A LIVING MURAL
My first bout of serious bird keeping began with pigeons. These birds were kept in an eight foot square shed. The horrible New Jersey weather, arctic cold half the year and hellishly hot the other half, did not bother the birds, but made it extremely unpleasant to observe them. Also, there was no market for the progeny. Since I was in college, and thus short of funds, my bird hobby had to be self supporting.
The solution was to switch to canaries and budgerigars. These birds could be kept indoors, where the climate might also be domesticated. Pet shops, other breeders, and even the general public kept these birds in demand. From the proceeds of my breeding room, I was able to buy additional stock, feed, and supplies.
All the books and all the local breeders stressed that indoor flights, the bigger the better, were an absolute necessity. The rationale behind this was that the more room that the birds had to exercise, the fitter they would be for the breeding season. I constructed a series of aviaries and flight cages, some up to ten feet long. My birds were going To be ready for the Olympics!
As is usually the case, experience proved folk wisdom to have no basis in fact. The birds in the large flight cages spent most of their time sitting in one spot. A move to another perch required a pitched battle with whoever had staked the original claim. On trying to return to home base, they might have to squabble with a bird that had moved in right behind them. A few feathered racketeers would try to monopolize the food or the water dishes. These sources of stress and other pecking order pressures would become too much for the low men on the totem pole, often The best birds. They would rapidly decline. They had to be placed in individual cages to recover. Occasional losses would still occur.
With The commencement of breeding activity, all birds would be paired up in small cages. Time was spent catching every bird. The whole flock had to adjust to a new environment. This was an additional stress at a time that it was least wanted.
Eventually all birds were kept in individual breeding units. The Birds actually got more exercise flying back and forth in the small cages. Budgies could be kept one pair to a cage. Breeding was regulated by Removing the nest box. Canaries were all kept in individual cages. The cock was placed in with the hen to mate and was moved after twenty-four hours. One male might be used with up to fourteen hens. The entire nest of newly weaned young would be kept together. As they matured, if they were to be retained for my breeding program, they were set up in private cages. The rest were sold.
After several years of raising these birds, I decided to branch out to finches. Lady Gouldians, star finches, zebras, and societies, were set up one pair to a canary double breeding cage. The Lady Gouldians did not breed at all. The stars produced innumerable eggs but failed to incubate any of them. Only the zebras and societies produced a few young. Paradoxically, the smaller, but more active birds, were not able to exercise in a cage. At this point, almost all of my bird collection was lost in a burglary.
Several years later I had the opportunity to visit one of my customers. In a Manhattan apartment (It would be redundant to add small!) she raised Lady Gouldians by the dozens in a planted indoor aviary measuring about six foot square.
I wanted to try a similar set up. The window of my shop was about ten feet long and nearly seven feet tall. This space was partitioned off from the rest of the store. Full-spectrum lights were installed. Large palms and ficus plants took up most of the interior. Thin manzanita branches were placed in a top corner and in one spot on the aviary floor. The window, at night, might get as low as forty degrees. A heat lamp was Focused on the top manzanita branches. The heat lamp was used at night and during the day, if it was very cold. The lights were on sixteen hours a day.
Food, water, and baths were all placed under the heat lamp. Water for drinking was given by means of a gravity bottle. Nests, both woven and wooden boxes, were placed high up, but not under the heat lamp. The nests and the top branches were actually higher than the top glass of the window and thus out of view of the pedestrian traffic.
About a dozen immature Lady Gouldians were added. At first they were extremely frightened and spent all their time hiding in the top perches. As they acclimated they would examine their new home when no one was in front of the window. If someone approached, or if a car rode by, they would return to the haven at the top. At night the interior of my window aviary would be brightly illuminated, but the birds would not be able to see outside, because of the darkness and the glare on the glass. As far as the Lady Gouldians were concerned the threat posed by the outside world simply disappeared at sun down. They would then flit about the entire space, ignoring the small crowds that would gather to observe them. As they came into adult color, the birds made a tremendous display.
A local breeder sold me a number of immature Java rice finches and African weavers. I was advised to not place them in with the Gouldians. I was told that they might possibly kill the smaller birds and that they would certainly destroy the plants. Another aviary was built. This one ran along one wall of the inside of the store and was eight feet long, four feet wide and seven feet tall.
The Java rice birds quickly matured and went to nest. Standard wooden budgie nest boxes were used. They produced many healthy babies. The African weavers turned out to be mostly males. Even with the few hens, none paired up or showed any interest in nesting. The Lady Gouldians nested without hesitation in their planted space. The parents fed their nests of shrieking chicks with great zeal. Unfortunately, most of the Lady Gouldian chicks were lost when they left the nest. They were unable to find food or water in the large flight. Because of the dense vegetation, it was very difficult to catch any of the fledglings without disturbing the entire colony.
The Lady Gouldians were fed a vitamin enriched finch mix. The Java Rice birds and the weavers were given both vitamin enriched finch mix and vitamin enriched parakeet mix. Gouldians and Javas were given as much chopped egg, nestling food mix as they would eat. The Javas also took mealworms and fresh corn on the cob. Fresh greens and sprouts were given to all birds daily. Vitamins were used in the water bottles.
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Summer is a paradox for the aviculturist. We buy birds and equipment, read innumerable magazines and books, hope and dream, all in anticipation of the breeding season. But, come memorial day, the beach and mountains beckon. Our precious birds become an afterthought, if not a nuisance. breeding birds require more attention. Now, if the birds are to go to nest, diet is of absolute importance. The canary fancier has an added complication. Breeding ends in June-July and is immediately followed by the molt. We must constantly assess exactly how much time and energy we are willing and able to devote to aviculture. A few lucky ones have neighbors who are also afflicted with “birds on the brain”. This makes it possible to vacation. If this is not the case, even well meaning friends and relatives can wipe out a valuable collection.