Breeding Gouldian Finches

What Wild Gouldians Can Tell Us

by Bill Van Patten

with contributions by Mike Fidler

In September of 2008, I had the opportunity to travel to Australia and visit Mike Fidler, co-author of the book “The Gouldian Finch” and co-founder of the Save the Gouldian Fund, a registered charity in Australia dedicated to research and conservation of the endangered wild Gouldian finch.

My trip included spending two weeks in the “bush” of the Northern Territory and the Kimberley District of northwest Australia, studying the Gouldian finch in the wild with Mike. We then returned to Cooranbong, NSW, Australia, about two hours north of Sydney, where I studied captive Gouldians under Mike’s tutelage for two weeks at the Save the Gouldian Fund research facility.

My time was spent focused on two distinct activities. The first was to better understand the many different conservation efforts being conducted by the Save the Gouldian Fund. The second was to study the correlation between the Gouldian life cycle in the wild and keeping captive Gouldians using techniques to simulate the environmental conditions that occur in nature.

Mike Fidler is regarded by many as the foremost breeder of Gouldian finches in the world, and much of his success has come from his study of them in nature for over 30 years and then simulating their natural conditions as closely as possible in captivity, and in particular, simulating their annual dietary cycle. Following are his current practices in keeping and breeding Lady Gouldian Finches at the Save the Gouldian Fund captive research facility including expanded and new information not included in his book.

Contrary to popular opinion, the Gouldian finch is not a colony breeder. In the wild, they have been recorded nesting as far as 10 miles from the next nearest Gouldian nest site. To maximize your breeding opportunities, Gouldians should be bred in single pairs to allow them to focus more on breeding and less on defending territory and competing for resources. If you are unable to provide an individual cage or flight for each pair, then keep your colony population density low. You should provide stress perches for privacy, which are covered perches with divider walls approximately 5 inches apart to create individual privacy cells to allow your Gouldians time alone whenever they need it. The stress perches should be mounted at the top of the aviary so dominate birds cannot approach from above. This will provide a safe refuge for subordinate birds, as a dominate bird is much less likely to attack from below. In a colony environment, the nest boxes should be mounted on an incline, and have a sloped roof that cannot be landed on. Again, this is to discourage attacks from above by dominate birds, and allow subordinate birds to establish their own space without having to compete with more aggressive birds.

Save the Gouldian Fund Single Pair Breeding Cages with Stress Perches

Close Up of Stress Perches

Save the Gouldian Fund Colony Aviary Design

You should also supply unlimited resources in multiple feeding locations in a colony environment to reduce competition and subsequent stress. This would also include an excess of 50% more nest boxes than the number of pairs being kept. Based on Dr. Sarah Pryke’s research at the Save the Gouldian Fund, red-heads should comprise no more than 30% of a mixed population of head colors (approximately the same ratio as they occur in nature), as red-heads are much more aggressive, and under more stress in higher population densities than black-heads or yellow-heads.

Gouldians have a temperature tolerance of about 50F to 105F. They can tolerate temperatures outside this range for short periods of time, but not without added stress. In the Gouldian’s native habitat the nighttime temperatures can occasionally fall below freezing for short periods during the winter, but this is infrequent, with daytime temperatures typically rebounding to 50F. The best temperature range for breeding indoors is 64F to 77F with a humidity of 35% to 50%. Most importantly, Gouldians must be allowed to acclimate to temperature changes, and don’t do well under sudden temperature fluctuations and drafts.

The Resting Season (approximately 3 months)

When not breeding, Gouldians should be kept in same sex flights to keep the males from driving the hens into breeding condition when they are attempting to rest their bodies. The presence of the opposite sex during the resting period elevates hormone levels, tending to suppress the immune system while at the same time stimulating the reproductive system, which can create long term health problems.

The resting period, which should last approximately three months, is a time to exercise and thin down from the rich diet of the breeding and molting seasons. Provide as large a space as possible to allow your birds to fly and regain their body condition. During the resting period, the diet should include a dry seed mix of millets and grass seeds. A high quality soft food with a full complement of vitamins and minerals should be offered twice a week in conjunction with a sprouted seed mix of millets and high-fat oil seeds such as niger to provide the essential amino acids and lipids which cannot be synthesized by the body.

Mike Fidler has developed a soft food for use at the research facility that is now available commercially in the United States through the Fabulous Finch Online Store. This research grade soft food contains a high protein value consisting of all essential amino acids allowing for the synthesis of over 600 proteins, animal lipids (not found in most eggfoods) essential to the support of growth, the immune system, reproduction, and nerve tissue function, all essential vitamins with an emphasis on Vitamin E for fertility and Vitamin D3 for the assimilation of calcium, all essential minerals including trace minerals required for normal egg production, and all essential carotenoids (not found in most eggfoods) required to stimulate breeding and maintain the endocrine system. This soft food, when offered in conjunction with sprouted seed, a dry seed mix, a calcium grit such as oyster shell, and fresh water provides your birds with everything they require in their diet. The soft food contains every nutritional component known to science, and is appropriately called “The Complete Soft Food.”

Feed “The Complete Soft Food” mixed with sprouted seed sparingly, at one half teaspoon per bird when offered. Also, provide a calcium grit such as oyster and egg shells continuously, in addition to fresh water. Mike includes charcoal at a ratio of about 5% in his calcium grit mix and offers inert grit such as river sand to give his birds the opportunity to eat a non-calcium grit when they feel the need for grit without ingesting calcium.

The goal during the resting period is to slim down and regain body strength, while at the same time receiving balanced nutrition. This resting diet simulates as closely as possible the waning nutritional period of mid to late winter in the wild, where the Gouldian finch will stop breeding due to a lack of nutritional resources, typically by mid July.

The Austere Diet (4 weeks)

Following the resting season, it is now time to prepare the Gouldian’s body for the upcoming breeding season, which is done through a simulation of the scarce nutritional resources in the wild that occurs typically in September and October, just prior to the Wet Season. During this austere period, hormone flow ceases, allowing the gonads and ovaries to shrink to a vestige of their normal size and rest. Another desirable effect of the austerity period is the burning of excess body fat, as fat Gouldians typically have low fertility or simply won’t come into breeding condition at all. Gouldian body fat can be identified by blowing back the belly feathers and inspecting the abdomen. If there is a yellow band of fat on the belly, the Gouldian is carrying too much body fat to be considered in peak condition for breeding. Using this austere period just prior to the breeding season also helps to ensure your males and females will come into breeding condition synchronously when placed on the breeding diet. Gouldians not placed on the austerity diet can become difficult to breed, with males and females coming into breeding condition at different times resulting in a lower percentage of pairs forming and lower fertility rates.

The austerity period should last 4 weeks in captivity, with a diet consisting of a blend of White and Yellow millet (or a similar low fat mix such as Rye Grass and Japanese Millet) and fresh water. No other foods should be made available during this period. No soft food, sprouted seed, calcium grit, vitamins, fruits, vegetables, or greens should be provided during the Austerity Period.

Beginning the Breeding Diet (4 weeks)

Following four weeks of the austerity diet, your Gouldians should be placed on a rich breeding diet including a dry seed mix of millets, grass seeds, and oil seeds such as niger. Additionally, The Complete Soft Food mixed with sprouted seed should be supplied fresh daily, along with a calcium grit and fresh water. This sudden burst of nutrition simulates the results of the Wet Season, with an abundance of seeding grasses that the Gouldian eats fresh from the stem. The Wet Season typically begins in Nov-Dec, with rich nutritional resources developing through to the end of the “wet” in March or April. This increase in available nutrition following the austerity period triggers the Gouldian’s body to begin hormone flow in preparation for breeding. Your birds should remain in same sex flights for four weeks after starting the breeding diet to allow them to come into breeding condition.

Pairing Your Birds (4 weeks)

After four weeks on the breeding diet, while maintained in same sex flights, it is time to pair your birds. It is best to keep your hens and cocks in flights where they cannot see each other when not breeding. This can be achieved by simply using an opaque barrier between the male and female flights or cages. If they are in sight of each other, they may have already selected their mates without you knowing whom they have chosen, and your pairings may be less successful.

It is also best to pair birds of the same head color, as current research at the Save the Gouldian Fund has found that there is higher infertility and hatchling mortality with pairs of different head morphs. This is still currently being studied to better describe the genetic mechanism at play, so more to come in the future on this topic.

Prepare each nest box with a small amount of nesting material and then offer additional nesting material to allow your birds to complete the nest themselves, which is an important ritual in pair bonding.

The Breeding Season (approximately 4 months)

Within two to four weeks, you should see pairs forming and eggs in the nest boxes! A Gouldian hen will typically lay between four and seven eggs. Fertile eggs will not start to develop until the hen begins sitting at night. This is also an indication that she has completed laying her eggs for this clutch, although you may also see an additional egg laid in her first few days of sitting at night. By starting the incubation period at the same time for all of her eggs, the hen is instinctively trying to ensure that her eggs will hatch at the same time, usually within 24-48 hours of each other, to give her nestlings equal opportunity in their size and strength when competing for food and nest space.

If you do not see a pair show interest in nesting after 4 weeks, it is possible that they have not formed as a breeding pair. If so, you should consider forming a new pair using other birds that have also not paired successfully. Another technique is to add a spare male to the cage of an unformed pair, which will often cause the hen to accept the first male introduced in the presence of this new stranger. Keep a close eye on this group, for as soon as the hen has paired with either male, the rejected male will become the target of aggression and should be removed from the cage.

On the 14th day of the hen sitting at night, begin increasing the amount of The Complete Soft Food mixed with sprouted seed each day, and when nestlings appear, continue to increase the amount of this mix so there is always a little left the following morning. Fertile eggs will hatch in 14 to 16 days of the hen first sitting, and once hatchlings appear, offer as much soft food and sprouted seed as can be eaten in 24 hours, which will increase in volume as the nestlings grow! It is also important to ensure there is a continuous source of calcium grit at this time. The hen will need to replenish her own body with calcium lost through the eggs she has laid, as well as feed the calcium grit to her nestlings to ensure the healthy development of their bones and other body organs.

The nestlings will fledge in approximately 21 days, and should be independent in 40 to 45 days after hatching. As soon as the nestlings fledge, clean out the dirty nest box and add more nesting material. This time, make up the majority (but not all) of the nest, as the adults need to concentrate on feeding fledglings and not nest building. The male will continue feeding the fledglings while the female should soon go back to egg laying. She will take a small part in feeding fledglings, but the male will assume the primary role of feeding the fledglings.

Remove the juveniles from the breeding environment after 45 days and place them in a weaning cage to allow them to adjust to life on their own. Place food and water dishes in many locations around the weaning cage until you are certain the juveniles have found their permanent food and water receptacles. Using the same food and water receptacles provided for their parent birds will help ensure a fast conversion, as they will be familiar with their appearance. Once you are happy that the juveniles have found their permanent sources of food and water, remove the extra dishes slowly over a period of a few days, keeping your eye out for a sudden sign of weakness in a bird who may have not yet found the permanent receptacles. After four weeks the juveniles should be ready to be placed in holding flights.

The Molting Season (approximately 8 weeks)

Over the course of the four month breeding season, your Gouldians will typically produce three clutches. After approximately four months, it is time to end the breeding season and move your birds into the molting season. Remove the nest boxes and segregate the parent birds into same sex flights or cages, again out of sight of opposite sex birds. These cages or flights should be as large as possible to allow for exercise, with perches at opposite ends to encourage flying.

Cages or aviaries overcrowded with perches will not encourage flying, but rather, just hopping about, so the goal here is exercise. Use stress perches if possible, as in the wild, the Gouldian operates in loosely organized flocks, and they like a bit of space and privacy, which the stress perches help to provide in captivity.

At the same time the parent birds are moved into their same sex flights, place them on the austerity diet for 2 weeks. The combination of the move, loss of the nest boxes, and the radical change in diet should induce the molt. Once the molt has been triggered, place your molting birds back on the breeding diet until the molt has been completed, which should take approximately 6 weeks. In cooler temperatures, the molt may take longer.

After the parent birds have completed their molt, they should be returned to the resting diet described above to restart the annual dietary cycle.

About the Juvenile Molt

The juvenile birds produced during the current year’s breeding season should be handled differently than the parent birds. Do not use the austerity diet to try to induce a molt in juvenile birds. Rather, continue feeding the breeding diet until they have completed their first molt into adult plumage.

In the wild, current thought is that temperature plays a significant role in the molt. The molt typically begins in Sept, at the end of the Dry Season and Australian winter, when daytime temperatures rise back into the 90's. Mike has experimented with this concept in captivity and has found that the trigger is approximately 85F minimum daytime temperatures.

Interestingly, this is the time when nutritional resources are most scarce for the wild Gouldian. However, in captivity, we can help unmolted juveniles along with a rich diet. The rich diet also helps to offset the fact that most captive Gouldians are not enjoying the high temperatures of the wild during the molt.

Mike also uses a fast molt as one of his indicators of good breeding stock. In the wild, this selection process occurs naturally, as while some survive, it is now thought that many juveniles who have not completed their molt by the arrival of the Wet Season do not survive.

Selecting Breeding Stock

The Molting and Resting seasons are a good time to begin choosing next year's breeding stock. Keep only the very best breeders for another breeding season. Remove any birds with a history of illness or balding from your breeding program. Any juveniles who can be sexed should be placed into single sex flights, at which time you begin to evaluate them for potential replacements of the adult birds not kept from the prior breeding season. Look for a fast molt by age, confirmation, body size, and vigor.

In Summary

You'll notice I didn’t assign months to Mike’s annual schedule, as the Gouldian's life cycle is primarily driven by diet. You can assign the months as you wish, as long as you stick to the sequence of the schedule over a 12 month period. In the wild, where daylight swings between 11 and 13 hours from the shortest to the longest days of the year, Gouldians breed well into the shortest days of winter. So 12 hours of light each day is adequate for breeding. If you establish the schedule where the molting season coincides with the warmest period for your aviary or bird room, you will have established the best conditions for a fast molt.

Copyright 2009, Bill Van Patten and Mike Fidler