Caring for Your New Finches

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Different Watersprite

LA Pic
Male zebra finches plus a gouldian.  Female orange weaver third from left and at top. 

Zebra finches easily outsell all the other types of finches combined.  Why are they so popular?  They’re cute, colorful, and come in a variety of colors.  They’re also economical, easy to keep, and easy to breed.

LA Pic
Male gouldian finch in front more colorful than female behind.

Tiny Size.  Finches “out-small” most other cage birds.  You can easily hold three or four zebra finches in one hand.  They’re tiny little things.

LA Pic
Female zebra finches lack the ear patch of the male, above.  Beaks orange rather than red.

LA Pic
Sex white zebra finches by beak color.  Orange beaks on females.  Red beaks on males

Colorful.  Zebra finches get their name from the black and white stripes on their tails (the “zebra look”).  You see this distinctive pattern on the regulars.  There’s lots of other color on their tiny bodies.  In addition to the zebra-striped tail, you’ll see a grey body, white chest, white and grey face with a black bar, bright orange or red bill, an orange blush on the male’s cheek and orange legs.  Lots of color in a tiny package of feathers.

Color Varieties.  In addition to the normals, or zebras, you see whites, creams, fawns, silvers, and pieds.  Occasionally, you’ll see a penguin or a black-breasted color variety but not often.  The crested varieties sport top knots on their heads that look like a rumpled wig.  Not too attractive to the average person.

 

Sexing.  Male zebra finches feature a very prominent orange blush on each cheek.  You won’t see it in young ones under two months of age.  And you won’t see it in many of the color varieties.  In them, look for a brighter beak in the males – almost a red.  The female’s beak is a duller orange.  Zebras, unlike many of the finches, are very easy to sex.

LA Pic
Manikin finches are even smaller than zebras -- pricier, too.

Flock Animals.  “Birds of a feather flock together” certainly applies to zebra finches.  They love to associate with other finches.  They fare poorly as single specimens.  Most people buy them as pairs.  The birds and their owners both prefer this practice.  The birds often show their appreciation by producing eggs and young finches.


Good choice for holding a mess of zebra finches.

Cage Recommendations.  Finches don’t need a lot of room but the bigger the better.  Since you can’t let them out (they fly around like rockets), they need a cage big enough to fly in.  You’ll also notice they like the top of the cage best of all.  You rarely find them on the bottom -- except when you chase them.  They all sit on the top perch and leave the bottom roost vacant.

LA Pic
If you get tired of zebra finches, look at the other finches.  All cost more than the zebras.

Word of Warning:  Make sure the wires of your finch cage are close enough together to keep them in.  Many of the cages for larger birds don’t even slow them down in their urge to wing it.

Variety of Perches.  Put perches by their food and by their water source.  Branches or the new plastic versions make excellent perches.  They give their feet much better toeholds than the traditional wooden dowels.  However, you can clean smooth wooden dowels more easily.

Perch Note:  Avoid sandpaper perches.  They encourage bacterial infections.  Clean your perches once a week.  Soak them in bleach water.  You can also find a little perch-scraping tool on the market.  Use that or a good wire brush.

Change Their Water.  Zebra finches like to take a dip in their water cups.  They also dispose of their droppings and extra seeds in their water cups.  The waterers with tiny openings help you keep their water cleaner and freer from contaminants.  Clean their water containers daily.  A brief rinse in bleach water removes nearly all potential disease organisms.

LA Pic
Zebra finches often ignore those black canary seeds (Niger seeds).

Finch Food.  Zebra finches like seeds.  They also enjoy hulling them and throwing the seeds and hulls in every direction.  The newer fortified diets contain 100% of everything they need except water.  The newer pelleted foods are even better.  They keep the finches from picking out certain types of seeds and wasting the rest.  Convert your finches to pelleted foods as soon as possible.  The decreased mess alone makes it worth the slight additional effort.  The ease of feeding and better health of your birds are frosting on the cake.  Unfortunately, many finches refuse to make the switch.

Your Walls.  Keep your cages away from your walls.  Your finches throw out more than seeds -- and it sticks to your walls.

   LA Pic
Cordon bleu.                      Manikin preparing for lift off. 

Treats.  You’ll find lots of commercial treats available.  Remember:  They’re treats.  Not steady diets.  Zebra finches love fresh millet sprays but wind up short on vitamins and proteins if they get too much millet.  Feed treats sparingly.

People Foods.  Some of the people foods zebra finches like include scrambled and boiled eggs, Romaine lettuce, and bits of some fruits.  At breeding time, they also like insects.  You can find canned bugs these days.  Sprout some seeds occasionally for another special treat.  Dispose of these uneaten treat foods after a few hours.  Moist foods quickly grow molds and other unwanted organisms.

LA Pic
European goldfinch.  Would not hold still for a portrait.

Cage Bottom.  You can use anything on the bottom you like.  Newspaper costs very little but it’s quite ugly.  Cut 10 or 20 the same size.  Put them on your cage floor.  Then pull out the soiled one on top daily.  You’ll also find cage papers, even ones covered with grit.  Boxed bird gravel looks the most natural.  It also helps dry out their droppings.  Toss it out weekly or more often if it gets dirty faster.  Or, hang your cage high enough that you cant see the cage bottom.

Grit.  In the wild, birds grind their seeds in their gizzard with small stones or grit.  They get some calcium and other minerals from the grit in the process.  Recent studies show there’s little need for grit in their diet – for sure if you feed pelleted foods.  If you want to give them grit, fine.  It’s totally harmless.

Cuttlebone.  Birds like to pick at cuttlebones.  They get calcium from these former squid skeletons.  The pecking also helps keep their beaks from overgrowing.  Today’s foods contain all the calcium and other ingredients they need.  Like grit, cuttlebones can’t hurt -- especially at egg-laying time. 

Amount of Light.  Zebra finches need to eat a lot of food for their size.  They need to eat continually for about 12 hours.  Birds consume a lot of energy -- especially finches.  If you ate like a bird, you’d eat about half your weight every day.  Leave their lights on when you go to work.  They could starve to death if you keep them too dark.

Type of Light.  Birds need full-spectrum light (sunlight in the wild).  They get vitamin D3 from the sun just as we do.  Good finch foods add vitamin D3 to their mixture.  Just as we add it to our milk.  If in doubt, keep your cage by the window but not in full sunlight.  Or provide full-spectrum lighting.  You can get them in fluorescent and now in incandescent (screw-in) bulbs.  Look in the lizard section.

Dust.  Zebra finches kick up a lot of dust for a bird their size – from their feathers, their seed hulls, and the litter on their cage bottom.  Most of it comes from the sheaf that encases each new feather.  You’ll notice a thin layer of this light gray dust on everything in their vicinity.  You’ll especially see this dust around the bird room in a pet shop.  The more birds, the more dust.  The dust can pose more than a nuisance to those that suffer allergies.  That dust also likes your TV and computer screens.

Ionizers.  One of those economical ionizers helps knock the dust out of the air.  It also zaps a lot of disease organisms that could bother them before the disease gets a chance to get started.  Forget an ionizer if you have just two zebras, but if they’re a male and a female, you’ll soon have more.

 

LA Pic
Zebras less affected by stress than Gouldians.   Male orange weaver just coming into color.

LA Pic
Two male and two female orange weavers in breeding color.

Stress.  Birds hate to be pestered.  Keep visiting kids and other animals away from them.  Finches stress out more than the hookbills.  Happily, the zebras are the least subject to stress of the finches.

Molts.  Birds shed their feathers and grow new ones every so often – usually twice a year.  If you ever worked on a chicken farm, you know just how ugly a naked bird can be.  Feed your zebra finches a good diet and their feathers grow back better looking each time.

LA Pic
Female society finch near top has a bald butt.

Baldheads.  Once you pick off the feathers, there’s not much left to a zebra finch.  Few critters look uglier than a baldheaded bird.  Male finches often snatch their females baldheaded.  It especially happens in crowded cages.  Just separate them.  Their feathers grow back just like our fingernails.  Occasionally feather-picking comes from a poor diet.  Make sure you give them a good food especially formulated for finches.  The pelleted ones are the most reliable. More often the males snatch the females bald headed just for the heck of it.

LA Pic
Scope the nails on this male Gouldian finch.  Get out the toe nail snippers.

Toenails.  Occasionally you’ll get a finch that grows long toenails.  Clip them.  Put a bright light behind each toe so you don’t snip the vein that runs through there.  Careful.  Have a blood stop kit handy just in case.

LA Pic
Bird cages can also be decorative.  Note the nests.

Nests.  Zebra finches breed in boxes or wicker nests.  Wicker nests are easier.  Put two at the very top of the cage and let them figure it out.  They’ll breed at six months of age but nine months is better.

Nest Bedding.  Provide a little box of “nesting fluff” for the female.  This lets her keep more of her feathers.  She’ll use the fluff instead of pulling out all her chest feathers.

Eggs.  She lays about six half-inch eggs on the average – sometimes as many as 10.  After about the third egg they’ll both start sitting on them.  The eggs hatch in about 10 days.  Remember, they weren’t all laid on the same day, so they hatch at different times.

Babies.  The kids are totally dependent upon their parents for food and warmth.  They’re naked and ugly as little jaybirds but grow into full-fledged birds in three weeks.  Their mom and dad feed them for another 10 days after that.  Even though they’re the same size as mom and dad, you can easily tell the babies.  They have black beaks.  At six weeks of age, they’re ready to leave home and make it on their own.  You might not be able to sex them for another couple of weeks, but they’re ready to leave the nest, go to college, or get a real job.

LA Pic
If you want to breed finches, societies also make excellent candidates -- but hard to sex.

LA
Owl-face finches.

Last Word.  Zebra finches crank out new generations amazingly fast.  And that’s part of the fun.  If you’re ready for a challenge, try one of the pricier finch species.  LA.

© 1985, © 2003, © 2004  LA Productions

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