Finches: Nature’s Small Jewels

zebra finchImagine for a moment, the perfect species of pet bird. This special companion would need to have personality, be easy to care for, be reasonably quiet, be affordable, and be colorful enough to please almost everybody. I’m sure many people are thinking of cockatoos, parakeets, or other members of the Psittacideae family. But there’s one family of birds that also fits the bill, Fringillidae, or finches.

Finches live across the globe. The majority of the finches held in captivity come from Australia, such as the zebra and Gouldian finches. Many other pet species come from the rest of the world, with the exception of those species native to the United States. Although we can enjoy our native finches in our backyards, it is illegal to own a bird native to the United States as a pet.

Each species has its own behavior and color; however, in the wild all finches are flock birds, making them excellent to keep in an aviary situation. I’ll be discussing some of the various types of finches later in this article

PERSONALITY

Most people keep finches as aviary birds, and it is true that many species of finches do well in a setting with little to no connection with humans. Here, in an almost natural state, finches display their multitude of behaviors and rear their young.

If you’re looking for more of a “pet” bird, finches show their versatility. Like the more familiar parrot species, handfed finches make better pets than parent raised birds. Accustomed to the presence of humans at a very young age, these handfed birds soon learn to associate dinner, and other good things, with people. Handfed birds quickly learn to perch on shoulders, come when called, and simply enjoy the presence of their owners. These birds like to be near their owners, sitting on a t-stand or on their owners shoulders for long stretches of time. A handfed finch will step-up, and do most of the basic things that a tame parrot will. Some birds may learn to talk, but if you’re looking for a finch to talk to you, some research may be in order. Those species of finches that are mimickers in the wild may learn to talk better than the rest of their kin. Of all the finches, the handfed birds show the best temperament for a pet bird.

Parent raised finches show their personality in more unique ways. Usually, these birds are kept together in an aviary, and by watching, you can soon determine the different personalities of each bird. The interaction between a bonded pair, or other finches in the aviary, provides hours of enjoyment. These little birds enjoy jumping from perch to perch, stopping only to sing or preen themselves. Natural activities, such as bathing, provide amusement for both finch and owner. Just watching a finch as he shakes his tail and rolls around in the water is enough to put a smile on anyone’s face. Finches raised by their parents can be tamed; however, like any bird, it takes lots of work and patience.

CARE

gouldian finchA finch needs the same basic care as other pet birds, for example, they need housing, food, and social interaction.

First, they need a cage of adequate size. Pet stores may sell tiny cages and label them as “finch and canary cages”. Please, do yourself and your pet a favor and don’t buy one of these smaller cages. Remember, unless handfed, finches will not be venturing outside their cage. Because they will be staying in their cage for most of their lives, these finches need as large a cage as possible. If you have a handfed, or pet finch, then it is safe to assume that this bird will be spending large amounts of time with you outside of its cage. Since this bird gets more exercise, the cage size can be a little smaller. However, the book Society Finches by Mervin F Roberts recommends that at least one dimension, and preferably width, is at least 24″ in your cage. I have a canary breeding cage without the divider that measures about 24″ high by 24″ wide by 17″ deep. I would consider this the minimum size for housing a pair of finches. Yes, you can house them in smaller quarters, but remember that no one likes living in cramped conditions.

In considering a home, you need to think about how much social interaction your finch will have. A finch that is in an aviary, or a breeding bird, will socially interact mostly with its own species. This requires housing large enough to accommodate the other members of its flock. A handfed, or pet finch, requires less space, as its flock is you, and will interact with you outside of its cage. No one likes to be alone, and a solitary finch is likely to develop vices, such as feather picking or excessive vocalizing in order to get the attention it craves. (Author note: Both vices listed above are behavioral problems that may stem from many different situations. Please consult your avian vet if your bird exhibits any sort of behavioral problems.)

Along with their home, finches need perches of various diameters. They are not birds who will play with toys, per se, but will enjoy swings and baths. Some of the hanging ring toys may be appropriate for finches as these can substitute as swings.

Once you have purchased a home for your finches and properly equipped it, you need to think about diet. There are many commercial seed or pellet mixes to feed your pet finch; however, an all seed or all pellet diet may not be the healthiest for your bird. Would you want to eat the same thing day after day?

You can supplement your bird’s diet with fresh fruits and vegetables and a calcium source. This basic diet (a staple feed supplemented with fresh foods and calcium) will suffice if you have a pet bird, but for breeding, a more diverse mixture of food is needed. You may feed a staple of a commercial seed mix, and then, supplement it with a nestling food high in protein, fruits and vegetables, and if you wish, small insects. Since many of us do not have the stomach to chop up mealworms, I, and many other breeders, have found that a high-protein nestling food works just as well. For example, my own breeding finches receive a measure of a fortified seed mix, then I supplement it with pellets and a good conditioning food. This I feed on a daily basis, sometimes adding finch treat to their diet. They also receive fresh vegetables and air popped popcorn.

BREEDING

owl finchAlmost all species of finches will breed well in an aviary situation, if you can tell the sexes apart. Some species of finches, such as zebras and stars, are dimorphic and it is easy to tell the male from the female. With the rest of the species, the only way to tell a male from a female is to watch them. The male will sing more than the female, and will also perform little dances for the females. This is the case with my society and owl finches. In an aviary, the finch owner receives a rare chance to watch his or her birds interact in a fairly natural setting. Due to the sheer number of species, I cannot speak in great detail about the varying breeding habits of finches. Instead, I’ll try to provide some general guidelines.

Generally, the more room a pair has, the better it will breed. Societies, zebras, and spice finches may breed well for the hobbyist in a small cage; however, the majority of finch species, such as owls or parrots, breed best when given a large amount of space. After all, they have not been exposed to years of domestication.

If you do wish to breed in breeder cages, I recommend some of the more common varieties, such as societies, zebras, or spice finches. Others types of finches, such as bronze winged mannikins and stars may also breed in cages; however, it would probably prove helpful for the beginning breeder to research the species that she or he wishes to keep.

Whether you breed in aviaries, cages, or a combination of the two, the requirements remain the same. Finches need nests. Some use ready-made nests, while others prefer to build their own. Here, I would recommend that the beginner either provide the pair with a variety of nests or seek advice from an experienced breeder. For example, my society finches ignore their wooden nest box, but love a canary nest made out of millet. My owls took to their wooden nest box as if it had been made for them, and my bronze winged mannikins preferred the hooded wicker nests. It takes time, or an astute understanding of each pair, and each species, to be able to accurately pair finches with their nests.

Provide a varied and nutritious diet. Breeding birds need calcium and protein. I prefer to leave crushed egg shell out for my birds all the time, then supplement their seed diet with vegetables and pellets. It is best to introduce the new foods before the chicks hatch. This allows the parents to become used to the new food so that it does not interfere with their feeding of the babies.

The last part of the breeding equation is light. Birds need at least twelve hours of light, artificial or real, for them to believe that it is breeding season. Longer days give the birds more time to feed their young, as well as signal warmer weather. Even in the climate controlled environment of a house, birds still anticipate the longer days of spring and summer.

So, you’ve thought about the care, housing, and breeding of your new birds. Let’s take a look at some different finch varieties.

SPECIES

The three most common species of finches are the zebras, societies, and spice. Most pet stores have at least one of the three varieties for sale, and these are the finches that breeders most often have in abundance. All three types are easy to care for. Let’s start with the zebras.

The zebra finch is about four inches long. The most common color variation, the Gray, has gray upperparts with dusky white underparts. The beak is a bright, red-orange, which may be more subdued on the female. The legs and feet are orange on both sexes. However, the males sport a bright orange cheek patch. Both sexes have black and white bands on the tail and black bands below the eyes, which look like tear stains. Other color varieties are white and silver. These little birds are relatively inexpensive and breed easily.

society finchThe society finch is the only finch that has a truly domestic origin. It is believed that several species of finches were bred together to produce society finches. Nearly every society finch looks different, each feathered in different variations of brown and white. Several color mutations have formed in breeding such as the white and the fawn colored society finches. These birds are very low-key and are often used to foster some of the rarer species eggs. The only way to tell a male from a female is to watch and listen. The male will hop and sing for his mate.

spice finchSpice finches are so called because the beautiful interlacing of brown and white on their chests looks like spices. Usually, they are four inches in length, and the head and upperparts are a warm brown. Their chest is their most distinctive feature. These finches are hardy, and while not as prolific as zebras or societies, breed very well in captivity. These finches are like the societies, in that you can only tell the sexes apart by observation.

star finchFor the adventurous finch keeper, or simply someone who wants something out of the ordinary, there are other varieties of finches to try. Gouldian Finches sport brilliant colors and come in many color combinations. They are readily available, and are in the mid to high-price range depending on what colors the hobbyist wishes to purchase. Owl finches, also called Bichenos, look like tiny owls with their white faces framed by a black band. Star finches boast a brilliant red head that stands out against their olive to yellow green plumage. These are just a few species, chosen to show you the difference in coloration. A quick look through any beginning finch book will show you the wide variety available.

For beautiful, low-maintenance birds, finches cannot be beat. These birds offer personality in a pint sized package. The perfect bird isn’t the same species for everyone; however, if you’re looking to bring a little bit of nature into your home, or simply explore a different family of birds, I urge you to give finches a try. After all, they’re Mother Nature’s perfect little jewels.