By Susan Kirchoff

ZEBRA FINCHES are probably the easiest of all pet birds to breed. All you need are a mature, healthy pair of zebra finches, a nest basket, nesting materials and a good diet. Most zebra finches will mate with any other zebra finch of the opposite sex. You can distinguish the sex of most mature zebra finches at a glance. The male has a rust-colored oval patch about the size of a dime on each cheek and fine, wavy black and white stripes from his chin to his chest, ending in a bold, black chest bar. (In fawn silver and cream males, the cheek patches are a diluted rust color and the stripes gray.) On the sides of his chest and flanks, peeking out from under his wings, are bands of chestnut sprinkled with small white "polka dots". The hen is plain by comparison, lacking the cheek patches, stripes on the chest, and dotted chestnut flanks. Her beak is also a lighter shade of orange than the male's. Solid white zebra finches are more difficult to sex because their only distinguishing characteristic is the color of their beaks. The cock's beak is darker orange, almost red, while the hen's is a lighter, medium-orange color.

Setting up the Nest
Zebra finches seldom raise young without a nest. You can buy both wicker and wire finch nests in a pet shop. Wicker nests come in a covered style, which has a dome-shaped top and a hole in the front, and an open style, which is shaped like a small soup bowl. My finches like both. They also nest in baskets, boxes, cans and coconut shells--just about anything shaped like a nest! Just hang the nest in the cage, preferably in a high spot. Zebra finches eagerly gather nesting materials. The little birds love to fill their nests to overflowing with yarn, hay, grass stems, feathers and anything else handy. When more than one pair shares a cage, they are likely to have tugs of war or even steal nesting materials from each other. It's your job to supply the nesting materials. Simply put the yarn, straw or other material on the floor of the cage. Before long, the male will begin picking it up with his beak and flying to the nest. The hen, who will often be waiting in the nest, arranges the material on the bottom and sides. If you are providing yarn as a nesting material, supply earth-tone colors (white, cream, gray and shades of brown), zebras prefer these shades.

To encourage your birds to breed, feed them a good, high-protein diet. If you are not already doing so, give the birds a daily helping of hard-boiled egg. Expect them to go through a lot of cuttlebone and just more food in general when breeding and raising young. Many breeders of show-quality birds do not permit breeding of any bird younger than 8 months. When given the opportunity (as in an aviary), however, zebra finches pair up very young. Often a hen's beak will not even have turned completely orange when she begins to spend her evenings in a nest with a young male the same age. She may begin laying eggs when she is as young as 9 weeks old and hatching young three weeks later. Although zebra finches produce the greatest number of healthy clutches when they are between 1 and 4 years old, breeding continues throughout their lives, One finch we know of is nearly 10 years old and still raising young with his 5-year-old hen. Zebra finches form long-lasting, perhaps permanent, pair bonds. I confess to having witnessed both male and female members of established pairs mating with other finches--but I've never known them to raise a clutch with anyone but their regular partners. Unless you are very observant, you're likely to miss the actual act of mating. The hen hops from branch to branch followed by the cock, who sounds his distinctive 'male song', a series of melodious beeps. After perhaps six hops, the hen leans forward, flattening her back, flaring her tail feathers and sounding a shrill "wheeeee:' The cock quickly hops on her back. Flapping his wings, he touches his cloaca to hers and hops down.

Egg Laying and Hatching
After several days in the nest, the hen begins to lay her eggs. She will lay one egg a day, for a total clutch of 3 to 10 eggs (5 is about average). A zebra finch egg is white and about 5/8 inch long. Once the eggs are laid, the parents rarely leave them unattended. The hen sits on the eggs most of the day. When she leaves to stretch her legs, get a bite to eat or take a bath, the cock takes her place in the nest. The cock and hen both spend the night in the nest. !t is a good idea to have a dim night light (7 to 10 watts) in the area of the cage or aviary in case a parent is kicked off the eggs at night. If the room is completely dark, the adult may not find its way back, and the eggs or fledglings may get cold and die.

Be on the lookout for egg-laying problems, especially with young or first-time mothers. The hen may become egg-bound: unable to expel the egg inside her. An egg-bound hen will usually squat on the floor of the cage, appearing heavy and reluctant to move, even when she sees your hand approach. When you pick her up you may be able to feel the egg in her abdomen or see it in the cloaca. A few home remedies may help. Put the hen in a hospital cage with a heating pad underneath to raise the temperature to 85 to 90 degrees. (If you don't have a heating pad, use a 100-watt bulb or heat !amp.) A drop or two of warm olive oil or mineral oil on the cloaca may lubricate the egg and ease its passage.
See Egg-Binding.

Hatching and Rearing
In 12 to 16 days, the eggs begin to hatch. Not every egg may hatch; my zebra finch pairs have hatched anywhere from one to seven young. Both cock and hen spend most of their time in the nest caring for the chicks. They feed the young from the food they eat, regurgitating it into the chicks' open mouths. A newly hatched zebra finch is about an inch long, pink, downy and squirmy. If you look closely, you can see the buds of tiny wings, legs and a beak. By the third day, you will hear faint squeaking from the nest as the chicks cry for food. In a week, you will be able to hear the sound from across the room. The chicks grow larger and stronger every day. On the tenth day, the permanent feathers begin to show as the down disappear. The eyes also open at about this time. The youngsters move around in the nest, turning to defecate around the edge, where they won't have to lie in the mess. Within 15 days, each chick is about 10 times as big as the egg from which it hatched. As the young grow the nest becomes crowded. Soon the parents leave, returning only to feed the young; there's not enough room for them to sleep there. Finally, the nest is not even large enough to hold four or five Chicks comfortably. At about three weeks, one or two of the older, bolder chicks, now fully feathered, start poking their heads out. Then, one by one, they take the plunge out of the nest to a nearby perch or, more likely, the cage floor.

The babies are adorable at this age-plump, bright-eyed, smooth-feathered, and for a few hours, too young to know they are supposed to be afraid of humans. Youngsters have gray or black bills that gradually turn orange by the sixth week. Their parents--usually the father--continue to feed them after they are out of the nest. The chicks follow him about, lowering their bodies and twisting their necks as they scream for food. In another week or two, the chicks will begin feeding themselves and bathing with the adults. Flying is preceded by energetic wing-flapping on the floor of the cage or while holding tight to a branch or perch. By the time they are 4 to 6 weeks old, the youngsters will be flying around the cage--not as gracefully as their parents, perhaps, but flying. You will not be able to tell the males from the females at this age. Over the next few weeks, the males will start showing their colors. Look for the beginnings of the black chest bar and throat stripes or two or three emerging flank spots.

Nestling Period Problems
Usually the nestling period goes smoothly for parents, chicks and breeders. Most zebra finches are excellent parents, capable of raising dozens of healthy young every year. Other than feeding the birds and cleaning the cage, you have but one job--watching for accidents, illness, baby abuse or neglect Chicks who fall out. Sometimes a baby bird anywhere from a couple hours to a couple weeks old will be accidentally pushed out of the nest by its siblings or parents. You will find the chick squirming or crouched on the floor of the cage, obviously too young to survive. You must do what the chick's parents cannot do--pick up the baby, hold it your cupped hand and warm it with your breath. (Your breath is warm and humid and contains carbon dioxide, which stimulates respiration in animals.) Return the chick to the nest. If your cage has more than one nest, and you aren't sure which one the chick fell from, find out which nest contains chicks the same age as the one you picked up (Put your finger into the nest if you can't see the contents.) Unlike wild birds, zebra finch parents will not disown their young because you have handled them. I like to think they appreciate the favour.

Abuse or neglect. Some parents pluck feathers from the backs of heads of their chicks. The feathers usually grow back once the babies are out of the nest, and the chicks are none the worse for wear. But if the abuse is severe, you may need to remove the chick or the plucking parent. Parents may also refuse to feed a chick. You may see the baby following the parents, beak open, screaming for food--the parents apparently oblivious to it. Eventually, the chick will begin begging from other adults in the cage, fellow chicks or even the breeder's hand. It's a heartbreaking sight. But apart from making sure there's plenty of food in the cage, there's nothing you can do to make the parents feed their young. Sometimes the chick is old enough to begin eating on its own. However, if it seems to be weakening, fluffing up and becoming less active, you might try hand-feeding the chick.

Hand-feeding Zebra Chicks
You'll have the best luck with hand-feeding if the chick is at least 3 weeks old and still begging to be fed. If the bird is so weak that you must force-feed it, it may be too late. I have hand-fed perhaps a half-dozen zebra finch chicks with a commercial baby bird food made just for hand-feeding nestlings. Several companies have started distributing a hand-feeding diet that has successfully nourished young birds. I feed chicks with a syringe, which I obtain from a veterinarian or pharmacy. If the chick is still healthy, you won't have to force it to take food from you. As soon as the chick gets over its initial apprehension and realizes you have food for it, it will open its beak. Put just a spot of food in its mouth. As soon as it's swallowed, you have it made. The chick will beg you to feed it as eagerly as it begged its parent. Hand-feeding is largely learning by doing. You learn to synchronize your injection of food with the bird's swallowing. The most important considerations are frequency and volume. A 2 or 3 week-old bird must be fed small amounts every three hours or so. As the bird matures, feed it greater quantities less frequently--every four hours, perhaps, or whenever the chick seems hungry. My hand-fed chicks were more than willing to let me know when they were hungry, the mere sight of me, my hand or the syringe would cause their beaks to open! The bird is "full" when its crop is full. In a chick, the full crop is visible like a transparent bubble on either side of its neck. Feed the bird until the crop looks full. (Caution: Some babies continue begging for food even after the crop is full. Avoid overfeeding.) Wean the chick at about 8 weeks.

Put some seeds and hard-boiled egg in the cage and gradually reduce the number of hand-feedings. Or consider putting an older bird in the cage so the youngster will learn to eat by example. After several weeks of hand-feeding, it may be difficult to wean the bird; it may seem to prefer to be hand-fed or to have trouble cracking seeds. Be persistent without being too rigid. You may need to supplement the bird's diet with hand-feeding once a day or so until it is fully weaned. Hand-fed finches become very tame and will fly to you and perch on your finger or shoulder--quite remarkable for a finch! I retained this tameness in one bird by keeping her in a separate cage and continuing to handle her after she had learned to eat on her own. In another case, I introduced the handfed finch to an older "role model" and returned him to the aviary once he learned to eat on his own. He soon blended in with the other finches, forgetting he had ever been touched by human hand.

Foster parenting
A possible alternative to hand-feeding is foster parenting, where one pair of birds adopts another pair's chicks, feeding and allowing them to nest with them as their own. Their willingness to be foster parents is one of the qualities that makes zebra finches so endearing. However, it is most likely to "take" when the foster parents already have chicks the same age as the foster chick. To encourage foster parenting, place the adaptable chick in the foster parents' nest. If you later see the adults feeding the chick, consider it adopted.

Stopping the Breeding
Once zebra finches have begun breeding, it's hard to get them to stop. Some breeders caution against allowing pairs to breed constantly year-round (which they will do) fearing it undermines the health of the parents. Overpopulation can also become a problem. Here are some methods of convincing zebra finches to stop reproducing-and how some zebras try to get around them! Remove the nesting material from the cage. This discourages some pairs. Other more resourceful ones will fill their nests with anything available--including newspaper torn from the bottom of the cage, one another's feathers, greens meant to be eaten, millet spray branches and dried droppings. Some even lay eggs in empty nests.
Remove the nests so the birds have no place to lay their eggs. Clever finches may get around this by laying eggs directly on the floor of the cage or--if enough materials are available--building their own nests.
Remove the eggs. Taking eggs--often still warm--from a devoted pair's nest may be difficult, but it's a fairly sure technique of finch birth control. (One finch owner who removed her finches' eggs was convinced that the birds began hiding their eggs from her. She discovered eggs buried in the birds' gravel dish and seed cup and in corners of the cage.
A final, sure method, of course, is to separate the male from the female. You may feel bad about splitting up established pairs, but there's no surer way to halt breeding.

Selling Zebra Finches
After making gifts of zebra finches to as many of my friends, relatives and neighbors as were interested, I realized that if I were going to continue to allow my finches to breed, I would have to find an outlet for them. I began by selling a dozen of my "babies" to a neighborhood pet shop. The money I received for them I promptly invested in seeds, vitamins and cuttlebone. Since that first time, it's become a little easier. I've discovered that most pet shops are glad to buy healthy birds from home-based breeders. I made my first contacts while making purchases in neighborhood pet shops, I would look over their zebra finch stock, mention I was a breeder, and ask whether they were interested in replenishing their supply. Now I also telephone pet shops, I found that some pet shops (usually the independents) buy only from independent breeders; others (often the chains) normally buy from larger wholesaler Ask the store manager. The wholesale cash price (which is what you get if you sell your finches to pet shops) is about one-third of the final retail price. I sell anywhere from 3 to 10 pair at a time. Some pet shops pay in cash; others prefer giving a credit toward supplies in their store. Yes, zebra finches are easy to breed, but please don't breed your birds unless you want them and have room for them, know people who want them, or have a market for them. Sometimes well-meaning zebra finch owners breed their birds "for fun" and then end up with more finches than they can care for-which is not fair to these lively, lovable little creatures.


E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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