The Advantage of Small Specialist Breeding Flights.

Over the last few years a number of the ‘rarer’ species of finches have been at danger of being lost from our aviaries and the following is an attempt to present the case for using small flight to attempt to breed these birds before they are lost to us forever. In Australia the ‘commonest’ way to keep finches has been in the colony system where a number of compatible finches are housed together. I guess space is a commodity that we have over many of our European and American colleagues. Many of these breeders, whom I have corresponded with, keep their finches in the house with them and have only a single pair to each cage. This system seems to be successful and they produce a good numbers of ‘exotic’ finches every season. They can control the temperature, humidity and photoperiod easily in such a system whereas, for us, this can be a considerable problem. As with each system there are pros and cons and I shall try to present as many ‘trains of thought’ as I can! To get you thinking I have set out what I consider to be the advantages and disadvantages below:


· If you are keeping ‘specialist’ birds – in our case finches that require large amounts of live food – then it is probably logical to keep them in a smaller flight whereby you can supply them with all the extra goodies that they require. I’ll use the Dybowski Twinspot for arguments sake. Put your pair in a large mixed collection and they will have to compete with all the other finches for live food and other feeds. If these birds aren’t the dominant pair in the aviary then they will probably not obtain enough live food to successfully raise a family. Also they may become ‘damaged’ in territorial disputes. Place the pair in a small flight – here I call 3m long by 1.2 m wide a ‘small flight’ – and you can supply any amount of live food, special feeds and know where it is going to! Our reason for going this way was to try to break birds of their termite (white ant) dependency by supplying liberal amounts of maggots, pupae and mealworms. If you live in an area that has limitless supplies of termites you might be able to breed Twinspots in a communal aviaries but where there are no termites every morsel of live food is precious!

· If the birds you are intending to keep are ‘delicate’ then it is an easy matter to supply heating – either with floor ducted heating as used by a few breeders or simply with a cheap oil-filled column heater attached to a thermostat. Floor heating is probably the desired, but most expensive, form of heating as ‘warm air rises’ and chicks at floor level might perish if you use a column heater – but at least the could ‘cuddle up’ to the heater I guess! This allows you to maintain a temperature or prevent large drops in temperature overnight. A number of Red-hooded siskin breeders use this method and I know of one breeder that ‘saved’ a nest of Tanimbar parrotfinches by using a column-filled heater to good effect. This also means that you can breed some of your birds 12 months of the year should you choose to.

· If you lash out for a lighting system (such as the Automatic Daylight Extender) you can set it so that you can clean and feed your birds when you want to and not be dependant upon changing photoperiod with the varying winter and summer daylight lengths. Far easy to do this for a number of smaller flights than manoeuvring around in larger aviaries.

· CONTROL – try and catch a sick bird in a large planted aviary and, chances are, that unless it is near dead that you wont be able to until it is too late!! In the small aviary INTERVENTION is made easy and any irregularities in the health of the birds is noticed, generally, before it is too late.

· Ease of cleaning is far greater in a smaller flight than in larger planted aviaries. Less of it too! More cleaning = less of an environment for many ‘nasties’ to get established in the first place.

· OUTBREAKS OF DISEASE and PARASITISM are far easily treated and controlled in smaller flight. In the large planted flight, especially if the owner has a daytime job, then by the time you notice that ‘something is wrong’ it is probably too late for a number of finches and subsequent treatment becomes a nightmare. My 3mX1m flights have 2 pair of finches and worming and other management chores are easy. At worst only 4 birds are affected, but in a larger flight the problem is magnified.

· TREATMENTS – easy to limit access to other moisture sources in a smaller flight but extremely difficult in a mixed, large collection. Makes quarantine a breeze – 4 birds in a flight rather than in a small breeding cabinet! The only change might be newspaper on the floor rather than other substances for the duration of treatment.

· Allow you to keep species that might be destructive in mixed collections – Bloods or Crimson finches and even Peters Twinspots maybe?

· STRESS – by placing a pair or two in a small flight you can substantially reduce the stress on the bird, especially if it is a timid species. Probably better if I give you an example of what I am getting at here. I had a pair of Grey singers that shared an aviary with a pair of Red-faced parrotfinches. The Grey singers tried to breed twice and, upon careful observation, they appeared to be intimidated by the antics of the Red-face – you know the one, birds going at 100km/h everywhere they went! The Grey singers nested but always failed to hatch young although their eggs were usually fertile. The pair was taken to a small 3mX1m flight and are now happily rearing chicks, but ALONE!! Having experienced the aggression of their cousins, the Green singers, I did not suspect that the Grey singer would be such a nervous, docile species. Mind you once the Red-face produced their second nest of youngster an air traffic controller would have had trouble moving freely in there!!

· I try to shy away from this aspect but, I guess, it must be said that it is a major consideration and that is PRICE. In these small flights you can CONTROL the ENVIRONMENT to an extent that you would find virtually impossible in a large flight or aviary. This should make it possible to produce far more of these ‘dearer’ finches than by simply tossing them into a large mixed aviary with the words "Go for it!" Think it doesn’t happen? There have been many species lost in Australia by that very same attitude and by the ‘collector’ that has a ‘fantastic COLLECTION’ because he can afford to do so. Unfortunately access to money does not always a great breeder make – it can help but there is no substitute for experience. And, lets face it, once a species is ‘gone’ no amount of cash will resurrect it given our countries attitude to live finch importation.

· To me these points are all salient to the trend towards keeping specialist birds in small flights but my main interest stems from GEOGRAPHY. I live in the coldest state in Australia but does that means I should stick to breeding Chestnuts, Emblemas, Stars, Longtail and Singers because they are tougher? By careful construction of a bank of small flights I can house ‘softer’ birds by catering to their various needs and still be able to enjoy the beautiful mating display of the Blue-capped waxbill or the frustration of trying to rear the Yellow-wing pytilia. Sure, I may never be able to house them in open flight like my friends from the Hunter Valley and Queensland but I WILL BE ABLE TO KEEP AND BREED THEM!! Anyway, I can always build a flight out from it and open it up during the summer months!

· Remember, the bigger the aviary the colder it can, and does, get!!


· The situation where your aviaries are totally temperature and humidity controlled to the extent that these two factors remain constant all year round. In Europe and many parts of North America finches are bred this way inside people’s houses and that, for them, is normal. However, in our countries the flight or aviary is the ‘normal/conventional’ way of breeding and housing birds. How long would your temperature-controlled birds last in most outside aviaries? Horses for courses. By allowing for some variation in conditions you must allow some hardening of the birds to occur. The Violet-eared waxbill is considered the one of the softest finches in aviculture yet, in its natural environment, the temperature can vary from –10 to 40+ degrees!!! If I lived in Europe or America I might breed my birds in such a manner but I don’t, so I don’t try to maintain a constant temperature or humidity in my small aviaries. Would you thank me if you bought birds from such a system and tried to place them into your larger aviaries – I think not!! Even taking finches from my small flights to the larger ones is only undertaken in summer down here.

· AESTHETICS – there is nothing better than watching finches foraging through the fully planted flight and seeing them flying through the air in search of mischief. However, where I live the number of finches I can keep in such a system is limited. Even if I lived in warmer climes I would still construct a bank of small closed flights for specialist breeding. Many breeders look upon the smaller flight with contempt but I can guarantee that most of their inhabitants live longer, happier lives than their cousins at the mercy of the elements in larger open flights. One particularly scathing comment directed towards my new flights was "If I had to keep birds like that I would give up keeping them!" To which I retorted, "If I tried to keep birds like you do (in large open flights) I couldn’t afford to keep them at all!" Don’t get me wrong I love open flights but I am also a realist in that I know many species cannot survive in our climate in open flights so I have large flights for Grenadier Weavers and Golden Song Sparrows and smaller flights for Bloods, Pytilias and Blue-caps. I’ve never been content to breed hundreds of Orange breast Waxbills without looking at getting Orange-cheek Waxbills but I am also a realist and know that I must adapt my system to correctly house and breed these finches – in my smaller flights!!

· EXPENSE – OK, we are into cash! To build your small flights in cooler climes can be an expensive outlay if you have to line the walls and roofs with insulation and sisilation. It can be expensive to heat your flights in winter and electricity costs may need to be factored in. However, adapting an existing aviary can be achieved with minimal outlay. Partitions may be made out of shade clothe and wire and the only other costs are heating and some insulation. However, if you intend to keep ‘exotic’ finches from tropical regions then it should be common sense that you will have to create an environment that will not impose too much stress upon your new arrivals – anyway, not much use spending huge amounts of money on a pair of finches if you are too tight to correctly house them! Unfortunately there is just no way around the cost of lining walls – no more colourbond tin walls are acceptable!

· RESELLING – The problem with raising finches in small, heated flights is the question of "Who are you going to sell your youngsters to?" Remember your birds have been raised in confinement and you have shielded them from the elements and gone to great lengths to see the night time temperature doesn’t drop too low – BUT, how would these birds go if thrown into an open flight? Not too good I would imagine!!
Even if you don’t heat them their construction will ensure that they are warmer than most larger flights and aviaries. So the problem is you have a limited market for your birds raised in such a manner.
What may be considered the norm in Europe and America may not be ideal for Australia or New Zealand conditions. Whereas many Europeans and Americans breed their finches inside houses with controlled temperature, lighting and humidity we tend not to do this. There would seem little advantage in using these lengths to breed finches if you find that you can’t sell them to the general avicultural community. Or do you take the risk and sell your birds anyway? My guess is that you would not be too popular when these birds started to die!

What’s that old saying about "if you can’t dazzle them with science, baffle them with………….?" Hope that’s not the case here! In my travels I have seen these small aviaries appearing everywhere. These range from a set of three in a garage in Gunnedah to a large complex in Tamworth with only 2-3 pair of finches in each aviary. The set-ups might vary in size and construction and even geography but the intent remains the same – to propagate the rarer finches in an environment that gives them the greatest chance of breeding success. The removal of competition and the presentation of an ‘ideal’ dietary regime are two key factors in all these aviaries. Some may be heated, other not. Some may be merely used as over wintering quarters for ‘delicate’ species, while others are for breeding purposes.

I trust that you have been able to weigh up the advantages and disadvantages of using small breeding flights and hope that you concur that we might possibly be going down the right path. Perhaps a final thought should be that if the ‘relevant authorities’ ever allow live finch imports into our countries there is a HUGE chance that most, if not all, of the finches arriving will have been bred in the European way – yep, you guessed it, bred in small cages in climate controlled rooms!! Food for thought!