslagers. Evidence of red factor and cinnamon in the feathering is not acceptable as it would indicate an outcross to a color canary.

The standard size for Waterslagers is approximately 6.5 inches in overall length. However, a slightly larger or smaller bird is of no consequence if it can produce the defined notes and tours of the Waterslager song. Unique features of the Waterslager that I can personally differentiate easily from other canaries lies in the head area. The beak appears to be of a larger and thicker appearance with more of a cone shape than of other canaries. The beak of a Waterslager has a stronger pinch than other canaries. Its eyes are a very pronounced and shiny black with lots of expression. The feathers at the back of the head rise a little, when the bird is excited, giving a cardinal crest like affect. I would guess that this must indicate that the canary in the Peanuts comic strip, Woodstock, is a Waterslager. One does not have to worry about buff or intense texture. Having seen several thousand Waterslagers in Belgium, Mexico, Puerto Rico and the United States, I have not seen a single intense feathered (hard feathered) Waterslager. However, the shades of yellow do vary, from a very pale color to a very rich tone. The feather type does not vary.

Just as 400 years of selective breeding has produced a canary with a very distinct song and personality, it also has produced a canary with unique characteristics, even as would apply to egg. The eggs of Waterslagers are often larger than other canaries of similar mature size. The coloration varies from a grayish green with heavy smudging to beautiful clear sky blue. Having four or five clear blue eggs in the nest runs counter to the experience in other canaries that the 'blue egg' is the last egg in the clutch. Once the eggs hatch the parents generally do an excellent job of rearing their young. However, they make very bad foster parents as they seem to recognize a difference in their baby's call for food from that of other canary babies.
Placing foster babies in the nest of a Waterslager most often results in the hen standing at the edge of the nest intently looking and listening. Once she is convinced these are not her young, she tosses them out. Even babies the same color as Waterslagers have been distinguished and tossed, the color appearing to make little difference. The only caution with the parents and their young (and a reason not to use them as fosters for type canaries) is that Waterslagers can be prone to severely plucking their young, particularly if they want to nest again. Do not ignore "fussing" sounds coming from a ca ge with a clutch of babies, as it could be the young trying to defend themselves. Providing a second nest with dummy eggs and nesting materials in place often stops the plucking. Another solution is to have an extra male always available and place the babies in his cage. Most Waterslager males are excellent fathers.

Waterslagers are not especially social canaries. Even when very young and in large flights, it is not surprising to have to remove an aggressive youngster or one that has been picked on or both. Older males do not do well in flights, especially those previously kept as tutors for a few seasons. The fighting and level of stress that can occur can prove to be fatal. As luck will have it, your most prized male will most likely be the one involved in the fracas. A common practice among experienced breeders in Belgium is to place a large raw carrot on a spike in the middle of the cage floor. It seems that the birds exhaust some of their energies pecking away at the carrot thereby alleviating aggression in the aviary.

@ AWS 2001