Just the Basics please..
Ok so you bought a pair of finches and plan to breed them. There is nothing like watching the miracle of life un-fold in your very home. It's a great learning experience for you and your family. Best of all, breeding finches is fairly easy, right?
Before you say yes to that question you'd better stop and think about what is involved in breeding finches and understand that things don't always go according to plan. In fact when things don't go according to plan it isn't always the finches fault. Not only do you need to provide the correct home environment and diet for your finches but you much understand how and when they'll breed. For this you need to get to know your species.
No I can't cover every species in this article but I will give you the basics for the most commonly kept species. Hopefully your breeding experiences will be only pleasant ones. However when things do go wrong – check out my "Common Breeding Problems" article.
To start off, putting a pair of finches in a cage and giving them a nest probably won't result with a stellar breeding season. In fact I suggest you put a pair in a nice big cage, provide an enriching environment, diet, and then let the pair have a month or two to bond properly. Then you can add in a nest and start the breeding processes.
More information about housing can be found in my articles: "cage or aviary", " multi species cohabitation" & "fighting or co-exhisting".
It will also help if you are 100% positive that you indeed have a male and female in your cage. For some species this is pretty simple to determine at a glance. Species like Zebras, Gouldians, White Hooded Nuns, Green Singers, European Goldfinches, Cordons, African Red Headed Finches, Java Rice Finches and often Stars can be visually sexed.
Species like Society, Owls, Shatftails, Saffrons, Tri-Color Nuns, Bullfinches, Parrot Finches, Silverbills, Bronze Wing Mannikins and Orange Cheek Waxbills can not be visually sexed. For these species you need to wait and watch for the males to sing and for the females to lay eggs.
Other species such as Weavers, Whydahs and Strawberries can be visually sexed when they are in breeding condition. When in condition the male's colors will change and be vibrant, the females will often remain rather dull looking. When they aren't in breeding condition however the males will lose the colorations and look like the females.
For more info please check out "visually sexy finches'.
Not all pairs are a match made in heaven. Like people some finches simply do not like each other. Normally this has very little to do with personality but that can play a roll. In reality when a finch is looking for a mate it wants the best mate it can find. The mate needs to be healthy, fit, active, alert and in good physical condition and be able to provide for the family. Given that these are captive finches and they can not simply fly away to find another mate, nor can they leave the cage in search of a better nest site or food supply; you'd better be holding up your end of the deal. It's up to you to make the nest, cage, and food supply as good as possible so both finches feel that this mate has chosen a good place to start a family.
In addition to the home life being good it much also be safe from predators. I'm referring to you, the human. Yes you are often viewed as little more than a potential threat to your tiny finches. The less time to spend in and hovering over the cage the better, in fact if you can't see in to the nest it's even better. The pair will want some privacy and needs to feel secure if they are going to breed. Over time they will learn your routine and will tolerate you taking a few peaks now and then but until the first clutch of babies has grown and fledged I strongly suggest you stay out of their way.
Before putting a nest in the cage be sure your pair is going to be a harmonious couple. Look for signs that they are bonding well such as mutual preen, courtship (song and dance) rituals, tail fanning and sometimes cooing sounds. They should sit close to each other for comfort and shouldn't squabble over the food or water dishes. If they are chasing each other constantly, plucking and sometimes they'll even make a screeching sound and pounce after each other; it's time to split them up.
You can learn more about "pair bonding" and "pair fighting" in my articles.
Mating or mounting isn't always a sign of affection between a pair. If one jumps the other without permission it's a dominance display. Normally the male will mount the female very quickly but it is also possible for the female to take the dominant roll. If this occurs, wait. Give them time to sort things out, at least a few days providing they aren't fighting. If the female actually accepts him she'll lift her tail and invite him to mount her. I do have more info about "Finch Sex" in another article.
It is also very important that the two finches you put together are not related to one another. That will lead to a whole new mess called "inbreeding".
Choosing the correct nest can make all the difference in the world. Some species like society and zebras will often nest in just about anything. This includes the food bowl and sometimes even the corner of the cage. Nesting in anything except a proper nest isn't something you should encourage. I say that because make-shift nests that aren't secure like real nests tend to fall apart or the parents are too easily spooked off the nest frequently and the eggs and/or chicks rarely survive. If your pair starts building a nest in anything other than a nest I recommend you pitch the eggs as you find them. This will let the pair know that the location they have picked is not safe and they will eventually move to the real nest.
There are several types of nests available: Bamboo, Millet, Covered, Canary (bowl shaped) and Nest Boxes (wooden or plastic). Most finches such as zebras, society, nuns, cordons, spice and waxbills will prefer the covered nests made of bamboo or millet. Generally Gouldians and African Red Headed Finches like nest boxes but can and sometimes do breed in covered nests. Canaries, Goldfinches, Doves and Green Singers like the Canary style nests.
Many smaller and more timid species like the waxbills will also require that the nest be mostly hidden from your view. They need their privacy and I do not encourage you to even check the nest for eggs or chicks.
Good nesting materials you can provide would be burlap strands, grasses, tissue paper bits and clean paper pieces (no newspaper). Nesting materials that can be hazardous to your finches and their young are string, cotton, newspaper (the ink), dryer lint and pet hair.
For more information on nests, check out my article "nesting".
Feeding your finches the correct diet is essential to a good breeding season and to the overall heath of not only the parents but the chicks. A good seed mix is very important but only the base of the diet. The diet should also be supplemented with greens, egg food and sometimes even fruit.
African finches and some other exotics may also require either live foods such as maggots, fruit flies or meal worms. If handling live food isn't to your liking you can also try high in protein supplements such as Breeders Blend mixed with egg and/or bug meals which are basically a bag of dead bugs.
In addition to a balanced diet I give my finches Calcium Plus just before I put the nests in and up until the chicks are about a week old. I do this to help prevent egg binding, to ensure that the eggs laid have a solid shell and for the overall health of the chicks and females. My flock will get the supplement twice a week (not two days in a row – space them out) for up to six weeks when breeding.
If a female appears to have trouble laying eggs or is laying eggs with thin shells I will pull her and her mate from the flock and treat with the Calcium. Naturally that clutch of eggs will probably be lost but I'd rather maintain the health of my females over trying to save every egg. After being pulled from the flock I give her the Calcium Plus 3 days a week (not 3 days in a row) for 2 weeks. Then 2 days a week for 2 weeks, then once a week for 2 more weeks. If she's looking better she and her mate can be returned to the flock.
For even more information about diet please read "finch food".
Once fed and nesting well you should see eggs at some point. Don't be discouraged if you don't get eggs right away. Just because they have a nest, have mated and are using the nest it does not mean the female is ready to lay eggs. It takes time for her body to start the egg production process. Her hormones need time to switch in to breeding mode and this can sometimes take days, weeks even months. If she's less than nine months old you really shouldn't even try breeding her in the first place.
Once eggs do start to appear you should get one laid each day until the clutch is finished. The average clutch is 3-6 eggs. However 2-10 eggs is not all that unusual for many species. Incubation doesn't always start when the first egg is laid either. Many finches wait until the entire clutch has been laid before they really get down to the business of incubating the eggs. Incubation will continue day and night until the eggs hatch. Hatching times will vary according to species as well. Some hatch after 10 days of incubation, others hatch after 16 days. Generally if the incubation has gone on for more than 20 days it means the eggs aren't going to hatch.
Given the delicate nature of eggs and how much takes place inside the shell before the chick can come out it's amazing how many survive and do hatch. Eggs that aren't incubated properly either due to poor nest construction or to inexperienced parents wont survive. If the shell is too thin or cracked the embryo will die. If the egg is jostled around or jarred too much it the embryo will die. If the egg wasn't fertilized it will never develop in to a chick. You can lean more about eggs in my article the egg.
My best advice to you is to leave the eggs and nest alone. If you really need to know how many of your eggs are fertile and alive wait until after the first week of incubation then quickly candle the eggs and hope you have not spooked the parents in to abandoning the nest.
Need to know how to "candle the egg"? Read yet another article.
If all has gone well up until now you will have babies. Finches will and should be allowed to raise their own chicks. These are not like parrots; they do not need or want your help. In fact the less involved you are the better. Granted first time parents aren't good parents and sometimes the first clutch or even the second will die. Normally this is because the parents simply don't know how to feed the babies. As hard as it is to watch you really need to stay away and let nature take its' course. If you interfere the parents will never be able to learn from their mistakes and may never be able to raise a family in the future.
If a chick is tossed from the nest, put it back in. You can pick up the baby with your bare hands, it's really alright. It's a myth that touching a baby bird will cause the parents to abandon it because they can smell you on the baby. Finches, and most birds, have a poorly developed sense of smell. What bothers them is seeing you, a predatory animal, around the nest. Thankfully most of our pet finch species will go right back to caring for their chicks even after you have been around the nest. They see humans daily and aren't as spooked by humans as wild birds are.
If a chick is tossed repeatedly then you may need to get a little more involved and can try hand feeding it. A word of caution however - before you attempt to hand feed a finch read my article "hand feeding finches" first and have all the supplies you need on hand. I even have a booklet "Handfeeding & Raising Finches" which will go in to greater detail about hand feeding finches.
Do not pull a chick from a nest specifically to hand feed it because you want a tame finch pet. If you are inexperienced at hand feeding your chances of successfully raising that chick are very low.
Hopefully your finches will prove to be devoted parents right from the start. It can happen and is always wonderful to see. As the chicks grow they go through several stages of development. These stages are described and illustrated in my article "chick development". Once they have grown and fledged from the nest it is time to remove the nest from the cage so they can be weaned properly without the parents attempting to start another clutch too soon.