FEEDING & CARE OF THE GRASS FINCH
In the wild, grass and parrot finches feed predominantly on ripe and half ripe seeds, as well as on insects. Some birds will become totally insectivorous after having fed their young on insects. Seed remains the staple diet for most species in captivity, but they also require some animal proteins.
The diet staples in this category are the various millet seeds and plain canary seed. Supplementary seeds wil be discussed later on. The large-grained, thin shelled white millet is preferred by the larger birds, but it is less popular with the smaller species. Yellow millet, although of comparable size, has a considerably thicker shell and is therefore less suitable for grass finches. Small estrildine finches as well as the larger ones are also very fond of the three small-grained millets: Senegal millet, which is yellowish, round or oval shaped, the closely related Mohar or Indian millet, with its yellow or brown grains; and the smallest, Algerian millet, which has grains of reddish yellow coloration. Most grass finches are very fond of ears of millet, which are usually Senegal millet. These entire seed pods of millet are imported from France and Italy, and lately even from China. They are particularly nutritionally good for newly imported birds or young birds that have just left the nest. Unlike as in the old days, these millet ears are not placed in the cage or aviary in bundles; they are suspended individually so that each ear is accessible from all sides. It is best to offer germinating seeds, since this kind of food is invariably preferred by the birds. Japanese millet as bird seed is relatively new; it came to Europe and North America only after World War II. This millet differs from those described above because its gray-brown seeds are irregulaly shaped and have distinct edges and corners. This millet sprouts very readily and is a highly nutritious food. Apart from millet, plain canary seed is also very important in the diet of grass finches. Individual grains must be yellow, shiny and dust-free. Several small-grained varieties are preferred by grass finches. The best canary seed comes from Morocco and western Turkey. Although millet and canary seed are the main dietary items, other seeds can be offered intermittently for variety. I usually give a mixture of niger, blue poppy seeds, grass and lettuce seeds twice or three times a week, either scattered over the bottom of the aviary or given in a separate dish (about a teaspoonful for each pair of birds). Shelled oats are also eagerly taken by many of the larger grass finches, and in my opinion this kind of food is an absolute must for acclimating parrot finches. Also eagerly taken by many of the larger birds are germinating wheat grains. Unshelled rice is a good supplementary food for Java sparrows, mannikins and some parrot finches, but most other species will not take to it.
Only the highest quality seeds are acceptable as bird food. Cheap and contaminated seeds can endanger an entire bird stock. Each type of seed is purchased separately so that the aviculturist can prepare his own mixture. Only this assures us that our birds get the required, highest quality diet, tailored to the specific demands of each species. It is impossible to recommend a seed mixture that would be universally satisfactory for all birds. Large species have to get more white millet and canary seed, as well as the small-grained millet varieties; small species feed predominantly on small-grained millets. Ultimately, the best feeding results will be determined by the proper ratio between the various seeds. I prefer a standard mixture that I can adjust by adding supplementary seeds: 4 parts each canary seed and white millet mixed with one part each Senegal, Mohar, Algerian and Japanese millet. Of course, each type of seed can also be offered in a separate dish; even in large cages, however, there would not be enough room for all feed dishes, so a carefully prepared mixture of seeds has to be offered. In large aviaries each type of food can be offered separately, yet even then things can get quite difficult and cumbersome when several aviaries have to be attended to regularly. To top offseveral dozens seed dishes each day requires a considerable amount of time.
Apart from dried seed grains we must also offer germinating seeds to our birds. During the winter months especially these sprouting seeds replace, to some extent, green food and half-ripe seeds. Getting seeds to germinate is just a manner of practice; it can be learned easily. For grass finches we use the various millets as well as canary seed. Millet can be left to germinate in a mixture, but canary seed—because it requires about 24 hours longer than millet to geminate—should be kept separate. Oats and wheat grains should also be kept separate.
Germination of seeds can be accomplished in several different ways. In one popular method, water is run through a seed mixture in a strainer. Then the strainer with its content of seed is placed in a container with water. The water is replaced after several hours and the seeds are rinsed thoroughly once more, then returned in the strainer to the water bath and left there overnight. Next morning the seeds are rinsed thoroughly once more and then left in the strainer for several hours so that all excess water can be run off; the strainer should be shaken repeatedly. After that the seeds are placed in a glazed earthenware container, covered with a sheet of glass and put in a warm place. After 24 to 36 hours tiny sprouts will appear, and the seeds can then be fed to the birds. It is important that the sprouts are not permitted to grow too large, because the birds will not feed on them as eagerly then.
A similar method is used to get the stalks of spray millet to germinate. They are kept in water that is frequently changed for about 24 hours. After that they are bunched up, placed inside plastic bags and suspended upside-down. Inside the tightly sealed bags a very high humidity will develop; depending upon the temperature, the humidity will cause germination within 24 to 36 hours.
Half-ripe seeds tend to complement the birds diet rather nicely, and they are particularly valuable while young birds are being raised. Of the green foods, chickweed (Stellaria media) must be named first and foremost. Other plants eagerly eaten by many birds are dandelion (Taraxacum vulgare) shepherd's purse (Capsella bursapastoris), knot grasses (Polygonum), groundsel (Senecio vulgaris) and clover (Trifolium pratense). It is, of course, very important that these plants be collected only in areas that have not been sprayed with insecticides. Before the plants are given to the birds, they are placed into a bucket of water for at least an hour. Then the green food is washed and placed in a strainer so that excess water can run off. Leaves that are not immediately fed should be spread out over a wire frame to prevent decay. Lettuce and spinach have the advantage of being nearly always available, but even they have to be checked for the presence of insecticide (a point which ALWAYS has to be remembered when dealing with green food). Hobbyists with only a few birds can improvise a supply of green food by sowing canary seed or millet in shallow earth-filled wooden boxes. As soon as the plants have grown several centimeters, the entire box is placed inside the cage or aviary.
Although grass finches normally do not feed on fruit, in captivity they will adjust to it quite readily. A nail is placed through one of the perches and a piece of fruit is skewered onto it so that the birds can easily see it. Sooner or later they will start picking on it, and eventually they will get a taste for it. I have tried several kinds of fruit and have found that the birds will prefer sweet oranges, which supply natural, healthful vitamins. To give the estrildine birds, with their usually rather delicate beaks, adequate access to the flesh of an orange, it is advisable to pierce the cut surface repeatedly with a knife.
OTHER USEFUL FOODS
Grass finches in the wild will feed their young mostly on insects, although the young will also accept half-ripe seeds. Providing flying /insects (these birds also like spiders) in captivity is not always easy. Some insects can be bred, but not all of them are suitable for raising young birds. If spiders and insects (flies, grasshoppers and green aphids—black aphids are not eaten by grass finches) can be provided regularly and in sufficient quantities, raising the young of even the most difficult species is no great problem. However, in reality it is almost impossible to find insects in sufficient quantities, since their abundance is very much dependent upon the season. Therefore, it is important to remember that even when insects are periodically available in quantities they should be given to the birds only in moderation so that the birds will still take some of their regular foods. After all, one usually does not know when the insect supply will run out again. The birds easily adjust to live insects as food, and if the insects are given in excess the birds will not only become selective, but also will stop feeding their young if this choice food is not offered anymore.
There are also, of course, other sources of live food, such as mealworms (the larval form of a beetle, Tenebrio molitor), which can easily be bred. However, grass finches will take only very small worms, which are usually available from pet shops. Also commercially sold in some pet shops are mosquito larvae, small crickets, fruit-flies (Drosophila), waterfleas and whiteworms (enchytraeids). A good substitute for insects is young ant pupae and hard-boiled egg yolk. Ants of the genus Lasius are common in sunny areas in any garden or yard, and their pupae can easily be picked up with a spoon from under rocks or decaying pieces of wood. They can be stored (refrigerated) for several days in a bucket with soil from an ant nest. These ant pupae are excellent food, particularly for rearing small estrildine finches. Pupae of the large red forest ant Formica rufa are also excellent food for rearing young birds throughout the year. Dried out pupae are usually not taken by grass finches, even if they have been moistened with hot water, carrot juice or milk or if they are mixed with hard-boiled egg. This then brings us to another important food for rearing young birds: eggs. Egg food is prepared by the following method: an egg should be boiled for 12 minutes. It is then squeezed through a fine sieve (strainer) and mixed with finely ground breadcrumbs until the entire mass is loosely lumpy' without being sticky. This mixture is fed as thin layers in shallow containers. If it is too moist it will easily spoil, particularly in warm weather. To be cautious it is best to offer small amounts of this a couple of times daily, possibly in the morning and again in the evening, and, if need be, once in the middle of the day. The birds are very curious and usually will immediately take the food, especially when they observe that it is replaced regularly. Several brands of rearing food are commercially available, but I am in no position to assess their nutritional value.
Vitamins are important for the health and reproductive capabilities of birds. Vitamin supplements are particularly important during the winter months, when green food is not available and there is insufficient sunlight. Some commercially formulated products are designed to contain all essential nutritional elements and contain all essential amino acids and natural fruit sugars which are essential for the proper assimilation of amino acids, especially during periods of stress. In addition, I also mix the same vitamin compounds with germinating seeds and with soft foods, such as eggs, which are then offered to the birds three to four times per week. A vitamin D deficiency can inhibit the uptake of calcium, which can cause the birds to become eggbound.
Minerals are important in the diet of birds for the formation and maintenance of their plumage and bones and in the production of eggshells. A variety of calcium and mineral mixtures are commercially available. Calcium and minerals are scattered over the sand on the aviary floor. The sand should be pure beach sand, which contains, in addition to the very fine sand grains, also some larger grains (shell particles) that are picked up by the birds and aid in their digestion (so-called shell grit). One has to be cautious and watch for oil-polluted beach sand. Pulverized charcoal is a must for sick birds in a hospital cage.
Drinking water for cage birds is best provided in automatic dispensers ('drinkomats') made of plastic. These gadgets can be easily fastened between the wire bars. They should be cleaned and the water renewed every second day. Grass and parrot finches like to take a bath, and bathing water should be provided in a shallow dish placed inside the cage. Alternatively, one of those glass or plastic bird bath houses can be suspended from one of the cage doors. Personally, I prefer a shallow bath container inside the cage. Drinking water in aviaries is best provided in automatic bird water dispensers, plastic dispensers are preferable. Bathing water is poured into shallow containers that are placed inside larger dishes, this prevents the sand from becoming wet from splashing water.
The daily seed ration should be given to the birds in shallow containers with a relatively large surface area. Deep containers with a small surface area are unsuitable, since the birds tend to perch on the rim while feeding and the empty seed shells drop back into the bowl, where they soon can cover the entire surface so that the birds cannot reach the uneaten seeds anymore. I use dishes with an opening of 50 about 15 cm, 13 cm, and 10 cm wide, the respective lips are 5 cm, 4 cm and 3 cm high. These dimensions merely indicate the preferred shape of seed dishes, the actual sizes used depend, of course, on the species and number of specimens that have to be fed. In a cage, seed dishes are placed so that bird droppings cannot contaminate the seed and in a manner which will not unduly disturb the birds.
Soft foods (germinating seeds, egg mixtures, etc.) should also be offered in the same kind of dishes, since the birds are already accustomed to them. Depending upon the species and number of specimens which have to be fed, the seed dishes are emptied daily or every other day, the husks are then blown away, and the seeds are placed in a strainer to remove any dust. Afterwards the seeds are returned to the dish. In this manner we can determine the birds' seed preference, which has to be taken into consideration when the dishes are filled again. Dishes for soft food have to be cleaned or replaced with new ones for each feeding. Soft food should be replaced every morning, if young birds are being raised, food dishes have to be changed two or three times daily to prevent spoilage of the food. Such frequent dish changes have the advantage that the curious adult birds will invariably go to the newly replaced food dishes and start feeding, which in turn encourages their young to do the same.
Birds not accustomed to egg mixture or germinating seeds will often ignore such food and pick out only the dry seeds. This seems to be more common in cage birds than in those kept in aviaries. Should it happen, one can sprinkle some soft food over the seeds and thus gradually coax the birds onto soft foods.
Aviary birds are fed in a similar manner. The different seeds are placed in separate dishes inside larger plastic or zinc dishes. which prevents seeds and husks from spreading all over the aviary floor. For some years I have been using relatively large plastic boxes (50 cm x 35 cm x 10 cm) for most seeds, except niger, poppy, grass and lettuce seeds, which are given in separate containers. For grass finches I mix the various millets with canary seed and sprinkle the mixture as a thin layer inside the boxes so that the birds can selectively pick out their preferred seeds. Even when the boxes are used the seeds have to be cleared of empty husks and cleaned of dust once or twice a week. At the same time when the boxes are filled up again we can observe which type of seed is being preferred by the birds. This method is an excellent time-saver, especially when several aviaries have to be looked after. Here, too, care has to be taken that the boxes are not placed directly under the perches, thereby preventing contamination from bird droppings. In the event a box has become excessively dirty it can easily be cleaned.
For soft food I also use plastic boxes (35 cm x 25 cm x 6 cm). I cover the bottom with a thin layer of fine dry sand, upon which the germinating seeds, egg mixture and other soft foods are placed. Every morning the left over food and the sand are discarded and replaced with new sand and food. When young birds are being raised, this procedure has to be repeated around mid-day and in the evening as well. Additional feedings during the day can be made merely by adding food to the boxes, since dried-out food usually does not spoil. In my opinion the birds prefer to pick their food off the sand—which is more in line with their natural behavior—than to take it out of a dish.
Finally, a few words about the now widely used automatic feeders. They come in different models and usually have separate compartments for different seeds. Such feeders consist of an upper storage container for the seeds, which drop down into the actual feeding dish, and a lower container for the empty husks. All models work on the principle that they reduce the feeding workload, and indeed they have to be replenished with seed only once a week. Care has to be taken that the seed channel from the storage container does not become blocked with dust and sand. A disadvantage of automatic feeders is that it can be critical when some birds, especially new arrivals or young ones, cannot find their food supply and consequently starve to death, therefore, I do not recommend the use of automatic feeders.
CARE AND MAINTENANCE
Fresh air, light—ideally sunlight—and the required temperatures are the prerequisites for the well-being of grass finches. Cages and aviaries must always be bright and draftfree. When adjusting the temperature, one always has to remember that wild grass and parrot finches are tropical birds that are rarely exposed to prolonged cold periods. They do best at temperatures of about 20 degrees to 22 degrees C. Slightly elevated temperatures are advantageous during the breeding season. Efforts to acclimate these birds during cold winter temperatures are pointless and thus little more than outright cruelty.
Newly imported birds should be kept at about 25 degrees C, until they have become adjusted; then the temperature can be slowly lowered. As a rule all changes, including dietary adjustments, should be made gradually. Grass finches kept in aviaries adjacent to houses should be let outside only on sunny, warm days, and only for short periods. Personally, I prefer not to let my birds venture outside during the winter months. If, however, they are kept indoors in cages, they should be transferred to outdoor aviaries only at the onset of summer, and then only if the aviaries have a well-insulated enclosed section. In any event, I recommend that the birds always be locked up at night.
Grass finches have to be watched that their beaks and particularly their claws do not grow too long. Should this happen they have to be trimmed back, and while doing this the clearly visible blood vessel in each claw must not be damaged. For this procedure the bird is kept in one hand; you should hold one foot at a time against the light and then cut each claw below the blood vessel.
Cleanliness of aviaries and cages is very important and must always be maintained without going to extremes, because the birds should not be disturbed unnecessarily. In a cage, the sand on the bottom is —depending on the number of birds kept—replaced once a week, if need be more often. Breeding cages containing one pair should be cleaned only once a week. In aviaries, the sand directly below the perches and branches is replaced every week, but the entire layer of bottom sand is renewed only every two months, provided there are no breeding birds or those raising young. Branches and twigs are exchanged once every six months or as needed. Nests and nest boxes are removed after the young have left, but care has to be taken that the adult birds have not begun to breed again. Should a nest be occupied again it must not be disturbed. Those nests and nest boxes which have been used should be washed out with hot water containing a disinfectant agent. Grass finches are as prone as canaries to mite infestations. At a major annual cleaning all birds are caught and taken out, and the bottom sand, the nest and branches are removed. After that all sides, the bottom and the wire are thoroughly washed with hot water.
When catching the birds, one has to be careful; it is best to trap the birds in a large metal cage placed over a food dish, with the two sliding doors held open by a thin but strong string. It is important that a cage with two doors be used for this purpose, since an aggressive bird sometimes prevents the others from getting to the feed dish. As soon as a bird has entered the cage the doors are dropped, and the bird is thus trapped. It is advantageous to use some 'delicacies' as bait, because birds will learn quickly that there is something special inside this cage and can thus be trapped more easily and quickly. Of course, catching birds in this manner requires some patience, especially when there are some cautious birds in the aviary. However, the great advantage of this method is that it does not upset the birds too much. When there are breeding pairs or those raising young in the aviary one should not attempt to catch any birds.
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