SICK FINCHES – A Mug’s Guide of What to Do?
By Marcus Pollard

Odd title for an article you might think as I have met many finch keepers whose birds "never get sick" – well, I wish I knew their secret for it is an on-going problem with my own flock and that of all my "honest" friends!
Still we’ve looked at a number of profiles of healthy ones so why not some self-help for the less than happy ones!

I remember discussing this very same topic with the late John Alers from Western Australia back in 2004 and his comment has always stayed in my mind and that was "Son, wherever you have live birds you will also have dead birds, so get used to it"!

Never truer words were spoken but we can, with a little common sense, hopefully reduce the losses within our flocks through our own actions and a little common sense to boot!!!

Now the first port of call should always be our trusty avian veterinarian but there are times through a multitude of circumstances where an aviculturist must take certain steps in order to "prolong/save a life"before it is too late. Also, given the finch’s high metabolic rate and subsequent rapid shift from dopey-looking to dead then speedy intervention is very often an imperative. So let’s have a look at what we can do to keep the finch ticking over until we can get it to our vet of choice!

Now, many years ago I submitted an article to ABK on Basic Finch Maintenance and this has proven to be one of the most questioned articles that I have ever completed. From claims it is the greatest load of "fiction" since War and Peace to a basis for many fincho’s quarantine schedules! With breeders from other states it has been possible to streamline it for local conditions and has, if my sources are to be believed, been responsible for many rethinking the entire disease/quarantine question.

Not wishing to waste the readers valuable time here suffice it for me to say that I would still prefer newly acquired finches to undergo some quarantine period than simply introduce them willy-nilly into the aviary system. Put somewhat brutally I’d far rather a finch expire in my quarantine cages than in my aviary where it might have the opportunity to pass its disease on to every single bird in my collection.

How To Pick An Ill Finch:
The closer you are to the finch the harder it is!!
Birds are particularly good at masking the fact that they are ill for starters. Maybe it’s that "survival of the fittest" thing whereby bluff is better than the alternative or maybe it is that while the bird has an inner will to survive it will do anything to maintain that illusion of health and vitality.

Trust me once you are 100% sure that the finch is sick you’d better believe it is near the end of the road – literally!

So what better than that ‘cheery’ note to start a discussion of what to look for!

Perhaps the how to watch for signs might even be a more beneficial start-point!

You will pick an ill bird far easier when it doesn’t know you are there and looking at it! Now I know most of us cannot afford one-way glass in all our aviaries but peep-holes and a small isolated access room can make this job easier. Spot the finch that is fluffed up, often sitting by itself either on the perch or (worse!!) on the ground and you are half-way there. If it happens to be sitting on both legs then hurry!!!
Record the ring colour, grab the net and warm up your hospital cage or plug in the red heat lamp!

So the fluffy looking bird is one of our first warning signs as the bird is vainly trying to increase its body temperature by fluffing up and trapping as much body heat/warm air as possible in the feathers in order to heat itself up. Making its own hospital cage if you wish to stretch a point!!
If the bird is fluffed up and has its head under its wing while it shivers then maybe the net will not be needed!

Another good indicator is the dirty vent where the area around the vent is stained (usually a white or yellow) with faeces adhering to the vent feathers. Usually the bird in this state will constantly pick at the vent and often jerk its body up and down as if straining to pass the faeces – which is often the case due to the severe matting of the vent feathers.
In order to minimize the chances of the finch ingesting further amounts of their own faeces it is often possible to trim the vent area with very fine scissors and gently wipe it down thus removing the sticky mass.
A smear of this material under the microscope might give us or your vet a clue as to whether this is a fungal problem or not.

If the discolouration is reddish-brown or blackish then you can be pretty sure there is blood in the droppings which suggests Coccidia might be the problem. If you also live in a warmer, wet and humid part of Australia then Coccidia would be top of my suspects list!! Unfortunately if the droppings are this colour then it may be too late for the individual but prompt treatment will save a goody proportion of your flock than simply ignoring it!

Again your avian vet will be able to identify Coccidian oocysts (eggs) and confirm your ‘bush diagnoses!

If there is no staining of the vent and only mild fluffing then the next ‘port of call’ is to check the keel bone.
The keel bone is an extension of the sternum and there are a number of muscles that attach to it including those responsible for flight.

If ‘sharp’ and prominent then you can be pretty certain that there is a major problem as these muscles waste away in rapid time when the bird is ill.

Droopy wings and an inability to fly for any distance coupled with this sharp keel bone and you know something is seriously wrong.

So far we have some dangers signs to watch out for but let’s diverge for a second and include in our discussion a far more obvious sign of malady – that of the egg bound hen.

Now she may have all of the above symptoms or even show none of them but by simply handling her and blowing on the vent feathers you should be immediately aware of the trouble – having something the size of a bowling ball imbedded in your vent is a rather tell-tale symptom!

Chances are that the hen may not even be unwell (OK, OK apart from the large stuck object of course!) and that her condition may well be a result of changes to atmospheric conditions or even having being chased out of the nest during the night. From what I can gather recently some of our Northern Queensland brethren have had real troubles with Gecko’s doing just this recently.

Of course everyone is now saying that the solution to this dilemma is fairly simple in that heat is required and that it possibly bear little resemblance to the truly "sick" finch.

Oh contraire I say as your prime concern in all cases should be exactly the same – check the crop!!

OK, OK……..I hear you say that can understand why you’d do it for an obviously ill bird that is unable to make it to the feed station but why on earth would you do that for an egg-bound bird?
Basically because if you have no idea how long that bird has been egg-bound then it may have been so for a considerable time and been unable to feed – let’s face it most egg-bound birds are found fluffed up on the floor!! Ask around and find out who has had birds die in the hospital cage AFTER passing their egg. Chances are you’ll find that there are quite a few and, again like me learning the hard way, you will also notice that their crop is invariably empty.
With such a high metabolic rate and no stomach then the finch needs plenty of sustenance to simply survive let alone to pass said bowling ball and recover afterwards!!!
Mind you check your species as some finches like the Chaffinch do not have a crop which can present an obvious problem! Do remember my first attempt at hand rearing deserted Chaffies when I diligently pushed the crop needle in and squeezed until it literally came out the other end the same colour as it was going in!! Didn’t actually mange to kill them but let’s just say they didn’t require feeding for quite a while and lesson learned!!!
Know your species!!

How To Start Treatments:
Again I reiterate that your avian vet is your preferred port of call but in order to get the patient to the vet hopefully I can give you a few tips.

Now in this day of ‘special this’ and new-improved that’ for every imaginable aviary malady and problem it may seem ‘old-fashioned’ of me to present to you something dealing with the use of the ancient gavage needle – or to those in the know the humble crop needle.

Sure there are drugs for this and applications for that but there will come a time when every aviculturist will benefit from the ability to ‘manipulate’ this" good old crop needle"!
Now most parrot keepers are past masters of the needle as it is an integral tool in the hand-rearing arsenal and with extremely good reason.
Whether for rearing chicks or accurately worming an individual parrot most serious parrot breeders need to be familiar with such precision tools.

I must admit I learned my trade by sneaking up to my parent’s place on Sunday afternoons while they were out driving and practising on some of their aging Cockatiels!! Will freely admit that I had a few nervous days after my first attempts but no birds were harmed in any way and they were possibly this state’s most worm free colony of parrots!!|
From that day on I have become like "have crop needle, will travel" and have wormed parrot colonies far and wide!!

However, there appears a real reticence among many finch keepers to try this particular form of "witchcraft and sorcery" for whatever reason!

So then, first and most importantly is to invest in a decent finch-sized crop needle which can be obtained from all decent aviary supply outlets or you can even make one yourself – whether it is for egg-binding or any other form of sickness you will not go wrong!
I have a number of commercial needles and still prefer one that I made myself from an old type spinal needle (stainless steel) with a small piece of silastic stretched over its length to avoid any sharp projections.

With your crop needle I would recommend a good quality leur-lock syringe (the one with a screw thread on the end as distinct from the syringe where you simple push the needle on) and you are just about ready for any finch-type emergency or trip to the vet.

We mix a glucose/sugar solution (eg Passwells First Aid) with a parrot hand-rearing mix like Roudy Bush - basically because it can be mixed to a creamy consistency suitable for a finch sized crop needle – and warm it to around blood temperature and place a quantity directly into the crop and leave the bird in the hospital cage and cross your fingers!
Remember that the air-sacs in a bird are massive and that only a tiny amount of the mixture is required to fill a finch-sized crop – crop needle over the back of the tongue and you should be OK as the airway is located under the tongue if I remember my basic avian anatomy.

There are many complications that are commonly associated with egg binding and many of these are fatal but ensuring that your finch has a full crop is one way of giving her the energy to complete the job. However, on a more positive note, since adopting this strategy we have not lost a hen to ‘normal’ egg binding of this sort so just remember to check that crop!
Also these ‘directions’ can also be used following the trip to the vets if any sort of medication must be given to the patient. For example if antibiotics are to be administered then mix up your glucose/hand-rearer and add to it the required amount of medication and it is delivered directly to where you need it to go.
A friend from England once told me that he had ‘tasted’ some antibiotics and that they burned when swallowed (hey, who am I to argue with such a dedicated gent!!) so the crop needle is possibly the kindest route of entry!
Skill with the crop needle is also an easy way of worming new birds, or those that you suspect might have a problem, with your wormer of choice.

Often with a sick finch - whether just a case of the chills through to far worse conditions - once they stop feeding death is very rapid. With the use of a crop needle you can often get them past this period until they are ‘back on their feet’ and feeding themselves. For some unknown reason I have found that 3 days appears to be a time period for a finch to decide if life is worth living or not and have seen this in several finch species.

Hopefully there is something in this for the avid finchohalic and if nothing else it gives you a few tips for you to get your finches to the vet for a more detailed analysis. A good hospital cage and a quality temperature control system and your finches will truly thank you in the long run!