When we think of tame birds, it is most often the parrots and mynas that come to mind. Canaries and other finches, on the other hand, are largely thought of as pets to enjoy for their bright colors, active ways and cheerful songs. To a great extent, these perceptions hold true…but not entirely. Just as there are parrots that would frustrate the patience of famed animal trainer Gunther-Gable Williams himself, there are finches that become wonderfully tame and trusting.
Most who have tried to tame finches agree that canaries and the closely-related green singing finches make the best candidates. Their calm demeanors, modified by thousands of generations in captivity, are a great asset to the first time bird-trainer.
A friend once showed me a number of photos of 2 incredibly tame zebra finches owned by her father in Taiwan. The birds slept in his pocket, responded to several commands, and seemed to solicit petting and other attention. She assured me that trained finches were quite common in her father’s community, and in other places on the island as well. In any event, zebra finches have long captive histories, and some individuals seem unusually calm even without much close contact.
How Nature Affects Training
When attempting to tame your pet finch, it is important to keep its nature and natural history in mind. Finches are smaller than the majority of the predators in their habitats….even spiders and frogs make meals of them on occasion. Most are, consequently, alert, high-strung and quick to take flight.
It is important to avoid sudden movements and noises around your finches …move slowly and speak in low tones. Keeping your birds at eye level is a good idea, as most become stressed by movements above their heads. In the beginning, avoid direct eye contact, which birds may associate with danger. I first read of this tip in the wonderful book Hand Taming Wild Birds at the Feeder (Martin, 1963)…the advice was later echoed by experienced co-workers at import facilities and the Bronx Zoo, and has proven very useful to me.
Make the same low sound or whistle each time you enter the room, and spend as much time as possible in the area…sitting quietly, in the main, for the first few days. Watch your birds for clues as to when it is time to move on with the process. Once they stop flitting about and begin feeding, bathing and preening in your presence, you can begin to try some closer contact.
Moving to Free Flight Training
It is nearly impossible to tame finches in their cage…your hand within their territory will be too threatening. The best technique is to allow them liberty in a bird-safe (cover windows, mirrors, etc.) room. Do this only after your pets have accepted their cage as a safe haven and regard it as their territory. The time period involved will vary, but 4-6 weeks is a good starting point.
When first releasing your finches, slowly insert an 18 inch perch through the bars near the cage door, and then open the door. This will allow the birds to exit slowly…many birds (and most animals for that matter), are reluctant to just burst into unfamiliar territory. Finches will prefer to hop out onto the perch for a look around, and may take a surprisingly long time to leave their cage completely.
Never attempt to chase your bird from its cage, as even one bad experience, especially with species other than canaries, can easily ruin your chances of gaining your pet’s trust.
Be sure to have a comfortable perch (i.e. another cage top, potted tree or well-secured natural branch) set up some distance from the cage as well, so that the finch will have somewhere to alight.
Returning to the Cage
Now that the finch is flitting about the room, how does one get it to go back home? Please check Part II of this article next week for tips on hand-taming and returning your bird to its cage.
For a different perspective on bird training, please see my article, Hand Taming Wild Birds.
Check out Part II of this article for additional information.