With this article, I hope to provide you information about what the first year of life would be like for your Gouldian Finches. By understanding the life cycle for the first year, you will see the cycle of seasons as they should change throughout the year. Once you understand the sequence of events, through the manipulation of diet, lighting and temperatures, you can have your Gouldians breeding, resting and molting at the time of year that most suits your life style. But first you need to understand the correct sequence of events, the diet and environment that are needed during each phase.
December 25th – “Wow…I think that something is happening in here! I am beginning to hear some noises outside of my shell. I wonder who is out there?...HELLO? There also seems to be a bit more air space developing inside this tiny case that I have been living in. I wonder what it would be like to stick my head in that air pocket and see how that feels.” POP! “Whoa! This is really strange! Breathe in, breathe out! This is really, really strange but feels rather good!...Now I’m energized…I think that it is time to see what it is like outside of this shell and find out who is making that chirping noise…CHIRP, CHIRP.”
“Peck…Peck…WOW…I didn’t even know that I had this little pick on the end of my beak! This is really handy! Peck…Peck….Peck! Oh my! Oh my! What have I gotten myself into! There is something really soft out here. I wonder what this could be? Mom? Dad? Wait! Wait! What are you doing…Where are we going? I don’t think that I want to GGGOOOOO? No stop! Oh my, I seem to be flying…” PLOP! OUCH! That hurt!
“Oh it is very COLD out here? I want to go back into my shell! Mom? Dad? Why am I out here? I am not a happy camper here! Mom? Dad? Please come get me!!!”
So what just happened? Your tiny Gouldian chick has just emerged from his protective shell. Prior to hatching, the chicks begin to peep from within the eggs, so they are in contact with each other, as well as with their parents. As the carbon dioxide level in the chick’s blood begins to raise it will turn its head toward the increasing air cell at the blunt end of the egg. By this time the air cell will be approximately 30% of the internal volume of the egg. As the carbon dioxide continues to increase the chick will penetrate the inner shell membrane where it forms the inner wall of the air pocket. After this membrane is penetrated, the lungs will begin to function as the chick breathes the air from the air cell, while it is still inside of the egg wall. This is called ‘internal pipping’.
Once through this inner membrane and breathing with its lungs, the chick will begin penetration of the outer air cell membrane and then the egg shell using its ‘egg tooth’. The egg tooth is a point on the top of the upper mandible made of calcium carbonate that will disappear several weeks after hatching. The chick is assisted in hammering the egg shell by an enlarged muscle on the back of its neck called the ‘complexus or pipping muscle’. Like the egg tooth, this muscle will decrease in strength but continue to function as part of the neck muscular system as the chick matures.
Unfortunately for this chick, he was born to parents that were either too young, too insecure in their environment, or not being feed a diet which they deemed nutritious enough to raise a clutch of chicks on and he was immediately carried from his nest and deposited on the floor of his very cold cage, along with his little sister.
Luckily for them, I came into the aviary soon after the pitching and quickly warmed them up in my hand as I prepared an incubator for them. Since they were born on Christmas Day, I named them Kris and Noelle.
If you look closely you can see 2 dark spots on the top of the head of the chick on the right where it was picked up and removed from the nest by a parent. These chicks are 3 days old.
The development of chicks that are being hand fed is somewhat slower than that of chicks being raised by their parents. But it is still a very rapid development as you will soon see. I choose to use Kris and Noelle for this story so that I could show you how they developed in front of my camera lens.
When you see Kris and Noelle’s crop ( the food storage organ in all birds that expands on both sides of their neck, just like a balloon) in the following photos, it will always appear pale beige, because that is the color of the hand-feeding formula. However a chick being parent raised would be fed a variety of foods…seed, a soft-food, greens and even vegetables, whatever the parent birds are eating. The parent birds will eat the food, and then regurgitate it into the waiting chick’s beak. The skin covering the crop of baby finches is translucent, so you can clearly see whatever food is being stored there while awaiting movement down and through the rest of the digestive tract. Yes, even adult birds have a crop where their food is stored, but once they are feathered, it is not visible unless you look beneath the feathers.
January 4th - At 9 days of age you can see that Kris is beginning to open his eye and Noelle has started to sprout her tiny wing feathers. The 3 florescent nodules on both sides of a Gouldian chick’s beak, shine as bright beacons for their parents returning with food in the confines of the dark nesting cavity. The swollen crop pouch on both sides of their neck is where the food is stored until it is absorbed into the rest of their digestive tract.
Kris seems to be telling Noelle “It is so good to be safe and warm again.”
January 8th – Just 4 days later you can see how quickly the wing feathers are growing and now there are signs of the tiny pin feathers along the spine. They are always ready to be fed whenever I remove the cover of the incubator. At this age I was feeding them approximately every hour. They were eating about 1 milliliter of formula at each meal.
The next photo, also taken on January 8th, shows the inner mouth markings of all Gouldian chicks. All finch species have distinctly different mouth marking. If you have not yet visited Roy Beckham’s gallery of mouth markings of various Estrildid Finches, I think that you will find it very interesting.
You can also see their ear openings as well as the color of their florescent nodules. In Normal and Yellow-back Gouldian chicks, the 2 center nodules are yellow, while the 4 outer nodules are always blue. In a Blue-back mutation Gouldian the 2 inner nodules are always white. I was also surprised to find out that this is also true for split to Blue-back Gouldian chicks in the first few days of life. As split to Blue-back chicks mature, their center nodule will also turn yellow.
January 9th – Today Kris and Noelle were joined by another chick thrown from another nest. The following day there were 3 tiny babies that shared the warmth of their incubator, but unfortunately one died the following day from the injuries inflected by the parents. This photo shows you the tremendous growth rate in the chicks in just 15 days.
January 11th – It is becoming more evident, as their feathers grow in, that Kris and Noelle are going to be different color chicks, although I knew that both would be white breasted since both parents were white breasted, I was not sure what the color difference I was seeing would turn out to be once they were adults, I had never before watched the development in Yellow-back chicks this closely. Throughout the breeding season I do not do nest checks on my birds, as I find that it can be very disturbing to the parents.
January 17th – By now it was clear that both Kris and Noelle would both be Yellow-back Gouldians and I knew that they could only have white breasts because both of their parents had white breasts, so I figured that the difference in feather color at this young age was an indication of different head colors. But it would be another 4 months before I knew for sure.
January 25th – This stoic pose is Kris, now fully feathered and living in a small cage with both Noelle and their two younger friends so that I could provide perches that would enable them to strengthen their legs and feet. I had been worried about weaning them, but I found that when the time was right, Kris and Noelle simply started eating the seed, spray millet and Miracle Meal that I provided in their cage, and refused to eat the formula that was still being eagerly consumed by the younger chicks.
February 14th – I received the surprise of my life today! By this time Kris and Noelle were completely weaned and had been eating on their own for 3 weeks. But the 2 younger chicks, that I had named Mutt and Jeff, because they were almost identical looking, were still eagerly eating the formula that was offered every 2 hours. At the 6PM feeding today the younger chicks had not wanted any formula and I got worried that something was wrong with them because at the 4PM feeding they both took the usual 2 milliliters of formula. Not eating is not a good thing for chicks this young. Their cage was still in my office, so I could watch them while I worked. 30 minutes after the 6PM feeding I could hear Mutt and Jeff begging again for food, but as I worked at my computer I politely told them that they would have to wait a little while since they were not at all hungry 30 minutes earlier.
With my back to them, I could still hear their begging, but held firm to my insistence that they wait. Finally I turned around to see Kris and Noelle eating their Miracle Meal and then feeding the begging Mutt and Jeff. To say the least I was shocked! Yet it was the cutest thing that I think I have ever witnessed! There was only 15 days difference in their ages and yet my 51 day old chicks were feeding Mutt and Jeff. I have to say that they completely disproved the theory that
Gouldians are notoriously bad parents. Here they were, feeding the begging chicks like pros. Perhaps it was just to shut them up, but nevertheless, their parenting instincts had kicked in without ever having learned it from a Gouldian parent.
Kris and Noelle (age 51 days) feeding Mutt and Jeff (age 36 days)
Once all 4 chicks were completely weaned and eating on their own, I moved them back into the bird room, so that they could see the other birds. Although they remained in their own cage, they quickly lost their attachment to me, which is what I wanted for them. They were finches first and foremost and needed to be reintegrated into their flock.
5 Distinct Cycles or Seasons
There are 5 very distinct life cycles which every Gouldian Finch will experience the first year of its life. Thereafter, there will only be 4.
Baby and Juvenile Cycle – this phase of life requires a diet full of energy producing foods that will allow the chicks to grow quickly. The foods that they eat during this time will be the same foods that their parents are eating to maintain breeding condition and supply them tireless energy so they can feed their chicks and allow them to reach their full genetic potential. This diet must contain protein, carbohydrates and fats, as well as a full complement of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.
Molting Cycle – this phase also demands high quality foods that will supply quality nutrition, so most breeders continue their breeding diet throughout the molting period.
Maintenance Cycle – during this life phase, there is no stressful demand placed upon the birds which will require quick energy conversion, so although adequate nutrition must be provided, all high protein should be removed from the diet, while fats and carbohydrates should be cut back but not eliminated completely.
Austerity Cycle – if excess body fat is found on your birds after their molt, this 4-8 week period, prior to the breeding season will slim them down and remove all excess body fat. Basically they should be eating an all seed diet with no additional supplementation provided. With this cycle, we are mimicking what happens in the wild when the quality seed grown during the previous wet season has been eaten to raise chicks and complete the molt. The remaining seed is hidden within the rocks and crevices of their very dry climate so they must hunt for it. Once the wet season rains come again, seed is even scarcer because what is remaining on the ground has begun to sprout, bringing forth a new seed crop for the next breeding season. Gouldians will then need to fly a distance away from their normal range to find other perennial grass seed sources until the new crop of Sorghum seed returns. It is during this austerity time that the sexual organs of the birds will shrink in size and go into a dormant phase. This takes all the strong healthy birds to the same base line sexually; so that once the Breeding Diet is started they will all come into breeding condition together. However if your birds do not have any excess body fat when they finish their annual and/or juvenile molt, a 4 week Maintenance Diet before the start of the breeding season may be the better option for you flock.
Breeding Cycle – we are now back where we started…the high quality, energy producing foods containing protein, fats and carbohydrates in the proper amounts and ratio. Along with a full and balanced complement of vitamins, minerals and trace elements.
February – March - April
I stop the breeding season in my aviary in the middle of January. This means that all the nestboxes that do not have growing chicks will be taken away, and as the remaining chicks fledge the nest, those boxes will also be removed. So by the end of the 1st week in February all the nestboxes will be out of my bird room although there may still be some chicks being fed by their parents for a few more weeks. Once these chicks are independent and eating on their own, everyone will be moved to the large flights.
I move all of my birds…adults and juveniles… from the breeding cages into my 4 large, walk-in flights. Each flight is 6 feet long by 4 feet deep and 8 feet high. Quality exercise is very important to their general health and well being. I place my feeding dishes 1 foot from the floor and the highest perches are 1 foot from the top of each flight. The energy expended to fly the 6 feet from the feeding stations to the top
perches develops more strength and
stamina in the birds than flying back and forth the 6 foot length of the flights.
Initially the birds are separated so that each flight contains approximately the same number of birds. Since my flights are attached and share a common wire separator with the next flight, I place the breeding cocks at one end and the breeding hens at the other end to discourage close proximity of the partners which will tend to continue the breeding response. The juveniles are divided equally in the 2 center flights. In most years the birds will remain in the flights until the next breeding season so that they can have the best exercise that I can provide to them.
In the wild, the Gouldian breeding season begins in the late wet season and usually ends in the middle of the dry season. Since they live so close to the equator in a tropical region of the world, they really do not have seasonal changes (temperature extremes) the way most of us living in the temperate regions do. The wild Gouldians experience a wet period and a dry period with only slight temperature changes throughout the year.
The timing of the end of a wild Gouldian Finch’s breeding season is very important because they will need the remaining supply of quality seed to successfully complete their annual and juvenile molt which is the next phase of their yearly cycle. However it is more important that they end their breeding season leaving plenty of time for their annual and juvenile molts to be completed before the next wet season begins which will signal the start of the next breeding season. Wild Gouldians know this and will cease breeding on their own at the appropriate time. It is our captive birds that must be given the appropriate triggers, BY US, to facilitate the proper stop and start of each seasonal cycle.
Therefore, in captivity, our Gouldians must also stop their breeding cycle so that they can successfully complete their annual and juvenile molting cycle, uninterrupted by any thoughts of breeding. This is why I segregate my breeding cocks and hens when they are not in their breeding cycle. When my juveniles are moved to the large flights, they are still in their juvenile plumage so I do not know their sex. But as soon as it becomes evident whether they are male or female, they are moved into the appropriate sexed juvenile flight.
Without a brief resting period at the end of the breeding season, followed by their COMPLETE annual or juvenile molt, which can take up to 3 months to finish, the health of your captive birds will suffer, and more than likely you will have Gouldians that will develop bald heads once they begin another breeding season.
During this time of year, the juvenile birds must remain on the Breeding Diet to insure their health. But I briefly switch my breeders on to a Maintenance Diet (for approximately 1 month) that helps to stop the breeding season. This means that I cut back on the amount and consistency of the sprouted seed and high quality protein, fats and carbohydrates that they were receiving throughout the breeding season, but do still maintain the vitamin and mineral supplementation
By the middle of March, everyone is on my Molting Diet. In my aviary there is only a slight difference between the Breeding and Molting Diet so the juveniles do not experience much change when the diet changes. However the adults that have been on the Maintenance Diet for a month will receive the trigger to begin their annual molt once the diet is changed. This coupled with the fact that by this time of year, the temperatures in my aviary have begun to climb which is believed to be one of the important natural triggers for the wild Gouldians to begin their annual and juvenile molts. Day length outdoors in my region at this time would be approximately 11 hours.
It usually takes a few weeks on the Molting Diet before I will begin to see the tell tale feather drop and rough appearance in the bird’s demeanor. Not all the birds will begin their molt at exactly the same time, but by the end of April, everyone is well into their molting cycle.
The one interesting thing that I have always noticed in my aviary is that those chicks hatched in the first clutches of each breeding season (usually in October in my aviary), as well as those chicks hatched in the last clutches (in early January) will all molt at the same time as my adults going thru their annual molt. I do not heat my aviary during the winter months, however the temperatures in my indoor aviary seldom fall below 68° F (20° C) during the breeding season, and they are low enough to prevent early juvenile molting. So the work of feather clean up only happens for one brief period every year.
May – June
In my opinion, the molting period is the best time of year for you to assess the health of your flock. Those juveniles who have developed a vitally strong immune system will zip through this time without missing a beat. The stress of molting will only slightly depress them and it is therefore very important that you take note of the strongest juveniles to retain for your future breeding stock. The hen in this photo is bright, strong and alert. She is a prime example of a juvenile that you might want to use to improve your future breeding stock. Those adult birds that may have experienced difficulties through the breeding season will show those same stress problems thru their annual molt. I would seriously consider not keeping them in future breeding programs. They will make great pet quality birds for those people you may know who love your Gouldians but really do not want to get involved in breeding.
Besides being sure that you are offering your flock the best quality food and nutrition that you possibly can during the molting cycle, you need to keep up their schedule of treatment for air-sac mites. Air-sac mite infestations rarely crop up in vitally strong Gouldians when quality nutrition is provided outside of the molt and breeding cycle. But the immune system will become depressed during the stress of these to cycles, even in the strongest birds. Therefore I feel that it is senseless to subject your birds to a possibly life threatening infestation when it can be easily managed with the use of an avian insecticide made to kill these mites. If you know that you have or have had air-sac mites in your flock, I highly recommend that you begin your air-sac mite treatments 3 weeks before the Breeding Season begins and continue the treatments every 3 weeks until a full month after every bird has completed the annual and juvenile molt.
Because all of my birds do not complete their molt at exactly the same time, I wait until the last bird has lost every pin feather in their head before proceeding to the next phase of their cycle, which will be the Pre-Breeding cycle. There are still a few birds in this photo showing head pin feathers, although the guy in the center is still about a month behind the others.
Noelle and Kris at the end of their juvenile molt
When no birds have a single pin feather on their head, I wait another 2 weeks, just to be certain that everyone has finished completely. I feel that this is very important to insure success in the upcoming breeding season.
My next phase is the annual Doxycycline/Megamix treatment for Ornithosis. While this is something that I have done every year for the past 6 years, not everyone will want to or need to do this month long treatment. There is an article on this website (Ornithosis) describing in detail this treatment, so I won’t go into it here. Suffice to say that in some instances, there will be no outward signs of Ornithosis in your flock, and the problem won’t show up until breeding has begun. Breeding problems caused by Ornithosis are dead in shell eggs, infertility and poor breeding results in some or all of the pairs. However if you noticed that many in your flock had an overly difficult molt, I would suggest doing the 3 day Trial Treatment for Ornithosis at this point to see if this may have been the cause of the molting problems.
Since my birds are on Dr. Marshall’s Health Programmes, during the Ornithosis treatment, they are receiving a partial supplement Programme, which involves the “on seed” supplements, but not the “in water” treatments. If you are not using the Health Programmes, remember that it is important that your birds receive a quality diet to help them heal from Ornithosis, but do not feed them any high protein foods at this time because you do not want to prematurely trigger the birds into breeding condition.
It is also important to use Megamix in the water along with the Doxycycline so that you can continue to provide dry forms of calcium (eggshells, F-Vite, oyster shell, cuttlebone) during the treatment process.
August – middle of September
When the month long Ornithosis Treatment is finished it is time to assess the amount of fat that your breeding birds are carrying. Each bird should be caught and you should look for body fat on the abdomen and across the breast. This will look just like “chicken fat”. For all of your non-cooks reading this, if your birds are carrying excess body fat, you will see pads of yellow fat directly under the skin of the abdomen and across the breast area. If you find this, you will need to place the birds on an Austerity Diet and allow them additional quality exercise in large flight cages to rid them of this excess fat, because over-weight birds rarely come into breeding condition and if they do they will most likely be infertile.
In August of 2008, I did find moderate body fat on many of my birds, so for the first time, I placed the flock of breeders on a 4 week Austerity Diet. If you do not find excess body fat on any of your birds, you could now move them onto a month long fitness program supported by a Maintenance Diet. Only the birds in tip top health and fitness will have truly successful breeding seasons. If at this point, you do not find any excess body fat, and your birds have been living in large flight cages, you could move them onto a Breeding Diet and bring them into breeding condition.
My Austerity Diet consisted of my finch seed mix and the 2 water cleaners that I use throughout the year…Megamix and KD. I used NO supplements, including cuttlebone, Herb Salad, F-Vite, Bee Pollen...absolutely nothing else except plain seed and water. The year that I added this Austerity Cycle to my bird’s year, I was a nervous wreak. I was convinced that the birds would suffer since I believe in supplements and had never before stopped using them. But I also knew that over weight birds do not have good breeding seasons, so I went ahead and placed them on a 4 week Austerity Diet.
Sure enough, the breeding season following my first Austerity Cycle was the best ever! The same number of pairs produced twice as many chicks that year!
mid September – end of January
After 4 weeks on the Austerity Diet, my birds were lean, mean and ready to be parents again. I switched them to the Breeding Diet while they were still separated in the large flights and waited until the hen’s beaks darkened and began to show me that they were in breeding condition again. In my experience, the cocks will come into breeding condition before the hens, so moving the pairs together before the hens are in breeding condition will place undue stress on the hens before their bodies are ready to begin laying eggs. Once they are in full breeding condition, their blood stream will be flooded with breeding hormones that will enable the hens to pull calcium from their long bones to coat their eggs. If you move them together too soon, you risk egg-binding which could have severe consequences.
In the last 6 years, I have been able to set up new pairs from young birds produced in the previous breeding season, who may not yet be 1 year of age. I normally do not recommend this practice to others, because every aviary and every diet is unique and not all young hens (under a year of age) will be successful in breeding at such a young age. So until you know your birds, please wait until the birds are at least a year of age to breed them.
When your timing is right, the birds will eagerly accept each other and begin their mating display within minutes of coming together. I have found this to be true even when I am setting up pairs that are not bonded and have never been paired together before. The nests will be built and eggs will be laid before weeks end.
I do not add any nesting material to my nestboxes to get the birds started. I have found that nest-building is a large part of the bonding process, so allowing the males to build the nest to the liking of his hen is very important. I know that many people do add a handful of nesting material to each nesting cavity, so this is something that you will have to experiment with as you are learning about your birds, their likes and dislikes.
Once the hen approves of his nest building skills, she will mate with him and begin laying her clutch of eggs. Most mating activity takes place within the nesting cavity, however some pairs are quite brazen and may surprise you with a mating display right there on the perch.
Gouldian hens normally lay one egg in the nest each morning and then leave the nest until the next morning when it is time to lay another. Most Gouldian clutches are from 4-6 eggs, although it is not unheard of to have 7 or even 8 eggs in a single clutch. I recommend that once the hen begins to lay her eggs, that you steer clear of the cage except for your daily feeding chores. Gouldians are private birds and too much curiosity on your part may cause them to abandon the nest/eggs and or chicks. Under no circumstances should you keep peeking into the nesting cavity to see what is happening. In fact if you know that you are not going to be able to ‘not look’, I would recommend mounting the nest inside of the cage so that it is next to impossible to remove it without damaging the eggs. I guarantee that the wait will be worth it. The morning that you see that first chick emerge into its new world is by far the most beautiful thing one might ever experience in a lifetime.
Some clutches of chicks will fledge the nest and settle quietly to the bottom of the cage for several days. As long as the parents are feeding them down there, you do not have to place them back into the nest each night, as most Gouldians do not return to the nesting cavity once they have fledged.
Other clutches of chicks will come flying out of the nest and never look back. They will ricochet around the cage like they are one fire. I like to think of these clutches as ready to take on the world…no questions asked.
So here we are back at the beginning of our story. I am hoping that by understanding the requirements of this first year all of your clutches will be successes and that you will never have to face what happened to Kris, Noelle, Mutt and Jeff. While hand-feeding an abandoned or pitched chick can be rewarding, I know that having them experience the warmth and safety of a parent’s nest is what Mother Nature intended. It is up to each of us to provide those things that our Gouldians require that will enable them to be good parents. As you saw in the photos of Kris and Noelle feeding Mutt and Jeff at that very young age, parenting is an inborn instinct. When our Gouldians loose this instinct I believe that it is because we are not providing the necessities that will keep these instincts alive.
My fondest hope is that every one of your chicks will emerge from their parents nest box under their own power, ready to face and take on the world!