Basic Housing Needs
Choosing an Enclosure
Because finches cannot climb the walls of cages the way parrots do, their only means of effective exercise is flight. This is why it is important to build or purchase a cage that is large enough to provide adequate flight space--at least 30 inches in length for a pair of finches. Emphasis should be placed on length more than depth or height,5 so a cage should be longer than it is tall or wide. The spacing between the bars should be ¼"-½"; any wider or more narrow a bar spacing may result in injury. Cages should be constructed of a durable, nontoxic, easily-disinfectable material such as aluminum. I personally prefer cages which have aluminum bars coated in PVC powder or "plastic;" the coating can come in a wide assortment of colors and it tends to make cleaning easier. Design or select an enclosure which is easily accessible to you: make sure you can reach every corner so that you can clean adequately, and make sure the cage has doors which are positioned to allow you to catch a bird with greater ease while discouraging the bird's escape. Additionally, you must be sure the cage is large enough to accommodate the number of birds you wish to house in it.
Recall that finches should always be kept at least two to a cage, but that keeping more than 2 birds in a cage may result in the dominant bird(s) of certain species attacking their more submissive cagemates. (In my experience, 6+ birds housed together tend to lose track of each other more easily and as a result lose their ability to single out any one bird as a victim.) Properly accessorizing a spacious cage with perches, visual barriers, and multiple feeding stations may help reduce this aggression.A general rule to follow when determining how many finches can live in the same cage together (the "bird-number-to-cage-size ratio") is as follows: one pair of finches for every 3-4 square feet of cage floor space (to determine this number, you can use the calculator). The height of the cage does not seem to play an important role in allowing birds more "personal space," as finches tend to make use of horizontal more than vertical "flight territories." Additionally, even in a very tall cage, all of the birds will prefer the highest perches, and so will fight if not enough floor space is available. In other words, a cage which is 6 feet long by 2 feet deep by 3 feet high can accommodate 3-4 pairs of birds (6'×2'=12 square feet of floor space; 12 sq. feet of floor space can usually comfortably contain 3-4 pairs of finches since 12 sq. feet ÷ 3 sq. feet per pair = 4 pairs & 12 sq. feet ÷4 sq. feet per pair = 3 pairs). A cage which is 4' long by 3' deep by 6' high can accommodate the same number of pairs (3-4) since the same amount of floor space is available (12 sq. feet), etc.
Always avoid the following5 when choosing a cage:
- Decorative, ornate, or highly convoluted design
- Multiple crevices/hard-to-clean areas
- Short or tall cylindrical construction if the cage has a small diameter
- Copper, bronze, or any other metal which corrodes or is otherwise toxic
- Gaps that may entrap toes, feet, legs, etc.
- Peeling paint or any toxic decorative items on or within the cage (some wood treatments and paint sealers are toxic)
Positioning the Enclosure
Birds tend to feel a little nervous when they are towered over, which is why it is a good idea to position the cage so that at least some of the perches are at or above your standing eye level.5 If kept indoors, the cage should receive direct sunlight through an open window (closed windows tend to filter out the UV light birds need)2 if the weather is nice and the location is free from predators. However, the enclosure should also have a shaded area for the birds to retreat to at will. Try to mimic natural lighting as closely as possible if you are unable to keep the birds near direct sunlight: full spectrum lighting should be installed and set on a timer to turn on when the sun rises and turn off when the sun sets (note that in many areas of the world, day length changes seasonally, so periodic adjustments will be needed to keep the timing of the artificial lighting accurate). Mimicking natural lighting is important because, among other reasons, the hormone cycles of many species of birds are influenced by photoperiod5. UV light-emitting fixtures are best to use since UV plays an important role in allowing birds to produce vitamin D & adsorb calcium. Full spectrum lights which are strong enough to induce "tanning" produce enough UV for your birds to benefit from.5 The cage should be kept dark at night, although you may find installing a dim "night light" helpful for easing potential night frights. Covering the cage at night is unnecessary and discouraged since exposure to fresh air is important,2,5 and the birds ideally should rise with the sun (having a covered cage early in the morning may prevent this).
Indoor birds need a suitable living area ("bird proof home") to keep them healthy & safe. They should not be housed in any room with "extreme" hot-cold temperature fluctuations (such as the kitchen), nor should they be housed in any room or area which contains toxic fumes (air fresheners, scented candles, smoke, certain spray cleaners, etc. are toxic to birds). The room should be well-ventilated, free from predators (such as cats & bird dogs), and the cage should be kept away from toxic plants (as the birds like to nibble on plants if they can reach them). Birds can become comfortable living in whatever room temperature you are comfortable living in IF they are slowly acclimatized to the temperature change.2
Outdoor birds need an enclosure which has shade, protection from weather and extremes in temperature, and offers protection from predators and rodents as well as from free-ranging birds which may contaminate the finches' food and water supplies. Additionally, plants in and around the aviary must be nontoxic and free from pesticides.
Perches, Dishes, & Accessories
Dowel perches can be problematic for birds since they do not allow for ample foot exercise, may increase the pressure placed on one point of the foot due to their regularity in cross section, and may increase the potential for bumblefoot by aggravating the feet5. Therefore, dowels should never be the sole perching option for finches. Ideally perches should be made from clean, nontoxic hardwood branches that have never been sprayed with chemicals or other pesticides, are free from wood rot and mold, and are variably sized with irregular cross sections.5 I highly recommend purchasing manzanita branches, which are available at many pet stores. Sandpaper-covered perches should NEVER be used since they have no effect on nail length, but may predispose a bird to foot problems.2,5 Perches should be positioned in such a way that they are not stacked directly above each other nor above the seed or water dish(es), to prevent contamination by feces. Because wood is impossible to disinfect, perches should be replaced as they become fouled by feces.5
Dishes should be easy to clean and disinfect. For this reason, I recommend stainless steel coop cups (available at some pet stores and online). Do not use metal water containers which have been soldered at the seams, as they may cause lead poisoning.5 Position the dishes to encourage the birds to exercise--place the water bowl at one end of the cage and the food dish at the other. If you notice your birds attempting to nest in their seed cup, try switching to a tube-style feeder which does not allow the bird to lie in it (see the example picture to the right).
Finches do not seem to enjoy the types of "toys" that most parrots do. Most finches will appreciate the addition of a swing to their cage provided that it is not placed in such a way that it obscures flight or jumping path. The swing should be able to move freely without striking the walls of the cage or any of the perches while in use. As far as other forms of entertainment you can provide for your finches: some birds take a keen interest in a short piece of "string" tied to the side or ceiling of the cage. Just be careful that the string you use is not made of small synthetic fibers (such as yarn) nor thin/long enough to entangle the bird. A 2 inch long shred of burlap should be safe to use. Some species enjoy roosting in a nest at night, so including a nesting receptacle in one of the upper corners of the cage is an option. However, be warned that providing a nest may stimulate breeding and induce bickering, and that any nest made of wood will need to be replaced as it becomes fouled with feces.5 Some woods (e.g. cedar, redwood, pressure treated lumber) are also toxic. If you chose to provide nesting material, make sure that it is natural and nontoxic. 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 Burlap cut into 3" strips, shreds of newspaper, coconut fiber, and shreds of facial tissue are good nesting material options.5 Providing a nest or nesting material is not necessary. Providing the bird with a mirror is no substitute for providing the bird with an appropriate cagemate.
Be careful not to crowd the cage with too many perches or toys--you need to allow the birds plenty of flight (as this is their only means of effective exercise).
Keeping the Cage Clean
The best beddings for the floor of a finch cage are newspapers, paper towels, recycled computer paper, butcher's paper, and paper bags.5 Pile several sheets on top of one another, being sure to cover the entire floor of the cage. Each night before "lights out" remove the top, soiled sheet and discard of it. Cages and perches should be scrubbed clean with liquid dish soap about once per week, and disinfected once a month with a weak bleach solution (approximately ¾ cup bleach in 1 gallon of water, a 5% solution). Cages must be scrubbed clean of organic debris (feces, feathers, and food) before the disinfectant is applied, or the bleach solution will be rendered ineffective.4,5 While cleaning, the birds should be removed from the cage and placed in a second holding cage. Only use bleach in a well-ventilated area, on non-metal surfaces, and make sure the birds are kept in a separate area so they do not come in contact with the fumes. Be sure to rinse the cage thoroughly and let it dry in the sun before replacing the birds. In preventing disease transmission, constant physical cleaning of the cage(s) is more effective than depending on disinfectants.5 While cleaning cages or the bird room, take care to avoid inhaling mold spores or fecal "dust" particles. It may be a good idea to invest in an electrostatic-type air filter if a central air system is installed in the area where the birds are kept. Be sure to change any air filter that you use regularly to prevent the transmission of pathogens such as Aeromonas sp.5 Food and water dishes should be cleaned daily to prevent the build up of slime and algae.
Cedar, redwood, and pressure-treated wood chips should not be used in birds' enclosures as they are toxic.5 Additionally, other types of wood chips and corn cob tend to promote the growth of pathogens if used for nesting material or bedding.