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Zebra Finch Breeding

Basic Breeding 

Zebra finches are a joy to watch as they prepare their nest and raise their young.  The mating dance and song of the male is fun to watch and is a good indication that they are happy and ready to breed.  The male ‘sings’ and bounces on the perch to attract the hen.  He will soon try to jump on top of the hen.  If she is willing, they will mate.  This only takes a few seconds.  He will try this repeatedly.

There are many considerations when attempting to breed Zebra finches.  Zebra finches breed freely in captivity, sometimes even under strange conditions, but we should try to provide them a healthy and happy environment.

Zebras mature quickly and can start to mate at 11-12 weeks.  For healthier strong birds it is recommended that they be 6-9 months before allowing the to mate.

The placement of the cage or cages should be in an area that does not have a lot of people/pet traffic.  The cages should not be moved once the nesting process has started.

The cage should be large enough to make the birds feel comfortable.  Remember, larger is usually better.  A cage about 16x16x20 would be fine.  When the chicks fledge, there could be up to ten birds in the cage!  If you use a nest box/basket that is inside or outside the cage makes a difference on the size of the cage.  A nest inside the cage takes up room that could otherwise be occupied by a bird.

Place only one pair of birds in one cage.  They will fight when more that one pair is in a cage.  If you use a ‘flight cage’ then multiple pairs can be housed together.  A breeding flight with many birds needs to be large.  At least 3 feet wide, 4 feet high, and 6 feet long.  The bigger it is the more birds it can support.  Provide more nest boxes than there are pairs so they can have a choice.

Zebras prefer a nest that is enclosed with only a hole for an opening.  Wicker baskets can be purchased at most pet stores.  These work fine but are hard to clean between clutches.  I use nest boxes which hang on the outside of the cages.  The type you use will also depend on your budget and how many birds you have set up for breeding.

Place the nest high in the cage.  Birds feel safer when higher.  Sometimes the birds will not like the nest that you have given them.  After they have had the nest for 2-3 months and still do not like it, replace it with a different kind.  Sometimes this will be to their liking.  Sometimes just moving the nest will help.

Nesting material should be clean and safe.  A variety of materials can be used singly or together.  Dried grass works well.  Be sure that the grass has not be treated or fertilized.  Pet stores sell little boxes of cotton that the birds like. Be careful of strings.  Strings are dangerous. Birds love to play with them.  There is a possibility that the string could get tangled around a birds leg or neck and get caught on the cage, thus injuring the bird.  Simply be sure the strings are two inches of shorter.  Shredded clean burlap works great for nesting material.  I cut the burlap into two inch squares and shred it.

Diet is very important for your breeding birds.  They need to be in good shape to do all the work of raising youngsters.  The same good seed diet that you normally feed should continue.  The hen has to develop the eggs so she must not be calcium deficient.  Cuttle bone, crushed oyster shell, and mineralized grit all will help.  Both mom and dad help feed the chicks.  They eat and then regurgitate into the chicks mouths.

Light is a very import part of keeping birds.  They need sun light!  If there is not a window in your bird room you need to provide ‘full spectrum’ lighting, lots of it.  In the breeding season they need light 14-16 hours a day.

When all is to their liking, they will start.  The male will build the nest.  He will pick up a piece of string or grass and hold it in his beak and show it to the hen.  It looks like he is playing.  He will weave the material in the nest box into a concave comfortable nest.  He may also pick up feathers flying in the cage to line the nest to make it soft. 

The hen will lay about one egg a day, for 3 to 8 eggs.  They will start sitting on the eggs when she is done laying eggs.  Both mom and dad help with the incubation but mom does most of it.  The eggs should start hatching about 14 days after they start sitting.  If after 20 days nothing hatches, remove the eggs for they apparently are not fertile.  She will start laying again soon.  You do not need to empty the nesting material, just the eggs.

When you remove the chicks the parents will start on their next clutch.  In fact they may start even before you remove the chicks.  If they continue this immediate succession, you will need to separate them to give them a break to build up their strength.  I usually recommend only 3-4 clutches in a row.  It depends on how many chicks in each clutch and how short of time they leave in between clutches.

If you have a nest of eggs that do not hatch, leave them in the nest for about 20 days after the last egg is laid.  At this time you can safely assume that they are not going to hatch.  Remove the eggs.  If you wait too long she may lay many eggs in the nest.  Sometimes she will continue until no more eggs fit.

If you have many pairs of birds you will need to band the chicks so that you can tell who is who.  You can keep track of pairing unrelated birds when you have identification leg bands on the birds.  You can use closed bands or split bands.  Closed bands need to be put on the chicks at about 8 days of age.  They are permanently on the bird.  Split bands are plastic bands that are not a solid ring but have a split so they can be spread apart and put on any age of bird.  Bands come in different colors and some have numbers.

Chicks do not hatch with the trademark orange beaks and legs.  Most have black beaks and legs.  Some of the lighter color varieties have beaks 'horn' colored or a color similar to our fingernails.  These colors change to adult colors at about 5-6 weeks of age.

Chick Development Schedule
   incubation is 14 days
   8 days old put on closed band
   21 days old they fledge (leave the nest)
   4 weeks old they start to eat on their own
   5-6 weeks old the adult colors will start to develop, along with the beak color changing to orange.
   5-6 weeks old move the chicks to their own cage.  They will disrupt the next clutch process and the parents may start to pluck their feathers.

Zebra finches live to be 4-8 years of age.  I have heard of birds living to 10 and 12 years old, but I think this is rare.

Nestbox (see picture)
Cages (see pictures)
Eggs Hatching (see pictures)

Banding (see diagram)

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