Defensive & Aggressive Behavior
The male generally becomes active (reproductively speaking) first. In the wild, this adaptation allows him to obtain a suitable nesting site before attracting a mate. In captivity, however, this may lead to problems if the male is ready to breed and the hen is not. If she does not seem interested, the male may chase after, hiss at, and even attack her out of frustration. Mate aggression can lead to trauma and even death, and is a sign that the pair is not compatible and should be separated from each other immediately. Another form of aggressive behavior
that may be witnessed during the "breeding season" is defense of the nest, surrounding territory, food supply, and/or mate. In this case, a pair may be bonded to each other but attack any other birds that they perceive as a threat. Because some birds may become very defensive of their nest, the area should be visually isolated
from other birds.2
Other steps may also need to be taken to reduce aggression.
In order to attract a mate, a finch engages in courtship behaviors. Typically the male engages in his courtship ritual in order to attract a female of the same species, although it is not entirely unusual to see a male in captivity court a hen of a different species, or even to see him court another male. In some cases, a hen may initiate courtship by encouraging a cock to sing to her--a star finch hen, for instance, may hold a long blade of grass to woo the male of her choice and elicit his courtship display.13
The cock courts through his use of song and/or dance. Each species
has its own unique set of courtship behaviors, such that the song and dance of the zebra finch appears different from the song and dance of the bengalese finch, for example. However, cocks within a given species may use variations on a theme, so that one zebra cock's song may sound surprisingly different from another zebra cock's song. Species which dance as they sing may include some of the following "moves" in their repertoire: bowing, standing tall, puffing out feathers, holding a blade of grass or a feather, hopping up and down, tail pointing, rapid head shaking, begging behaviors, beak brushing against a perch, and so forth. The male gouldian, for instance, begins his dance by shaking his head rapidly for a few seconds; next, he stands up proud, puffs out his chest, and hops up and down on the perch while singing, all while keeping his tail pointed towards the hen of his affections. Keeping birds in a community flight and letting them pick their own mates is best, if possible, since not all courtship rituals will result in a pair bond (not only does the cock have to fancy the hen, but the hen must also accept his advances).
Acceptance of a Mate
Signs of mate acceptance and pair bond formation include: perching or sleeping side-by-side (some species [munias, some african waxbills, masked grassfinches, yellow-rumped finches,
shaft-tails, parsons, zebra finches] prefer to remain in physical contact, while other species [parrot, pictorella, painted, and gouldian finches] will simply sit near each other)13
, preening/grooming each other (namely in those species which prefer physical contact with their mate), toleration of each other's presence, cooing or calling to each other, and cooperative nest building. If the cock is interested in the hen, he will court her (sing and dance); if the hen accepts his advances, she may simply seem to tolerate him (i.e. not fly away or hiss at him), mimic some of his courtship behaviors (e.g. a gouldian hen who may shake her head, stand proud, and hop for her mate with her tail pointed, while chirping since she cannot sing), or assume the mating position. A zebra finch hen, for instance, will squat low in front of the male while lifting and vibrating her tail to encourage the cock to mate her. This is a sign of "consensual" mating. Cocks may hop on and appear to mate with hens without an "invitation" to do so--these displays should not be confused with mate acceptance. (Signs that two birds are not
compatible include: threatening [leaning towards the offending bird with the neck extended and the beak open], hissing or "growling," chasing, "beak fencing," feather plucking, and other signs of aggression.) Some birds will pair off with a partner of the same sex or of a different species...if you wish to breed your birds, neither of these scenarios will do.
Although many species in captivity will readily accept an artificial nest box or basket, a few species (such as the violet-eared waxbill and the melba finch)13
prefer to build their nest "from scratch" in a more natural location, such as in a thicket, on the ground, in a tree hollow, etc. Sometimes
finches which usually nest in artificial sites will build their own nests "from scratch" when given the opportunity. The picture to the right shows one example of this: a society finch pair wove their nest into a ficus tree in an outdoor aviary. Nesting materials which are appropriate to provide for your birds include: coconut fiber, burlap cut into 3" strips, shreds of newspaper, and shreds of facial tissue. Avoid small, synthetic fibers such as yarn, stringy material such as hair, and avoid hay, soil, eucalyptus leaves, and corn cob (which may lead to fungal growth).5
Usually, both the cock and the hen will participate in nest construction. If your birds do not seem interested in nest building, you might try to encourage them by placing a light source near the entrance to their nest in order to illuminate its inside. You may also need to provide a different nesting enclosure or location, until you find one that suits your birds' needs. The polar opposite to no nest building can also be a problem for some species which overbuild their nests. Zebra finches and society finches in particular are prone to stuffing too much material in their nests (causing eggs or chicks to roll out of the entrance), or for building nests on top of eggs. See Complications & Troubleshooting
for tips on helping your birds to build an appropriate nest for their needs. A video clip of gouldians building a nest in a nest box can be seen in the Video Documentation
The male finch does not have any external genitalia, including a penis (for more information see the Anatomy
section of this site). Internally located sex organs are thought to be an adaptation for flight. Instead, both the cock and hen must use their cloaca for mating purposes. The cloaca is the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary, and reproductive tracts open. Externally, the opening to this structure is called the vent, and it is located on the underside of the bird near where the tail joins the body. In order for copulation to occur, the male must touch his cloaca to the female's cloaca to pass his ejaculate to her. This maneuver is referred to as the "cloacal kiss," and usually involves the hen lifting her tail and the cock placing one leg over her back while
flapping his wings frantically to help push his body up against hers. This entire ordeal takes less than three seconds. Some finches (such as the zebra finch and society finch) will mate out in the open, usually on a perch (although sometimes on the ground), while other species (such as the lady gouldian finch, diamond firetail, cut-throat, avadavat, and members of the genus Estrilda
prefer to mate in the privacy of their nest box. The picture to the right features a pair of blue capped cordon bleus mating on the floor of their enclosure. Once copulation has occurred, the hen may store sperm in her reproductive tract for several days. Each pair may mate several times.
Typically, the hen will lay one egg per day in the early morning hours, shortly after she wakes up. Signs of imminent egg laying, or oviposition
, are straining, decreased defecation, increased fecal volume, and a wide based stance. Unless there is a problem, you usually will not be able to witness the actual event; however, because I set up a camera in the nest box of one of my breeding pairs, you can find a short video
of a hen laying an egg. Clutches may vary in size from 1-9 eggs, with 3-6 being the most typical number for most species. For more information about how an egg is fertilized and created within the body of the hen, please refer to the Anatomy
section of this site. One complication which may occur during egg laying is egg binding or dystocia
. For more information regarding egg binding, including what to do in the event that it occurs to your birds as well as how to prevent it, please see Complications & Troubleshooting
: Hens can lay eggs even without the stimulation of a male, so a single hen or a pair of hens may lay eggs, and the eggs will be infertile.
Most finches will not begin incubation until the 3rd or 4th egg in their clutch is laid. Some species will not begin incubation until their clutch is complete and all eggs have been laid. Many pairs will not incubate a clutch unless there are at least 3 eggs present in the nest
. Once incubation has begun (where at least one bird is covering the eggs not only during the day but also at night), healthy, fertile eggs should take roughly 12-16 days to hatch, depending on the species. In most cases, the cock and the hen will share the responsibility of incubating during the day, while the hen tends to incubate at night. The cock may or may not sleep next to the hen in the nest while she incubates at night. Successful incubation requires the parents to keep the eggs at the proper temperature, to keep the humidity sufficient (usually by bathing), and to gently roll/rotate the eggs periodically throughout the day. The Video Documentation
section contains a video clip of a pair incubating their eggs.
Nest & Egg Abandonment
Unfortunately, if the birds sense famine or if they are disturbed while incubating, they may abandon their nest and eggs. Disturbances may come from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to: the presence of people (especially high traffic near the nesting site, placing hands in the cage, or tampering with the nest), loud noises, pets, nosey cage mates, predators, pests
(cockroaches or ants, for example), and night frights. This is why breeding birds should be disturbed minimally, and only when absolutely necessary (i.e. to provide fresh food and water). If possible, dishes should be accessible from outside of the cage, to minimize the need to place one's hands within the cage. Providing an adequate diet and a sufficient amount of food daily, a dim "night light" at night, and a quiet/secure environment for your birds to breed in will help to reduce the possibility of nest and egg abandonment.
If all goes as planned, the parents will take turns feeding their young by regurgitating food as the hungry chicks beg. Providing the parents with a large assortment of high-quality foods will ensure that the chicks get the best start. For the first day or two after hatching, the young do not need to be fed because they are still using the last of the yolk sac for energy;
however, parent birds may still regurgitate some fluids to their young at this time. The parents may also be seen gently prodding at and picking up their young in order to situate them for incubation. Chicks are often incubated daily until they are about 10 days old, after which time they are usually incubated only at night. This corresponds with the time that their juvenile plumage begins to develop. Before the feathers come in, a well-fed chick's crop can be seen bulging out around its neck (see photo). The crop is a storage area for food before it empties into the stomach and GI tract. A crop packed tight with food is a good sign, unless it is not emptying or is filled with air bubbles (usually a sign of infection, and should be treated immediately). Chicks usually open their eyes around day 6 of age, and fledge around day 14-20, depending on the species. A video clip of a hen feeding and caring for her hatchlings can be found in the Video Documentation
Chick Tossing or Abandonment
As with nest and egg abandonment, if the birds sense famine or if they are disturbed while young are in the nest, they may abandon, kill, and/or toss their babies. A video clip of a chick being tossed from its nest can be found in the Video Documentation
section. Disturbances may come from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to: the presence of people (especially high traffic near the nesting site, placing hands in the cage, or tampering with the nest and/or babies), loud noises, pets, nosey cage mates, predators, pests
(cockroaches or ants, for example), and night frights. This is why breeding birds should be disturbed minimally, and only when absolutely necessary (i.e. to provide fresh food and water). If possible, dishes should be accessible from outside of the cage, to minimize the need to place one's hands within the cage. Providing an adequate diet and a sufficient amount of food daily, a dim "night light" at night, and a quiet/secure environment for your birds to breed in will help to reduce the possibility of chick tossing or abandonment. Waxbills in particular are difficult to breed because they require a large
volume of insectivorous food
refreshed multiple times daily
in order to feel secure enough to raise their chicks. Additionally, if chicks die due to infection or infestation
, the parents may toss them or abandon the nest. In this case, the dead babies and the parents should be presented to an avian veterinarian
to determine the source of the problem and, if necessary, administer medical treatment to the pair before they breed again. The enclosure will likely need to be disinfected
and the pair will need to be provided with a new nesting receptacle and fresh nesting material in order to start over. Lastly, parent birds may abandon their young if they feel the urge to start a new nest and breed again prematurely. Usually in this case, removing the male and leaving the hen to raise the chicks alone will solve the problem. See Complications & Troubleshooting
for more tips on how to avoid and/or solve the problem of chick tossing or abandonment.
Weaning age varies with species, but usually occurs at about 4-6 weeks of age. Normal weaning takes place as the parent birds feed their begging chicks less and less, encouraging them to eat foods on their own instead. In some cases, the parents may begin to chase their young, a sign that the parents want to breed again and therefore want the chicks out of the cage. Once all of the chicks have been seen eating and drinking on their own, they should be removed to their own enclosure, separate from the parents. After the chicks are placed in their own cage, you may wish to allow the parents to breed again; however, limit breeding pairs to only 2-3 clutches per year.