Tips for successful finch breeding
By far the most crucial consideration in designing and building an aviary for breeding finches is mouse-proofing. This is so important, in my opinion, that if you have an aviary where mice can and do gain access then you may as well pull it down and start again because finches will never breed near their potential in an environment where mice are present. There are other pests just as bad, however if you can exclude mice then you will also be excluding snakes, rats, etc. from your aviary. This is best done by having a concrete footing around the perimeter of the aviary and having the end of the metal sheets used for cladding butting down firmly onto the concrete footing all the way around the aviary. These sheets should be a minimum of 1 metre high to ensure that nothing can jump or climb up to the wire height. 6mm wire mesh is also helpful but remember this is simply a ladder to mice which will climb until they find a gap big enough to pass through (about 10mm is sufficient).
The best aviary environment for all finches is warm and dry. A dry aviary floor is especially important. The main considerations in achieving a warm and dry aviary are to maximise sunlight and exclude cool windy and wet weather. Positioning the aviary to the best aspect (north aspect generally best in southern hemisphere) is crucial. Thoughtful aviary design and construction can allow us to create a protected environment in most sites. Use of clear polycarbonate sheeting (alsynite, laserlite, etc.) can be a very effective way to let in light and warmth whilst excluding wind & rain. Use of clean, free-draining floor mediums such as fine gravels or coarse sands are ideal for maintaining a dry aviary floor. Sub-surface drainage is recommended where aviaries are not fully-roofed.
If you are intending to have a planted aviary, I recommend to plant it quite sparsely to allow plenty of open floor area between the aviary plants at maturity. This prevents permanently cool shady floor areas developing which are more prone to dampness. Also bear in mind that a heavily planted aviary is ideal mouse habitat from which it is hard to be sure they have been eradicated so be certain of your vermin-proofing before adding the plants.
The ideal aviary design will vary from region to region and even within an area different site attributes in different backyards will dictate a need for various adaptations. From the outset, the best idea would be to visit some local finch breeders and inspect and discuss with them their aviary designs before planning and constructing your own.
Which finches to buy:
When starting out I recommend you don't try to jump in the deep end too soon by delving straight into the rarer and more expensive species. Anything priced at $100/pair or more are best left until you've gained a bit of experience and made your mistakes on the more common species.
There are a vast array of other species which would also achieve this and really you should choose the species which interest you the most. Regardless of which species you choose, make a genuine effort to research their compatibility, preferred habitat, dietary and nesting requirements as best you can prior to purchase. For mixed collections, try to select placid species and avoid aggressive or overly intrusive species. A good example of this would be the Cutthroat, a good species for beginners but best kept in a small colony of their own kind due to their domineering and intrusive nature in a mixed collection.
An average sized aviary is physically capable of housing a lot of finches, but in order to achieve consistent breeding success we must always err towards less breeding pairs per aviary rather than more. Most finch keepers overstock their aviaries. The very best finch breeders rarely do so because they realise the relationship between lightly stocking an aviary and achieving good breeding results. The whole idea behind lightly stocking an aviary for the best breeding outcomes is simply an attempt to reduce competition between breeding pairs for the best food, nest sites (and territory), and nesting materials. It is therefore difficult to apply any formulae for number of pairs per unit aviary size. Suffice to say that the larger the aviary and the greater the range, quantity and quality of food, nest sites and nesting materials the more pairs can be cohesively and productively housed within that aviary.
Out of the seeds within most dry finch mixes Ruddies, Orangebreasts and Cordons will eat more smaller seeds particularly Red Pannicum whereas the Stars and Parrotfinches will consume more White-french millet and plain canary seed. Whilst rearing young, Stars and Parrotfinches tend to be slightly more herbivorous than the other species and will consume more green grass seed. The other three species tend to be more insectivorous preferring to spend more time consuming live food. With the livefood, Cordons and Orangebreasts have a definite preference for termites whereas Parrotfinches prefer mealworms. So by providing a varied diet with sufficient quantities of the key items we can help to further reduce competition within our aviary.
The basics which should be available to finches at all times are dry seed mix (I use a mix of 2 parts Red Pannicum and 1 part each of White-french, Plain Canary and Jap Millet), fine grit, cuttlebone, eggshells and fresh water. This is insufficient for successful breeding of most species. The additional "breeding foods" are used to bring the birds into breeding condition and for rearing young. The key to all breeding food is to provide consistent quantities for best results. My firm belief is that the natural breeding foods are by far the best for the birds and give the best breeding results for most species. Green seed and live insects are the best breeding foods and your efforts should concentrate on giving consistent quantities of these two items rather than artificial soft foods, powders and livefood substitutes. The best way I can explain it is to compare the finch diet to our own. The livefood is their beef, lamb, pork, chicken and seafood. The green seeds are their fruit, veges and salads. The dry seeds are their bread, pasta, rice and breakfast cereal. The softfood mixtures are the fast food take-aways. So as with our own diet we should provide the best range and quality of mainly the first three items. If we can provide sufficient quantities of the livefood and green seed we really don't need the junk food. One further analogy I wish to draw is that live termites are the best lean tender steak and freshest seafood while bushfly maggots, pupae and mealworms are the budget mince, frozen fish fingers and crabsticks. Termites are simply the ultimate finch livefood. If you can possibly obtain them, make the effort to do so and the breeding results for most species will be much better than without. The green seeds can be grown at home or collected elsewhere during the warmer months and I highly recommend freezing any surplus for later use during Winter. This allows you to provide the consistency of supply which breeding birds need. So the best breeding foods are actually the cheapest to acquire - its just a matter of a little extra effort to collect, grow and store them.
Strive for Quality:
Most species exhibit a remarkable degree of variation in their various attributes. We can very effectively utilise this natural variation to improve the most desirable characteristics of all species we keep and breed. Even within common species of relatively low monetary value an outstanding single specimen or pair or group of that species will always be highly sought after by other breeders. It really is very achievable to regularly produce such high quality birds. The key to this is two-fold. Firstly, you must be very fussy about the quality of the birds you initially buy to breed from - making sure they strongly exhibit the attributes you are after in your chosen species eg. Orangebreasts with outstanding breast colour and small body size. When buying birds be prepared to pay a bit extra if necessary to obtain quality birds. Secondly, you must hold all of your season's progeny for that species until they are all fully coloured. Then you must cull heavily for your desired characteristics, retaining only the very best 10 to 20% of young birds to breed from and disposing of any older pairs who do not meet or exceed the quality of these young pairs. If you continue this strategy you will notice a vast improvement in the quality of birds you produce. Within a couple of years even your average quality birds will be outstanding specimens by most other people's standards. By using this approach you won't need to have the rarest and most expensive species for your surplus birds to be keenly sought after by other aviculturists.
In finch breeding as in any interest or hobby the best exponents are those who are continually seeking to improve the methods and ideas of how to best house, feed, and manage their collections. Anyone who believes that they know all there is to know about finch breeding (or anything else) has an over-inflated opinion of themselves and leaves no opportunity to achieve improved breeding results in the future. I have found that the very best finch breeders that I know are always seeking new ideas on every aspect of the hobby and continually thinking of and experimenting ways to improve what they do. The key is to always have an open mind and never cease your willingness to learn new approaches.
GRAHAM AND LEONIE BULL l COFFS HARBOUR, AUSTRALIA