I received an email this week asking for articles on breeding wild-caughts. Since there are not too many in the thick of this picking up pens and composing their thoughts, I wrote back with more of an overview. While a few of you will find some of this familiar territory, it does try to tie together the bigger picture: start off with a great diet, make birds healthy as they mature to breeding age, give them adequate light, temperature, humidity and air flow, allow their choosing of where to produce, wait for new babies, get frustrated and disappointed, wait for new babies again.
My Las Vegas Wagermeister refuses to give odds on producing Greenback Twinspots. But I still think it will happen. Anyway, here is an expanded version of what I wrote back …
Better understanding the wild finches has become my passion. My Safari Room article shows it is a work in progress, as I try to deal with a few species at a time to get them to breed. Since up until a few months ago all of my finches were caged, the letting them out into the room is a fairly new thing, and the results are promising. They like the room to explore their surroundings and find a place to breed. That DOES make a lot of sense.
What I can tell you is that diet is number one. They have to have a complete assortment of foods that provide protein, vitamins, and in the case of indoor breeding, a source of Vitamin D3. Calcium is the number one thing, as it is used not only for strong bones, but to produce egg shells. In one of my articles, or a reply to a question on it, I remarked that cuttlebone, oyster shell and egg shell, while providing calcium, are also a form of insoluble calcium, or it would not be able to build hard bones and shells. They are good, but not the most efficient sources for the finches. What we are looking for is soluble calcium that is easily and quickly absorbed into the birds' systems. The best natural source of soluble calcium is vegetables, and the highest concentration I have found so far is in Collard Greens. My birds get their leafy green portion every day and about 4 days a week, it is the collards. The other days they get mustard and turnip greens, with parsley or spinach sparingly mixed in on occasion.
I am re-reading some science journals now to write a new article that explains where the calcium goes in the bird's system and is stored, and how it is then transported to make a shell. To facilitate this absorption of calcium and its dispersion, vitamin D3 is essential. Following that is phosphorous, which is abundant in seed.
Once the diet is as close to perfect as possible, we have healthy birds that are willing, and successfully able to breed. I keep them on this diet every day of the year and find austerity diets useful for only certain birds to help set and coordinate their breeding cycles so the male and female are ready at the same time. A few Carduelans sometimes need this coordination. As for the other finches, I don't find it to be critical. Anyway, if you always have healthy birds, they are always ready to breed when nature tells them, and they are always less susceptible to disease.
Keeping breeding/nesting material at the ready is also important. Without it, they may rely on seed cups or other areas to drop eggs, where their chances of success are less likely.
The critical breeding temperatures usually run about 68-82 degrees. Out of that zone, there is less a chance of breeding. My bird rooms are kept at 78 degrees all of the time. Some species require more humidity than others. My rooms run at 65-67%. Day length is also critical, and to have your best luck at Africans, where they are naturally inhabiting areas near the equator (which is a constant 12 hours of daylight year 'round), 14-1/2 hours of light is provided every day of the year here, to cover the natural lighting of those species living north or south of the equator.
I try to make sure the birds are old enough. Even though 9 months is considered "ready time," even at that age, they tend to toss eggs, chicks and not be able to successfully see through fledging a clutch. I therefore don't expect to see much positive results until they are in the 16 months to 24 months age bracket. Their best breeding time, on average, is 2 years to 5 years of age. So, rushing things tends to frustrate and disappoint us.
I am also not a fan of fostering. In my opinion, it delays the natural parents of breeding naturally. Certain immune antibodies are not transferred through saliva when not being fed by the natural parents. Fostered chicks lack species-specific antibodies, possibly come out with health issues, do not have the communicative abilities needed, and lack some of the native rearing attributes. Societies easily foster, but they do not pass on critical antibodies or information for the specific species they are fostering.
As my bird broker, Karl Lieberman, tells me, I am always "breaking the rules." But I am also getting wild-caughts to breed. In other words, there is not much written documentation on successfully breeding them in captivity, and there hasn't always been a lot of success. I have sometimes found what I read by breeders to be well-meaning, but not always correct "rules." After reading two different experiences of raising a certain species, the authors tend to contradict each other in how they did it. That lead me to believe I had to start with a clean slate, observe, research, and go from there. The scientific research I do only goes so far, as to helping me better understand how the physiology is and what they need to function. I am left figuring out the rest of the story. At times, it is a matter of trying one method and if it does not work, trying another, but also trying to figure out why or why not something works.
Karl also mentioned to me the other day that he sees my “reversal” in breeding stages offers desensitizing/habituating in cages and makes them comfortable as safe havens. So, when they go out into the larger area, they do not feel intimidated or scared about returning to the cages for a little privacy or breeding. When the wild-caughts first arrive, they are put in cages for observation, medicating if necessary, and maturing, not to mention face-to-face time with me, to get used to their caretaker. I am forcing the issue right now with 3 pairs of Blue Cap Cordon Bleus that came in a couple of months ago. Some look young and need cage time to mature. They share a cage with high visibility, a lot of light and exposure to the room. By the time they are released into the free area for breeding and look for those secretive places, they will feel more secure with the goings-on.
I consider my place to be every bit as much a research station as a breeding facility, and I continue to observe, analyze, and act. I have 30 species of finch and plan to add more. When/if I get this all sorted out, I plan to at least compile all of my articles on a web site, with species-by-species breakdowns. Then everyone will have another contrarian viewpoint!
So, "the rules" are many times anecdotal, and not always grounded in science or critical analysis of behavior. Hit and miss should not be the norm. I will continue to observe behavior, analyze what I see, and hopefully come to see a clearer picture.
What does seem to be a true observation by many is that Cordon Bleus are secretive, like privacy and to be left alone. When they are satisfied, they breed in cages or in flights. The Goldbreasts are more forgiving and my caged colonies have bred successfully. When I build a new flight room, they will be the first tenants and I should see production increase. The Gray Singers are just figuring out the new freedom of space to do what they need to do. The Orange Cheeks and Red-Ear Waxbills did not produce until let out as free rangers, so there is a conclusion we are coming to.
The Greenback Twinspots are friendlier and tamer and unless one pair is fooling me, are preparing a nest. The GTS hen that I treated when she was sick a couple of weeks ago, now follows me around, watching as I put food plates in cages, or change waters or refresh seed cups. I move to a different spot in the room and she pops up. And she lets me work within 2-3 inches of her without flying off. She is curious, but more than that she is intelligent. If you have some that are caged and they are skittish—just look at what an extra 120 sq. ft. of flight space makes!
There are several others that entertain and amaze daily. With the open door policy, you never know which species will be in some cages. The Grand Stand, a 3-tiered perching area I built out of three 3-foot dowels and a cardboard box (total cost $2.38), is usually filled with Spice, but the Melbas, Auroras and Zebras often are there, too. I put it on top of a 6-foot high storage cabinet, so they get a good aerial view of what’s going on.
What I thought at first was a problem, was an influx of seed moths into the bird rooms, but now I think they have something to do with breeding. While they are not eaten as a rule, they do give the excitement to breed and in the finches’ minds, perhaps believe there is live food, even though their feeling of health actually comes from the breakfast plates they are served of egg food and vegetables.
The finches want to breed. We just have to deliver on our part of the bargain. Once this is accomplished and we are breeding F1s and F2s, the task will be easier as generation after generation they become more domesticated.
Gulf Coast Finches