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Choosing a Zebra Finch

By: Virginia Wells

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Zebra finches (Poephila guttata) have become one of the most popular caged birds behind their competitors, budgies and canaries. They are pretty, colorful and fun and make delightful pets. Zebras are small birds native to the Australian grasslands, and though usually not more than 4 inches long, they can fill a room with their beautiful soft chirping. They sing as the sun rises and many people find their song soothing and pleasant in contrast to the loud screeching sounds of other birds.

The normal zebra has a gray back and bright orange cheek patches, beak and legs. Black teardrops fall along the edge of the cheek patch, and a strip of white accentuates the bright beak. His chest has a small black band, and then is white or cream. Brown and white spots run just beneath the folded wings, giving him a wild look. Females lack cheek patches.

Although zebra finches are social, they are only social with other birds. They are shy around people and do not like to be petted or held. The males are pugnacious toward other birds when breeding. In the wild they travel in flocks in the open grassland, so in keeping with this social nature, they should be kept in pairs and do even better in large groups. Since they mate for life, there should be an equal number of males and females.

Pet stores usually carry the common colored birds and for the rare colors you might have to find a breeder. Make sure you are getting a healthy bird. Observe them for a few minutes. Don't pick an inactive bird, one that sits in the corner, or looks puffy or injured. Choose one that looks healthy, active and alert.

Mutations

There are more than 30 mutations of this common bird, which come in two varieties: the light mutations and the dark. Some can be combined with others to create some beautiful color combinations. The most basic mutation is the pied bird. A pied zebra looks almost normal, but he has patches of white all over his body. Although the belly remains white, the white tends to show up where it normally wouldn't, like the back and the chest.

Another mutation is the black cheek. They, too, look normal with the exception of black cheek patches instead of orange. The black breast finch has a large breast bar and cheek patches which are three times normal and extend to the back of the head. Black faced zebras have a black face, most of the breast and underparts are black, and red chestnut flanking that shows few, if any, white dots. Orange breasted zebras ideally show orange where the black breast shows black.

Housing

Zebra finches can be kept in cages or aviaries. Since they are hardy, they may be kept indoors or outdoors, although you should take care to keep them out of the rain. They usually feel comfortable in temperatures between 41 degrees and 86 degrees Fahrenheit. If you have only one or two pairs, you might want to keep them in a cage indoors. But be aware that they tend to be messy. If you would rather keep your birds outdoors, you will probably need an aviary.

Finches are very active and enjoy flying around, so whether you choose a cage or an aviary, try to make it as big as possible. The minimum size should be 24 inches by 16 inches by 16 inches, although they would enjoy even more room, and the cage should be short and wide rather than tall and thin.

Feeding

The zebra finch's primary food is seed and they do well on commercial finch food, which is a standard mix of seeds and nuts. However, they prefer a more varied diet. They enjoy sprouted millet, small mealworms, insects and fresh food like spinach, grated carrots and cucumbers, apples and bananas. One good way of providing fresh greens is by using sprouted seeds. You should also provide a cuttlebone or mineral equivalent to keep their bones healthy and their beaks sharp. A whole hard-boiled egg completely cooled is a special treat and will feed six to eight birds.

Daily changes of fresh water are essential, or ideally you can use a drink tube. The birds will quickly learn to peck at the round ball at the end of the tube to get fresh, clean water.

Grooming

Zebra finches enjoy bathing and love to splash and play in water and will bathe up to three times a day. You can place a small open dish of water in the bottom of their cage to maintain their feathers and skin in prime condition.

Care

Zebra finches are diurnal, which means they are active in the daytime. They wake with the sun. In fact, they love the sun. You can offer them at least 8 hours of exposure to the sun to provide them with essential vitamin D. In warm weather you can put the entire cage in the sunlight.

Zebras are naturally curious and enjoy playing with toys. They love free-hanging mirrors and chirp at their own images. They also like to swing on swings – be sure to provide one swing per pair.

Breeding

Zebra finches are easy to breed. You can provide a standard, fully enclosed wicker nest for each pair. As a rule, zebras are aggressive nest builders and wicker baskets work well as nesting sites. Caged zebras will use artificial nesting material designed to approximate nesting materials found in nature. You can also place grasses and feathers on the bottom of the cage. When the nesting process begins, the male gathers material to carry back to the nesting site. Incidentally, caged finches will not breed unless the nest is fully enclosed.

Some males compete with each other to build the best nest for their mates. Sometimes squabbles occur, but they are usually harmless. Males love to court their females, and will bring brightly colored objects to serve as gifts of love like plastic neon-colored paper clips. Try placing a few on the cage and watch as the male removes them and presents them to his female, who then places them inside the nest.

Females lay between four and six eggs, one each day. After a couple of eggs are laid, the pair will begin sitting on them. The brooding and incubation take approximately 11 to 14 days or more.

Common Diseases and Disorders

Finches are relatively healthy birds but are susceptible to the following:

  • Bacterial infections, viral and fungal disease
  • Egg binding
  • Salmonella
  • Respiratory diseases – aspergillosis
  • Calcium deficiency disorder

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