By Dave Henderson.
In modern times Greenfinches have probably won more awards at specialist British Bird Shows than any other hardbill species. The main reason for this is that Greenfinches are easy to breed and exhibitors have been able to develop them to a phenomenal extent through selective breeding. In this article I’ll give my personal views of what to look for in a greenfinch and outline the methods I use when breeding them.
WHAT DOES GOOD LOOK LIKE?
The exhibition standard for the Greenfinch calls for the bird to be shaped like a Norwich canary. That is, it should be short coupled and thick set. The bird should have a rounded appearance. In profile there should be a round sweep from below the throat down the belly to underneath the vent.
Likewise there should be a convex curve from the back of the neck to the rump. This latter point is very important. One of the biggest faults evident in many greenfinches is the appearance of a straight line from the top of the head to the tip of the tail sometimes referred to as “a back like a ski slope” or the bird being “long sided“. No bird with a straight back can have the desired rounded appearance. Worse still is the bird whose back is concave or dipped inwards. In my experience birds with straight or dipped backs usually pass this fault on to their offspring. It is a difficult fault to eliminate from a line of birds which possess it.
The head should again should be rounded in appearance. The head should not appear angular or “boxy”. There should be a good rise from above the base of the upper mandible giving the appearance of a distinct forehead. The skull should be wide across the top and the back skull should also be broad. Many greenfinches are lacking “up top” with the head being too narrow. The worst head fault of all is where the bird has a narrow skull coupled with it’s eyes being too high up on the head making for a very ugly appearance. It is a sin to breed from such birds and no breeder should aim to perpetuate such bad faults.
The standard suggests that greenfinch cocks should be grassy green in colour. However, beauty is in the eye of the beholder and different breeders have their own interpretation of what shade of grass the bird should exhibit! Some breeders insist the colour should be a light, almost lime, green colour similar to that seen in wild greenfinches. Others, myself included, favour the darker, solid green colour which is evident in the very best cock birds seen on the show bench nowadays. The colour should be solid throughout. Some birds have a light patch on the throat and others show light colouration on the lower part of the belly extending between the legs. These to my mind are faults.
The colour throughout the whole body should be clear and free from smokiness(a blue or grey wash across the feathers). Buff birds obviously show less colour than yellows and it’s rare nowadays for a buff greenfinch cock to beat the best yellows although highly coloured buffs sometimes do win as they often are superior in type and size to many yellows. Good yellow hens will show a lot of colour particularly on the breast and if they have decent size and good type will often do a good deal of winning. Although good quality buff hens will often beat the yellows in their class they often then get beaten by a yellow cock for Best Greenfinch. Good, big, highly coloured birds which have great type are hard to beat when exhibited in tip top condition. The yellow wing bars in both cocks and hens should be as bright and strongly coloured as possible. Yellow birds invariably show a lot more colour in the wings than buffs and cocks are brighter than hens.
Assuming the bird has all these desirable qualities it then needs to show itself. Ideally the bird should move about in the show cage from side to side so that it shows all it’s attributes. It should be bold and fearless and look at anyone who is close to the cage. Nervousness or wildness is a fault. The eye should be bright, wide open and shiny. Many of the top exhibitors like the bird to stand up in the show cage rather than being slumped down over the perch. However, a bird which continually stands up and stretches itself can sometimes appear to be lacking in type. Certainly the bird should be “up off it’s legs” but not to the extent that it looks as though it is standing on stilts. Very often when it comes to the crunch and the various different best of species are being considered against each other for best hardbill it’s the bird which is the out and out “showman” which will get the nod. Many older greenfinches fail in this regard as they become bored as the years roll on and stop exhibiting showmanship, preferring instead to sit very still on one perch. Tameness is a great asset to have in a bird but overly tame birds often let themselves down when being judged.
Anyone who attends a top show and walks along a large class of greenfinches will quickly realise that there is a huge variation in feather type among the birds exhibited. Some birds have a very smooth, glossy type of feather. In the hand this feather type is very soft and feels like silk. When these birds are sprayed their feathers will saturate very quickly and the bird will look bedraggled. In a showbird this silky feather can be very attractive to the eye. However, this type of feather has it’s faults as individually the feathers are very long and if care isn’t taken when breeding from such birds the breeder can quickly end up with a lot of long, narrow looking birds. The best type of feather to have in a stud of greenfinches is that thick, downy yellow feather. Such birds often have a bulky, “typey” appearance and still show plenty of colour. Furthermore, on account of the amount of feather these birds have the breeder can confidently practice double yellow pairings without losing much by way of size or type in the offspring. These extremely heavily feathered birds have become increasingly scarcer on the show bench in recent years. Nevertheless they are a powerful weapon to have in the breeding shed.
CONDITIONING BIRDS FOR SHOWING
The aim of every exhibitor must be to stage their birds in the very best condition possible. It is unfair on the birds if the owner fails to do this. However, there is a skill involved in getting the birds spot on for a big show. With greenfinches it is particularly important to get their weight right on the big day.
I tend to moult all of my birds in outside aviaries and at the end of the moult I go through all the birds, young and old alike, and select the ones which are likely to make the show team. These birds are brought into my bird room and caged individually. The main reasons for caging them individually are that (a)it tends to keep them quieter and is less stressful for them and (b)I can observe them easier and can get a better understanding of what each bird is eating and can manage them as individuals. It is quite normal for them to lose a fair bit of weight when they are first moved inside but they will quickly recover this once they settle down.
I feed my birds on Fred Lamb Beyers Greenfinch mixture. This a a good mix with an excellent variety of seeds and is not overly fattening. I also from time to time give them Haith’s Greenfinch Mix which can be used for quickly putting weight onto birds when necessary. In addition to these I also give them various small seeds via finger drawers such as conditioning seed, chicory seed, evening primrose seed etc as titbits. I also give them egg food once a week or so throughout the winter.
A close eye needs to be kept on their weight. It is very easy to ruin a good greenfinch by blowing it up like a balloon with too much fat. Likewise if they are underweight they probably won’t have the right shape. Many greenfinches may look fat when in fact they have no fat on at all but are just very heavily feathered birds. I’ve often seen judges knocking back an outstanding greenfinch claiming that the bird is too fat when in fact it’s an outstanding heavily feathered bird. The judges who do this invariably have never kept top quality greenfinches themselves and wouldn’t know the difference between fat and feather! If a bird puts on too much weight then the easiest way to get the weight off is to put the bird into an aviary for a few days so that it can fly it off or alternatively change the diet to a canary mixture. Some birds however will still get as fat as pigs even when fed a very light mixture…..it’s in their genes! Bear in mind as well that older birds will naturally carry less weight than younger birds. They’re a bit like humans- as they get older they lose their body form and start to look misshapen.
I try to clean my birds out once a week. The covering I use in my cages is called G6Plus. It comes from France and is used in the catering industry among others to soak up spillages. It is a very fine type of wood chip which is very absorbent and makes an excellent covering for cages.
I give my show team a bath at least three times a week by hanging a wire bath on the cage front. The only time I don’t do this is when the weather is very cold ie where it is sub zero outside for several days in a row. The windows in my bird room are open 365 days a year and in very cold weather the bath water may freeze up. The last thing the birds need would be to step into a bath of icy water and have it freeze to their feathers. In the lead up to a big show I’ll also spray any birds which I don’t think are bathing sufficiently. I don’t add anything special to the spray gun. The water where I live is soft water and I just use tepid water straight from the tap to spray the birds with. The aim is to get the feather in as glossy a condition as possible.
When caging my birds up to send them off to a show,I always check their tails and flight feathers and in addition,if their feet are dirty then I clean them with a cotton but.I also clean the ring if it has dirt on it.
SELECTING PAIRS FOR BREEDING.
There are three main factors I take into consideration when thinking about which birds to pair together. These are pedigree, conformation and their show record.
The ideal pairing to my mind are two birds who are top show birds who complement each other in their physical attributes. Some people advise pairing a good headed bird to a weak headed one. However, if this is done they are likely to produce some good headed birds, some weak headed ones and some which are somewhere in the middle. The good headed youngsters would be the ones to keep but the problem there is that they will also carry some genes for the weak headed trait which they in turn will pass onto their own offspring. The best bet is to pair two good headed birds together in the first place and not use any weak headed birds! The same principle holds true for other inheritable traits. Don’t pair a good bird to one with obvious faults, pair it to another good one instead! This of course is easier said than done. It goes without saying no two birds which have the same significant fault should be paired together. I also have found that in general terms it’s better not to pair two really big birds together. Best bet is to pair a really big one with an average sized one provided the latter has good sized ancestors in it’s immediate pedigree.
I keep computerised breeding records. The advantage of this is that I can look at the pedigree of any bird I keep quite easily. Attached to each birds’ pedigree are notes on it’s show achievements and other notes in terms of what I consider the strengths and weaknesses of the bird to be. Say for example, I have a really good hen but she’s a little narrow across the shoulder. I may pick two or three cocks as possible partners for her and I would look at the pedigree of each cock to see if there was any shoulder weakness in his ancestors. The other reason I study the pedigrees is to ensure that I’m not putting together pairs of birds which are too closely related to each other. I prefer to use pairings such as first cousins etc rather than closer ones like mother to son etc. In this way you can build up a family of birds without the risks associated with very close relationships.
My computer programme allows me to work out the inbreeding coefficient of each bird I own and this is the best indication of how closely related they are. The other advantage of being able to look at pedigrees is that you can quickly see what traits are being inherited in your breeding lines. If you know that a particular line for example tend to produce big birds then you can use individuals from that line with smaller birds from a different line with a good chance of still keeping the size up.
If I put together a pair of birds and they produce a number of very good youngsters then I’ll try to breed as many chicks as possible from that pair and I’ll also keep them together the following year. It’s madness to split up a good pair in order to run the cock with other hens in the hope he’ll produce with those hens as well. However, I’ll often run the cock with the original hen and also run him with other hens in the same season.
It’s important to really pay attention to which birds are pre-potent. That is those birds which keep on producing good youngsters even when paired to different partners. In my experience such birds are few and far between. Pre-potent cock birds are worth their weight in gold particularly if they themselves were top class show birds. More often than not the most pre-potent ones will be good birds themselves but not absolute top class and conversely the very top show birds often don‘t turn out to be top breeders. This is very true in other forms of livestock such as racehorses etc. It is very rare indeed for the Champion Racehorse of any particular year to go on to become Champion Sire as well after being retired to stud.
The great Budgie breeder Harry Bryan once said that from pairings of half brother to half sister and cousin to cousin etc he’d never bred a show winner. He was adamant that the best formula for breeding top show birds was to pair together top class unrelated birds. I agree with him totally on this. However, this method really requires the breeder to keep a huge stud of birds and, year in and year out, to be able to buy in birds of the required standard. This in all reality is a very difficult thing to do for the average bird breeder.
THE BREEDING SEASON.
Throughout the winter, I keep my cocks and hens separate. The show team, which will contain most of my best birds, reside in my birdroom and are subjected to artificial light so that I can feed and water them throughout the winter. Although I keep the extra light to a minimum, it means that I cannot put the birds back into the outside aviaries until the length of natural daylight catches up with the artificially lengthened daylight they’ve been subjected to. This really means I cannot put the birds outside until the end of March at the earliest otherwise the birds would drop into a soft moult.
So I tend to get my aviaries cleaned out and set up for receiving the pairs during late March/early April and I put the birds outside, still keeping the sexes separate, around the first week in April. I’ll give them a week or so to get any excess weight off and then pair them up around mid-April after which I can expect my first eggs to hatch around the end of the first or second week in May.
My method of pairing up is to put one hen in each aviary and put in some nesting material(the nesting sites will have been put in previously two sites to each aviary). As soon as the hen looks fit and starts to show signs of nest building I’ll introduce a cock I’ve selected for her. If they settle down and they build and lay I’ll wait until the hen has her clutch laid then remove the cock. I may run the cock then with another hen, if not then he’ll go back into a cage in the shed until he’s needed again. The hen in the meantime will be allowed to hatch and rear the chicks herself. Only on rare occasions do I leave the cock in with the hen throughout incubation, hatching and rearing. The advantage of this method is that it allows me to use each cock with multiple hens if I choose. The disadvantage is that once the hen has reared her brood and they’ve fledged, it can be tricky getting the cock back in with her at the right time ie before she begins her next round but not too early that it causes problems with her first brood.
As the chicks fledge I give them Intradine(Sulphadimidine) to prevent them going light. I use 33% Intradine and add 6 drops of this to a 500ml aviary drinker, five days on(weekdays) two days off (weekends) beginning the day the chicks leave the nest and continuing until they’re through the moult.
For rearing food they get soaked seed(based on safflower,small sunflower,hemp,Redband,groats,Buckwheat and mung beans). They also get egg food based on Badminton Cooked Conditioning horse meal, Bogena, boiled eggs, niger and defrosted Birds Eye Petit Pois peas.
Hopefully if everything goes well I’ll breed some winners which is what the bird game is all about to my mind…….nothing can beat the feeling of winning a big show with a bird you’ve bred yourself !