Aviary-Breeding the Gouldian Finch
The unparalleled beauty of the Gouldian Finch understandably poses a powerful lure to many inexperienced aviculturists. Once they have set eyes on them, most aspiring and recent newcomers to finch breeding soon want to know whether they are a suitable species for them to obtain. My usual response to such enquiries is that if (and only if) you have a warm aviary which is well-protected from the worst cold, wet and especially windy weather, then they are an excellent choice for the beginner. If not, you are likely to have more problems than successes with Gouldians. They don't require live insect food to achieve consistent breeding success as many other finch species do. This makes them an ideal species for those who may not have access to live insect food or may be somewhat daunted by the prospect of regularly providing live food to their birds. They are not at all a noisy species which helps allay any possible noise concerns of neighbours in suburbia once they see an aviary being built over the fence. They will breed well in a small colony of their own kind which makes the prospect of regularly observing the delightful sight of a group of these gems in our own backyard very real.
Adult male Black-headed Gouldian Finch Adult female Black-headed Gouldian Finch
With such an array of desirable features it is no surprise that there are quite a few aviculturists who specialise in breeding only Gouldian Finches. Given the Gouldian's strictly seasonal breeding and moulting cycle, such specialised breeders are able to closely familiarise themselves with the species' annual routine and requirements and so better cater for their birds needs at the different stages in the annual cycle.
Some Gouldian breeders, both in Australia and abroad, have constructed elaborate intensive housing for their Gouldians including fully insulated and heated indoor environments in which mostly mutation Gouldians are kept and bred. In such collections, cage-breeding and foster-rearing of Gouldian offspring by Bengalese Mannikin foster-parents are common practices. Ongoing regular use of these housing and breeding methods leads to several significant negative consequences for the birds being so produced.
It is not too surprising that the surplus young birds sold from these collections have serious problems adapting to the normal temperature range experienced in the typical backyard aviary of most prospective finch purchasers in Australia. Gouldians when bred in more typical outdoor aviaries are very capable of withstanding the usual fairly wide range of temperatures experienced in most regions provided the aviary design protects the birds from the worst draughty and wet conditions and captures its fair share of direct sunlight. By totally excluding virtually all climatic influence, the indoor-reared Gouldians are softened up to such an extent that they often incur high mortality rates due to their intolerance of normal temperature fluctuations once placed in more conventional outdoor aviaries. The intensive indoor housing and breeding methods are largely practiced by aviculturists who migrated to Australia and brought with them the European way of breeding birds which may have been well suited to the European climate. Most parts of Australia experience fairly mild climatic conditions for the majority of the year compared to many other countries. For most areas there is really no need for indoor accommodation for Gouldians in order for them to be happy, healthy and productive.
Regular foster-rearing of Gouldians using Bengalese as foster parents has equally serious negative consequences to the foster-reared young birds. Quite apart from any imprinting possibility, the continual use of fostering is the most powerful way you could possibly diminish the parenting ability of any foster-reared species. By regularly taking the Gouldian eggs away for the Bengalese to incubate and feed you are strongly selecting for a strain of egg-laying Gouldians and equally strongly selecting against the vital trait of parenting ability. The Australian experience with the blue mutation Gouldian highlights the reality of the most damaging consequences of all these intensive methods of Gouldian propagation. In addition to a strong dose of all the above-mentioned negative outcomes, the Blue Gouldian population in Australian aviaries is, generally speaking, chronically infested with cochlosoma as a very direct result of its establishment via Bengalese fostering. This "bug" is rife in captive stocks of Bengalese Mannikins and is passed from parent (or foster-parent) to the juvenile bird as the parent feeds the dependent young. So even as many purchasers of Blue Gouldians have attempted to parent-rear their birds, the infected parents still pass the cochlosoma onto their offspring. Chemical treatment for cochlosoma is difficult. The only way to break it's cycle is to foster the eggs of the affected birds under healthy normal Gouldian foster-parents so that a generation of disease-free offspring can be produced. The overuse of recessive-to-recessive matings in this mutation's establishment phase has further blighted the vigour of this troubled mutation. The inherent weakness of the Blue Gouldian in Australia is the clearest evidence you could possibly get to demonstrate all the ill-effects of the intensive controlled breeding techniques I have referred to.
All of this may create the impression that keeping and breeding Gouldians is far more complicated than it really is. In reality, Gouldian finch husbandry is quite straight-forward. They are a very uncomplicated finch to maintain and breed in an aviary. I have addressed the issue of controlled-climate breeding and fostering simply to highlight that this is totally unnecessary and that it leads to serious ongoing problems which are often very costly to those who unwittingly obtain birds from such sources.
An ideal Gouldian Finch aviary in Australia is located outdoors, is fully-roofed, and faces a northerly or north-easterly aspect to capture a healthy regular dose of direct sunlight. The ability of an aviary to receive the first rays of morning sun in Winter is very useful and where possible a branch or perch should be located in a position in the aviary which receives this vital warming morning sun so that the birds can easily and effectively utilise it to recover from any cold night temperatures. Cladding of walls especially on the sides facing the predominant colder wind direction for your locality is a must. If these walls also receive useful sunlight, clear polycarbonate cladding materials are very helpful in allowing light and warmth to penetrate the aviary whilst providing a solid barrier to any adverse draughts from that direction. Using some of this transparent material on the roof is also useful, especially in cooler areas. In hotter areas such materials are largely unnecessary even though Gouldians cope with heat far better than cold. Allowing Gouldians to experience the full range of temperatures (within reason) in mild climate areas greatly contributes to the strength and vigour of any offspring so produced.
The Gouldian finch diet is far from complicated. During the non-breeding season a good quality finch seed mix, fine shell grit and fresh water is all they require. In the few weeks leading up to the breeding season I recommend daily offerings of half-ripe green grass seedheads and/or sprouted seeds as well as an expanded variety of grit & mineral options including whole eggshells (baked in the microwave oven for two minutes) and crushed cuttlebone. This diet should be continued through the entire breeding season and this would be a very good Gouldian breeding diet. If you wish to provide a little extra variety and nutrition you could also add a small amount of finch softfood powder to the sprouted seed and some broadleaf greens such as fresh Bok Choy leaves which are readily eaten. Another useful option is to include a dry pasture seed mix which they also enjoy. There are a large range of possible seed types to include in such a mix but an excellent basic pasture seed mix for Gouldians would be one part each of Rye, Signal Grass and Barnyard Grass. These are among the cheaper pasture seeds, many of which are quite expensive, and such mixes only need to be fed very sparingly to provide greater nutrition, variety and interest in the seed component of the diet. The mineral component of the diet is another area where different options can be beneficially offered. One commercially available mineral option which I highly recommend is Biocal (from Australian Pigeon Company). Gouldians also tend to consume a higher proportion of plain canary seed compared to millets during the breeding season, so a useful idea is to provide a dish of finch mix plus a dish of plain canary seed until the end of the breeding season then revert back to just finch mix.
Gouldians can be productively bred as either single pairs within a mixed collection of other passive finch species or as a colony of Gouldian pairs within the one aviary.
If you wish to house Gouldians as a colony, I recommend keeping just a small number of breeding pairs in the aviary to minimise competition between pairs. This has beneficial flow-on effects of greater breeding productivity and improved health and temperament for the birds compared to where they are housed in more crowded conditions.
Colony aviaries can be thoughtfully fitted out to further minimise competition and hence improve productive breeding effort. Placing significantly more nest sites in the aviary than the number of breeding pairs reduces competition for nest sites, especially at the commencement of the breeding season when all pairs are at the same stage of the breeding cycle. Placing small bushy branches between neighbouring nest boxes provides a border to each pair's nesting territory which seems to give a greater sense of security to actively breeding Gouldians in a colony. I am a great believer in placing all available nest sites in a colonial Gouldian aviary at the same height. This greatly minimizes hierarchical disputes which are more likely when certain nest sites are strategically favoured over others due to different heights of boxes within the one aviary. This not only improves the day-to-day lives of subordinate pairs in the hierarchy of the colony but also the dominant ones as they have less need to constantly fend off intrusions or attempts to utilise the more preferred nest sites and they then generally exhibit far less boisterous behaviour. When all nest sites provided are as similar to each other as possible, I believe this contributes to far less competitive behaviour within the group. Gouldians are not at all an aggressive species but placing numbers of any species in a confined area and forcing them to compete for any resource is soon going to bring to the surface acts of aggression as they compete for it. If the need to be aggressive can be suppressed by reducing the extent to which individuals must compete with one another then their efforts to nest, incubate and rear offspring must be more fruitful as they are expending less effort in unproductive competitive behaviour.
In Australia, Gouldians will commence breeding activity from January onwards. I don't place nest boxes into the breeding aviaries until about mid February. By then all healthy Gouldians should be well and truly in nesting mode. I have previously allowed them to nest from as early as the first week of January but found that many of these early season attempts resulted in infertile eggs which I put down to both members of the breeding pairs not being at the same level of readiness to breed. By holding them off for an extra month most first round attempts are successful and by the time young have hatched the worst of the summer heat has passed.
I use the basic rectangle finch nest box with a perch below the hole. I have used various other "Gouldian" nest boxes in the past and had problems with each of them which I didn't have with the basic model. Boxes with an inside step-down or double compartments are a high risk of an over-zealous cockbird building on top or in front of actively incubating eggs or live young. The basic single chamber design does not allow so easily for this to occur. I start the nest off with a generous handful of nesting grass into which I fist out a chamber space and ensure the entrance is not blocked off by grass, but one or two pieces of grass emerging from the entrance is often a good lure for Gouldian pairs on the prowl for a nest site to investigate. Most genuine nesting attempts will result in the completion of a reasonable nest building effort by the adults prior to egg laying.
Gouldians lay from 4 to 8 eggs per clutch, typically 5 or 6. These are incubated by both parents in turn for two weeks. Once young hatch, the parents will show enhanced eagerness for the rearing foods especially green grass seedheads and sprouted seed but also the mineral foods (eggshell & cuttlebone) as the quickly developing young need to produce rapidly growing bones for the first 10 to 12 days and then rapid feather growth for the next week prior to fledging at about 20 days old. Young Gouldians don't generally return to the nest once they have fledged. So after fledging I remove the old soiled nest from the box, clean it thoroughly and give the inside a spray with insecticide and disinfectant before starting off another nest with a fisted out handful of nesting grass again. The parents will feed the fledged young for a further 15 to 18 days, by which time they will generally be incubating the following clutch. They will breed until at least September if allowed to do so, however I remove all nest boxes after three clutches have fledged which is usually around early July. Allowing Gouldians to breed until well into Spring places great stress on the breeding birds, especially hens, as their physical condition noticeably deteriorates from continual breeding for an extended period. Where unrestricted breeding is continued, mortality rates in juveniles and adult females are far higher than they otherwise would be. Late season offspring may miss the current season's moult and remain partly uncoloured until the following Spring. Confining breeding efforts for the season to a maximum of three clutches produces ample offspring anyway and maintains the condition of the adult birds which in turn significantly extends their useful breeding life.
Adult male Gouldian and his offspring
The annual Gouldian moult takes place between mid September and late November virtually irrespective of what stage of the season the moulting bird was bred. Gouldians generally experience quite an intense moult, so much so that a bird in the midst of it can appear very disheveled indeed. A month or so later it is hard to believe you are looking at the same bird, such is the staggering beauty of a recently coloured adult Gouldian. This is when they are at their physical peak. December is, therefore, the ideal time to select prospective breeders from the young birds and dispose of any surplus. This is also the best time to purchase new stock for the same reason.
The fact that Gouldians are not an insectivorous finch species results in a slightly reduced chance of internal parasite problems compared to other insectivorous finch species as some common intestinal parasites are passed to birds via insect hosts. I recommend drenching for worms and coccidia via drinking water twice a year for Gouldians. Immediately before and after the breeding season are good times for this. Useful wormers are Equimax liquid (2ml/litre) and Cydectin Plus (5ml/litre). Baycox (3ml/litre) is an effective preventative for coccidiosis. Gouldian Finches do seem to be readily susceptible to bacterial infections which can especially be prevalent if aviary floors become wet or if feeding practices are less than hygienic. Feeding birds above the ground is recommended. Seeding grasses and other greens can be pegged or skewed near perches rather than broadcast onto aviary floors. Water bowls are best placed on an elevated shelf rather than on the floor, as a floor-based water supply tends to create a permanent wet patch on the floor which is a genuine disease hazard for any finch. An inexpensive and useful regular drinking water additive is apple cider vinegar (5ml/litre) especially during and immediately following wet weather. This is a basic crude preventative against some potentially harmful bacterial infections and also contains some useful nutrients and so provides some marginal nutritional benefit to your birds. Gouldians are also sometimes susceptible to air sac mite which results in gasping, coughing and wheezy breathing. This is most common in crowded collections and where canaries are also kept. Canaries are a common host for air sac mite. Effective chemical treatment for air sac mite can be effected using Ivomectin (sheep & goat strength) which can be spotted onto the skin at the back of the bird or diluted in drinking water (12ml/litre).
Careful selection of the very best young birds to use for breeding can result in significant year-to-year progress in improving the overall quality of the birds you produce. Particular attention to size, colour and posture should be examined carefully if you wish to improve the overall standard of the following season's young birds. Hens are generally far more variable in these specific traits so it is often easier to select, for example, the best couple of hens for brightness of chest colour but much harder to clearly discriminate for the same feature in males. Males will generally exhibit a more pronounced upright posture and be much fuller in the head and neck area compared to females and these features should be enhanced in the best birds chosen. In my opinion, the shape of a nice male Gouldian should be sleek. Commonly encountered features which I try to cull out of my young males are a smaller looking head in proportion to the size of the body and a forward lean to the posture when perched. Females naturally exhibit a slightly more plump body shape and this need not be radically altered via selective breeding as it obviously has important functional purpose in a breeding hen. Selection for my better hens allows for a fuller shape (as long as they don't appear too dumpy) with emphasis on overall body size, strong purple chest colour and brighter than usual yellow belly colour. At the moment I only breed black-headed Gouldians so with the head I try to retain birds of either sex with a glossy, velvet-like black head mask as opposed to a flat dull finish which many black-headed birds exhibit. With the other head colours, clarity and brightness of the red or yellow head colour on females is the key feature to select for and any dirty black suffusion throughout this face colour is a cullable fault. Aiming for a thinner black outline to the head colour on hens tends to reduce the incidence of these unwanted dark slurs of the facial area.
There is an interesting range of colour mutations well established in Australia to appeal to those who are interested in breeding these. The best advice I could give if looking to breed Gouldian mutations is to be very wary if purchasing the Blue mutation or any combination involving blue mutant birds as such a foray has been very costly and unfruitful for many a tempted Gouldian breeder in the past including some very competent finch breeders. Personally, I regard a nice specimen of the wild type Gouldian as far superior to any colour mutation I have yet seen.
To conclude, I would like to remind you that aviculture is, for most, a hobby where we attempt to gain enjoyment and understanding of the feathered dimension of nature's beauty. Keeping and breeding one of nature's absolute gems is a privilege to be enjoyed to the utmost only by housing and observing them where they can be viewed flying and foraging in natural sunlight and fresh air rather than being hidden from all natural influence in some artificially lit and heated dungeon in which they are housed in boxes. In my view, if you live in a country whose climate does not require such extreme measures, to do so defiles the beauty of this bird. Unless you live in an exceptionally cold locality, I urge you to keep and breed your Gouldians in warm, draught-free outdoor aviaries.