(Let me preface that I write mostly about cage breeding, which has different dynamics from aviary breeding. The conditions I describe might be inappropriate for an aviary setting and simply not applicable. Understanding the physiology of birds and humans, their interaction with the environment and the desire to establish strong breeding lines has led me to these practices in my avian husbandry.)
When I was a kid, my mom, sister and I were invited out to the farm side of town by Maude, one of our church members, for a tour of the place, with lunch included. She and her husband raised consumable animals and poultry—rabbits, guinea fowl, chickens, goats and the like.
We drove up, spotted Maude, and headed over to where she was working—the rabbit cages. She was cleaning them out by using her bare arm like a squeegee, moving the waste over to an opening in the front part of the cage. We chit-chatted while Maude continued cleaning cages in the same manner. My sister and I glanced at each other, sharing looks of misgiving.
Maude suggested we go over to the house and get that lunch we were promised. She walked over to a counter, grabbed a dirty towel, wiped off her arm, threw the towel back down, and began making sandwiches. Our mom gave us a stern look—no fussing.
So here it is, a half-century later, and I’ve never gotten sick from rabbits. Had I been inoculated? My immune system was already a healthy repository of inoculates, and that day, we maybe added another one.
Just as we collect all of these “safeguards” down the road of life, our finches must do the same. Some things we can control; some things we cannot control. When a chick hatches and takes its first roll away from the egg shell, bam!—it rolls right over excrement left by mom and dad while sitting on the eggs. It rolls over some hay or coco fiber and picks up a few more things its parents have brought into the nest.
At the first feeding, mom and dad share in the inoculation process by transferring more building blocks of the immune system, from their own, through their saliva. By the time the chicks are ready to fledge, they are already carrying quite a bit of immunity baggage. Checking out the cage—their new world—they grab an inoculate here and another one there. Breathing in slightly different air than the sometimes suffocating nest air, their bodies are exposed to more and get stronger to face life ahead of them.
If there were any health issues in the chicks that would prevent them from gathering up all of this armor, the parents most likely would have already culled them out of the clutch and stopped feeding them. If the weaklings were pulled by an “earnest” breeder and hand fed, sooner or later the problem would reappear, indicated either from plucking by other birds they were placed with (another attempt at culling), or simply expiring when their weak, indefensible bodies were overwhelmed.
If you were planning on breeding these chicks, thank the parents for culling some out. They already knew the weak ones would not make good breeders and help the species survive. Heed the instincts of the birds.
The “exception” to the natural selection process cited is what many of us are experiencing with wild caught finches from Africa. The pitching of eggs and tossing of hatchlings is quite common and appears to be a reaction to breeding in a captive environment. Some people attribute this pitching and tossing to the birds’ not knowing how to react to these “things” popping out of eggs, and on occasion, this could be true. I believe it is a hard-wired, instinctive thing. They, in fact, do know what’s coming out of the eggs. They just don’t know if their babies will survive in this unfamiliar landscape and at some point scrub the mission. A large enough disturbance during the breeding process can also create the same result. A predatory reaction.
While some may never turn into reliable, if even successful breeders in a captive setting, depends on species, individual pairs, how they are maintained, and how they acclimate. I have already observed a settling in process taking place with several. By observing domestic birds in an adjoining cage produce successful broods they may realize breeding is compatible within their circumstances. In another year or two, I would like to be able to comment on the wild-caughts: Familiarity Breeds Breeders.
Let’s cut back to our main topic, cleanliness.
So, having a grasp of what we have been handed by our feathery breeding machines, what do we do with our growing hatchlings? Give them great food, water, circulating air, light, and a comparatively clean area to live in. “Animal House” might not be quite good enough, but maybe an on-the-go professional who only has time to tidy up when expecting company level will do.
Breeding season is not particularly a good time to show off your new African finches, by the way. First, you don’t want strangers gawking at your birds, peering into nests and shouting predator! But some things are also best left undisturbed and tidying up for appearances sake may be a costly mistake.
Not too long ago, I advised someone to leave well-enough alone. She was having problems cleaning a cage that was strewn with coco fiber. An African finch pair had become overzealous making its own nest of coco fiber with tunnels and false chambers and part of it was below the cage floor. If you are trying to remove a catch pan, when the first piece of coco fiber that is part of the nest moves, stop. That could spell the end to that clutch of eggs being hatched if the nest is disturbed too much.
Last year, in a Peters Twinspot cage, I left the catch pan intact with an intertwined nest for months. Here is the either/or: a clean cage that has no eggs being sat on because the nest has been disturbed, or a dirtier cage that might appear a little yucky, smell a little “skanky,” as I put it, but with the nest left undisturbed and eggs being sat on. The chance of new chicks is very possible. I’ll go for the chicks, myself, and why I also recommend the circulating air, to keep the smell down and possible pathogen levels down. Remember, we only need enough to inoculate the chicks.
If I see a perch that is dirty (beyond acceptable), I’ll take it out and clean it. If there is a small buildup of feces on the cage floor, and I can remove it without disturbing the laying couple, I will remove it. If a seed cup is dirty, I will replace it with a clean one. The breakfast plates come in clean every morning, but stay in the cage until I put in fresh ones the next morning. When I change water, I use a brush to scrub out the cup, give it a good fingering around the bottom, and if it appears there are still visible accumulations, change it out for a clean one. If the birds are using the small bamboo nests and won’t be disturbed by the process, I pull out the catch pans, clean and replace them with new liners. I will not clean the inside of the cage if it is avoidable and certainly not to the extent that it puts the sitting birds in flight.
These are concessions that currently have to be made, especially when I am breeding between 15 and 20 species of wild caught African finches. They give a new meaning to the word touchy. As I mentioned in a reply to a post this past week on one group, a pair of Blue Caps, located in a lower cage, knows me only as “Mr. Hand.” I put food in, remove old dish; take water cup out, replace with fresh water; fill seed cup. In perhaps a more proactive move, I also placed a pair of Blue Caps in the other half of a divider cage that housed Yellow Stars. The Blue Caps watched the whole process from mating, to laying, sitting, hatching, feeding, fledging, continued feeding until the fledglings were weaned. Now, as I give them a slightly more secluded area and a nest, we will see if the teacher birds were able to speed up the “can do” process and bypass some of the tossing issues.
We have a low mortality rate with an average population of 500 under roof. They have been sparingly medicated, save for a few imports that were brought in that exhibited health issues and received a more rigorous cure and prevention program. They have been mostly inoculated by their environment, and that’s it. Let’s not forget the plug about the complete and balanced diet that keeps the birds in top health and the immune system strong. And when finches leave here, they don’t keel over at the first breeze. Their triple-strength armor sees to that. They are ready for the world.
Gulf Coast Finches