Breeding the Gouldian On the Adelaide Plains by Bert Polgreen

Introduction

If managed correctly, the Gouldian finch can be long lived and a free breeder in Adelaide aviaries. This article outlines the methods I have used successfully over many years.

Housing

For Gouldian finches I prefer an aviary about 4 metres long by 1¼ metres wide and 2 metres high, with 2 metres closed in for a shelter. This gives room for a good leafy evergreen shrub to be planted in the flight. It will house two pairs of Gouldians and a pair of docile brush building finches plus their young. The width of the aviary in relation to the height and the amount covered in will give you the warmth. In cold climates the length of the shelter is increased and in some cases the box type aviary with no flight is resorted to. Elimination of draughts is essential. To test for draught, pieces of paper can be hung in the shelter and watched to see if there is any movement. If any movement occurs then you have a draught and this must be eliminated as it is fatal to birds, especially Gouldians. With regards to leafy shrubs in the aviary, you will find that the birds will roost in these in preference to the shelter. Why? A tree or shrub is like a chemical factory. It takes in carbon dioxide through the leaves during the day and removes the carbon for food and then breathes out the oxygen at night. The birds benefit from this oxygen the same as a premature baby placed in an oxygen tent at birth. If it becomes too cold for them at night they will soon retire to the shelter.

Old birds when they have finished their breeding span, if removed to an aviary of their own will live for anything up to ten years of age, simply because they have been relieved of the stress and strain of laying eggs and feeding young.

Gouldians enjoy a fine spray of water in hot weather. They will get so wet that they are unable to fly. They also like to drink from raindrops on the wire netting on rainy days.

When transporting Gouldians in a carry cage, even if only for a short distance, always make sure there is seed in the cage, because when the bird is caught in the aviary it receives a very big shock. When the bird starts fluttering around, it will immediately pick up seed and start eating. This counteracts the shock to a certain degree. Do not release the bird in a strange aviary after midday, it must have plenty of time to find seed and water and a place to roost for the night. It is much better to hold them until the next morning as they are liable to roost in a draughty place with the result being a dead bird in the morning.

Feeding

The Gouldian is quite easy to cater for. Feeding consists of pannicum, white millet, Japanese millet and canary seed as dry food. For green food I rely on silver beet (slice the stems into three or four slices so that the birds can get at the juices, they seem to prefer this to the green leaf), panic grass (which produces a seed about one third of the size of a canary seed), also veldt oat or miniature oat (which is about a third of the size of commercial oat). These grasses are fed in the semi-ripe stage. Gouldians will take from 25% to 30% of their daily requirements when these are in season. Also they like sprouted seed, this can be sprouted and fed to them daily, or it can be sprouted in the aviary by covering with a wet bag. Fold the bag back a little each day and they will get all they require (this is very rich in protein). Cuttlefish bone will be taken in large quantities, so also will egg shells, but make sure that the shells have been boiled or heated in the oven to kill all the germs on them. Old lime mortar will be pecked at incessantly. Gouldians are also great ground fossickers and any seed thrown on the floor will be cleaned up before they return to the feed tray. Also when they have had a good feed of semi-ripe seed they will always return to the seed tray to top up their meal.

Breeding

When breeding Gouldians do not mix the head colours. Examine the head colour on the red and yellow heads and you will find that the colour comes around the head like a helmet but does not go under the chin which is black. Around the colour you will find a pencil line of black behind which is a thin line of blue. Now if the black head is crossed with other colours you will find that the black line will widen until with subsequent crosses the head colour will decrease until there is only a few coloured feathers left and eventually the head colour will be black. This explains why the black is so predominant in the wild.

Gouldians can be bred in colony if the aviary is big enough, but do not mix the head colours for the simple reason that I have already mentioned. Also as close relations may mate and produce inferior young, they are far better kept one or two pairs per aviary. You may also strike a rogue bird or two who will spend more time chasing others around the aviary than sitting and thus spoiling their own eggs as well as stopping others from laying. They seem to delight in knocking young birds off the perch, including their own, often pulling feathers out of them. This is handy in one way because if they pull them out of the breast then you can tell the sex of them, because when the feathers grow again they appear as adult feathers.

When mating up pairs for the breeding season, try to pick a deep coloured hen, cutting out the washed out hens as much as possible.

Even with a mated pair of Gouldians there is no love lost, they are never seen preening one another. They will squabble over seed when feeding and will squabble over a roosting place, and yet fertility will be excellent, 100% in many clutches of eggs.

When mating up young pairs for the first time, try to pick birds of the same age, for instance, it is not much good mating birds bred in February with birds bred in June. If the hen is bred in February and the cock in June then the eggs will probably be infertile because the cock is not mature even though he is in full colour. If the reverse is the case, then the hen will be very late in going to nest.

When Gouldians come into breeding condition the hen’s beak will start to turn black from the tip. By the time she starts feeding young it will be shiny black all over. The cock bird’s beak will turn pink just on the tip, showing more on the bottom than the top mandible.

The mating display of the Gouldian starts off with the cock approaching the hen on the perch. He then arches his neck and bends his head forward, at the same time shaking it rapidly from side to side, gradually straightening to an upright position. Then he starts dancing up and down on the perch while at the same time uttering a low almost inaudible whistling or twittering sound. Just before this finishes the hen usually flies off leaving the cock sitting on the perch looking disappointed and as much as to say ‘I did my best and you are still not satisfied’. The actual mating usually takes place in the nest and sometimes on the floor when they are fossicking for tit bits, very seldom on the perch.

The nesting habit of the Gouldian in the wild is in hollows and in the brush. When building in the brush they build quite a good dome shaped nest with a side entrance, but in captivity they prefer to nest in logs or boxes. I prefer boxes with a lid which can be easily removed as they are much easier to clean and can be painted at the end of the season. The boxes should be about 38cm long and 12cm square with a 5cm to 7cm hole in the end or in the side at one end with a perch 2½cm below the hole. At times you will get what we call a lazy builder who will not start to build until the hen has laid on the bare boards. Some eggs are sat on a while but eventually these eggs are lost. As the first nest produces the best young ones, to overcome this I usually build the nest for them and just twist my fist into the grass to form the nest. All nesting material should be about 8 to 10cm long and must be very pliable simply because a Gouldian picks up his building material in the centre instead of by the end like other finches do. Thus the nesting material must be pliable so that he can get in the hole with it. If it is not pliable then he cannot get into the nest with it and eventually he drops it.

The Gouldian does not resent inspection of the nest, as long as it is not done too often. About once or twice per week, but do not put your hands in the nest if you want to remove infertile eggs, use a spoon. If any thing looks suspicious by all means have a look, there may be a dead young one which has to be removed.

When the Gouldian starts to lay, both birds will sit in turn on the eggs during the day, but both will come out of the nest and roost on the perch at night until the full clutch of eggs are laid. Then the hen will sit at night and only then will she develop enough body heat to incubate the eggs. All the eggs will start to incubate together and will hatch in 14 days from the time she stays in at night. The eggs nearly always hatch at the same time, not on succeeding days as they were laid. Each clutch consists of from 5 to 9 eggs (I have had them rear 9 young on quite a few occasions).

Because the Gouldian nests in dark places and hollows, and because of the bright sunlight in their habitat, the parent bird cannot see to feed the young when they come in from the brightness, so nature provides the answer. It furnishes the young with little globules (six in all), three on each side of the gape, also in the roof of the mouth there are four more little spot, flat this time. These globules and spots glow like tiny lights so that the old birds can see just where to put the food. These spots and globules disappear when the bird becomes independent of its parents. Lutinos and albinos do not have lights and do not get fed, this is why they are not seen in the wild state and are only bred in captivity and then under foster parents.

There are three critical stages in the life of a young Gouldian. First when they are 10 days old, because, being usually free breeders they have fairly large nests of young, which at this stage do not have any fluff at all on them and are as bare as the palm of your hand. The hen has no hope of covering them, so she comes out of the nest to roost on the perch and leaves the young to rely on their own body warmth.

If the weather is cold at night, as it can be here in South Australia, the young will die of the cold. Their second critical stage is when they become independent of their parents, then if they are not in excellent health and have to fend for themselves they will soon die. The third stage is when they start to moult. Owing to their hard feathering, they can ill afford to lose any feathers. This leaves them open to chills which often prove to be fatal if the aviary is not warm and free from draughts. To overcome this I do not remove the young from their parents until they are fully coloured. Sometime the oldest young interfere with the nesting in the third round, owing to their being very inquisitive, but most of the old ones will send them on their way.

All young Gouldians start to colour into their adult plumage in late October and November, irrespective of when they were hatched. This is one of the odd features of the Gouldian, young birds only moult into adult plumage at the same time as the old birds, not at 12 to 16 weeks of age like most finches. When the young Gouldian starts to colour, two streaks of yellow will appear on the abdomen and they will gradually widen and extend up into the purple on the breast. At the same time the green on the back and the wings will moult until only the head is left. The head colour and pin feathers in the tail are the last to moult, hens seem to moult slightly faster than the cocks.

Late young bred in September and October will not always colour at moulting time, they may start to colour and then stop. They will remain in this state until the next moulting season comes around in 12 months time. These birds should not be discarded because they are about 15 months old and fully matured by the next breeding season and make the best breeders providing they are healthy birds.

Health

There are a few complaints and diseases that take their toll of Gouldians. The Gouldian is a hard feathered bird, by that I mean that the feather does not possess the fine fluff on the body feathers. As a result, chills and pneumonia can be a problem during bad weather. There is also another disease which takes a big toll of Gouldians that is brought about by breeding from inferior breeding stock. Often this does not show up in the breeders but they produce young which often die when they become independent. (These adults should be discarded as breeders.) The symptoms of this disease are very similar to tuberculosis in humans but it does not seem to be contagious to other Gouldians. The birds sit around and fluff their feathers and do not eat much with the result that they become weak and in very poor condition. Eventually they become too weak to crack the seed husks and, although they seem to be feeding, they are only picking up the seed and dropping it again and they soon die.

Another cause of this disease is overbreeding. Birds may produce two nests of strong young and then produce a nest of weak young, simply because the old birds have lost their stamina through overbreeding. Do not overbreed. In very cold climates, such as England, Europe and Japan, artificially heated aviaries are resorted to. Infra-red lamps and other means are used. This is alright if the birds are kept under these conditions all their lives, but to transfer them to open flight aviaries is fatal.

Egg binding will not occur if the birds are in good condition, it is only hens that are in poor condition that suffer from this complaint, simply because the muscles of the oviduct become too weak to expel the egg.

Then there is the airsac mite. This is very prevalent in some years. The first symptoms of this mite is continuous wiping of the beak on the perch, then in the next stage the birds start gaping, opening and shutting their beak. Then in the final stage they start wheezing, which can be heard quite clearly. The airsac mite attacks the air passages and finally the lungs of the bird. Years ago we used carbaryl in the water as a treatment for this, but this is a very toxic and potent material which used to make you think that you had killed the birds. The first time I tried it I thought I had poisoned the bird, she was lying on the floor of the aviary with her wings out sideways and her legs out back and her head straight in front, but within half an hour she was back on the perch again. It was certainly a drastic cure, but within 8 weeks she was down again with it, simply because I had only treated the bird and not the aviary. The eggs of the mite go through the bird on to the aviary floor. As the Gouldians are great floor feeders, she picked up the eggs again. At the time, I heard a whisper over the grapevine from a friend who had a friend who worked with a big organisation which had been working with the complaint for years. They had come up with the Shell Pest Strip. So off I went up to the Shell garage and got a very large yellow one. I made a netting holder and hung it up near their roosting perches in the sheltered part of the aviary. Within two days the hen stopped gasping and from then on I could see the improvement every day for 7 days. Then I removed it and placed it in other Gouldian aviaries as a precaution and have not had any sign of it in my aviaries since.

Reprinted from the December 1987 edition of Bird Keeping in Australia, the official publication of The Avicultural Society of South Australia Inc.