The Timor Zebra Finch
No Recipes for Instant Success
by Chris Blackwell
In this article, I hope to outline some of the essential disciplines of keeping, breeding and exhibiting Zebras. In common with other hobbies, which involve keeping livestock, success in the Zebra Finch fancy depends upon mastering many different skills. These skills cannot be learned overnight, and most can only be achieved by first hand experience of keeping your own Zebras. It is therefore very important that beginners realize they must allow themselves adequate time to acquire this essential knowledge and do not expect immediately, instant success.
Fanciers must learn to reliably assess the potential of breeding stock and need to recognize both desirable and undesirable features in order to reduce the chance of breeding seriously faulted birds and increase the probability of producing those elusive exhibition winners. While some experienced fanciers may be able to accurately assess individual birds after only a few moments observation, this skill is normally only developed after years of practice. Most of us need to have observed countless different specimens from different studs, in order to recognize the merits of individual birds. The observant fancier will eventually be able to recognize a large number of Zebra Finches as individuals. As a cautionary note, it should be remembered that the price of a bird is not a reliable indicator as to its quality.
It is also necessary for breeders to develop general management techniques which suit both the bird keeper and the birds kept, so that it is possible to maintain a stud of fit healthy birds in hygienic conditions without spending every spare moment caring for your birds. Fortunately, Zebra finches tend to thrive on a fairly simple basic diet of fresh water, mixed millet and small canary seed, mineralized grit and cuttlefish bone. It is usual to provide some form of rearing food during the breeding season and most breeders supplement basic diets by providing small amounts of this food once or twice a week throughout the year. However, it is possible to purchase a whole range of additives and supplements, which often make fantastic claims of the benefits they offer your birds. It is probably true to say that very little is known about the exact dietary needs of small seed-eating birds such as Zebras. Personally I feel the basic components are the most important part of the diet and supplements should only be provided to compensate for known dietary deficiencies. Whatever feeding and management regimes you employ remember that these should not be so time consuming that they leave no time to simply enjoy observing your birds.
The breeding season poses particular problems with regard to bird management. While we all want to make sure nothing has gone wrong, and birds are sitting eggs and feeding youngsters, the more we interfere with our birds, the less likely they are to successfully rear fit, healthy youngsters. If it is the aim to breed exhibition stud, then it is necessary to know the parentage of every bird produced and for this reason it is almost obligatory to house breeding pairs in individual cages. Although it may be possible to breed birds of known color pedigree by housing small groups of birds in flights, the challenge of producing birds to an exhibition standard demands that breeders know rather more about the birds they produce than their color pedigree. It is very important to record all your breeding results as soon as you start in the fancy. Stock is usually identified by numbered rings (leg bands) and therefore it is possible to record the exact parentage of every bird produced. Additional notes can also be made about particular preferences individual birds have shown during the breeding season, and any changes that have been successfully made to encourage them to breed. Such notes can be very useful in future seasons.
On occasion it may be necessary to develop some additional techniques in order to produce youngsters from particularly important stock birds which prove to be reluctant breeders. While some breeders may extol the virtues of only using stock reared by their natural parents, the practice of fostering eggs and youngsters to pairs which have proved themselves to be reliable breeders, has produced countless exhibition winners over the years. It may be argued that these birds will be just as unreliable breeders as their natural parents, but this often proves not to be the case. There can be a great many different reasons why any given pair will not breed in a particular birdroom or during any particular breeding season. The first priority for anyone hoping to establish a top quality stud is to produce at least some youngsters from the best stock birds available.
Having acquired stock, kept your birds fit and healthy and managed to produce a crop of youngsters of your own breeding, it is then necessary to accurately assess the exhibition and stock potential of the birds produced. Only rarely is it possible to prepare all the birds at your disposal for exhibition, therefore it is necessary to concentrate on those most likely to be successful. This essentially means being very familiar with exhibition, type (shape), and color standards and correctly interpreting written and/or pictorial standards, so that real living individual birds can be properly appraised. If at all possible, it is usually a great help to be able to call on guidance from an experienced fancier when first starting in the bird keeping fancy. Obviously you must be able to trust the person giving the advice and novices should be very wary of champions who offer to take all their surplus rubbish off their hands. It is not unknown for unscrupulous individuals to take a few top lines in amongst the surplus birds. The best thing to do is listen carefully to the advice offered, try to recognize the particular features identified by experienced fanciers, and then make your own decision, based on the initial advice offered, at a later date. Hopefully all of your birds will be individually rung with numbered rings so identifying particular individuals at a later date should be perfectly possible.
Once an exhibition team has been selected, it is essential that these birds are in the best possible physical condition when exhibited. Often when Zebra Finches are kept in groups they indulge in feather plucking and this means show birds need to be individually cages for about six weeks before their first show so that they can fully re-grow their plumage. However, keeping individual Zebra Finches in isolation for too long a period can be detrimental to their general feather condition and apparent vigor. In addition to providing frequent baths, exhibition birds benefit from being sprayed once or twice a week with luke warm water, in order to show their plumage to their best advantage. Many fanciers employ the use of various additives to the water with which they spray their birds. Personally I have used glycerin, added in the ratio of one drop to 575 mls (1 pint) and bay rum added in a ratio of 5 mls to 575 mls. The most beneficial part of the procedure is however the water and the extra preening that spraying induce.
Not only is it important to bench birds as near feather perfect as possible, it is also necessary to allow your birds to become accustomed to the layout and dimensions of the show cage to be used for exhibiting the birds. Permitting birds to experience the dimensions and layout of the show cage allows them to become more confident and increases the chances of them performing well in front of a judge. They should also be familiar with the experience of being moved from one location to another while in the show cage, as the judging procedures employed at most shows employ a great deal of fetching and carrying of show cages.
No matter what the ultimate goal of individual fanciers may be, it is important to remember that hobbies are supposed to be enjoyable. The enjoyment derived from your hobby can often be greatly increased by becoming a member of a specialist club. This allows contacts to be made among fellow fanciers and provides the opportunity to discuss many aspects relating to your chosen hobby. I hope the Zebra Finch Society - USA will have a long and successful future and introduce many new fanciers to the world of the Zebra Finch. Certainly the Zebra Finch is a unique little bird, at times infuriating, but always full of energy and a serious challenge to the most capable of bird keepers.
P.O. Box 23932
San Jose, CA 95123
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