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Fabulous Finches

Finches are generally quiet birds so are terrific for those seeking a peaceful environment or who don’t want to risk offending the neighbours.  They are entertaining birds to watch and come in a rainbow of stunning colours and some in particular make ideal and inexpensive birds for beginners.

There are four major Families of finches with Australian finches belonging to the family Estrildidae.  Within this, there are 19 species in total, each with its own unique markings and colourings.  The trapping of wild finches was made illegal in the 1980’s and so all aviary birds are descendants of captive bred birds.  Avid finch breeders will breed to maintain pure lines as well as allow the development of colour mutations so, for the pet owner, the varieties available are many.

Most finches are very social and have lively little personalities.  Generally they are not aggressive though larger species can turn on smaller species in a mixed cage if fighting over a nesting spot.  Finches should not be housed with parakeets, lovebirds or other hook-billed birds as these may cause them problems.

Unlike some other birds, finches are not birds suited to being handled and tend not to form relationships with humans.  It’s not that they become aggressive, it’s simply that they cannot stand the confinement of the human hand.  Handle them as little as possible and instead of trying to touch them, just enjoy their lively antics.

Finches are colony birds and so prefer the company of other finches so should never be kept in isolation.  A lovely aviary filled with a colony of finches is a delight to watch and can be a very relaxing feature within the garden.  If the aviary is well designed, maintenance is low so these are terrific for beginners or those that want to enjoy birds in their garden without too much work.

Select a finch that’s in good health.  It should be active and bright with smooth feathers that are not fluffed up or damaged and the eyes must be clear and bright.  The feet should have an even pattern to the surface and the nails should not be too long.  It should be full of energy as it flies around the cage.

When purchasing a bird, look at the presentation of the cage that it is kept in as well as the bird itself. This will be a good indication of the care and reliability of the breeder or the supplier.

There are quite a variety of finches available but three are probably the most popular.

Zebra finches are native to grassland areas of Australia and have over 100 variations in patterns and markings.  Their colours include white, fawn, black, silver, blue, pied, cream and cinnamon but with breeding, more colour variety is being developed every year.  Zebra finches are very adaptable and lively birds and are great for beginners.

Star finches are very hardy little birds and are particularly suited for those starting off.  They breed easily, are quite peaceful and can be kept with other small seed-eaters without too many problems.  The normal star finch has a red head and beak as well as red barring on the tail although mutations in yellow and fawn are now available.  They have tiny dots that look like a mass of stars over their chest and neck which give them a very delicate appearance.

Gouldian finches are probably the most beautiful of all.  They are larger than the Zebra finch and native to northern Australia where their numbers have declined in recent years.  There are literally thousands of colour combinations available.  As domestic birds, Gouldian’s are not as hardy as others as they appear to be susceptible to a viral disease so when purchasing Gouldian’s only do so from a reliable source, preferably a breeder.  Gouldian’s should not be kept with other finch species as others often carry this viral disease without any problem but it will quickly infect the Gouldian causing great harm.  Clean the cages and replace the food of Gouldian’s before all other birds to limit the transfer of the virus from cage to cage.

In the wild, finches eat mostly grass seeds and insects but for caged birds, commercial mixes provide a good balance which includes canary seed, millet and panicum.  Avoid changing the diet of finches suddenly as this could cause digestive upsets.  Instead, gradually change the foods over a few weeks allowing them time to get used to the new mix.

Supplementing the seed with spray millet, green leafy vegetables, seeding grasses, chickweed and dandelion flowers will give the finches variety as will giving carrot tops, spinach, apple, orange and pear.  Soak or sprout seeds in shallow dishes but be sure to change them often so that they stay fresh and green.

Cuttlefish provides minerals and salts to supplement their diet and also allows them to trim their beak.

Provide plenty of fresh water for the finches.  In an aviary, use shallow bowls that are off the ground with a stick or rock in them to allow the birds a little perch or safe spot on which to stand.  Change the water every day, washing the containers so that they are clean.  Always provide two sources of water as finches love a bath but will not drink from the water that they bathe in.

Finches are very easy to house.  They aren’t destructive and don’t do any serious damage to timber so can be safely housed in a simple aviary.  One that is 2 metres x 2 metres x 1 metre is large enough for 10 to 20 birds.  Most finches are quite small and so the space of the wire or bars must be small enough to ensure that they can’t fit through.  Spacings of about 7mm should be suitable and, when used on aviaries, would have the added benefit of preventing mice from entering.

In WA, a north facing, fully covered aviary would be perfect. Adding shrubs, small trees and tall native grasses can help to imitate the natural habitat that they would have in the wild.  Plants provide protection for these little birds and also different surfaces on which to perch plus they can be a small source of insects and nectar.  Keep the plants well pruned and ensure that they don’t encroach on the flight paths or become too big for the space.  Where too many finches are kept in an enclosure, they may defoliate the plants or in a mixed aviary, parrots will quickly demolish them.

Australian finches generally do better in an aviary but zebra finches are fine in an ornamental cage.  Although they won’t damage a wood or bamboo cage, these materials are difficult to clean and impossible to sterilize so metal cages are certainly the best choice.  Cages should include a few perches of varying sizes and only one toy so that the birds have plenty of room to move around in.  The cage should be at least 60cm long to allow the birds a little area to fly and always remember that birds fly horizontally and not vertically so a tall thin cage may not give them the room they need to exercise.

Bird stands are available which are very attractive and allow the cage to be easily moved around but where other pets or small children are around that may knock the cage over, a hook from the ceiling is much safer.  Always ensure that the base of a hanging cage is securely attached.

Position the cage in an area where the birds get some sunshine but not in full sun, especially in summer.  If moved indoors from time to time, be very careful not to place the cage in a window where the sun streams in as the glass will heat up the area and could result in disaster.  Drafts can also be a problem as can sudden changes in temperature from indoor heating and cooling.

Perches and the cage should be cleaned and disinfected weekly.  A small toothbrush or scrubbing brush helps to get into the nooks and crannies.  Cage disinfectants are available to keep away mites and insect pests and if the perches are washed in water, dry them thoroughly in the sun or even the oven before returning them to the cage.

Both the hen and the cock birds build the nest and usually choose thick shrubs or trees.  About a month prior to breeding season begin offering a variety of nesting material such as teased out threads from hessian, coconut fibre, various grasses and pampas grass heads.  They will use this to build a covered nest for breeding and some species will build a roosting nest outside of the breeding season as well.

It is difficult to inspect a finch nest because they often have narrow side entrances and the adults become upset resulting in the whole clutch being lost.  Most species produce about 3 to 6 eggs per nest with incubation taking about 12 to 14 days.  The young leave the nest after about 20 to 22 days.  In about four weeks they will be independent enough to be removed from their parents and will have their adult feathers at about 4 to 6 months.

Finches generally have a life span of about eight years.  They are very hardy birds and as with other birds, most illnesses are due to improper diet, dirty cages, over population or the cage being kept in drafty areas.

Some signs of illness in finches include them sitting with their eyes closed and their feathers ruffled.  Lack of appetite, irregular breathing and keeping their head tucked under their wing are also obvious signs of distress.  Initially look for broken wings or legs, cuts and open wounds, overgrown beaks and nails, bald patches and ingrown feathers.  Diarrhoea and constipation will be obvious from the faeces on the floor and always consider the possibility of heat stroke or very cold weather.  Mites are also a problem for all caged birds and needs to be treated quickly.

An avian veterinarian is always the best place to start when dealing with broken wings or legs or any problems that persist.  If a bird is sick enough to need heat, it is sick enough to need a vet so act quickly at the first sign of problems.  Before taking a bird to the vet, phone ahead to ensure that they are the best one to visit.  They will often recommend a specialist avian vet and will have the contact details available for you.

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