Finch Breeding in
Southern Tasmania


I was recently asked to put down a few words on the way that finch breeders 'go about their trade here in southern Tasmania. The commonest forms of reply to this statement are "Where?" or " Didn't know there were many finch breeders 'down there'." Well, yes, there are a few down here that manage to produce a few finches each year againstthe odds.

Before launching into any discussion of the way birds are kept here a mention of the state itself would seem in order. No, it is NOT a sub-Antarctic island nor do ice floes block the port of Hobart in the winter! It is situated at Latitude 42 degrees south and Longitude 147 degrees east and is roughly the size of Switzerland with a population of around 460,000.

Contrary to the general mainland belief Tasmania is NOT the wettest state. The average annual rainfall is a modest 624mm. This against Sydney's 1,220mm and Melbourne's 661mm. There is only one capital city drier than Hobart and that is Adelaide (555mm).
Also much of our prevailing weather is from west to east, which creates a rain shadow effect over much of the east coast. This makes the eastern areas of the state warmer and drier still. I imagine that these facts may come as a surprise to many people on the big island! In fact some of us in this rain shadow area have found it difficult to breed some species this year (2001) due to the absence of rain for 43 days during the breeding season.

Here is where that famous line about "If you don't like the weather come back in 30 minutes" is truly a way of life!! It is nothing to have 4 seasons in one morning. This does make it a trifle tricky to regulate the temperature inside your aviaries as one minute it is too hot, then it is too cold with the shutters open………you get the idea!! But we don't enjoy that variation in temperature that many mainland areas have - in winter it can be 8 degrees ALL DAY.

However, here is an attempt at dazzling you with the science of our weather. The daily minimum for the winter month of July is 4.5 degrees celsius. Melbourne is 5.8 degrees, Sydney 8.0 degrees and Canberra 0.0 degrees. Summer (January) temperatures soar to the daily maximum of 21.5 degrees - as against Melbourne's 25.8 degrees, Sydney's 25.8 degrees and Canberra's 28.5 degrees. This paints a pretty reasonable picture until you realise that you can often reach these high and low points IN THE SAME DAY!!!

There is yet another 'minor' factor that wrecks this some-what 'idyllic' temperature range and that is the influence of the Roaring Forties. Unfortunately Tasmania lies smack bang in the path of these winds. The nett result of this is the presence of southerly weather that sets in for days on end and you rarely see the thermometer hit double figures. This may happen at ANY time of the year. If you are now wondering about the collective sanity of people that attempt to keep finches in these conditions I'm afraid that I can't help you!! As a finch breeder AND a Geelong Cats supporter my own sanity
must surely be questioned - "There's always next season" has a nauseating double meaning for me!!!


Species -The majority of people that keep finches tend to have a few of the 'hardier' species mixed in with doves, canaries, Neophemas and cockatiels. Zebras, Bengalese mannikins, Longtails, Stars, Cutthroats, Gold and Greenfinches, and Cubans are all produced in fair numbers. Among the most popular finches are Double bars, Cordons, Fires(Ruddies), Diamond firetails, Red and Blue-faced parrotfinches and Orange-breasted waxbills but breeding successes are, generally, not too high. There are a small number breeding Plumheads, Emblemas, St. Helenas, Jacarinis, Red strawberries, Mexican and Red siskins and Green singers. Those keeping Red-faced pytilias, Twinspots, Pictorellas, Tanimbars, Blue-caps, Grenadier and Napoleon weavers, Gray singers and Himalayan greenfinches could be counted on one hand!! Due to the previously mentioned 'variability'
of our weather there is usually a heavy imbalance of cocks over hens - more so than I have found in other states.

An illustration of this variability is best illustrated by the weather pattern that occurred while I was at the Gunnedah bird sale this year. When I left on Thursday night the temperature was around 12-14 degrees but by Saturday it was down to 4 degrees - not ideal conditions for avoiding egg binding!! This sudden shift in temperature has obvious implications when your birds are breeding. It is very depressing talking to friends in NSW during May and June when they are listing the finches they are rearing while you are doing all in your power to prevent yours from breeding in case they become egg bound while you are at work.

For this reason our breeding season usually stretches from September to April - far shorter than in many 'bigisland' states. August is usually a 'danger month' due to the pattern of mild days with lengthening daylight that stimulates finches to breed. These mild days are often replaced by southerly weather that leaves many a hen egg bound despite the best preventative programs available. Again, as a consequence of these conditions, many breeders tend to 'hold onto' more of their stock than their mainland counterparts. Colder winters plus a lack of any 'purist' bird outlets makes replacing
stock difficult. Suffice it to say that Tasmanian bred birds are pretty tough and our weather tends to weed out the weaklings well before they are sold off.

Over the past 15 years the number of 'serious' finch breeders has declined markedly. Large numbers of Stars, Longtails, Jacarinis, Cubans and Painteds were often sent back to bird dealers on the 'bigisland' in the 'good old days'! However, the demand for these species now far outstrips their availability locally. Painteds here were once bred like Zebra finches but are now hard to find and the ones that are imported must be broken of their termite dependence once again. Demand for Double bars, Orange-breasts, Stars, Cordons, etc.etc. is also reasonably high. Given the state of our economy (or the weather!!!) many keepers are reluctant to spend over $100 for a pair of finches.
Most of the 'dearer' finches bred here tend to end up back over Bass Strait with NSW and Victorian bird shops or aviculturists. The reaction of some people to the cost of a pair of grenadier weavers over here is close to apoplexy!! "How could you spend THAT MUCH on a pair of birds!!" Lucky they don't ask about the Napoleon weavers!!!
These same people will spend many $$$ each year replacing the birds lost over winter (Curse
 those uninsulated tin aviaries!!!) while my original pair of Grennies has seen out 17 such winters - all is relative I guess.

As previously mentioned, the winter/spring attrition rate on hens is severe 'down here' and most keepers are constantly on the lookout for them as they start to revitalise their breeding programs. However, there are no bird dealerships here and very few finches are offered by the general pet shops. The majority of new stock must, by necessity, be obtained from the mainland. Here the buyer must rely on the honesty of the seller as it is difficult to get in the car and drive up to Sydney (or anywhere else!!) to check out the 'pedigree' of the birds before you purchase them!!! Personally, I have met many great breeders in this manner but I have also been sent my fair share of over-priced hybrids and rubbish from some unscrupulous people - but what goes round comes round!

Given the small number of finch keepers it is often difficult to maintain ones enthusiasm during our long winters. This is compounded by the lack of local sources to replenish your stocks before the breeding season. As a mere lad at the local bird society (ASST) I was able to 'ear bash' numerous finch people and this was great for gathering information as a rank novice. I still enjoy a chat with well-known breeder Don Coombes, but the majority of the society members are now hookbill keepers - but we are working on that!!

My now annual pilgrimage to Mecca (the Gunnedah bird sale!) has become a way of meeting other breeders and for gathering tips, advice and information on finches that I could not do in person here in Tasmania. To chat with John, Tony, Les, Alan. Kevin and Russell in a social environment is well worth the cost of the sojourn. I recently mentioned this isolation with a well-known parrot breeder and she concurred with my sentiments. By attending these type of events it is possible to learn a great deal about how to improve the lot of your birds. Whilst in Gunnedah I watched well-respected finch people buying a product called greens n' grains. In a state where every inch of roadside is crammed with seeding grasses of every imaginable variety I wondered why they would bother to buy the dried product. Summoning up my courage I asked why and was promptly told a number of tales of woes about seeding grasses and fungal diseases. My own results from using this product have been great too. This one product was worth the trip to NSW let alone the finch seed mix, seed hoppers and liquid breeding aids (viaggra for birds!!?!) I returned with! My suitcases always resemble a travelling
bird shop when I return from Gunnedah, Let's hope that the future sees many more 'finchaholics' set up camp down here in Tasmania.

The majority of finch keepers have a few species in small back yard aviaries. For some strange reason many persist in trying to keep their birds in metal 'lawn locker-type' aviaries which are invariably too hot in summer and freezing in winter. They may look good on Burkes Backyard in Sydney but they are not much chop here! I have used these in the past and found out that they are fine IF you insulate the walls and roof so that the birds cannot nest/roost directly against the tin. How did I find this out ? Like most honest finch keepers - the hard way!! As a mere youth I saved up and purchased 4 Diamond Sparrows and placed them in such a tin aviary. During summer one pair produced 12 young.
Winter arrived. The Diamonds constructed their 'football' nests in the tea-tree up against the tin walls of the aviary but I saw the thickness of their nests and thought "The cold can't worry them." Wrong!! One month later only 10 diamonds were counted. The other 6 were dead inside 3 nests. On inspection each nest was sopping wet with condensation and the birds dead of pneumonia. All such aviaries were lined out and no more problems - well, of that type anyway! Suffice it to say that many of the inhabitants of metal aviaries find our winters fairly terminal!

The majority of serious finch breeders have lined and insulated shelters, most are fully or partially roofed and several have the option of heating their shelters where their birds are locked in on cold nights. Possessing no building skills what-so-ever has not deterred me from constructing numerous aviaries from treated pine. Played about with metal ones but my friend threatened to shoot me if he had to run me to the surgery for any more stitches! My aviaries range in size from 1.2m wide X 4m deep flights up to a 10m X 5m aviary. All are fully roofed. There are sliding windows and shutters on
all aviaries to allow airflow - fairly critical on the odd 40 degree, windless day! (Yes, it can happen here too!) The larger aviaries have a 'C-shaped' metal channel running around the top and another 1 metre lower down into which sheets of corrugated plastic are slotted. This allows for the rapid opening of part, or all, of the aviary in hot weather.

The rooves of all aviaries are made of Aylsenite rather than poly-carbonate based materials. The polycarb sheets allow the aviary to become far too hot and, where I stupidly used these, it is
necessary to cover them with shade-cloth in the summer months. Have recorded a temperature of 54
degrees in one aviary on a very hot, still day and, needless to say, all chicks were well roasted along
with some of their parents. This is the dilemma here - whether you make your aviaries suitable for the
147 cold days or the 2 'sweltering' (well, by our standards!!) days. Some finch breeders have devoted a
great deal of thought and experimentation to the design of their aviaries - perhaps none more than the
Oliver brothers, Allan and Tony. They would rate as two of Tasmania's finest finch breeders and are constantly looking for ways to upgrade their aviaries. Firm believers in the benefits of nutritional supplements, their husbandry is second to none. At the time of writing they are in the process of converting some of their larger complexes into blocks of 10-12 flights in order to cater for the more demanding of the 'exotic finches'. Perhaps, at a future date, I could report back on the results from this 'experiment'.

This shift away from large aviaries, with a multitude of inhabitants, towards smaller (1m X 3m)
flight cages with 2 pairs of birds was NOT only brought on by the weather but rather by the lack of the
mighty termite. Even us hardened finch keepers shudder when 'that word' is mentioned. I have seen
friends in NSW put tens of thousands of these out in live food bowls for their finches. Down here we
cannot do this which means birds like Blue-caps, Pytilias, Twinspots and Pictorellas are very difficult
to breed. We are not even allowed to import the brown cricket, Achetus domesticus, for fear that they
will "go feral" - given our night temperatures we feel that this scenario is highly improbable!!!! The
most highly prized universal live feed - EXCEPT in Tasmania!!! Some are having limited success with
small mealworms and cultured maggots. Housing these 'termite addicted' species in smaller, less-crowded cages means that we have far greater control over their livefood needs but numbers of these birds here are precarious. Also the smaller, insulated aviaries do make it fairly easy for breeders to supply heat, should the need arise, during southerly winter blows.

Well, that probably gives you a fair picture of the way finches are kept and bred in southern
I have concentrated more on aviaries that have been constructed with our 'variable' climate in mind
and there is a heavy prejudice towards those with covered aviaries as these breeders appear to produce (and keep alive longer!!) more youngsters than those with conventional open aviaries - or the dreaded 'lawn-locker' type!! As more finch breeders adopt thorough coccidia and worming programs plus give added thought to the housing and nutritional needs of their birds, it is to be hoped that increasing numbers of finches will, once again, be bred here.

However, let us finish by jotting down a few salient points on finch breeding in southern Tasmania - plus a few 'benefits' of the local conditions!!

• Shorter breeding season - less early morning feeds and more time in bed.

• Fewer birds available, especially hens - less money spent on birds and better breeding
            results when males do see a female.

• Effects of cold southerly weather at any time of the year - less chance of
           developing 'avicultural complacency or smugness'.

• Phenomena of 'four seasons in one day' - stops the last point happening to your
            birds too and less flooding of market.

• Drier summers with little rainfall to stimulate breeding cycles - no need for expensive

 • Isolation from the mainstream avicultural community, especially in regards
             freighting across Bass Strait - WAIT A MINUTE!!!!!!!

…..! The more I write the more I begin to wonder why we have persevered here for
so long!!! Wonder too whether anybody has funding for a thesis on "The incidence of Avian
Depression Among Tasmanian Finch Keepers - A Roaring Forties Phenomena." - we have plenty
of material?!! Still, as the days begin to lengthen; the siskins begin to sing and the weavers assume
their nuptial plumage; I guess there is always 'this season' - even if it is a relatively short one. As
the first chicks emerge into the Tasmanian sunshine the winter blues are forgotten for a while and
we look forward to cheating the weather - never a dull moment here! Now, if we can only get those
Cats over the line - next season!!!!
                                                          Good Luck!!!

Written by Marcus Pollard - Copyright remains with the author.