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Starting Up with Finches

Written by Kalvin

Finches are a popular choice of bird for many people, whether they're just starting out with birds or have had birds for many years. There are many reasons why they're so popular: their small size, vibrant colors, ease of breeding, and for some, their beautiful song.

Finches are small-to-medium-sized birds with a strong, broad, and sharp beak, designed for cracking and hulling seeds. Because of this, they are often referred to by the classifications "hardbill" and "seedeater," just like "hookbills" and "softbills." Their lifespan is five to twelve years.

Although they're small, when thinking of buying finches, you need to consider expenses, housing, feeding, avian vets, and much more, just the same as for any other birds.

The name "finch" is used to describe birds of different groups that show close similarities. The groups are known as "families" -- they include Fringillidae, Ploceidae, Estrildidae, and Emberizidae. These are the Latin names used by scientists as an international language to help prevent misidentification or confusion when talking about a particular bird.

Finches aren't like parrots and lack the ability to talk or mimic, however they have many other wonderful traits in the place of speech. They aren't destructive and are relatively quiet, they're small and easily housed, they have a beautiful song, they can provide enjoyment to young and old alike with their activities, and are perfect apartment pets with therapeutic effects.

It's important to note that with all finches that you should always purchase a pair to keep one another company. Unlike parrots, they will never look to humans for companionship so they would soon get lonely.

The first thing you need to think about is how much space you have. Do you have room for just a small cage, an indoor flight, or an outdoors aviary?

The Cage

Finches average at around four to six inches in length, so it's often thought that they don't need a lot of room. In actuality, finches are very lively and are active fliers, so if you decide on a cage, then the minimum size for a pair should be 24 inches (60 cm) long and 12 inches deep; the height isn't as important because birds tend to fly horizontally, not vertically. As always, the bigger cage you can afford, the better. Square or rectangular cages are a must because the back corners gives the birds a chance to get away if they feel they need to, whereas a circular cage doesn't. The bar spacing should be about 1/2 inch (though the smaller species may require smaller sizes), otherwise the finches may escape through the bars or get their heads caught trying. For ease of cleaning, it's best to get a cage with a removable tray; this way, you can easily slide the tray out for cleaning without worrying about the birds getting loose.

Now you have the cage you need to consider furnishings for it, food and water bowls usually come built into the cage, you simply lift the catch and take the bowl out. You'll need at least two perches, one at each end but not too many because they need room to fly. Natural tree branches make the best perches because they are an uneven shape they exercise the bird's feet and provide excellent grip, plastic perches that are moulded to give the same effect are available, and they have the advantage of being easier to clean. A swing can also be added to the cage, my finches used to love sitting on their swing both during the day, and to sleep on. Toys aren't really used by finches, although some people offer bells and mirrors and often hear their birds pecking at them.

You'll also need a substrate on the floor; this will absorb the moisture from the poop on the floor so if the finches venture to the bottom (which they will, as most are ground dwellers), they won't get messy feet. I always used loose sand in my cages because it's not too coarse on their feet and is easy to clean out. Some people use paper, either kitchen paper or printer paper, as it allows them to inspect the droppings and check for abnormalities...either of these work just as well.

The Aviary

If you decide on an aviary, then you need to consider security and protection from both the weather and predators. You'll need to lay down a solid base, either slabs or cement works best; this will stop predators from tunnelling into the aviary as well as making it a lot easier to clean. A solid roof or partly-covered roof will give the birds shelter from the rain, although you may also want to consider attaching a small shed or something similar to the end to give them somewhere to roost out of the wind and more. It's important to build the aviary either against a wall or fence or to have the back solid; this works on the same theory as the rectangular cage importance -- it gives the birds somewhere to hide away rather than being open on all sides.

Once you've worked out where to build the aviary and have planned how you want it, the next step is to build it. You can buy ready-built aviaries from companies...however these work out to be quite expensive. Building your own works out cheaper and adds a personal touch to it. The more detailed your plans are at the beginning, the easier it will be to build it.

After it's built, you need to add the same furnishings that are needed in a cage, but because more birds can be housed and of the larger space, you need to think on a larger scale. Tree branches make good perches because of their uneven texture; they also vary in size along the branch if you leave the twigs on. You'll need to clean them thoroughly and the best way I've found to do it is to boil the kettle and pour boiling water over the branch. This will kill off any bugs that are hiding in the branch; depending on the branch size, you may need to do it a couple more times. Then all you need to do is fill a bucket with warm water and get a dishcloth, sponge, or similar and wash down the branch, giving it a good scrub to get any algae or dirt off.

Food bowls will need to be bigger as well. I recommend using wide bowls rather than deep ones, because then it allows you to put a lot of seed in but only in a thin layer. This means that when the finches are eating and the hulls from the seeds go back in the bowl, they don't have to dig really deep to get to the seed.

I use bowls around two inches deep and eight inches across, then when I put seed in I only put it about 1/2 inch deep. You'll need to replace the seed once a day. If there is no seed left in the bowl when you go to change it (just hulls), then it's an indication you're not putting enough in. It's better to overfill their bowl and throw a little away than to starve them. Water bowls can be any size, as long as they hold sufficient water for the birds. I only use metal bowls as they are easier to clean and are more hygienic whereas plastic bowls have been known to help grow bacteria because they absorb an amount of what's in them.

It's a good idea to get a selection of bowls; they will obviously need their seed and water bowl, but I find that it helps to get them used to new foods if you have a "treat" bowl on the floor. The dishes you can buy at garden centers to put plant pots on work well as they are quite big, have steep sides so live foods can't get out, and the birds can perch easily on the edge. If you start by putting seed in it daily then they think of it as another food bowl; after a week or so of seed, you can put new foods in the bowl and the birds will try them; I've gotten my birds to eat a range of fruits and vegetables this way. If the birds are reluctant to try the new foods, then you can try sprinkling a thin layer of seeds on top. Other trays can be used to offer egg food and they work well as baths too.

First Bird

There was a time when, if asked what type of finch someone should start with, the answer would have been a pair of zebra finches without hesitation. However, in recent years, they have had to share their title as a beginner finch with society (Bengalese) finches.

Zebra finches and societies are quite similar in character, both being lively and entertaining to watch. There is never a dull moment with them. They both come in various color mutations so you're not stuck with having just a grey bird, for example. Zebras and societies come in the same price range usually costing around £10 (approx. $13) for a pair; this this varies depending on color and breeding background. Picking a pair of society finches is more difficult than picking a pair of zebras. There are two ways to sex societies; the first is to pluck a feather and send it off to be DNA sexed -- this is costly and takes a while so isn't ideal. The other way is to sit and watch the birds; the male will sing and do a hopping dance, whereas the female won't do this. Some pet shops take the time to separate pairs into individual cages, which is a lot more convenient. Zebra finches are easily sexed; the male has a deep red beak, whereas females have an orange beak. Males often have barring across their chest and orange cheeks also, whereas the females lack these.


Foreign finch seed is available in most good pet shops in pre-packed bags. Usually it contains varying percentages of yellow, white, and panicum millets; Japanese millet; spray millet; and small canary seed. The seed will form the base of your finch's diet; it, however, should not be the only food available. They will enjoy and benefit from a varied diet containing sprouted seeds, moist egg food (available commercially as a dry powder -- just add water), fresh vegetables such as broccoli and grated carrot, fresh fruits like apple, melon, and berries, dandelion leaves, boiled eggs mashed with the shells, and live foods such as mealworms.

Grit is a controversial topic with many views for either side, so I will only touch on the subject. There are two types of grit, small stones or oyster shell, charcoal mix. The first isn't needed at all; the only purpose this would serve is to grind up the hulls of seeds in the crop to aid digestion, but because finches hull their seeds, they can digest their food perfectly. Grit like this is only needed for birds that eat the whole seed such as doves, quails, etc.. Oyster shell, charcoal mix is used as a conditioner, providing the bird with calcium and other nutrients needed for breeding. It's not needed in most cases because the finches will get everything they need from a proper diet.

Their drinking water should be changed daily to keep it fresh and they should be offered a shallow dish filled with warm water daily to allow them to bathe if they want to. Finches are very clean birds and will soon become ill and depressed if they aren't given the opportunity to bathe.

Toys aren't needed with finches because they don't play with them. Some people, however, give their finches bells and mirrors and have seen them pecking at them, interpreting it as playing. With zebra finches and societies, it's important to give them a nest box or wicker-nesting basket to roost in, although they will breed if given a nest...if you don't want them to breed, they will be just as happy sleeping on a perch. Another important thing to consider is buying a cage cover or light cloth to cover the cage at night. This serves two purposes: one is to keep drafts off the birds and two is to darken their cage so they can get sleep without light from the TV or the room light shining on them.

The most important thing to remember is to enjoy your birds and give them a long, enjoyable life in return.

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