How To Prevent Behavioral Problems In Finches

Finches, like all living creatures, are subject to both psychological and physiological stress, which may trigger abnormal or antisocial behavior. Certain aberrant behaviors can quickly turn into behavioral problems that must be corrected to protect your finches' well-being. The most common behavior problems are feather picking and aggression.

Feather Picking:
Feather picking in finches usually refers to unnatural feather loss caused by one bird removing feathers from another. This commonly results in a bald spot on the bird's head, although truly zealous feather pluckers will not confine their picking to only the head. The primary cause of feather picking is frustration created by a stressful environment--often a cage that is too small or too crowded. All finches require adequate space for physical exercise. Confined to a small cage, these normally energetic birds become bored and frustrated. They also develop excess energy that they can't release through exercise, and this leads to feather picking. Finches in mixed flights need enough space to occasionally retreat and relax without being disturbed by their companions. Without this privacy, they become stressed and irritable. If you have more than one pair of finches in an enclosure less than 30 inches long, and feather plucking occurs, then overcrowding is likely to be the cause. Enlarge the enclosure or put some of the birds into other cages. Cages that are located in stress-inducing settings may also cause feather picking. Finch cages should not be placed where family, friends or household pets (such as cats, dogs or large parrots) constantly pass by without warning. Frequent interruptions, loud noises or other disturbances make finches nervous and frustrated. To vent their frustrations, they may pull feathers out of their companions. Feather-picked individuals should be separated until their feathers grow in again; otherwise, the bald spot may invite continued feather picking from other birds. If a bird is continually picked in one area, it may lose its protective plumage permanently, making the bird more susceptible to illness.

Self-Mutilation of Feathers:
Finches may pluck or mutilate their own feathers, although this is much more common in parrots. Because self-mutilation is limited to areas that a bird can reach with its own beak, feather loss on the breast, tail or wings suggests that the bird is plucking its own feathers. If feathers are missing on the head, however, another finch is likely to be the culprit. Self-induced feather loss is also caused by an environment that generates stress and frustration. Try to improve the size and security of your bird's cage. Reduce the number of birds housed together, and keep those that pluck feathers away from larger finches that may intimidate them by their size. (Even large, peaceful finches may make smaller birds nervous.) If a self-mutilating bird is caged alone, provide a mate for it so it won't be lonely and bored.

Breeding Finches:
The special demands of breeding may promote several types of feather plucking. If a breeding finch begins to pluck its mate, suspect that an inadequate environment or diet is thwarting the birds' efforts to breed. The birds' instincts may be telling them to breed when conditions are not adequate for success; consequently, they become frustrated and take out their aggressions on each other. To eliminate the problem, encourage them to fulfill their breeding instincts by providing a nest, nesting material and privacy. If they already have a nest, try to stimulate better breeding habits. Cage the birds elsewhere while you rearrange their breeding flight, then try again. Provide seclusion for breeding pairs by placing a new nest in a secure corner of the flight and adding some natural cover, such as plants. Offer a diet appropriate for breeding, including high-protein foods and live food (if needed). If breeding is successful, but one bird continues to pull feathers from its mate, then the birds may have a protein shortage in their diet. If this is the case, they will chew on the end of the quills to consume the protein inside the shaft.

Feeding only seed to finches can cause feather plucking. Even if finches are offered one high-protein item in addition to seed, the diet may still be deficient in protein. A variety of protein sources are necessary to ensure good health. Breeding birds that have an adequate diet sometimes pull feathers from their mates. If there are no other signs of unusual behavior, see if they use these feathers to line their nest. Feathers are a favored item for softening the nest interior. Often, a finch will take a token to the nest when it relieves its mate, and the favored token is a small feather. If your birds were at liberty, they would collect feathers--or equally soft materials--to place near the eggs. Because they can't forage in a cage, they do the best they can to locate the needed materials. To prevent breeding finches from plucking feathers to use as nesting material, save molted feathers and give them to your birds while they are nesting. If you have no feathers available, experiment with small bits of soft tissue paper, mosses or plant down-or anything soft, nontoxic and non-entangling. If you notice feather loss-and possibly aggression--in a pair of birds with young, it may mean that one of them wants to re-nest prematurely. The villain here is usually the male. If the young have fledged but are not yet independent, try removing the nest and nesting material. If the young are still in the nest, however, remove the offender. In most cases the remaining parent will continue the task of raising the young.

If not, the troublesome partner may be returned. Often, this brief disruption will eliminate any interest in re-nesting too soon. The desire to breed may also present problems for the single or unmated bird. Finches have a strong desire to mate and raise young. If denied this right, they often become frustrated and hostile. When unmated individuals are housed with or near breeding pairs, they are likely to release frustration in various ways: feather plucking, fighting or attempting to woo another finch's mate. Any of these behaviors will disturb all the birds. Find your single finch a mate.

Veterinary Assistance:
If finches exhibit feather loss without accompanying behavioral problems, examine their environment carefully. Be certain feather loss is not caused by abrasion feathers rubbed off against the top of the cage because the top perch is too close to the roof, or feathers lost by frightened birds that fly frantically into cage bars. Finches that sleep in crowded nests may also develop bent tails and abraded or ragged feathers. If you find no behavioral or environmental cause for feather loss, seek the advice of a qualified veterinarian. Feathers lost by rubbing around the eyes, ears or nares are usually signs of a medical problem and should not be confused with simple abrasion. In this case, nothing in the environment is wearing off the feathers. Rather, the birds are purposefully rubbing their faces against a perch to relieve an irritation. The source of the problem is usually an infection or an attack by parasites, which can be treated by a veterinarian. Disease or dietary deficiencies may also be at fault. Act quickly. Health problems that cause feather loss are serious.

Even the most peaceful finch is capable of displaying moderate irritation or self-assertiveness. This is normal and enhances the individual bird's ability to compete. Bird keepers routinely observe forms of aggression in many different situations: A sleeping bird that is disturbed by another individual may nip at the annoying intruder; a bird showing too much interest in a member of the opposite sex may be chastised by its mate; or a finch grabbing a prized piece of food may be chased until the item is released. Moderate displays of aggression are normal, but extreme or continuous aggression is a problem that usually results in stress or injury. Unfortunately, many aspects of captive life can spark and sustain extreme, aggressive behavior.

Common Forms of Aggression:
Individual finches, particularly those that do not adjust to the stress of captive life, may vent their frustrations on smaller, weaker birds that are easily intimidated. The victims may be forced away from favored perches or feed dishes, chased, pecked, plucked or attacked. Serious attacks to the head are common, resulting in feather loss and bleeding, which eventually may result in death. Less violent forms of aggression can also lead to the victim's death. If, for example, a small finch is constantly denied access to perches and feed dishes, stress and lack of food will ultimately damage the health of that bird. Aggression in cage birds is caused by the same factors that cause feather picking: small, overcrowded cages; noisy and disturbing cage locations; and frustrated breeding instincts. When birds establish their social hierarchy, the ones at the bottom of the social structure are forced to accept the least desirable perches, nests and food selections. If they venture into the territory of a dominant bird, they may be chased away. In a small or crowded cage, lower-ranked birds are forced to coexist in the dominant birds' space, which often leads to aggression. Act quickly if you observe signs of aggression. If a bird has been seriously attacked, remove it immediately. Treat cuts and bleeding as needed. Place the bird in a warm cage to recover, particularly if it shows signs of shock. Consult a veterinarian if the injury is serious. When the bird recovers, do not return it to the same cage without improving the environment. Begin by enlarging the enclosure or reducing the number of birds housed together. !f necessary, give less assertive birds a space to themselves, or place them in another cage with more compatible species.

Aggression During Breeding:
Aggression increases during the breeding season, when finches defend their nests and territories from intruders. In a small, mixed flight, a single pair of finches may claim the entire space as breeding territory, vigorously protecting it from the other inhabitants. Al! outsiders may be chased from food dishes or assaulted if they approach the selected nesting site. If you observe this, remove the birds under attack until the breeding pair has completed raising its young. The permanent solution is, of course, to provide a larger space so all pairs can stake out separate territories. This can be encouraged by using plants to break up the interior space of the enclosure, creating small units of space out of one large area. This will help each pair to claim its own distinct territory. If you intend to combine breeding pairs, use a large enclosure; avoid using cages at all, unless you are limiting your efforts to domesticated species such as zebra finches or societies.

Remember that some aggression during breeding season is natural. Birds must protect their nests and compete to find adequate food to successfully raise their babies. For example, my golden breasted waxbills, tiny and normally peaceful birds, challenge the larger birds in their flight when young are in the nest. If denied access to the mealworm dish by larger breeding birds (who want to consume all the worms for their own babies), the golden breasteds boldly sneak in, grab a worm and run off to a corner to eat it. A desire to raise young prompts the small birds to compete.

Aggression in Breeding Pairs:
Aggression related to the breeding cycle may also affect members of a mated pair. If one of the pair fails to fulfill its obligations properly or fails to display an interest in nesting, that bird may be badgered or attacked by its angry, impatient mate. In this case, the victim is most often the female. Being attacked makes the reluctant female even less interested in nesting, which, in turn, increases the frustration of the impatient male. In the wild, the female might simply be driven away or "divorced", but in a cage she cannot escape persecution by her angry mate. If you encounter this problem, check the health of the unwilling partner before making any adjustments. The reluctant mate may be resisting breeding because of illness. If you are certain the bird is healthy, a short separation may be all that is required to return harmony to the pair. Wild birds select their own mates, and both members of the pair simultaneously come into breeding condition because of seasonal changes that affect their hormone. In captivity, however, conditions may not encourage both birds to arrive in breeding condition at the same time. If you suspect this problem, consider increasing the length of daylight and enriching the diet prior to the breeding season. This should assist both members of a pair in simultaneously responding to the urge to reproduce. It is also possible for members of a pair to fail to form a strong pair-bond. Because most pairs of captive finches have not selected their own mates, sometimes two birds in such an "arranged marriage" fail to be compatible. Separate the birds and consider re-pairing them with different mates. If possible, permit your finches to select their own mates by allowing members within a group to pair off naturally. Even well-paired finches may display aggression toward their mates if problems occur during breeding. Avoid interfering, unless disagreements become serious; compatible mates can usually work things out.

Mixing Species:
Some finches are inherently more aggressive than others, so it is always important to read about the personality of new species before purchasing them to mix with your other birds. Be particularly wary of adding larger finches without researching their habits and behavior. Confined to a cage, small birds have no escape and can quickly become the victims of larger finches. Species that are reputed to be aggressive during the breeding season should be housed separately at that time. They should also be watched carefully during the rest of the year if they are mixed with other birds--in case they unexpectedly come into breeding condition. Ideally, aggressive breeders should be housed separately at all times to avert potential problems. Green singing finches, for example, have a reputation for becoming intolerant of other birds at breeding time. I have witnessed one shaft-tail being attacked by green singers. If the owner had not intervened, the shaft-tail would have been killed. Although the shaft-tail recovered from the attack, it never re-grew the feathers on its head where it had been repeatedly pecked by the green singers that had unexpectedly returned to breeding condition. In general, mixing different species of finches is most successful if the birds are about the same size so that larger birds are not tempted to bully their smaller companions. Avoid combining two pairs of the same species, because it usually results in direct competition. Introduce all the birds into the cage at the same time. This will prevent squabbles that occur when new birds are added to an established social group. Above all, don't crowd the birds. Many conflicts and breeding failures are caused by over-crowding. Because finches are such tiny birds, it is a natural temptation to house several pairs together in a small cage. It rarely works well. Avoid housing finches in cages less than 30 inches long, and avoid housing more than one pair of finches in a single cage. If you plan a mixed collection, construct your own flight to provide enough space to ensure the health and happiness of your avian friends.


E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.