Feeding the Feathered ‘Finchey’ Flocks!!!
                                                     By Marcus Pollard

Since starting this column last year I have had a fair few emails and other contacts asking about what the best food for "this" is and should I be including "that" into the diet and do you use ‘these’ on your finches and if not why not that I thought I’d use the next few issues ‘offerings’ to outline what we feed to our birds and our regimes/routines for feeding and medicating our finches.

Firstly it might be best to start with the most basic of needs and that is with the hard seed component crucial to all finches from Zebras through to Violet-ears!
There was an old advertisement for a car products company that had a catchphrase of "oils ain’t oils" meaning some oils are better than others. Well, the same holds true for dry seed because it is for sure that some seeds/mixes are better than others – definitely, as far as quality goes, "seeds definitely ain’t seeds"!
Dusty dirty seed is perhaps the first thing that the finch keeper should avoid like the plague and if you can smell rodent wee on the bags as well then leave it where it is!!
As most know I import my seed from NSW down into Tasmania which costs a small fortune in regards quarantine compliance and freight costs and several local breeders have asked why do you bother?
The answer to that is in the word "quarantine" for in order for many seeds integral to a good finch mix to enter this state they need to be irradiated by law to prevent weed seeds and the likes from gaining a foothold in the state. Basically this destroys/disrupts the DNA or germ of the seed rendering it impossible to grow. This process also renders the seed incapable of being germinated/sprouted too which is of far greater concern to the serious finch keeper. Oh, and in case you think finches are too "dumb" to know whether seed is irradiated or not you might like to read a little further!
We used to obtain our Niger seed from the seed merchant and if the bag was to be believed it came from Pakistan which was irradiated before entry of course! On a trip to the Gunnedah Sale in New South Wales I once had the good fortune to meet the late Col Pepper from Peppers’ Bird Products who had started growing Niger at his Quirindi farm. He gave me a sample bag of his fresh Niger which, upon returning home, I presented to my finches in a coffee lid alongside some of the imported Niger we were using. I assumed (always a bad thing to do with finches!!!) that they would not take much notice of the fresh seed and consume each equally.
Upon placing the 2 containers in the aviary I was stunned to see all the cup nesters avidly eating Col’s fresh Niger and completely ignoring the imported stuff!! In fact the imported stuff was not touched until all of Col’s had been eaten.
Suffice it to say his Niger became an integral part of our seed order from that point on!!

We have always used that little bit of ‘intelligence gathering’ when deciding to go that extra mile to get the freshest, non-irradiated seed and so far so good!
So if you find that your seed isn’t germinating as it should then I strongly advise you to seek some answers from your seed supplier to ensure your seed is the best available.

The finch dry seed mix recipe that we opted to have made for us is based on the following proportions:
20% Plain canary
30% Red panicum
20% French white millet
10% Panorama millet
20% Siberian millet/Japanese millet

Many choose to feed their seeds independently but we opt for a mix to ensure that they cannot just eat the seed/s they prefer!! The logic may sound a tad odd but could you imagine the size of a Diamond sparrow given free access to a hopper full of plain canary seed! Okay, okay, yep, I work full-time so it is far easier for me to fill hoppers with a mixed batch then filling individual seed hoppers!!
Still, hopefully the mix offers all things in moderation!
We ‘get away’ with it in mixed aviaries but always have a stock of extra Red panicum on hand to mix in for aviaries containing mainly members of the Waxbill family.
Of course you will find that different mixtures of finches in different aviaries will favour certain seeds over others so a simple solution is to have a few bags of plain seeds on hand to solve this problem – pretty easy just to add a few scoops into the mix before filling up the hoppers.
Our seed is fed in metal seed hoppers designed and manufactured by Bob Collier from Toowoomba in Queensland as we have found his designs to be second to none and his double feeding furrows go a long way to eliminating waste. Hoppers are preferred to bowls as a way of preventing much of the contamination resulting from "fly-byes" over a busy feed station in a well-stocked aviary!

For special mixes we feed the African Waxbill Mix which was blended using field observations from the South African book "African Birds in Field & Aviary" from Indrus Productions. Due to the high cost of production of this seed mix we feed only to the more exotic of the Waxbills that we keep – Orange-cheeks, Blue-caps, Pytilias and the likes – but experiments have shown that all finches – whether Fringillids or Estrildids – will consume it with relish – when given the opportunity to that is!!!!
A finch mate did say that was quite normal in that the more expensive the seed was the greater would be their consumption of it!!
As mentioned we also feed Niger for the cup nesters and with this a mix of the following: white & black lettuce, rye, carrot, sesame, maw, aniseed, Kentucky blue grass and Phalaris. The composition of this depends on seasonal availability but it is generally within this mix of grains.
This mix is fed out in a separate bowl and we add sunflower kernels and Pine nuts to it for the siskins and other cup nesters we keep. Sunflower seeds are much loved by Red and Yellow siskins and when these are presented the consumption of Niger seed decreases accordingly.
During the winter months we often add hulled oats (groats) to the mix for an added bit of nourishment to get them through the tough times!
I also have some bags of very old Peppers Greens n’ Grains which are fed only to the Beautiful firetails – the fecundity of this is checked regularly given that it is no longer produced. To date near 100% germination has been recorded despite its age. The mainstay of this product is commonly known as water grass or barnyard grass- Echinochloa crus-galli- a close relative of Japanese millet plus a plethora of weed species much loved by ALL finches!!!
In case you are wondering about the dangers associated with feeding old seed – no matter how good the original product was – then I shall ‘deviate’ briefly to enlighten you with my own findings.
When cleaning my garage one year I encountered a bag of 15 year old Rye grass lurking in a long forgotten corner under several layers of "stuff". Deciding to have some fun with it I took a small bag of it to school for an investigation class for senior science students. Basically got them to devise an experiment to check seed fertility and the likes which they then decided should be by counting the germination rate of 100 seeds placed in cotton wool in a Petrie dish. I was hoping to have some fun when nothing germinated so that I could get them to trouble-shoot their own scientific method – cunning was I not!!
So far so good except that every group of students recorded 100% seed germination!! Yes, that 15 year old bag of Rye was as viable as the day it was harvested – needless to say I immediately ‘confiscated’ the remaining seed and rushed it home to feed to the finches, waste not want not!!
On the other hand I have done the same with supposedly "fresh" finch mix and found that certain components failed to germinate at all so we regularly test the seed we use - just in case – keeps everyone honest that way!

Soaked/Sprouted seed:
One of the mainstays of our finch husbandry is the use of soaked/sprouted finch mix and we have been using this for decades.
I am aware of the frozen green seed that many rave about on the Mainland but it is unobtainable in Tasmania and the prohibitive costs of satisfying quarantine requirements would render it akin to gold in price anyway!! It may be very good but as I’ve never used it I shan’t comment further.
Basically our normal finch mix is soaked for around 12 hours in fresh water laced with Multiclens from Passwells (contains Chlorhexidine digluconate 10mg/mL
)
in a plastic ice-cream container with holes drilled into its lid to allow the mixture to ‘breathe’. Following this the mix is washed thoroughly in fresh water and then placed into the top of a fly culture box (on the outside of the box of course!!) where the warm air soon triggers the germination process. The time taken to germinate depends upon a host of factors including the ambient temperature and the wattage of the bulbs in the fly box at the time.
I am told that the vitamin content of the seed increase around 300% when the seed first sprouts so it would appear a very beneficial process, in fact we often maintain that if you could feed enough of it they’d hardly bother with dry seed at all!
Once the seed is ready to be fed I simply add a sprinkle of Allfarms’ Solvita (vitamin supplement), a sprinkle of powdered Dandelion root and a liberal amount of my soft food of choice – which is the same one as supplied through the Finch Society of Australia – and then the entire lot is thoroughly mixed together.
Before feeding out the final important ingredient is added!! This is a blended mix of fresh and frozen vegetables which we generally call the "Lowe Mix" after Ray & Wendy Lowe from Queensland who generously showed us this aspect of their dietary regime.
Simplicity itself in that it is a mix of leafy green vegetables – such as Kale, Silverbeet (Chard), Bok Choy, Pak Choy, Chinese mustard greens, Milk thistle leaves, Celery and/or unsprayed Broccoli – mixed with frozen peas and corn and then blended to the size of a rice grain. This is then mixed through the soaked/sprouted seed and you are ready to go. Relatively cheap, easily obtained and simple to prepare 2-3 days’ worth in one ‘blending session’!
Once all the ingredients are mixed together they can be placed them in the fridge until required!
Yes, I know Kale contains oxalic acid but it is also rich in calcium and with a varied diet no problems should ensue and it has been one of my finch staples for years now, likewise for Silverbeet. Spinach as it’s known in Australia is avoided.
Most of the above leafy greens can be grown in the home veggie patch or even in foam boxes to great effect meaning there are no excuses for not supplying your finches with the best in fresh greenery!
All of the soaked/sprouted seed mix not consumed in 24 hours is immediately thrown out to avoid fungal problems – Tasmania is not known for its humidity so I’d imagine mainland finch bods would have to be more discerning with disposal of their uneaten mix. I am aware that many mainland finch breeders avoid soaked/sprouted seed mixes like the plague but suggest with a modicum of thought they may find that their birds markedly benefit from this process.
If you have trouble starting your birds off on this mix just add a Red-faced parrotfinch to the collection as these guys would eat anything – mind you when we first started feeding this blended mix there was no hesitation on the part of any birds to eat it, except of course the Blue-caps but that’s another story!!

Water:
I am often asked what bird medications that we apply to the birds water bowls over the course of the seasons. The answer to that is simple – bird wormers and Apple Cider Vinegar and nothing else apart from fresh, clean water!
No vitamin supplements, no calcium mixes, nothing apart from the ones mentioned. With water treatments the bird is at the mercy of the aviary temperature and the hotter it is the more they will be required to drink which may not be a desirable outcome with some products – after all wormer are basically poisons!
Perhaps, if I use calcium as an example you’ll get my convoluted logic! I only supply a dry mix of calcium based products which is blended to my own strict requirements and it is fed ad-libetum in bowls. If the bird requires the calcium then it is free to do so whenever it wants to. If, on the other hand, I feed it in the water then the bird gets calcium supplements every time it drinks whether it needs it or not. My way the bird can choose what it consumes to some degree, maybe I confer too much ‘intelligence’ on the finches concerned but my observations will always lead me to continue doing it this way!
This is further emphasised, in my eyes at any rate, but the fact that female Gouldian’s will almost live in this dry mix when egg-laying while males will simply dabble at it 12 months of the year. To me it suggests that the hen Gouldian ‘recognises’ the ‘need’ for this source during periods of stress and consumes it accordingly while at other times of the year when there is no such ‘stress’ they simply regulate/reduce its uptake.
Sure I appreciate that many will scoff at this and tout their own regimes but that’s what finch keeping is all about!! There is no right or wrong way of tackling finch husbandry just what works for you and your birds but I just suggest you keep an open mind to all new ideas that cross your path – works for me! The day we cross our arms and strictly advocate that "our regime is best" then we may as well get out the stamp collection because finch keeping requires constant evolution and no-one wants to become a finch-keeper akin to a Dodo now do they?!!

Back to the water and I guess that bird wormers are self-explanatory and most are aware of my insistence on a good, strong worming program but why the Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV)?
Basically to slightly acidify the gut of newly imported finches just in case they may have a trace of fungal organisms present in their system – this was recommended by some avian vets that I have spoken to as a temporary measure– and because my mum reckons it’s one of the greatest natural products available!! Who’s going to argue with their mother!
I also regularly use it with finches in the hospital cage and have certainly never seen any deleterious side effects of its use here.
I’m told that it is the non-pasteurised ACV that is best – yes, the one with the floaty bits in it from the health food shops!! I did read recently in a finch e-bulletin of someone debunking the myth that it was good for birds but, once again, I advocate doing your own research and deciding for yourself as nothing in that article did anything to convince me to discontinue my use of it.
Oh and here is another plus for its use if you are going away for a few days and are worried about the water in your aviaries. Finches will drink water with ACV (10mls/litre appears the recommended dose rate)in it but are loathe to bathe in it which solves part of your problem with the levels in the water bowl while you are away or have the ‘finch-sitter’ on duty– especially if you have bath freaks like Rufous-back mannikins or St Helena waxbills in there!

Calcium mix:

Living in a place like Tasmania used to mean that you had the spectre of egg-binding as a constant companion and we long toiled to overcome it every breeding season.
For example every winter I placed the entire group of hen Pytilias and Blue-caps I possessed in one cage and all the males in another so as to reduce the risk of losing valuable females to the spectre of egg-binding during the harsh winter months.
That was until I got to know Dr Colin Walker at the Australian Pigeon Company and he devised some mixes of his products to trial down here. Top of that list was a Pigeon Vitamin Mix (PVM) designed for ad-libetum use in racing pigeons. Firstly finches seemed to like it and then my devious little brain thought why not blend it with a number of other good calcium sources and see how the finches react to that – proud to report that it was full-steam ahead and Polly’s Calcium Mix was born!!
Basically, it contains mixed PVM powders, oyster shell, Canundra shells and treated & sieved shellgrit. No secret as to what’s in it but we’ll keep to ourselves the "how" we treat the basic core ingredients – sure you understand that!!
It was ’born’ out of the desire not to use water based treatments and the desire of the ‘lazy’ finch keeper to let the birds help themselves – hey, anyway, 1 bowl to clean is far better than 6 bowls to clean isn’t it?!
It is currently available through the Finch Society of Australia, the Queensland Finch Society or direct from the blender in NSW. "Why not from me in Tasmania?" I hear you ask?
Put it down to the tyranny of distance as it would be unviable to ship it from Tasmania because, just like every other bird product we have to import, freight cost are prohibitive. Anyway, such things developed by locals are still seen as witchcraft here so you might say I have a "stake" in doing it off-shore!!! Maybe in 10 years!!
The other advantage of feeding it this way is that your birds are not forced to eat anything they don’t want to and can pick and choose what they actually take from the mix. Some prefer the powder itself while others devour the Canundra shells first and it is relatively easy to keep the bowls topped up to cater for all tastes!

Grass n’ Greens:
As of 2009 Hobart has the mantle of Australia’s driest capital so talk of greens once again requires a little more work than the Mainland keeper by virtue of rainfall alone!
None of the masses of Guinea grass that abounds in NSW or Queensland is present here but we do, thanks to some South African blow-ins, have a few staples that get us through!!
The Ehrharta family are life savers for Tasmanian finch keepers and comprise Ehrharta erecta or Panic Veldt Grass, E.longiflora or Veldt Oats and E.calycina or Perennial Veldt Grass and it is the first two of these that are used by most good finch keepers here.
All apparently arrived here in bales of stock food that was imported from South Africa in the early days of colonisation and bird keepers have ensured that its spread has been ‘encouraged’!!
Added to these are the regular lawn varieties of Rye grass (Lolium sp.), Wintergrass (Poa annua) and Chickweed (Stellaria media) and you just about have most of the available grasses in total!
Phalaris (wild canary seed) which is widely grown as a stock feed is also fed but just when the seed heads start to turn brown – if you are unsure when to feed it just watch the wild Goldfinches for when it’s ripe they attack it with relish.
I have been told that it is/may be toxic when green and can certainly say that finches will not touch it until it is starting to brown off. However, I have never personally witnessed any toxic effects on finch species.
All grasses are fed up off the ground in specially made green feed holders so as to avoid the chances of mould forming on grasses simply thrown onto the aviary floor – Chestnuts and members of the Nun/mannikin family really appreciate grass presented in this manner as they can indulge their natural habit of running along and hanging from the stems of grasses while feeding.
Chickweed, being a more prostrate grower, is fed in plastic cat litter trays on the aviary floor and all waste removed the next day.
Although not a huge problem in Tasmania we check all grasses for signs of Rust or Ergot before presenting it to the birds – in more tropical areas I have seen large numbers of these ‘rust balls’ infesting Guinea grass, so care needs to be exercised.
For the cup nesters we try and provide Milk thistle and Dandelion heads during the breeding season which may explain the carpet of white fluff that abounds in some aviaries!
Milk thistle will keep for an extended period if placed in a container in the fridge for those of us not blessed with a close-bye source of supply.

Apart from grasses when available the only green that they are presented with on a daily basis are slices of Bitterfree or Lebanese cucumber. Most finches relish this and it contains a healthy dose of Vitamin A & C and some spruke its benefits as a diuretic agent – keeping the ‘pipes’ flowing – mind you maybe not that critical in specie that lack stomachs!!

Live Food:
The long suffering finch breeder here must struggle on in the absence of ground dwelling termites – or "free-range maggots" as some wags call them!!
Sure I appreciate Tasmania has a couple of varieties of tree-dwelling termites but unless a long term supply is found that will get the chicks through from hatchling to fledgling you may as well not bother starting them off! Once the termites run out the chicks invariably end up on the floor!!
So other forms of live food need to be considered and the two staples we feed out are the Mealworm and the maggot or gentle.
The Mealworm is an avicultural god-send and is used around the globe and has the added advantage that it can be bred in good numbers by any finch keeper worth his/her salt.
The only thing to consider with mealworms is the medium that you grow them in – especially around the time of feeding. Much has been written about the dangers of feeding mealworms grown in bran and we strongly recommend that you grow your worms in a far more nutritious medium. If you purchase them from one of the multitude of live food producers sieve them out of the bran they arrive in and immediately transfer them into pollard, wheat heart or ‘mill-run’ - the closer to the wheat heart the better - and away from bran altogether. Some breeders here take it one step further and transfer their mealworms in to commercially produced egg and biscuit mix to further enhance the content of their worms before feeding them out.
Also if you do your research you may find that egg-binding problem you are experiencing may be related to your habit of feeding mealworms directly from bran – check it out!!
One of the biggest drawbacks for the working finch breeder is feeding live food while you are at work for it is often not the amount of live food you feed but rather the frequency with which you feed it!
There are a number of excellent automatic mealworm feeders out there linked to garden watering systems but there is none simpler than the Resun Aquarium Automatic Fish Food Feeder (AF2005D). These guys are not only cheap but very reliable with one of mine having been in constant use for 4 years now!
They allow you to set 4 drop times during the day which means that fresh mealworms (and very dry maggots) can be deposited in the bowls at 4 set times each day. Sure, there is no control over how many mealworms actually drop through but it has got to be better than none at all. Easily obtainable through EBAY they are a boon to feeding live food during an extended absence. For highly insectivorous finches two such devices set to operate at different time drops would solve many of the live feed problems regardless of how many ‘drop’ each rotation.
The maggot is another staple live food that has undergone much development and streamlining since the early days of fly-blown split sheep heads over a plastic bin filled with bran!
Maggots are produced in boxes fitted with light bulbs – although the advent of ‘energy efficient’ bulbs does require some extra experimentation these days to get the wattage correct for optimal results – where fly pupae is allowed to develop and lay their eggs in the medium presented. In our case we use whey powder as the base in a wet mix of bran.
Once the eggs have hatched this medium is transferred to a larger container and a mix of whey and wet pollard is given to the maggots/gentles to grow in. When at the desired size we then add dry pollard until the maggots are non-clumping and very dry and a final check is made to ensure the black gut-stripe is absent then out to the birds.
They are fed as a mix of both maggots and pupae for some finches love the pupae as much as the maggot itself.
If cleaned (the black gut-stripe completely removed by clean medium) and grown correctly there are fewer safe forms of live food than the humble maggot/gentle!!

I also feed my birds crickets which are cultivated in medium sized freezer units (the 320litre and above sized ones) and the husbandry of these guys is a dawdle compared to finch aviculture! Beats chasing all over the place with butterfly nets collecting grasshoppers at any rate!
Crickets have the added advantage of being easy to gut-load and their size makes them perfect for the larger finches – especially weavers, Chaffinches, Red-crested finches and Golden song sparrows. Mind you most finches will consume them and their ease of culture makes it possible to supply them at a variety of sizes depending upon your target species.
Just bear in mind that humidity is the natural killer of the cricket just as it is the prerequisite for successful breeding in the mealworm – not clever to try and culture both in the same average insect room.

Other good sources of live food are harvested with the use of a moth trap although our temperature is not too conducive to warm still nights – not even in summer!
However, the sight of emptying the catching net into the aviary and watching the feeding frenzy is one not easily forgotten!
Basically it is a fan suspended below a small fluoro or ‘black-light’ source which attracts the moths, mozzies, small praying mantis and other flying invertebrates to the fan. The fan draws the insects into a muslin bag and the down-draft keeps them in there until you are ready to collect them. Simply remove the bag and you can empty the contents into a tray on the aviary floor.
Rather than watch as ¾ of the "feed" makes a dash for freedom through your bird wire to the obvious chagrin of your finches then you can simply place the bag of goodies in the fridge for an hour or two and then place it in the aviary. Slows the insects down and prevents them escaping being on the finch menu!

So there you have a brief run-down of the feeding /husbandry regime that I opt for here. There are many things that I could do to improve it but balancing that with a full-time job is not an option at present – certainly not here at any rate!
Perhaps the most important ‘thing’ to aim for is to create a workable scheme that fits your lifestyle and the needs of the finches that you decide to keep. If you have an aversion to live food production then maybe insectivorous finches are not for you – logical I hear you say but how many examples that fly in the face of such logic do you know of!!?
Be prepared to alter and evaluate how you feed your birds after every breeding season and talk to others about their husbandry and ‘steal’ from them any workable ideas that you can and incorporate them into your own regime.

As with many things in life regularity is the key also to good bird breeding (especially in regards live food feeding) and it is essential to aim to attend to your feeding chores at regular times so that the birds get used to this ‘way of life’ as you must yourself!
If you feed you live food out at 7am every weekday morning don’t abuse the Song sparrows for throwing their young on the floor when, after a heavy night on the ‘turps’, you go out to feed them at 11am – the ‘weekend’ is a term only known to humans I’m afraid!
Don’t worry your partner will soon get used to you saying at 6am "Sorry dear just have to get up and give the Songies some live food" as you stagger out in ‘inappropriate attire’ to dash to the back aviary!
Ah, such are the joys of finch keeping!

Hopefully there’s something in there that may benefit your own finch keeping but these days we tend to try to keep it as simple as possible with fresh dry seed mixes, the use of soaked/sprouted seed with blended vegetables and plenty of green grasses when available. Sorry, have to go now I need to feed the young Song sparrows – catch you all next time!!!!