Bird fanciers have maintained many species of finches in captivity now for over a hundred years. One of the classic books of aviculture, Foreign Finches in Captivity by A.G. Butler, covered many varieties of finches that were common in his time and are still common in cages and aviaries today. The problems that breeders encountered before the turn of the century are the same as those that today's fanciers face. The result of this relative difficulty in maintaining finches in good health has given them a reputation over the years as a group of very touchy and sensitive creatures, prone to die at the drop of a hat for no apparent reason.
Finches, however, do not simply die or fail to breed for no reason. Though the cause of any problem may be difficult to trace, a cause surely does exist. The ability to eliminate the causes of problems with their finches is what distinguishes the successful fanciers from the unsuccessful ones. A little more knowledge of finches and their needs will mean more success in the future for all finch fanciers and breeders.
With their very small bodies and extremely active lives, all finches have both a very high body temperature and a very high rate of metabolism. A finch must eat a substantial portion of its body weight every day just to remain alive and active. No human could possibly eat this amount of food in relation to body size in a day and would have no need for it. Thus, there can be no greater insult than to say that someone eats like a bird.
As the avian species increase in size, the percentage of food consumed in relation to body weight decreases. For example, a cordon bleu finch may have to eat 50% of its body weight every day in food for normal maintenance, but a much larger bullfinch will need to consume only 25 % of its body weight in food each day. These percentages are only approximate, of course, and will vary widely with the temperature, amount of exercise, and quality of the food consumed. The food consumption also will increase dramatically while a pair of finches are feeding a nest of growing young.
This high rate of food consumption
and metabolism means that finches must have a diet that is complete in all required nutrients. Any deficiency will become obvious through illness, listlessness, puffiness, and death within a matter of days or weeks. A similar deficieny in a larger bird might not become obvious for months, and a human being might go for years without obvious symptoms.
A finch's incessant activity and high body temperature, often as high as 110°F., wear out body cells in a hurry. This requires a steady supply of complete protein in the diet for rebuilding these cells as necessary, plus all of the vitamins and minerals required for the proper utilization of the protein. A seed diet alone will never supply all of these needed nutrients. The high protein requirement must come from natural foods such as insects, hard-boiled eggs, and worms, or from commercially prepared foods such as crumbled monkey chow, dog food, game bird starter, or turkey starter. Any of these foods in addition to the seed diet will contain the protein necessary for both maintenance and breeding, as well as all necessary vitamins and minerals that may be missing or deficient in the seed.
Such additional foods as greens, cuttlebone, sweet corn, fruit, and shelled nuts are always valuable additions to the diet, but they are not essentials. The high protein items are essential. At least one of them must be included in any diet for finches. Once the finches are eating a high protein food in adequate quantity, at least half of the common problems encountered in handling finches will be eliminated.
With this background in mind, let's look at some of the specific problems that are so common in the maintenance of finches, along with their simplest solutions. One of the commonest of these is the early loss of adult finches through death after a period of puffiness, illness, diarrhea, and loss of weight. Many breeders have referred to this condition as "going light." There are two primary causes for this problem.
The first possible cause is proliferation in the digestive tract of some type of harmful bacteria to which the finch
has no resistance. In this problem, diarrhea will be very evident, and speed of treatment is essential. A finch has such a limited amount of body reserves that once the digestive system closes down and diarrhea begins, death is only a couple of days away. The loss of weight is rapid as the finch's body breaks down muscle tissues for energy, once all carbohydrate and fat reserves have been used.
The logical treatment is to neutralize or kill the harmful bacteria that are causing the problem. Antibiotics are virtually useless unless you know which types of bacteria are the infecting agents. You have no time to do test cultures with finches that are sick. The birds will be dead long before the bacteria are positively identified and a suitable antibiotic is prescribed. The most effective method is simply to mix one drop of chlorine bleach to each ounce of the finches' drinking water. As they drink this, the treated water will kill all harmful bacteria in the digestive tract and will allow the birds' digestive systems to get back to normal. Obvious- 1 y, this problem will be more unusual in cities that heavily chlorinate the drinking water.
The second cause of puffiness and loss of weight is nutritional deficiency. The deficiency may be of complete protein, or it may be of some other nutrient, but the effect will be the same. As the body attempts to make vital cell repairs and finds insufficient nutrients in the blood for the job, it begins breaking down muscle tissue to supply the nutrients necessary for more vital body organs and functions. This process cannot go on for long before the finch dies.
Any of the high protein foods listed previously will supply the nutrients necessary for a return to full health. It must be understood that any food that is not eaten will not do a finch the slightest bit of good. You must be certain that your finches are eating the items that you offer in their diet.
Another problem that ties in closely with this adult illness and loss of weight is the death of nestlings and fledglings at any point from hatching to independence. A particularly dangerous time is the pinfeather stage of growth. At this point both the feather growth and body growth require a large amount of complete protein. The requirement for protein at this stage of growth is constant and is the highest it will ever be in the life of the bird.