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Chick Development
..growing up explained

You've decided to breed finches. Your pair has bonded and gotten past any aggression that may have caused problems in the past. Now they have nested, laid eggs, incubated those eggs and now the eggs are hatching. All you have to do now is sit back and relax, right? For the most part yes, but you will still want to check on the chicks development from time to time.

The chicks complete several stages of growth. The time for completion will vary from species to species. The best way to identify each stage is the changes in the chick's growth. Some species do develop faster than others do with regards to body size, feathering and color. Before breeding any species of finch you should read about the species as much as possible so you'll know roughly how long the entire process will take.

Stage #1: Hatchling
This stage doesn't last long (around a week) and isn't a stage you are likely to see unless you breed finches on a large scale. Chicks are hatchlings from the moment they emerge from the egg. They usually come out wet, cold, and very tired. This is when the parent finches will normally eat the remnants of the eggshell and spend a little time poking at the chick to stimulate it to move. Then the parents will nestle down to brood their young chick.

Not all chicks hatch with downy feathers. Many species are completely bald as hatchlings and many others don't develop feathers until well in to later stages of growth. Some species that will have downy fluff after hatching are Zebra, Owls and Red Heads. Species that are bald at hatching are Gouldians and Society. You'll also find that some chicks are born with pale pink skin while others are more tan or black. The moment of hatching is also referred to as the moment of being born.

During this stage the chicks will do little more than eat, sleep and defecate. It is best if you, as the breeder, stay as uninvolved in chick rearing as possible. Care for the parents and cage as you normally do and always supply extra foods and nutrition to support the growing family. If you peek in at the nest too often the pair may abandon the chicks.

Around the third day of life you should be able to hear the chicks as they are begging for food. At first it's a very soft noise but don't worry it will get a lot louder.

FAQ's for this stage:

Q:The chick hatched yesterday and there is no food in the crop, do I need to hand feed?
A:No. Most 1-2 day old chicks are still digesting their yolk sacs and do not need to be fed. Do not touch the chick. Let the parents attend to their young.
 
Q:The babies are a few days old and I can see seeds stuck in their neck. Are they going to die?
A:No, they aren't going to die. What you are seeing is the crop that holds the extra food until it is passed along to the digestive tract. This is normal and a good sign that the chicks are being well cared for.

Common problem you may encounter during the stage: Chick Tossing or Abandonment. Read my article on the subject.

Once the eyes start to open the chicks start their next stage of development.

Stage #2: Nestling
The signature sign of this stage is the eyes opening. The chicks' eyes normally only open a little at first then gradually open fully. This is also the time you should start to see little feather buds on the wings unless they developed earlier. In addition the chick should have doubled or even tripled their size since hatching.

In this stage you will find that the chicks grow very rapidly and become more physically active inside the nest. This is also the longest stage of your chick's growth. The chicks are nestlings from now until they are ready to leave the nest. During this time the chicks will transform from what my father refers to as "a quivering blob of protoplasm" into a little ball of fluff and feathers. In other words they begin to look like little finches.

The first feathers to develop on a chick may not look anything like the adult bird. For example most all Zebra finch chicks look female until their first molt occurs. The Gouldian chicks are a drab or olive green or grey color until their first molt. The first molt may not happen until the chicks are 2 months old or possibly as long as 6 months old.

As the stage progresses the chicks will become more aware of the space around them and the space out side of the nest. From time to time you may even see a chick poking its head out for a little look at the world. If you attempt to look in to the nest most chicks will react by backing up to the rear of the nest and lowering their heads. It's kind of like, "If I can't see you, you can't see me".

FAQ's for this stage:

Q:One chick is a lot smaller than the others are it seems healthy but why so much smaller? Could it be a runt?
A:Runts aren't really in the finch world vocabulary although, you may have a small chick. More often than not the smaller chick simply hatched a few days after the second youngest chick. This can happen easily when a few eggs are left unhatched in the nest. Eggs 1-3 hatched in order but eggs 4-5 didn't hatch, when egg 6 hatched it's now several days behind the others.
 
Q:The nest is really starting to smell and is covered with droppings, can I give them a new one?
A:No. Please don't touch the nest unless you've been breeding finches for years and the pair is experienced enough to tolerate such disturbances. You don't want the parents to abandon the clutch at this stage. Chances are they wouldn't abandon, but why risk it?
 
Q:There are seeds or something stuck around my baby Gouldians mouth, what should I do?
A:They aren't seeds. They are small reflective nodules that the parents use a guide so they know where to put the food. All finches have different mouth markings, don't let unusual coloration surprise you.
 
Q:The crop is overfilled with seeds. Will this hurt the chick?
A:No, the chick isn't being hurt. In fact a well-stuffed crop is a good sign that the parents are being excellent parents.

Common problem you may encounter during this stage: Falling from the nest.
It isn't uncommon for a nesting to fall from or be pushed from the nest before it's time to fledge. When you find a fallen chick that isn't fully feathered or isn't perching put it back in the nest as soon as possible. If the clutch is a large one you may find yourself putting chicks back in the nest on a daily basis. You don't need to worry about the chicks falling from a great height; it's rare for a chick to be hurt from a fall. However you do not want perches, food or water dishes directly below the nest. If the chick impacts a sharp or rough edge on the way down then it may become injured. Also falling in to a water dish is almost always fatal due to cold or drowning

Once they jump from the nest and are perching they are considered Fledglings.

Stage #3: Fledgling
The moment the chicks jump from the nest and are getting around the cage well they are considered fledglings. Now the first few days out of the nest may prove a major learning experience for some youngsters. Many will flutter around and often miss the perch they are heading for. The chicks are learning to fly and more importantly how to steer and land. The chicks should be perching and following their parents around with little difficulty within the first 3 days.

This stage is often referred to as the cute stage as the chicks are not only adorable to look at but they are also exploring their world. Finch chicks can be quite curious of everything and don't always show fear as their parents do. You may even think you have a tame finch in your flock because the fledglings will sometimes allow you to hold them without struggling. They aren't tame, they simply don't know to be fearful of humans. This will change in about a week and they will be just as wild as their parents.

Many people make the mistake and assume that a fledgling can be removed from its parent's care. This is wrong. A fledgling is just as dependent on its parents as it was when it was a hatchling. Fledglings must still be fed by their parents and learning new skills. They'll spend the next several weeks watching their parents. In time they will learn the social and environmental skills they'll need to survive.

This stage is when the weaning process will occur. Weaning is the time when young finches learn to fend for themselves in matters of food and care. Often times the weaning process is quiet and uneventful. Other times the parents will develop a little aggression towards their chicks. A parent plucking a few feathers here and there isn't uncommon, but this behavior must be watched closely. If the parents begin to hurt the chick or excessive plucking ensues you may need to step in and remove the more aggressive parent.

FAQ's for this stage:

Q:My chicks were supposed to fledge at 21 days old and it has been 25 days, what do I do?
A:Peek in on the chicks, if they look healthy and are not trapped inside the nest you do nothing. It doesn't happen often but once in awhile you'll find a clutch that fledges a bit later than it normally would. This is ok.
 
Q:The chicks have fledged and are fully feathered but aren't perching. They'll only run around on the floor of the cage all day. What should I do?
A:If they are still on the floor come nightfall, pick them up and gently put them back in the nest. You may need to do this for a few nights but don't worry, they'll be perching soon.
 
Q:The chicks just fledged yesterday and today there are more eggs in the nest. Should I leave the nest in the cage and let them raise another clutch already?
A:No. Remove the eggs and nest from the cage. Many finches will attempt another clutch too soon after the first clutch fledges. If they go back in to nesting and brooding mode they may attack or abandon their current chicks. This can lead the death of the first clutch.

Common problem you may encounter during this stage: Failure to Thrive. Read my article on the subject.

The chicks wean and on some species you may even see some of the adult plumage coming in. Time for the next stage.

Stage #4: Juvenile
Once the chicks are eating on their own they've moved into the Juvenile stage. Juveniles can be removed from their parent's cage but as a breeder I prefer they stay with their parents at least a few weeks after being weaned. This allows them more time to develop social skills and over all seems to produce more flock friendly adults. "Flock friendly" is a term I use to describe finches that do well in a mixed aviary setting. They are less aggressive and are less likely to suffer from stress when their environment changes. Naturally if the parents are aggressive toward their chicks you'll want to move them sooner.

Most species of finch will go through their first molt within a month of being a juvenile. Some, like Gouldians, will take considerably longer to molt in to their adult plumage. Juveniles don't become adults until they are old enough to reproduce.

When you do finally move the juveniles from their parent's cage it is best to house them with other juvenile finches around their age. Adult birds may attack juvenile finches as they see the young finches as rivals for food, territory, and mates. If you plan to keep the juveniles in a cage or aviary with their parents and siblings you'll need to keep the nest and all other nests out. The risk of inbreeding is quite high when families are left together in a breeding environment. Also as the population grows you will find that the flock may become more aggressive. Over crowding can become a major problem over time.

FAQ's for this stage:

Q:What do I do with the Juveniles? I hadn't planned on my finches breeding in the first place.
A:You can find homes for them with family or friends. You can talk to your local bird club or pet store to find adoptive homes for them as well. Please be sure that the new owners of your juveniles know that they are related and cannot be allowed to breed together.
 
Q:When can I start giving my juvenile finches away to good homes?
A:After they have weaned you can find new homes for them. However I prefer you keep your finches until they have molted in to their adult colors.

Common problem you may encounter during this stage: Fighting
Fighting will only be a problem if the chicks are over crowded, insufficiently fed, or have poor social skills. At this point all you can do is make sure they have enough personal space in the cage, a good diet, and if necessary remove the aggressive finch to another cage. A little aggression can be expected. The juveniles must work out the pecking order in the cage. The aggression should not lead to excessive plucking or physical injury.

Stage #5: Adult
There is no single defining moment for the onset of this stage. Chicks become adults when they are able to breed. Most species are physically capable of breeding long before they are socially and physiologically ready. The breeder often defines the adult stage.

In my aviary I will not consider a chick to be an adult until that chick is 7-9 months old. I've picked that time frame because it is best for the chicks to not be put in to a breeding situation until they are around 9 months old.

I also note when the females start producing eggs. Once the female chick lays her first egg she is either an adult or very close to it. Males will always be capable of breeding before females. In some cases you'll find that males could produce young months before the females in their clutch.

FAQ's for this stage:

Q:When can I let my finches' breed?
A:Around 9 months of age or older. Some species may not be ready to breed until they are a year old.

Common problem you may encounter during this stage: Egg Binding is the most common. Read my article on the subject.

If all goes well you won't have to do much more than the routine cleaning and feeding of your finches home. The finches will raise and care for their chicks on their own. The only time you should expect to run in to any problems is if your finch pair is inexperienced, ill, stressed, or too young. It is not uncommon to lose the first clutch of chicks your pair produces. They will learn from their mistakes and over time their skills will improve. Eventually most become excellent parents.

© lady gouldian finch.com 2016

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