Cage and Aviary Finch Breeding

By Dale Laird

Finches are some of the easiest birds in captivity to breed. Finches are some of the hardest birds in captivity to breed. Both statements are true depending upon whom you talk to, the species you are talking about and the personal experience of the aviculturist. I believe, given the right food, environment and mate any species can be bred in captivity. If we look back 30 – 40 years at the Gouldian Finch (Chloebia gouldia), we find a species that was considered all but impossible to breed except by the most experienced aviculturist. Today they would hardly be considered even moderately difficult for even the novice who has a minimum of experience. I recommend that every aviculturist join a national society dedicated to the birds they are going to keep. The National Finch and Softbill Society is one such society dedicated to the keeping and breeding of Finches and Softbills. Their bi-monthly bulletin, web site and email group are ready sources of information from the novice to the most experienced breeder. A good reference library cannot be overlooked. Before you bring a new species home it is recommended you read up on them and make certain you will be able to meet the needs of the bird. If you cannot stand the thought of feeding baby mice, it might not be a good idea to bring home a Hornbill and try to keep it on fruit alone. The needs of the bird have to be foremost and if you cannot meet those needs, resist the impulse to get it.

Housing is the first item we must consider. It always amazes me the adaptability of the birds we keep. I buy a bird from a person in Chicago who raises all his birds in a basement bird room under artificial light and 14-inch square cages. I bring the bird to central Florida and place it in an outdoor aviary with natural sunlight and lots of natural live food. The bird thrives in both environments, which is a testament to their adaptability. What we provide for our birds depends in large part on what we have available. Warm climate breeders keep their bird outdoors, the cages and aviary tend to be a bit roomier and the breeding season is through the cooler months. If we set our birds up in the middle of summer, the birds are miserable trying to set and raise babies when the temperature reach 100+ degrees. Most all species can be either raised in aviaries or in individual cages. A lot of it depends upon the objectives of the keeper. Some aviculturists are purists and want to know the specific background of every bird in their collection. They can tell you the ancestry back for multiple generations and know the personalities of every member of their breeding stock. This is very labor intensive as each pair of birds has their own cage, water, food supply and require daily maintenance and a feeding schedule. The alternate method is to keep the birds in a mixed aviary of compatible species. This can be considerably simpler to maintain as the number of food and water dishes are reduced to just a couple each. Breeding tends to be rather haphazard as the birds pair off on their own without regard to ancestry. The choice is up to the aviculturists and it may not be a choice of either or, but a choice of both depending upon the species being kept. Cage breeding of color mutations of Gouldians or Zebras (Poephila guttata) may be preferable to aviary breeding for more predictable results. Aviary breeding may work better for more temperamental species such as the Crimson Pileated, Scaley Crown Weaver (Sporopipes aquamifrons) and many of the small waxbills. Construction of the aviary can be anything from a simple post and beam frame covered by wire to an elaborate temperature controlled building with attached flight area for warm days. The breeding cages may range from homemade wire cages or box cages with wire fronts to commercial floor to ceiling breeding batteries and everything in between. For a couple pair of birds the simplest thing may be to just buy a cage or two from your local pet store. If using aviaries or cages many of us provide either natural or artificial places to hide and feel secure. In the aviary a few potted plants of miniature trees work well. We use miniature fruit trees. Besides providing dense foliage I enjoy the lemons and limes. For cages with skittish birds we use artificial vines; inexpensive and easy to clean.

Feeding our birds rages from a simple seed mixture to live food we grow ourselves. We feed a simple Finch seed mix without any additional vitamins or minerals added. The fortified diets look real pretty, but I am not convinced the bird is actually getting the vitamins and minerals from the outside of the seed hulls they need. The basic seed mixture is free fed 24/7. Millet spray is always welcome. The vitamins and minerals are provided through the soft food. I make my own. There are a number of commercial soft foods on the market and everybody has their favorite ones. I have been successful with the one I feed for the last decade and my birds eat all I give them. I start by hard boiling a dozen eggs, microwave the shells for about 4 minutes on high and grate the entire mixture in a mini electric food processor. To this I add 2 table spoons Quicko multivitamin and if in breeding season 1 tablespoon Quicko vitamin E. I then add 1/3 box of CeDe nestling food and 2 heads grated broccoli. I divide this into 3 contains and freeze two for later use and refrigerate the one I am using between feedings. I feed each pair of birds about ¼ teaspoon during breeding season and increase it to all they will eat in 4 hours with babies. In the off-season they get it every 3 – 4 days. In addition to this I feed corn, green peas, romaine lettuce, apples, papaya, mango, carrots etc. What ever I happen to have they get. Some species desire live food. I used to raise my own mealworms and had containers of them in various stages on the patio. Seed moths were a problem and getting the size I needed was a challenge. Now I just order a few thousand from a worm company, keep them refrigerated and use what I need. Very easy and saves time when feeding. The soft food I feed in shallow wide containers so the birds can take what they desire without tossing it out to get to the choice piece at the bottom. For the seed, I use a flow through seed container that I can fill from the outside and empty the seed hulls from below. There are some birds I need a special diet for. The Parrot Finches (Erythrura trichroa) like groats daily and the Red Siskins (Carduelis cucullata) need a considerable amount of thistle along with a variety of fat intensive seeds like sunflower pieces. For this I use Higgins Snack Attach song food. The birds love it and eat most of all the mixture.

For nesting sites, I have tried numerous styles and have narrowed it down to just a couple now. In the past I have used Kleenex boxes, coconut shells, wooden nest boxes of various sizes, large baskets made from seed millet spray, bamboo nests, hollowed wooden blocks, plywood boxes, and plastic boxes. Today I have it down to three. I predominantly use commercial plastic boxes, large size bamboo baskets, and wooden budgie boxes. The plastic boxes are ideal for my breeding arrangements. I can use them with most every species I raise, clean them as needed and sanitize them in the dishwasher. They have slots for the plastic hangers in both the front and the back for either mounting through the wire or inside the cage. They work well with commercial double breeder canary cages and my self-made ones. The front can be either used with a round hole or remove the top of the front for a 1/3 opening. They have slots in the bottom for ventilation and water drainage if needed. The lid opens easily and snaps into place. I also use large bamboo nests for those birds that do not like the box. If I get a pair that just will not go to nest I offer both the plastic box and the bamboo nest. Sometimes that is enough to get a reluctant pair going. This reluctance has not been any one species but individual birds of a species. The budgie boxes are used for the Java Rice Finches (Padda oryzivora). These rather large finches need a much larger nest than the smaller finches most of us keep. In addition to the large size of the finch they often have 5 or 6 babies in a clutch. Considerable room is needed to prevent over crowding, as the babies are about to fledge. Regardless of the nest used I always start the nest building process by stuffing the nest about 2/3 full of 6 inch cut hay from the seed store. Then I spread about a ½ inch of hay in the bottom of the cage to give the birds the opportunity to finish off the nest. Some pairs immediately empty what I have started while others get right down to business. I often wonder if this due to the pair that emptied the nest not being ready to lay yet. This does not work for my Scaley Crown Weavers, Siskins, or Canaries. The Weavers love to do it all them selves. I just give them a 6-inch platform with a 4-inch back and inch sides. They appreciate lots of hay, shredded burlap, and various pieces of string and yarn. They also like to line the nest with small white feathers, which I get from a craft store. The Siskins and Canaries use a traditional Canary basket and want to build it all themselves. I provide small diameter string and commercial nesting material for both. Incubation is generally 14 to 17 days depending when the hen really starts to sit in earnest. Most hens wait a day or two until they have 2 – 3 eggs before they sit tight. This is not always the case and some hens sit from day one. I do not like for my hens to sit on useless clutches so I candle every egg that the hen allows. I say when the hen allows it because some hens can be very temperamental. I have had Gouldian hens that would abandon a nest if disturbed. This is not normally a problem with that species, but it has been very common with the Parrot Finches. For candling the eggs I have tried using avian candle tools and while they work very well have found a bore light from a gun shop works just as well at a fraction of the cost. It is a simple pen light with a 90-degree angle piece of fiber optic in a rubber holder. The light is just right for seeing inside eggs as small as the Owl Finch (Poephila bichenovii) and up through Touraco eggs. I usually candle at about 6 or 7 days when you can see the egg is getting full or it is clear. If only one egg is fertile I leave a couple clear eggs with it. This gives the baby something to lean on and helps keep the weight of the hen off one baby. If there are a couple of fertile eggs I toss the clear ones. If all are infertile I dump them all.

Once the babies hatch I tend to leave the hen and babies alone for about 4 – 5 days. Even the best hen gets very nervous when disturbed right after the chicks hatch. After about 5 days I try to wait until the hen leaves on her own and check the nest. If there are any unhatched eggs I remove them at this time. For very temperamental hens I do not interfere at all. Just observe the hen from a distance and you can tell a lot from her actions. I use low power binoculars and can follow her every move. I can see her feeding or carrying mealworms to the nest. Often the male will bring food to the nest and feed the female for her to feed to the chicks. After the chicks hatch I increase the soft food dramatically. I try to change it a couple times a day and feed all they will eat all day long.

After about 10 days I band the chicks unless the pair will not tolerate it. The Parrot Finches in the past have been the most troublesome with trying to band in the nest so I just wait until the day they fledge. The Weavers are a bit temperamental also so the same with them. All birds get a closed, traceable, year dated, color coded band. I want to be able to tell at a glace what year the bird was born and at closer inspection be able to trace that bird back generations. For the most part banding is a simple process of just sliding the proper size band over the three toes pointing forward and up the leg and one toe pointing backwards. If I have to wait until the chick fledges to band it, I either use the proper size band or go up a size. The band company or organization selling them recommends the proper sizes. I often want to keep a more visual identification of a bird. If the birds are not readily identifiable by color I use color-coded split plastic bands to identify males and females. Remember males sing and females lay eggs. That sounds simple enough and it is, but you can wait a long time for a female to lay an egg. A mature male will normally sing after a period of time. What I normally do is put a group of birds in a cage, wait until one sings and then squirt it with water. All I have to do then is catch the wet one and place a blue plastic band on the leg. After a while all the known males are gone and what you have are suspected females. I try to give them a few more days to see if there is a silent male that may sing. After that I go with what I have and have been very successful with that identification method. Of course with birds you can tell apart by color this is not necessary.

Once the babies fledge I place them in a large community cage until they go through their first molt. Sometimes they need a bit of extra attention at this age and are moved to smaller cage for closer observation, maybe some additional heat for a few days or just a few days privacy to get some extra food and back on their feet. Juveniles are never sold unless it is to a very experienced aviculturist I know and trust. Too many birds are lost by changing their environment before they complete their first molt and have stabilized from that stress.

Regardless of the breeding arrangement you have there will be some pairs that go right to nest and others that consistently refuse to do so. On those you can try changing the cages, nests, mates, wait a year, or take them on a trip for a day or so and return to the breeding cage. Any of these can work. When all else fails, just enjoy the beauty of the birds and be grateful for what joy they give us.

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