BREEDING GOULDIANS FOR HEALTH AND HAPPINESS
After twenty-one years of breeding Gouldian finches, a happy, healthy baby Gouldian still warms my heart, and the sight of a strong, vibrant juvenile emerging into full color still takes my breath away. With each passing year, I find the challenges of breeding Gouldians increasingly complex and rewarding as my understanding of their needs and daily rituals deepens. It is my hope that the lessons I have learned and the mistakes I have corrected may prove helpful to others with a desire to better care for and breed this lovely but delicate species.
When it comes to successful breeding, the first and most important step comes with the selection of breeding stock. My personal priorities for choosing breeding stock involve health and beauty. I prefer to breed only the very strongest and most visually spectacular birds in my collection. After many years of trial and error I have fully realized the painful truth that it is very difficult to improve one weak or unattractive bird by pairing it with a stronger, more attractive bird. It might work for some of the babies, but for others, I find that the weak traits seem to reappear continuously through successive generations. The temptation is always strong to use a weaker bird for breeding because it is the only example of a certain mutation that I have available in a given season, or because I paid too much money for it, but I have never seen good results from compromising my standards for my breeding pairs. I place a large number of Gouldians into pet homes to ensure that my breeders have plenty of aviary space, and I am very disciplined about admitting my mistakes when fresh purchases prove to be pet- quality birds.
If I had to sum up the most important thing I have learned in all these years of breeding Gouldians it would be this: breeding weak birds will always generate more weak birds. To define what I mean by a "weak" Gouldian I need to break up the physiologically weak and the visually weak traits into two categories. The common physiologically weak traits are traits which indicate that a Gouldian is not in good health. These are the most important weaknesses to avoid.
Physiological weaknesses include:
- puffy feathers in a bird who is not molting - excessive or frequent daytime sleeping with the head tucked in
- loose, voluminous, odorous, or abnormally-colored droppings
- droppings caked to the vent region
- carriage that is flattened down low to the perch rather than upright and pert
- a glazed or dull expression in the eyes - chronic bald patches - abnormal growths or scales on the feet or beaks
- abnormal beak shapes (overbite, crossed beak tips, underbite etc.)
- droopy wings
Visual weaknesses (to my taste) include:
- flat heads
- heads that are too small in proportion to the body
- hunched shoulders or backs (I like a straight line from the base of the head to the tail)
- swaybacks - beaks that are thin and pointy
- beaks that are fat and rounded
- beaks that bulge up above the featherline at the base of the upper mandible
- small, squinty eyes - dull colors - muddy colors
- long, skinny body shapes
- overly rounded body shapes - small birds under 16 grams
- large birds over 20 grams - hyperactive birds - lethargic birds - birds whose legs are too long (they look like canaries with a very upright posture)
From trading notes with other breeders, I have come to the conclusion that physiological and visual weaknesses prevail among Gouldians due to a long history of breeding for mutations in this species. As breeders are developing mutations (blueback, diluteback, yellowback, etc.), these mutations (which are inherently weak) tend to come along with a genetic package of weak genes. So as we have selected for color mutations, we have also selected for other weak traits such as flat heads, cataracts, poor liver function, bad posture and so on, thus weakening the species (both physically and visually) as a whole. I feel badly for the Gouldians in captivity for this very reason: mutations which have been selected against in the wild (because they are not healthy for the species) have been featured in the captive birds, creating a great deal of physical suffering for the domestic birds in our homes. I feel an obligation to try and restore some integrity and physical fortitude back into these inherently weak genetic lines.
Most Gouldians are not terribly resistant to disease. Inf act, I have heard them referred to as petri dishes! I suspect that the vulnerable immune status of the domestic Gouldian is another form of genetic weakness that stems from excessive inbreeding to create their mutations, but this is just my personal opinion. Whatever the cause, it is impossible to sustain long-term successful breeding results without finding a method for dealing with the infectious disease so prevalent in this species. Certainly a healthy diet and roomy flight space will boost immunity, but the first challenge will always be to prevent the introduction of new disease into the existing flock by using a rigorous quarantine protocol. No matter how healthy a Gouldian looks, no matter how well I think I know the breeder, no matter how sure I am that the bird could not possibly be sick, I always run all incoming birds through a minimum of thirty days in quarantine.
I strongly believe that a quarantine needs to be fully isolated in order to prevent any possible transfer of disease to the existing flock. I have seen quarantined birds who were coughing from a virus infect the rest of the flock in an adjoining room. I always quarantine on a separate floor with a door that I can close at the top of the stairs if needed. If birds are really sick in quarantine, I run a fan out a window to draw the quarantine air out of the house. In severe cases I will also use air purifiers.
During the thirty day quarantine I always treat every newly purchased Gouldian for air sac mites. Air sac mites are endemic in Gouldians, so it is fair to say that any incoming birds have most likely been exposed. I prefer to rely on herbal medicines for my Gouldians, so I use an herbal tea to eradicate any existing air sac mites or eggs in newly quarantined birds. This tea also eliminates bacterial and fungal infections, which is extremely helpful for a successful quarantine. If any bird is visibly sick (puffy, coughing, anorexic, lethargic etc.), I will treat all the birds in the quarantine with additional herbal remedies for up to three months if necessary before releasing the new birds into my existing flock. My guideline for the length of a quarantine is that all birds must be visibly healthy for at least one month before they can be added to my aviaries.
CONDITIONING AND PAIRING BREEDERS
It has been my experience that Gouldians should always be in the best possible physical condition before they are allowed to breed. Prior to setting up pairs for breeding, I like to provide my breeding birds with lengthy flying opportunities by placing them in large aviaries for several months. If the breeders show signs of excess body fat (this is easily palpable on the abdomen and chest areas) or excess supplementation (chalky calcified overgrowth on the upper mandible, overgrown upper mandible, overgrown claws), or if they are due for a molt, I will place the flock on an austerity diet for two to four weeks before breeding. During the austerity feeding period, I will offer my birds only dry seed and water. Austerity feeding is extremely beneficial for Gouldians because periods of austerity are a natural part of their life cycle in the wild and their physiology is adapted to such periods where the food supply is sparse. During an austerity feeding period, any excess body fat will disappear, nutritional excesses such as those seen in the overgrowth of beaks and nails will also disappear, and reproductive hormones will shut down. This form of bodily rest is highly rejuvenative for breeders, and sets them up for a healthy reboot into breeding condition. In addition, austerity feeding often precipitates a molt, which can further prepare birds for a healthy breeding season. However, as soon as I see signs of molting, I reintroduce a standard protein-supplemented diet until the molt is complete.
In addition to providing my breeding birds with ample flight time and austerity feeding before allowing them to breed, I also spend time visually screening the birds for infectious disease. I check each bird for tail bobbing and night time wheezing (this can be heard while the birds are sleeping), both of which could indicate a respiratory infection such as air sac mites. Additionally, I make sure that all of the birds' droppings are visually normal. If I suspect even the possibility of infectious disease in any of my Gouldians, I will run the entire flock through a course of herbal antimicrobials (for more information on herbal medicines for birds, see the Herbs and Essential Oils sections of this website).
I consider a breeding pair ready to breed when the following conditions are met:
- no body fat is present
- no beak or nail overgrowth is present
- both birds have fully completed a molt fairly recently (within the past six months)
- body carriage is strong and upright
- feathers are held tightly
- feathers are shiny versus dull
- eye expressions are alert - the hen's beak is dark
- the birds have strong muscles and do not tire easily when flying for reasonable lengths of time
- both members of the pair are eating protein foods well
- no visible signs of infectious or other disease are present
If I have been resting my males and females separately, then it is easy to determine whether a pair is compatible because compatible pairs will begin courting within a couple of weeks. After three to four weeks with no mutual interest, I will try a new pairing. If, on the other hand, I have been resting my males and females together, it can take much longer to determine compatibility, sometimes up to three months. The reason for this is that undesired (by me) pair bonds often form in a mixed-sex resting flight, and these bonds take time to dissolve in order for the birds to form a new bond. For this reason, I feel that it is preferable (though not always possible) to rest the sexes separately.
In general, I select pairs with a strong bias toward strengthening the genetics of the two adults in the genetics of offspring. Even though I make every effort to breed only no-fault or low-fault birds, if one of the breeders has a slight fault, visual or physical, I will try to pair that bird with a bird who may help compensate for that fault. For example, if a male has a slightly flat head I will choose a hen with a very well-rounded head. Or, as another example, if a hen is a jumpy incubator, I will try to pair her with a steady incubator in the male. Additionally, I always try to rely heavily on the genetically strongest of all the Gouldians, which I have found to be the greenback, purple breast, blackhead, redhead and orangehead birds. For example, I prefer to breed two normal birds who are split for a mutation, rather than breeding the mutation to a split. I find that my bloodlines are increasingly robust as a result of this type of pairing choice.
Colony style breeding has not worked well for me as Il ike to control my pairings and monitor nests. I place each of my breeding pairs in a breeding cage that is 36 inches long by 20 inches deep and 18 inches high.
To encourage feelings of security and nesting enthusiasm, I place grassy hay (I dry my own hay each year when my fields are mowed) on the floor of the cages, and tie bundles of seeding grass heads around the sides of the cage. My birds seem to prefer grassy hay, seeding grasses and coconut fiber for building their nests.
Since wild Gouldian finches nest in deep, dark tree cavities, I feel strongly that domestic Gouldians should be provided with comparable type nests. My birds prefer wooden nest boxes with a single round hole placed above a small dowel-perch. The larger, deeper and darker the nest box, the better. This type of nest significantly reduces the incidence of egg and chick tossing by the adults. A small percentage of my breeding pairs will not use a box but will use a wicker basket, and in these cases there are occasional tossing episodes.
Above each cage I provide a Vitalite brand 15 watt compact fluorescent light which is screwed into a clamp-on dome fixture (chicken light) that rests on top of the cage.
Once per year I replace the old bulbs with new ones as the ultraviolet light that can benefit birds apparently weakens after one year of use. While lighting is a highly controversial topic in aviculture, I have found better overall results from using these lights than from not using them, so I stick with this system. My lights are set on timers such that my breeding birds receive fourteen hours of light per day and the resting birds receive twelve.
Fresh bath water is also provided to each of my breeding pairs every morning throughout the year. I sense that a bathing ritual is important to breeding birds, and feel that my pairs breed more successfully for being allowed a daily bath.
Before offering each of my breeding pairs a nestbox, I spend two to three weeks providing each pair with a number of nutrient-dense foods to elevate blood levels of vitamins and minerals. Part of this process involves diligent daily observation to determine exactly what each bird will actually consume. I have found that this conditioning period dramatically reduces the incidence of eggbinding in the hens, as I believe that it allows the hens to store adequate levels of calcium, vitamin D3 and all their co- nutrients before attempting to lay their eggs. The basis of my breeding diet is a simple seed mix with equal parts of canary, red and white millets, japanese millet and yellow millet. Each pair also has access to dark seeds that include nyger, rape and black lettuce seed.
During the two to three week conditioning period, I lightly sprinkle Zoo Med Avian Plus vitamin/mineral powder and ground eggshells on top of the seed mix, making sure to stir the seeds at the end of each day in case the supplements fall to the bottom. I particularly like Zoo Med vitamins because they are human grade and appear to be very high quality. My birds do extremely well on these vitamins as long as I use them sparingly. Zoo Med is potent: a pinch is all you need, and oversupplementing vitamins can lead to a wide variety of health problems. Once the hens finish laying, I stop offering the Zoo Med and eggshell fortified dry seed until about a week before the next round of egglaying begins.
In addition to the Zoo Med/eggshell fortified seed mix, I make sure that two small egg cups are supplied to every breeding cage in order to provide extra calcium and additional minerals: one for Kaytee Hi-Cal Grit and the other for ground eggshells. Cuttlebone is offered as an alternative calcium source. As protein sources, I serve sprouted seeds four days per week and homemade eggfood on the other three days per week. (Please see the "Natural Diet for Finches and Canaries" article in the DIET section of this website to find my breeding diet and recipes.)
Throughout the breeding period, I particularly enjoy serving sprouted seed since this is a food source that Gouldians find in the wild as dry seeds fall to the ground and sprout in rain-dampened soil. Sprouting dry seed increases the enzyme, vitamin and protein content of the seed, making it an ideal softfood for nestlings. During the breeding season, I serve sprouts daily; during non-breeding and non-austerity periods, I serve sprouts once or twice a week. But again, please consult the Diet article for a detailed explanation of my breeding diet.
In the finch diet article I describe a number of natural supplements that I use in my sprouted seeds and eggfood to boost immunity during the breeding season for both the adults and chicks. Since I developed a system of providing nourishing homemade foods, greens, and immune-strengthening supplements, I rarely see infectious disease during my breeding season. I honestly can't remember the last time I saw a baby with an infection in my aviary - it has been at least twelve years since pediatric infections were prevalent in my flock.
In addition to softfoods, I serve dark leafy greens hung up with a clothespin every single day. Greens are an extremely nutrient-dense food source for birds, and the vitamins and minerals they contain are easily absorbed into the bloodstream. Once babies begin to hatch, I serve dark greens twice daily. I have found the greens to make an enormous difference in my breeding success: my pairs rely on the greens heavily as part of their feeding routine for their chicks. I have never, in over twenty years, seen loose stools as a result of feeding greens.
One of my greatest challenges in breeding Goudians has been to ensure that all of my breeding pairs are actually eating protein foods (sprouted seeds and eggfood) before they attempt to breed. I won't let them have sugar (widely used in commercial softfoods as it increases palatability) because sugar is a potent food source for microbes, and I feel that sugar increases the incidence of infectious disease in Gouldian flocks, particularly during breeding periods. Without using sweeteners, it becomes a bit more challenging to cajole all the birds into proper eating habits. I use a number of tricks for pairs who don't like eggfood and sprouts such as placing the softfoods in little yellow treat cups at eye level. For some reason, this seems to work quite well. Another trick is to crumble and mix dry spray millet into the softfoods. If the tricks don't work, I resort to using natural supplement powders and Zoo Med Avian Plus vitamins sprinkled onto dry seed. I actually see quite good results from using this system, although it is obviously not ideal.
Since 1992, when I began breeding Gouldians, I have lived in three different homes. Each time I move, I thoroughly test my drinking water for microbial, metal and volatile contaminants. If the water is not completely safe to drink, I install a reverse osmosis water filter to ensure total purity for the bird’s drinking water. This eliminates the likelihood of chronic disease caused by parasites, coliform bacteria or other common drinking water contaminants. I consider birds’ fecal material left in drinking/bath water to be a major source of chronic disease in Gouldians; therefore, I place water dishes outside of the reach of overhead perches, and I change and wash drinking/bath water bowls twice daily.
I have found that after my breeding season, I often notice an indication of oversupplementation in some of my breeding pairs in the form of calcified overgrowth of the beaks as well as fast-growing nails. I consider this a side effect of successful breeding! However, during my resting season, I cut way back on proteins, Zoo Med vitamins and other supplements, and I find that the beaks and nails return to a normal condition in which they do not grow excessively or produce excess calcium. For resting birds, I still offer self-serve grit and eggshells, but sprouted seeds are only offered once or twice per week and eggfood is only offered once or twice per week as well. (More protein is required when birds are molting, so I adjust the softfood servings up or down as needed according to the molting status of the flock.) Once or twice a year, as mentioned at the beginning of this article, I also place my birds on an austerity diet of dry seed and water for a period of two to four weeks. The austerity diet is extremely useful for eliminating any excess nutrients the birds may have absorbed during the breeding season, and to give their bodies a period of relative rest.
Because I so rarely have to combat infectious disease in my aviaries, I have been able to successfully rely on Society finches for crisis situations where my Gouldian pairs will not incubate or feed their babies. I know that other breeders sometimes have trouble with microbial diseases in Societies that transfer to baby Gouldians, but I really have not seen this problem in my aviary, and I wonder if thismay be due to the daily care I provide for my Societies. I absolutely pamper my Society pairs, and feel an enormous gratitude to them for their inherent generosity in caring for babies other than their own. My Societies receive the same type of care as that which I provide for my Gouldians: large aviary space, single three by two foot breeding cages for each pair, a lavish, fresh food diet, immune-building supplements, and strong, full-spectrum lighting. One of my tricks for producing really robust, full-sized Gouldians is to provide my societies with a vegetable/nut mash each day for them to feed the baby Goulds. I make this mash with several vegetables and one or two nuts all ground together in a food processor until a very small minced consistency is reached. This mash is undoubtedly the food that my Societies most relish, and I know it is extremely healthful for the Gouldian babies fostered to them. I lso make sure not to overwork the Societies (or the Gouldians), and limit them to a maximum of three clutches per year. Additionally, I find that resting Societies in single pairs is the only way to control feather plucking in this species. As long as there are no more than two Societies per cage or aviary, they do not seem to pluck each other.
I have found juvenile Gouldians to be considerably more delicate than adult Gouldians. As soon as my juveniles begin to wean, I become increasingly vigilant to make sure they survive all the way through their first molt. So much can go wrong! Each day, I make sure that the juveniles have access to and are consuming plenty of softfoods containing immune-strengthening supplements. I also use a liberal amount of spray millet for juvenile Gouldians, from the time they are weaning right through their first molt, if necessary. Juvenile Gouldians seem to be able to hull spray millet more easily than regular dry seed, and they appear to eat spray millet more readily than other foods. Spray millet always needs to be placed within reach of favored perches. Additionally, I constantly monitor each of my juveniles for any signs of puffiness or lethargy. At the first hint of trouble (and I do mean this literally), I will isolate the bird to a private cage, offering plenty of spray millet within easy reach of every perch. Somehow, juveniles can get behind on their feeding and simply lose the will to feed themselves. For this reason, spray millet and other foods need to be placed at a bird's eye level within easy reach. If a juvenile is puffy or listless, I will also offer them a constant source of strong heat. I generally use a 60 watt incandescent bulb for this purpose, screwed into a dome fixture and placed on top of the cage within about eight to ten inches of a favorite perch. Whenever possible, I also take my puffy Gouldians outdoors into direct sunlight: nothing works as well as direct sunlight for restoring a tight feather condition and the will to eat and drink. If the heat and millet fail, I resort to more drastic measures that involve strategies like hand feeding and herbal appetite stimulants. However, as a general rule, I find that vigilance, spray millet and heat will pull most juveniles through their first molt with relative ease.
In reading back through this article, I am surprised at the sheer volume of details that have been stored in my thoughts about breeding Gouldians. I did not realize how much effort I put into the production of what I consider to be truly happy birds. But each day, when I wake up to greet my flock who eat well for me, sing all through the day, play with toys, bathe in fresh, clean water, nest in fresh, grassy hay, raise healthy young and live out their natural lifespans, I feel content that all of my efforts are well-founded. It is my deepest wish that others can find as much joy and peace in living with their Gouldians as I have found with mine.
Disclaimer: These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration, or by any veterinarian. All information, including any product or technique mentioned, is for educational purposes only. None of the information is intended to diagnose or treat any disease.