“A Few Steps Towards a “Career” in Finch Keeping.”
                                          
By Marcus Pollard

Had a few emails from younger ‘potential finchely afflicted persons’ lately asking what the best way of getting into finches is and the best types to start off with so I thought what better topic to sink the teeth into this time around!

The best way to start off is to do your research on the species that you wish to keep once your aviary is complete. I guess the first step is to ensure that the literature that you compile your ‘hit-list’ from is relevant to the country in which you reside. I’d love a dollar for every time new comers have arrived down home to discuss their proposed finch list to see it dotted with Violet-ears, Quail finches and various other of the beautiful but, alas, unavailable in Australia members of the Fire finch family!
So chose your list from the available species then be prepared to modify it to suit your skill level and time frame.
Note here I avoided saying to “suit your budget” as this should NEVER be a prerequisite for starting your finch collection where top end rarer exotic finches are concerned – or just because you can afford them should not be a reason for purchasing them!!
Hopefully that form of status collecting is a thing of the past these days as it has cost us a few species over the years.
In fact the opposite should be the case I reckon! I have had this discussion with numerous finch breeders and they all look back fondly when remembering their first few pairs of………yes, you guessed it……………the humble Zebra finch!
Yes, many of the country’s finest fincho’s reckon that the best finch to start the journey into finch keeping is the good old Australian Zebra finch.
Given their nature and level of domesticity they are a perfect species for the beginner to hone their skills before taking the plunge into more difficult species. Basically bomb-proof as regards nest inspection and requiring of a fairly stock standard diet they will allow the novice to experience first-hand the joys of finch keeping and their tolerance of nest inspection allows the breeder to share their excitement with other younger family members. Would anyone dare take a nest of Blue-caps out of the aviary to show the kids or grand kids? Yet the Zebra or Zebbie as they are known here doesn’t miss a beat often returning to their chicks once you’ve put the nest box back!
They are a great little finch for allowing you to decide whether finch breeding is really for you or if the hookbilled alternative is your way to go!
Also in harsher climates like Tasmania where it takes a certain “dogged determination” to successfully keep and breed finches then the Zebbie is a perfect way to have the best of both worlds and add a little constant motion to your bird collection.
Just recently the worth of the good old Zebbie was further brought home to many of us when an enquiry to the Finch Society of Australia’s email box asked about establishing an aviary at the Anglican Uniting Aged Care facility in New South Wales. The manager was thinking along the lines of establishing an aviary from scratch so that the residents could sit and enjoy the aviary as much has been written of the calmative effect of animals upon humans – seems that those millions of “twitterers” out there might have got it right after all!!
The vice president of the FSA, Michael Baker, became involved with a helping hand on aviary design and made the entire exercise a FSA directive! Still when it came to stocking the aviary none of us ‘old hands’ could go past the Zebra finch for activity, friendliness and ease of care.
So the Zebbie comes shining through yet again to aid fincho’s and non-fincho’s alike – no wonder they hold pride of place in the hearts of many an experienced breeder!

So maybe we should take things easy and not try and fly before we can crawl and start our finch breeding with the easier species like Zebras and Bengalese manikins – and let’s not forget that both these species are an integral part of finch aviculture these days and not merely the birds of the beginner. For there are many mutations available in the Zebra finch and many top breeders specialise in only these mutations and the foster prowess of the Bengalese is legendary so please do not think I am denigrating either species in any way.

These two common finches are also great for that trip into the realm of the Mixed Aviary which we all make early on in our development as a breeder!
Given their tough nature they are arguably the ones to try mixed in with Neophemas, Cockateils, quail and several of the dove/pigeon family. I’ll leave that up to the individual but the consequences of a collision between the larger species and a small finch is heavily weighted in favour of the former!! Even Java sparrows find that company a bit daunting at times!
These days the only non-finch that is in my aviaries are the placid masked or Cape dove (an African native) basically because of their amazingly quiet nature and this was brought home to me this morning as I watched a young Painted land on the back of one of these doves. The dove simply continued sitting there while the young Painted looked a bit startled, then ‘shrugged’ and must have thought that “this was OK and pretty soft” and proceeded to nestle down for a nap!! As I left the aviary neither party seemed inclined to move!!
The only drawback with introducing the Masked dove is that in profile they resemble hawks with their pointy wings and this can spook the finches until they get used to the doves – apart from that they are excellent aviary inhabitants.
Even the quail have left these days – despite my love of the Turnix ‘quail’ for the needs to supply live food to finches is not helped by the voracious appetite of the quail – that and their nasty habit of flying around on moonlit nights or whenever spooked.
May I be so bold as to test your mixed collection with those two species before opting to add other finches into the mix.

From Zebbies one can then move along to the easier Australian natives in the Star, Chestnut, Double Bar, Longtail and Painted finches with a degree of experience under their belts!

Ok, the next thing we need to consider is information! Today’s finch breeder has the entire world at their fingertips thanks to the World Wide Web and it is a great place to start your research into your “dream team” of finches!
Still, despite this wealth of information (or overload as some tend to call it!) there is nothing better than to actually talk to the people that have the finches that you are interested in keeping.
We’ve all made purchases without doing the correct amount of homework and my own one-and-only error of this type is still vivid in the memory! I was always fascinated by the Red Bishop weavers that I saw in a number of aviaries and in a plethora of books and was determined to have a pair in my aviary. During the Vertebrates Pest Act of the early 1980’s rumours abounded aplenty and many breeders feared that certain exotic species were going to be banned or placed on hi-interest lists so there were a lot of very cheap birds going in the marketplace!! So as I could purchase Red Bishops (Grenadier weavers) as a result of that frenzy for a fraction of their ‘normal’ price I succumbed to temptation and purchased a trio.
All went well and a much younger me thought “How easy is this!” as the birds coloured, built their terrific little hanging basket nests and those pale blue eggs were seen inside. Then the reality of not doing your homework struck home with a vengeance as it so often does in this game. I had not done my research into the quantity of live food needed by these guys when the chicks hatch and the sight of the cold lifeless nest of chick’s on the aviary floor was gut-wrenching!
Suffice it to say that this was remedied for the next clutch but the lesson remained a strong one for the rest of my time in finches and, in my partial weak defence, it was before the time of the internet and I lived in a place where information was on a need to know basis – and people like us young upstarts just didn’t need to know!!
As we are hoping to obtain some Red-crested finches in the near future we have read everything that we can lay our hands on about them and spoken with several breeders so you can see we are determined never to make that mistake again – now all we need is for the Tasmanian Wildlife Department to actually allow us to import them, but that’s another story!!
So be it Zebbie or Orange-cheek that you wish to keep then research is your best friend – and ultimately of the species that you intend to keep!!
I guess here would be as good a place as any to state that perhaps the most critical attribute to be a successful finch breeder is a willingness to adapt, alter and change your husbandry methods to improve the lot of the finches under your care. Just as there’s no such thing as the “perfect” aviary there is no such thing as the perfect finch husbandry regime (just what’s the best at this point in time!!) – so be prepared to experiment and research with what you do and never be afraid to ask questions!!
You will always find those that won’t assist you but from my experience the better the finch breeder the more supportive and informative they are. Having come from a background devoid of that sort of “caring, sharing” finch support networks I more than most appreciate how frustrating it can be but persist as there are some excellent fincho’s out there – just a matter of finding them!!
Oh and when you do locate a couple remember there is NO such thing as too many questions where finches are concerned!!

Now, we’ve selected a species to suit our stage of development in the finch game, weighed up the pros and cons of having a mixed aviary and filled a folder (or Hard Disc Drive these days!!) with information on the species we now intend to keep. So where to now and what should be our next step?

The aviary itself of course!
Now here are a few words of warning if you love your plants as well as your finches! If you only have room for a few finches and intend to have static plants in with them you might like to reconsider as your plants may resemble twigs in no time flat!! Canaries and all their cup-nesting relatives will chew your plants beyond recognition as will the Manikin/Nun/Munia family – and just about every other finch I can think of! So either give up on the plant idea, build a huge aviary or have mobile plants and grasses that can be cycled through the aviary allowing the plants time to recover from being loved to death – this of course makes it far better for the finches too as they have a constant stream of fresh greens entering their cage!!
Many grow grasses, bird seed and vegetables in foam boxes or large pot-plants and cycle these through the aviary and it is an easy and efficient method for adding a bit of colour to the cage. Oh, and what Red Bishop weavers can do to vegetation in the breeding season has to be seen to be believed!!

So on to the aviary proper. No matter what the size of your aviary any amount spent on vermin exclusion is money well spent in the long run – be that on the best grade of wire to stop cockroaches, gecko’s and mice to the electric wire to stop Possums, cats and bats from your cages.
From 30cm deep concrete footings around the base with crushed glass underneath to a complete concrete slab that is always a good start.
However, two-legged human rats are another proposition where locking your cages can just mean that the intruders will simply wreck your cages releasing the rest of the birds they don’t steal. Personal preference as to whether you lock it up securely or take pot-luck!
Choice of building material is basically up to the budget and we can ignore the finch purchase rule previously stated that “just because you can afford them doesn’t mean you should buy them” and invest in the best building materials possible.
Just a few tips here from bitter experience to prevent anyone from making the same mistakes. When using tin for any external walls ensure that they are lined with insulation or some form of cladding – especially when the tin area may have Tea-tree or other brush placed against it for nesting. For tin, wonderful building material that it can be, it is invariably too hot in summer time and far too cold in winter times and both can cause heartache in the world of finches. Even birds like Diamond firetails that build huge lined nests can suffer if the nest touches tin as the heat from the birds in the nest causes condensation which eventually turns the nest into a sponge and your birds can often die from pneumonia.

The actual design of your aviary should reflect the climatic conditions that prevail in your area and the best way to ascertain this is to visit the aviaries of fellow finch breeders and quiz them on their design. This is very important in colder climates such as ours here in Tasmania or the ACT and I would love a dollar for every time I’ve been shown aviary plans for Tasmania which include large open flights!!
A chap once suggested to me that “he’d designed his aviary straight from Russell Kingston’s’ finch book and that made it perfect!”
I did suggest to him that Russell resided in sunny Queensland and would be the first person to suggest he might like to contemplate modifying it for local conditions!! Unmoved he constructed said aviary and his summer breeding was excellent but, alas, winter brought home the harsh reality of finch keeping here and the aviary now houses chooks!!
So horses for course and design your aviary with your climate in mind as well as the types of finches that you wish to house.
Oh, and for the record and in my experience, there is no such thing as the perfect aviary as there is always something that can be remodelled or refurbished as a result of visiting other finch keepers set-ups. Also would love a dollar for every time I’ve said or heard said “gee, why didn’t I think of that” in regards aviary building!!

Perhaps we should look in more depth at aviary design in a future issue but just let me leave you with one of the most hotly debated issues in aviary building these days.
That is “to roof, or not to roof” or maybe even “whether tis saner in the scheme of things to suffer the slings and arrows of every passing flying disease carrier or to take arms against a sky of trouble and by thus roofing endeth many of those problems!!!!”
With apologies to Bill but I feel sure that if he was a Shakespearian finch keeper he would have posed just such a perplexing question!!!!!
With that debate starter ringing in my ears I’ll leave you all in peace until next time!!