*** Please note: This information was last updated in 1998 and things may have changed in the finch community, especially the links. The information provided here is still a good starting point! ***
I’ve learned a fair amount about care and breeding of Zebra finches. If you are looking for good finch resources on the internet, please see my below links.
My first experience with finches was a sad one. My aunt bought a pair of zebras from PetCo, a local pet shop. She picked out a male grey and a female white, although I doubt if she or the “bird keeper” knew it. The salesperson persuaded her to buy them a 2 foot tall, 15″X15″ frilly cage. The minimum requirements for length are 20-30″… Also, living in one of the hotter parts of Arizona (Scottsdale, Az) the heat on that day was at least 100 degrees. While my aunt (who had her young’un with her) took off to get the car up to the store, the salesperson waited outside in direct sun for her, approximately 5 minutes, and the cage had no food or water in it. When she was driving home, the male collapsed to the bottom of the cage, lying on his side. She drove over to my fam’s house, where we tried to revive him. I dripped some water on him; where it reached his beak, he swallowed faintly and I knew he was still alive. Just barely. As the day passed, he tried to hop around the cage and even tried to fly. But mainly he just fell over and freaked himself out. He also kept twisting and turning his neck, dipping and pulling it back up, jerking to the side. I’ve seen the same action in poor little birds that fly into windows, and usually they die. I suspect this finch had some brain injury, either from a heatstroke, or perhaps he was hurt before or during his transfer from the petshop aviary to the small cage. I’m not blaming PetCo per se, but I do think that they could hire employees that know more about animals.
I didn’t think the critter would last as long as he did, but he managed to live for several more hours, and passed on sometime between midnight and the next morning. I picked him up sadly, not minding so much sticking my finger in cold bird poo at such an early hour. Later that day, we got a bigger cage and a healthy, happy new grey male. Needless to say, the white female was delighted to have a mate that wasn’t a vegetable. I started reading up on finches, and now know a fair amount about them, at least I can tell male and female apart in greys and whites! Another instance of a near-botched job at Petco: my aunt asked the salesrep to catch a “fat little hen” and she wound up with that happy new male I talked about. Sheesh. It’s a good thing, however, cuz the white turned out to be a female. She was also almost persuaded into buying a short (lengthwise) and tall cage, more suitable for parakeets than finches. She said she didn’t like the look of it, and the rep said “Well, you shouldn’t go for looks, you should think about the birds”. ?!?! Did he know anything about finches? Recommended cages are longer than tall, since the little birdies like to fly back and forth. The cute little bell toy she bought is actually more for the look of the cage, I found out, cuz finches don’t really play with toys. They entertain themselves by being with others of their kind, by bathing, eating, making nests, rearing young, and flying around the cage. So be sure to put in dowels (those wooden perches) of the appropriate size (about an inch and a half, or slightly less… try a bit of variation) as well as natural branches.
On to my mini-manual.
Pet stores often have the common species of finches, such as Bengalese (Society) finches and zebra finches. You’d probably have to go to a breeder or a big avian store to find the more unusual Owl (Bicheno), Java Sparrow (Java Rice Bird), and the Cordon-bleus. However, zebras are among the least expensive and easily kept for beginners. Always buy finches in pairs! Male and female pairs are only important for breeding, as male-male and female-female pairs are just as happy. Pick out feisty but not aggressive finches; don’t choose the calm one napping on the bottom of the cage cuz s/he might be sick!
All finches should want to avoid capture… it breaks yer heart to put ‘em in a cage. But not everyone can afford an aviary. Concentrate on giving your new friends as comfy a cage as money, time, and space allow.
If you want higher quality birds, go to a breeder! The “normal” colors are often less expensive than the pet store, and generally are bigger, healthier, and of better stock than pet shop birds. I’ve done fine with my pet shop birds, but I do not intend to show them.
If you are in the Phoenix metro area of Arizona and are looking for some nice little Zebra finches, please let me know and I can provide them. See the breeding section for colors available.
Unless you plan on letting your feathered friends fly around a bird proofed room every day, give them a cage that provides three cubic feet for each pair. A cage that is at least 20-30 inches long should do, but the larger, the better. Remember, this will usually be their permanent residence. Which would you choose to live in, an apartment or a mansion? The spaces between the bars should be no more than a half inch apart so that they don’t squeeze between them and strangle themselves, or escape. I’ve had birds escape from a cage that wasn’t secure in the front, and the birds slipped out of the space between the cage and the opening. We no longer use this cage for the small Zebras.
As well, the average human dwelling is a dangerous place for finches, as well as many small animals. These finches would be hard-pressed to adapt to the outside world (outside an aviary, that is). After generations of seed eating and salt-licks, these guys wouldn’t stand a chance with either:
- The poisonous air of the urban environment
- The pesticides and landscaped lawns of the suburbs
- The rigors of country life
- Not to mention the hungry predators evident in every location, such as
snakes, cats, rats, dogs, mongooses, coyotes, grackles, hawks, tasmanian devils,
sharks, humans, weasels, badgers, skunks, roaches, lice, mites, etc.
The best cages are made of galvanized metal. Brass cages tend to corrode, and this may be hazardous to the little folks. Optimally, there should be two or more sliding doors (just make sure a wily finch can’t open them) and a pull out tray on the bottom for easy cleaning. Dowels (wooden perches) should be at
or slightly smaller than a half inch in diameter, and should not be placed in areas that would interfere with flight paths. Which means, don’t put up many right in the middle of the cage. Finches love natural perches, too! Just make sure that the apple, willow, birch, etc branches haven’t been sprayed with
pesticides. Also stay away from poisonous trees, and throw out plastic perches if they came with the cage, for they don’t maintain healthy toenails. More on perches in the “Toy and Supplies” section.
Where in your house you keep the finches is also important. These birds are shy and would rather play with their cagemate than be gawked at by nosy humans. So choose a spot with little traffic, and do not keep them in the kitchen when you are cooking or rummaging for food, as the heat and smoke plus
the cold blasts from the fridge really isn’t good for them. Finches need to be kept from drafts, and should be exposed to natural light, ‘though never totally in direct sun light!!! They also like to watch the birds outside and reminisce about the wild days of their ancestors. Of course, if you have an aviary you won’t need to worry about odors and traffic. Get professional advice before constructing an aviary, it’s hard work and you may require a permit. Since I do not have one, sadly, I can’t offer much advice on them, besides keeping a flock of at least four pairs to discourage a pecking order.
The cage should have attachments for food and water cups.
NEVER OVER-CROWD THE CAGE!
In the standard cage, you can house one breeding pair, or four to six non-breeding birds, especially Societies/Bengalese finches. This means a cage with 4 males or 4 females. I’ve had a lot of troubles with my male Zebras fighting, so I keep them in a cage with Societies to a total of six birds in the cage. My females don’t squawk much at each other if they aren’t breeding.
Now, onto the next section:
Finches are mainly seed eaters, but there are many different varieties of finch which may have slightly different food requirements. Start off with a “finch mix”. Seeds in these mixes are balanced in the amount of carbs and fats that the birds need. Zebra and Bengalese finches have been bred in captivity for many, many years and do very well on a seed only diet, although they appreciate variety. Treat seed, such as millet and those bars of seeds stuck together with honey and animal sterol, preserved with BHT (shudder), can be both nutritious and fun to finches. Mine looooove millet!!! They’ll munch a whole stalk of it in a day. However, they haven’t shown much interested in the hanging honey-seed thingy. I would, if I were them.
You can also offer a specially formulated finch pellet food as their main diet, but some birds can be slow to take to them. Many are fruit-flavored. Try mixing them into a seed mix to see if it is palatable, or you can grind it in a clean coffee grinder and mix with egg food (see below).
Other supplements to their diets include:
- fresh greens – Romaine lettuce, spinach, sprouts, washed pesticide-free
dandelion and other weeds
- fruits – chopped apples, orange wedges, orange juice
- peanut butter
- boiled eggs (eggfood)- 20 minutes at a good boil, then give whole or mash with a fork
- nestling food – this is a commercial powder, an egg-based nutritious mush to help parents regurgitate to feed their young
- gravel’n’grit – (see below)
- cuttlebone or mineral block (a “salt-lick” as I call ‘em)
Also, if yer into the live food thing, you can keep mealworms in the fridge. An occasional wild bug is fine, but if you want quality bugs you can get them from bug breeders, and these are healthy and aren’t tainted with pesticides or parasites that can transfer onto and into your birds. Freeze-dried mealworms or smaller bloodworms may also be used, but some birds may not take them. Breeding birds seem more interested in bug foods.
You may want to get vitamineral drops to mix with food and/or water. However, vitamineral treated
seed (one tsp. vitamineral plus one pound of seed, mixed well and left overnight) spoils easily and needs to be kept in the fridge (next to the mealworms?), and remember to replace it once a day.
Don’t think that the yolk is the only nutritious part of the egg, cuz the white has quite a bit of protein and lacks all of the artery-clogging fat of the yolk; although, finches aren’t affected by cholesterol.
The greens and fruit can add vitamins and minerals as well as fiber, but don’t give too much.
Gravel’n’grit, cuttle bone, eggshells, and mineral blocks serve 2 purposes:
1) To help them grind their food;
2) To give them calcium and other minerals
Grit should be offered once a week in a treat cup and not sprinkled on the bottom of their cage where it can be contaminated by droppings. Too much grit can be an issue, so discuss with a vet on the amount, if any, grit you should be offering. This will ensure our feathered friends can grind up (their way of “chewing”) seeds and aiding in digestion. Since high-quality feed has few shells or husks, the need for grit is reduced for such small birds. A cuttlebone is an actual bone of the cuttlefish that provides minerals to the birds. A mineral block salt-lick and ground up eggshells provide the same. Always keep a clean supply in their cage, even if they don’t seem to eat them. Finches often get cravings every now and then, so replaced soiled and severely chewed up salt-licks/cuttlebones often.
To make sure my finches get all their minerals, I grind up mineral blocks and eggshells and mix them with their gravel and put it in a bowl or extra seed cup, replacing it when it runs out or gets too dirty.
Water is important to all life. Finches especially need clean water every day, as they bathe in their drinking water. They don’t care about germs, so you have to. Rinse out and refill water every 24 hours or more often depending on heat and cleanliness (my birds won’t bathe in dirty water), and try to give them filtered or bottled water. You might want to keep a tube-style water dispenser in the cage for main drinking; offer them a shallow saucer for a bath every morning or give them “showers” with a light mist from a spray bottle. Soaking them, however, keeps them from flying. This could be good when you need to handle them, but soaking can aggravate a sick bird.
Finches love to play with water, and here we are at:
What do finches need to entertain themselves, as well as their human admirers? Unlike parrots who love mirrors, bells, etc, finches seem to prefer life’s simple pleasures.
Finches should be given variety in their diet in an attempt to copy their “natural” scrounging behavior. They like to peck at seeds, enjoy a variety of foods such as spinach, apples, buggies, and eggs (not their own, of course!). Check your local pet shop to experiment with what your birds like best, as they all are individualistic in their treat choice.
Finches should get fresh green food every day, less if they are ill. It stimulates breeding behavior and gives them vitamins and other good things. Romaine lettuce (not iceberg, yech!), spinach, peas… and mine love CORN. A mixed bag of frozen veggies will keep them happy! Just run some water over it in the summer, and they’ll enjoy a cool treat. Or nuke it in the microwave, or lightly steam them. It might take them a while, but they will love it!
Keep a supply of dowels (perches) on hand, of different sizes, which exercise feet, toes, and legs. There are some wacky perches out there that are kind of wavy, narrowing and widening to provide differences in grasping size. Clean these in hot water, no soap, and scrub with a “perch brush” when they get dirty.
Finches are sensitive to chemicals. Obtain non-poisonous, pesticide-free branches for them, and arrange them diagonally (level and sloping) in order for the birds to exercise different “landing muscle” positions. Change the positions every so often to make the finches’ environment more stimulating. Just be sure not to block the middle section of the cage, cuz flying space is precious in cages. A favorite type of perch among finches are small swings. They’ll share these, but they’ll also bicker over who gets it alone.
My bird cages are set up like this:
- A big dowel an inch or two off the floor, where a wooden ladder is attached wich they can hop about on, from the dowel to the bottom of the cage
- Two dowels up at the top, one slightly higher than the other yet not too close to the ceiling or the wall
- A natural peach branch diagonally sloping down, yet not in the main flight path
- Bamboo branches, they like to perch on them and nibble the leaves
Many finches love to play in water, especially zebra finches. Instead of providing a shallow dish for them to wallow in, you can mist them with a spray bottle. This is a lot more tidy for humans, but the birds may prefer to have standing water to frolic in. Finches will also bathe in their water dish if it’s big enuff, they don’t differentiate what’s a trough and what’s a tub.
Nests and Materials
Zebra finches like to sleep in nests even if they aren’t breeding. Nests are also an open invitation to population explosion. So if you want to have them breed, provide them with a nest and nesting materials. At night, these finches prefer the cozy surroundings of a nest than sleeping on a perch, which they will also do. However, they will panic if anything alarming happens at night, such as you walking by the cage or cleaning the food and water dishes. Provide them with nesting material and they will arrange it inside to their liking. Some good types of nesting material are natural fibers. See the
breeding section for more details on nests, nesting materials, and other
- commercial nesting material
- white tissue strips and cotton pads
- grasses, dried moss, (mine use dried millet stalks)
- clean feathers
- drier lint, no chemicals!
- strands of cocunut fiber (not in balls)
As with all animals, the best way to keep finches healthy is prevention. Keep their cages and food/water dishes clean, and you’ll likely not have a problem. When you acquire new birds, quarantine them in a separate cage for at least a few weeks to avoid any new diseases into your flock. Do not overcrowd your birds either, cuz weaker ones will not be able to compete successfully for food and water. Do not expose finches to drafts or cold temperatures in general, which could lead to colds or worse.
Sick birds are obvious: they are listless, avoid others, have puffed up feathers (besides when preening), have irregular breathing, and “sleepy” eyes. Very ill finches kind of slump over, instead of sitting upright, and droop their tails; some even slouch on the bottom of the cage.
When you notice that a bird is acting strangely as above, remove him/her as quickly as possible into a separate quarantine cage. Do this for several reasons:
- The other birds may harass him/her, stressing the bird out which may complicate recovery
- Some avian diseases are contagious
- Sick birds need more nutrition, and in a group surrounding couldn’t get at the extra food
Consult your vet as soon as possible…. did you forget that birds need vets, too? Please don’t think of finches as “expendable” and forgo medical attention when one becomes ill. Many sick birds can be treated and recover, so please give them the care they deserve.
One minor consideration can be put under health care: toenails. Luckily, finches don’t suffer from corns and ingrown nails, but if they don’t have proper perches their claws can become too long and cause injury if they get caught on something. Hopefully, varied perches and active birds will prevent you from having to nip their nails. But in case you should need to, if you are afraid of handling your bird (I’m afraid I’ll squeeze too hard!) then I read that some pet stores will nip them for you, for a price. Or take them to a vet.
The following advice I have learned through my own experience.
- Indoor caged birds. If you are new at taking care of birds, and have a snug nest for your peeps, consider doing the cleaning, rearranging and other upkeeps in the evening. Finches are VERY diurnal, up at the crack of dawn and asleep before the sun goes down. This minimizes the chance of them escaping, and they are easier to catch when you dim the lights. Once you get the hang of it, tho, start an earlier routine so the birds get used to you. My birds don’t really want to get out of their cages, so they escape only rarely (but unfortunately do not always get captured as the cages are outside).
- It’s more sanitary to keep food and water dishes not directly under the perches, as their droppings will contaminate their eats. I made the mistake once of putting a bath right in the middle of the cage, and at the end of the day it was filthy. Luckily they didn’t pay attention to it and played in their
drinking water dish.
- If one of the peeps gets out of the cage, try to keep the other one (or if you have many birds, the mate) from escaping too. They’ll continue to call to each other, and the escapee may be coerced to fly back into the cage if the mate peeps and honks sadly for him/her to come back. This happened with mine; when the male hopped back into the cage, the female sure gave him a hen-pecking!
That’s basic care. Buy some reliable, newer finch books to browse or keep for emergencies. Just caring for and watching these cute birdies will make you the kind of expert that I am.
Basically, you need to choose the right birds to pair together. This can simply be a matter of making sure your birds are healthy, or you can pick the best of your flock for show birds. Most of this information will refer to Zebras unless otherwise stated.
Birds for breeding MUST be more than 6 months old. Young birds risk dead chicks and sometimes dead parents. This is especially important with the female, who can run out of calcium and get eggbound. Eggbound is where she can’t pass the egg – it’s very life-threatening.
To prepare birds for breeding, they need good food and the right conditions of light and temperature. It’s not very difficult to prepare them; most of the preparing comes after you’ve picked the male and female (that’s how it works, eh) and put them into the cage together. The males will court the female,
and mating will likely take place right away. You give them a nest and nesting materials, and they generally do the rest unaided. Eggs should be laid within a week; they may or may not be fertile. Grasses generally stimulate Bengalese finches to breed, and millet is also attractive to the Zebras. Make sure they know you are coming when you inspect their nests so they are used to you, and they shouldn’t abandon their nest at a later date for intrusions. Make it a daily routine.
I will describe the courting of both Zebra and Society finches in a future update.
After the third egg is laid, the male and female both start sitting on the eggs. Generally, 3-9 eggs are laid, with 4 or 5 being more likely. Start giving the birds nestling food after they start sitting on the eggs. Sprinkle it dry on top of their food or offer a small amount in a dish mixed with warm water. Replace this after a few hours, because moist nestling food spoils quickly.
About 14 days later, they will hatch. Make sure the parents have plenty of seed, mineral grit, moist foods (nestling food, greens, corn, mixed veggies, mashed boiled egg, etc). Soon you will hear their begging call, which gets loud and usually involves a chorus of the little feeders!
3 week old chicks will start to leave the nest. One or two will go out on their own, the rest will come out later. They are clumsy but they’ll get by. It’s fun to watch the parents “teach” them how to fly. They will continue to beg for food, but start offering soaked seed and millet sprays for them to practice on.
6 week old chicks will generally have orange, black-tipped beaks, but the genders may still be uncertain. They are ready to be separated from the parents, because they will want to start another clutch and they see their old offspring as in the way. Grey males get an orange feather or two on their cheeks and black feathers on their chests. They get progressively patchier until they fill out at around 2 months old.
This cycle continues until you stop it. Zebras will continue to breed themselves to death. Allow them to raise only 3-4 clutches a year. Remove their nests, or separate pairs if you must. It’s for their health. Enjoy your baby birds!
Zebras and Bengalese finches come in many color varieties, and in different “feather enhancements”.
Common Zeb Colors:
- Normal, or grey. Males have orange cheek patches, teardrop markings, and black
breast barring; females are grey with only teardrop markings around the eye.
- White. Males and females are both white; males have a redder beak.
- Fawn. The grey coloring is replaced with a light brown color.
- Chestnut-Flanked White, CFW, marked white. The grey coloring is replaced with white.
- Pied. 50/50 mix of white with grey or fawn.
There are many, many more varieties, but these are the most common. See the links below for more details and lots of pictures!
Common Bengie Colors:
- Chocolate Self. A dark brown bird with breast and belly a beautiful speckled lace.
- Fawn Self. A light reddish brown to a butterscotch color, breast and belly lace.
- Chestnut. A lighter brown with darker on the head and tail, breast and belly lace.
- Pieds. Pieds come in Chocolate, Fawn, and Chestnut.
Again, there are many many more varieties of Bengies, but those are the most common.
ZEBRA FINCH BOOKS:
A Step-By-Step Book About Finches
by Elaine Radford
This book is slightly out of date, but still a good read
The New Finch Handbook
by Christa Koepff
Updated 2001 as The Finch Handbook published by Barron’s Pet Handbooks.
by Mervin F. Roberts
Zebra Finches Complete Owner’s Manual
by Hans J. Martin
Zebra Finch List from OneList
Society Finch List from OneList
See the below links for Web page resources.
- Finch World
- Acadiana Aviaries – Zebra Finches
- Acadiana Aviaries – Society Finches
- Zebra Finches on Internet
- The Zebby Page
- Finch Boy
- All About Zebra Finches
- Caz’s Birds
- The National Finch and Softbill Home Page
- The Finch Diaries
- Finch And Canary World
- Lise Milroy’s Finch Page
Supplies – Cages, Aviaries, Food, etc.
- Arizona Animals and Supplies
- Birds in the Garden – Outdoor Aviaries
- All Birds Supply, Inc.
- California Cage Works
- Country Boy Cages