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Taming and Training Canaries and Other Finches, Part I


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.

Good Candidates

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.

Research Update: Zebra Finches Provide Insights into the Acquisition and Timing of Birdsong and Human Speech


Zebra FinchThe chipper little zebra finch, ever popular in the lab and home, has once again shed some light on topics important to those who study both birds and people.

Hearing and Correcting the Song

Researchers at Switzerland’s Zurich University have shown that certain cells in zebra finch brains become active when the bird makes a mistake in its song, or when a disruption is introduced into a recording of another’s song.  This offers the first proof that birds listen to their own songs, and compare what they hear to an “ideal” song that is stored somewhere in the brain.

Implications for People

Human language skills are thought to develop in a similar manner, but the functioning of the neurons involved is largely unknown.  The recent discoveries concerning finches may point the way towards a better understanding of speech development in people.

Song and Speech Timing

In related experiments, it was discovered that a specific area of the brain, the High Vocal Center, controls the timing of zebra finch singing.  Cooling this area of the brain slowed the song’s tempo, but did not affect the sequence of the notes (one is tempted to wonder why the birds kept singing while their brains were being chilled!).

Birdsong and human speech both require a complex series of timing adjustments if they are to be understood by others of their species.  The Zurich researchers are hopeful that their work will have implications for those studying human speech impediments.

The zebra finch is one of the world’s most important laboratory animals, and studies of it have led to a staggering array of important discoveries.  An interesting summary of its many contributions is posted at:


Research Update – Zebra Finches (Taeniopygia guttata) Vary Their Immune System Response in Accordance With Their Life Stage and Other Factors

The colorful little zebra finch’s popularity as a pet makes it easy to forget its long history as a valuable research animal – from genetics to pharmacology, this species’ contributions have been extraordinary. This month, studies of the zebra finch have once again yielded new insights that may have far reaching implications.

A Plastic Immune System Response
According to an article published in the September, 2008 issue of American Naturalist, immune response in these birds is not the rigid, pre-set system it was once believed to be. Rather, zebra finches somehow balance the “metabolic cost” of their response to disease against other drains on their metabolisms. Pathogens may not be met with an all-out response if other factors are draining the birds of energy or nutrition.

Do Zebra Finches hold the key to human disease control?

For example, males exhibit a lower immune response when molting into their colorful, adult plumage, a process which likely uses up a great deal of the birds’ resources. Females that are laying eggs, especially if food is not abundant, also limit the functioning of their immune systems. Interestingly, only birds that have a well functioning immune system seem able to scale back their response to disease threats; those with weaker baseline immune systems respond as strongly as possible in all situations.

Future Benefits for People
This work may help to reveal if our own immune systems function differently at various points in our lives, and may point the way to new ways of viewing human disease and infection.


On a related topic, an interesting article illustrating how some birds alter the amount of energy invested in finding a mate is posted at:

The Role of Learning and Instinct in Bird Song – lessons from the Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata – Part 2

Zebra Finch

Click here to read the first part of this article
Song Recognition
It seems that song recognition, on the other hand, is instinctive – female birds of all species tested respond (with an increased heart rate!) to the songs of males of the same species. Male birds of the same species, but living in different places, develop local “dialects” – similar, perhaps, to the differences between the accents of people raised in NYC and Dallas. Female birds usually recognize the song of any male of their species, but respond with increased interest (again, the heartbeats) to songs from “neighborhood” males (sorry, I do not know if any conclusions pertaining to people can be drawn!).

Zebra Finches in the Wild
We are so accustomed to seeing zebra finches in cages that it is easy to overlook their existence as vital members of a natural environment. However, free-living zebra finches are perhaps the most abundant birds in the interior of their native Australia. With the exception of coastal Victoria and New South Wales, they inhabit the entire continent. In fact, their range is expanding due to the provision of water (they must drink daily) on livestock farms. A subspecies of the zebra finch (which was actually the first member of the species to be brought into captivity), the Lesser Sunda zebra finch, occupies nearby Timor and the Lesser Sunda Islands.

Despite their common name, zebra finches are not true finches but rather are classified as waxbills, in the family Estrildidae. Nearly 150 species of waxbills range throughout Africa, Asia and Australia. A number of the zebra finch’s relatives, including the gouldian finch, the cordon blue and the white-backed munia, are also popular in the pet trade. The nearly 200 species of true finches (family Fringillidae) are absent from Australia.

Habitat and Adaptations
Zebra finches favor open woodlands, grasslands and farms, but can also be found in Australia’s harsh, arid interior scrublands. They feed mainly upon seeds, especially those of various grasses, and take insects as well. Populations living in salt marshes have evolved the ability to drink salt water – excreting excess sodium via the kidneys. They are fairly sensitive to temperature and cannot generate enough heat for egg incubation if temperatures fall below 53 F.

Like many of its relatives, the zebra finch forages in large flocks. Within the flock, however, monogamous pairs form. The pair bond appears, in most cases, to be life-long. Breeding is sporadic throughout the year and may not occur at all during droughts. As an adaptation to the harsh environment, this species has evolved the ability to breed quickly at the onset of rains during nearly any time of the year.

Zebra finches nest as discrete pairs, but communally – that is, with many pairs occupying the same tree. The female chooses the nest site and constructs the nest with dried grasses and other materials brought by the male. The 4-5 eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch in 13-16 days. The young, fed by the male and female, fledge in 20-21 days. In years with favorable rainfall and food supplies, 3 or more broods may be raised. The zebra finch’s ability to take advantage of good conditions can be a handicap in captivity – in response to the abundance of food and water, females may lay so often that their health suffers (this problem can be ameliorated somewhat by removing all nesting material).

A View from Taiwan
As mentioned earlier, zebra finches are popular pets, both here and abroad. A Taiwanese friend has informed me that they are much more “house pet” than “cage bird” in her country, and are commonly allowed to roam about. Her pet zebra finch would perch on a chair while the family ate dinner – begging for food but not actually approaching the table, and would sleep in her shirt pocket in the evening.


Further information on the parallels between zebra finch song the acquisition of speech in people is available at:

The Role of Learning and Instinct in Bird Song – lessons from the Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata – Part 1

Zebra Finch

Have you ever wondered, upon hearing a pet canary or wild mockingbird sing, just how it is that birds acquire such complex abilities – are they born songsters, or must they learn? Well, scientists at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT) have, and the zebra finch has provided some answers. In doing so, this species, long used in human neuroscience and other health related research (so much so that is often termed the “mouse of the avian world”), has also shed some light on speech development in humans.

The Role of the Brain
Although birds are linked in our minds, to song, only a very small percentage of the world’s 10,000+ species – those classified within the suborder Oscines – actually sing (and the voices of some of these, such as the crow, stretch the definition of “song”!). Baby zebra finches, much like human babies, babble on with an infinite variety of noises – practicing until they eventually learn the adult song. Once learned, the song is never varied.

Research completed last month (May, 2008) at MIT has revealed that two distinct brain pathways are involved – one for learning the song, the other for producing (singing) what has been learned. Damage to the learning pathway of a young finch prevents it from ever producing the adult song, but the same damage during adulthood has no effect on the bird’s singing abilities.

Bird Song and Human Speech
The MIT researchers have drawn some parallels to human learning abilities that bear further investigation. In zebra finches, the youngster’s vocal explorations cease once the adult song has been acquired, as the song never changes. However, the learning pathway is retained, possibly as a back-up system – damage to the song-producing pathway of an adult causes the bird to revert to sounds produced during the learning phase. We humans rely greatly on learning abilities, or pathways, throughout our lives, yet certain aspects of speaking, such as our ability to learn a language without an accent, must occur during childhood. So perhaps we also utilize, at least to some extent, two separate brain pathways when learning and producing sound.

Instinct and Mimicry
In all birds there seems to be an instinctive “song framework” that is filled in by learning and mimicry – male birds raised in isolation develop only incomplete songs that are not recognized by others of their species. The specifics of how the various popular pet birds learn their songs vary from species to species. Baby zebra finches pay attention only to the song of the male that actually feeds them. For example, zebra finches incubated (in captivity) by Bengalese finches grow up to sing the song of their foster parents – this despite the fact that the nestlings could hear other zebra finches singing nearby! How they know which song to choose among the many they hear is not yet understood.

The pet birds most valued for their singing abilities, such as canaries and shama thrushes, copy a wide variety of songs, not only those typical of their species. Indeed, owners of these birds can improve their pets’ vocal repertoires by exposing them to “tutor birds” of the same or different species. A favorite story among canary fanciers is that of a canary which learned to whistle the melody to “God Save the King” by listening to a trained bullfinch do the same in an adjoining room……if the bullfinch hesitated too long while singing, the canary would jump in and finish the melody at exactly the right point!

Check back on Friday for the rest of this article.
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