Fostering Finches!!
                                                                        By Marcus Pollard

I thought after such a ‘quiet’ start to the column it was about time to ‘up the ante’ a little bit and generate some hot debate amongst finch keepers – not like me I know!!!

So as I’ve had a few emails lately on this very same topic here goes nothing – a Mug’s Guide to all things fostered.

Firstly, let’s clear the air and lower the blood pressures by stating from the outset there is absolutely nothing wrong with the concept of fostering finches, or anything else for that matter. It is just one of many ‘tools’ that we have available to us in our quest to propagate difficult species and prevent them from joining the ever increasing list of ‘extinct’ finch species in Australian aviculture.

For example the art of crop-needling is another fine tool that aviculturists have available to them and yet many will curse and swear about it saying “it” killed their bird. Dare I say that the crop needle didn’t it was the operator that caused the problem and the same is basically true for fostering.
Or maybe we should state that there is no such thing as a badly fostered finch just a badly run fostering operation! Gulp, if I wasn’t due for hanging in effigy before I possible will be now – must make a note to avoid that ‘town’ in the future.

So I am aware that many use fostering as a way of generating revenue and this piece has basically nothing to do with that aspect of the hobby although we could all, no doubt, learn much from such enterprises.
Suffice it to say that if they are “properly’ fostered finches then who really cares if they do make a fortune as a result of their hard work!!!
A ‘properly fostered finch’ we shall basically define as one that is capable of replicating with their own species and not one that is fixated on the specie that reared it to the extent that it will not mate with its true parental stock.

Hopefully that is the aim of any fincho’s that use hand rearing as a tool – or if not it bleeding well should be!!

As much as the correct use of a crop-needle is to return the patient to being capable of supporting itself I guess!
Now, rather than waxing lyrical about it maybe we should simply consider a few examples of the good, the bad and the indifferent as regards fostering.

Case 1:
The resurrection of the Green strawberry, Amandava formosa, circa 1980. This species was just clinging to existence in our aviaries around this time (sort of like it is at present!!) and a breeder set about buying up all the odd birds in a number of collections in the hope of keeping them going.
He was offered a pair of young Green strawbs from a bird dealer that had done the rounds of three other breeders who found they would not rear their own young so were simply on-sold.

He purchased them and allowed them to lay their eggs then fostered these eggs under Orange Breasted waxbills. For this purpose he selected young pairs that had not reared their own young before. His other protocol was to always remove the parents from the area of the nest so they did not actually see him touching their nest.

He allowed the original pair to lay 4 clutches before resting them.
From this he was presented with 16 young Green strawbs which he paired up to the other stray birds he had acquired from other breeders.
Next season he was presented with around 80 young Green strawbs with the mainstay coming from his young fostered stock.

So this would serve as our bench mark of how to go about it as these birds were fostered to continue the species.

Perhaps a few salient points could be gleaned from this case study!

• If fostering select only young fosters that have not reared their own young.

• Never let the parents see you interfering with their nest.
        • Try and select a foster parent from a related similar yet easier to breed species.
        • Do your fostering in the aviary situation so that the fostered birds are exposed to their own species as soon as they
          leave the nest.

This latter point may not seem too important but I/we consider it a critical step to avoid a fostered bird imprinting upon its non-biological parents.

After many unsuccessful attempts at breeding Melbas in Tasmania a mate once gave 3 fertile eggs to his Red-cheeked cordon Bleus. Against the odds maybe they proceeded to fly three very healthy chicks. The pair of Melbas that ‘donated ‘their eggs to the Cordons lived in the same aviary and once the chicks fledged they immediately took over feeding duties for these three chicks. The chicks were initially hesitant to feed from these ‘gigantic’ finches but I guess the adage of a ‘feed is a feed no matter whom from’ took over and they accepted their biological parents. Mind you this did not stop the Cordons from topping them up as needs be!
Thus a difficult to breed species is bred using an intermediary and with a bit of good management no imprinting is allowed to occur.

Case 2: In a recent article in ABK on the resurrected (or should that be composite!!) Javan munia I hinted that these birds had a trait that made them indispensible to the finch breeder who dabbles in rarer exotic Estrildid finches.
To refresh the memory and set the scene the current Javan munia is in fact a mix of 2 or possibly 3 species and somewhere in the mix is the domestic Bengalese mannikin.

As a foster these guys have few peers and we have used them to rear Blue-caps, Pytilias, Cordons, Rufous-backs and, accidentally, even Painteds!!
For the skeptics I’d hasten to add that the Blue-caps are happily paired up with their own species and one pair is, at the time of writing, even sitting!
The Javan munia has a liking for livefood which many (not all!) Bengalese do not partake in. Mine are heavily fed maggots and fly pupae which they tackle with relish and feed to their offspring.
Add to this their love of the Lowe’s Veggies Mix and you have a winner in this species.

So far they have proved invaluable and I have my young Munias DNA sexed before they are paired up and they are kept in the aviary with the target species.
I have broken one of the ‘key rules’ of fostering with this species in using them to rear mixed species. With one pair having reared 4 other species to date!!!
Most fosterers tend to keep their foster parents species specific i.e. only Gouldians never other species. Seems that the Javan munia is immune to this “rule”!
I only place fertile eggs under the Javan munias and have no idea how they would handle live chicks added to their nest. I have used these guys to rear Blue-caps and Pytilias from parents that throw their young out on a regular basis.

However, when I find youngsters on the floor as in the case of the Rufous-backs I revert back to a small colony of 4 Bengalese manikins.

I have found that these 4 birds are keen to sit on any chick placed into their sleeping nest box but it takes them around 2 days before they will actually commence feeding these “ring-ins”!
In order to ensure the survival of the chicks I feed them morning and evening with a crop needle until the surrogate parent Bengos’ begin to feed them. I have not had them fail to feed any species presented to them and anything placed under them they have reared to maturity – in fact their honour roll includes St Helena waxbills, Tri-coloured parrotfinches, Cordons, Gouldians and Rufous-backs!!  All of whom would have perished without the intervention of these wonder fosters!!
Needless to say one also requires some basic skills with the use of the crop/gavage needle to support this type of fostering.

Case 3:
Or perhaps what can go wrong would be a more apt title! Rather than wax lyrical or bore you needlessly with “tall tails and true” a simple story should sum it all up!!
Once had the good fortune to meet up with a number of fincho’s in Sydney who were heading to the Gunnedah Bird Sale many moons ago. Before heading to the sticks a mate had a ‘shopping list’ for a few of his fellow finch addicts back in the Namoi Valley. On that list was a pair of fawn Longtails or Parsons which were quite rare back then, I forget which exact species though.

Anyway, said birds were collected and there was much heated finch-type debate raging in the car when the conversation was hushed by a long, drawn out call emanating from the carry boxes containing the Parsons/Longtails. It was the call of a Bengalese manikin delivered at the volume that only members of the Longtail family can aspire to!! The stunned silence was broken only by someone asking “Who’s the lucky devil getting those birds Bucko?!” More silence ensued!

In other words this pair was a typical example of badly fostered finches that had been well and truly imprinted upon their foster parents.
In a conversation with Mike Fidler a while back he suggested that the time “limit” for separating fostered finches from their surrogates was around 40 days to ensure that imprinting did not occur. Since that time I have adopted the same regime and, touch wood, so far no problems with fostered birds pairing with the “right” species!! Oh, and no calls like our Longtail/Parsons are allowed either!.

So having briefly outlined the ‘good, bad and indifferent’ perhaps it is the correct time to sum up and point out some tips that might assist you with the process of fostering.

Oddly enough the first might be to treat your fosters like they are the most expensive finches on the planet. Stupid statement you say? Well, I did know a guy rearing very rare finches under the ubiquitous Zebra finch who kept losing them once they had fledged or very late in the fostering process. When asking him about the diet he was feeding his fosters he gave me basically a ‘bread and water’ diet or dry seed and very little else!!! When I expressed my shock he simply stated “What did you expect they’re only Zebs!”
The humble Zebs they may have been but what they were rearing wasn’t! So I reiterate treat them as if they were the last remaining Red-crested cardinals.

My own foster Munias and Bengos get greens, soaked/sprouted seed with Veggie mix, cucumber, pain cake and anything else I can put before them – live food in the case of the Munias. Basically anything that will benefit the bods that they are feeding!
So adopt the adage “you are what you eat” and supply them with the best of everything!!

The second important factor is that of disease. The Bengalese manikin is a particularly hardy bird whose wild origins have long since disappeared in the mists of time. As such it can tolerate many pests and diseases that may kill weaker, more delicate species.
Perhaps the most well-known of these is the protozaol parasite Cochlosoma which is often associated with Bengalese and fostering – with some calling them “carriers” of the disease which is a tad misleading when applied to parasitic organisms..
Many state that Cochlosoma is “incurable” but I beg to differ given the fantastic advice and medication that was supplied to me by Dr Colin Walker of the Australian Pigeon Company.

I’m not a vet so it is not my place to give medications and dose rates here but strongly advise anyone that suspects they have a problem to contact Dr Walker – fast!!
I was also told recently that the incidence of Cochlosoma in finches was “exaggerated” and “uncommon” but I strongly disagree with that statement as I have found it in several finch species recently – both fostered and non-fostered.
However, my own experience suggests otherwise and even a Mug like me with a microscope has little trouble identifying Cochlosoma!!!!

I had it recently in fostered mutation Diamond sparrows and thanks to Dr Colin’s medications was able to eliminate it successfully. He explained to me that the problem with Cochlosoma is that it is harder to kill than many protozoal parasites due to its life-cycle habit of burrowing into the lining of the gut. It is easy to kill anything free-living in the gut but it requires a much more thorough, prolonged treatment to dislodge the ones embedded in the gut.
The other interesting thing about treating Cochlosoma is the rapidity of recovery – an hour on medication with some heat thrown in can even take the bird from “zero to hero”!

Unfortunately this means that many stop the full treatment as soon as the birds show signs of recovery – way, way before the gut is stripped of the parasite unfortunately.
As with all anti-biotics and worming agents this leaves the job incomplete and allows the parasite a chance to recover stronger, more resistant than ever.
Also given the wet, humid weather that abounded throughout the 2009/10 breeding season In NSW and Queensland even the weather god’s conspired to assist the spread of Cochlosoma.
So if you are fostering it should be implicit upon everyone to ensure that Cochlosoma is eradicated from their birds.
If you are doing so in a hot, humid climate then eternal vigilance should/must  be your motto!!!

Hopefully there is something in here that is of use to most finch keepers that chose to or are forced into fostering finches at some stage during their avicultural journey.

If performed correctly it is a fantastic tool for ensuring the prolonged propagation of rarer finch species and for rescuing many finches that would otherwise perish.

Done badly it serves no useful purpose in aviculture.