Seasons of the Gouldian Finch…

…and whether we’re going to follow them (part 1)

When keeping animals, it’s always a question whether we’re going to follow the “in the wild” habitat as closely as possible, or are we going to do our own thing. After all, they are already being held in an artificial environment – so why not change it up?

With the Lady Gouldian finch, it’s a little more complicated than the average bird or mammal. The Gouldian follows seasons. These are based on the “weather” or more specifically on the components of seasons and climate:

  • How much light they receive
  • Temperature
  • What foods they have access to

Based on these specific changes, their bodies go from resting to austerity to breeding to molt – and back around again and again. Let’s take a look at the components of this cycle, which takes a full year to complete.

Resting

The Gouldian’s body was not made to breed and breed and breed, although some people would have you think so. Instead, they go through a period of resting. This will be the time they are put on a maintenance or resting diet. They will ideally be separated into same-sex cages in order to let them truly rest.

In the wild this would be the dry season, so in the aviary they will receive millet, panicum, and grass seed along with a small amount of canary seed and a tiny amount of niger seed. Fresh foods are only offered two or three times a week. Supplements are given in small amounts.

In my aviary, the resting period is 3 months long. Each bird is checked over for health, given nail trims and beak filing as needed. During this time, the juveniles are separated from the parents so that they can receive additional supplements to help them get through their first molt.

Two Gouldians in molt. The one on the right looks miserable!

Austerity Period

Immediately after the resting period, the Gouldian finches are put on an austerity diet. Now, I’ve heard many arguments against offering an austerity period. I believe that these people who argue against it really don’t understand what Gouldian owners are trying to accomplish. The austerity period, or austerity diet, is part of the life cycle of not just Gouldians in the wild, but many passerines. It is used to help bring their bodies into condition before the stressful breeding season begins. Additionally, when pulled off the austerity diet and placed on the breeding diet, all the birds will be ready to breed at the same time.

During the austerity period, which normally lasts 4 weeks but can go for months if one wishes, there are no extra foods or supplements given of any kind. No fresh foods, no vitamins – just a low-calorie, low-fat seed mix.

It is worth noting that, although Gouldian bodies were designed to go through this period, it is still hard on their bodies. So older or ill birds will have a tough time making it through the austerity season – just as they would in the wild. It’s a good practice to pull the ones that won’t be used for breeding before starting the austerity diet for the others. (cont’d on page 2….)

Austerity Diet, Part 2

Millet Part of a successful Austerity Diet

In Part 1 we discussed the what and why of the Gouldian finch Austerity diet. Now let’s take a look at how to use the Austerity diet.

Mimicking Nature

In the wild, Gouldian finches experience a dry period when the grasses and therefore grass seeds become less plentiful. This is called the austerity period of their yearly cycle. By creating our own “austerity” period, we can manipulate them a little to create a breeding cycle that suits our own schedule, or bring them all into breeding season at the same time.

During the austerity period, we feed only white and yellow millet, grit , and water. No fresh foods, no pellet foods, and no supplements (including vitamins). This causes the Gouldians’ bodies to stop producing hormones and, if they’re fat, to lose a little weight. (Fat birds are generally not good breeders)

Bowl of Millet for Feeding Gouldian Finches

How Long Do I Leave My Finches on It?

The length of time to leave Gouldians on an austerity diet varies from person to person. Four weeks is probably the average. Some leave them 6 weeks. It is safe to leave them on it up to 6 months. I would say to take them back off the diet when it has served its purpose, which is to allow their bodies to rest from breeding. If they were healthy to begin with, and if males are separate from females, 4 weeks should be enough.

One reason to lengthen the austerity period is to bring the finches up to warmer weather before they begin breeding. If you’re in the Northern Hemisphere and in an area that’s very cold, this might mean April or even May. Warmer areas can begin earlier. And below the equator, breeding begins around August to November. Remember, just follow the cycle and the calendar year is unimportant.

Any bird that is stressed, ill, bald, etc. should not be placed on this diet; instead, pull the weaker birds and hold them out of the breeding program for this season. The use of an austerity period is not dangerous to your flock; but there’s no point in trying to prepare those for breeding that are already weakened. It doesn’t make sense. Rather, use only your healthiest and best to breed. This helps to avoid many of the problems people run into when they breed all their birds without paying attention to their condition.

After the Austerity Diet

When 4 weeks are up, or however many weeks you wish to use, it’s time to put the Gouldian finches back on their protein-rich daily diet. There are several products that will help with that: Morning Bird’s Miracle Meal mixed with boiled egg; Mike Fidler’s Soft Food, and Perle Morbide, just to name a few. A good seed mix that also includes some of the more important Vitamins/minerals is Hagen’s Finch Staple.

I have used all of the above and am currently feeding a larger variety of fresh, whole foods along with one or more of the following for protein:

  • Boiled egg
  • Mealworms / crickets (freeze dried) / other insects
  • Nuts, like Almonds, Cashews, Pine Nuts.

The Gouldians are still separated into Male/ Female groups as the breeding diet begins. It should last about 4 weeks. At this point the finches should quickly come into breeding condition (hen beaks turn black). It is time to pair the birds for breeding.

Because of using the austerity diet, the finches should be more ready to breed than in previous years. You’ve synchronized their schedules — hormones should be flowing and it is time for breeding.

Why Use an Austerity Diet?

What It Is

The austerity diet refers to the austerity period, a seasonal climate in the Gouldian finch’s native region of Australia. Their natural habitat only has two climates, one is wet and one is dry.

Gouldian Habitat. Photo Courtesy Birds in Backyards.

Near the end of the dry season, it’s not surprising that seed has become scarce, plus what little seed can be found isn’t full of nutrition. This lack of resources has a physical effect on the birds; their bodies go into a “rest” mode.

This may sound harsh to the average finch owner, whose bird room is probably fit for Gouldian kings and queens. No way would we let our Gouldians go hungry! But for those who understand the life cycle process, this slowing of available food resources helps keep their bodies conditioned for breeding. It helps to synchronize the readiness for breeding between the male and female- even though they may be separated during this season.

How to Utilize It

Here’s a chance for improving on the quality of your flock. Use the austerity diet for 45 days. Supply limited seed and nothing else. It’s okay and even encouraged to keep them on the diet longer, up to 6 months, but give it at least 6 weeks. If they’re overweight, they may slim down some. There won’t be any hormonal / breeding behavior going on during this time.

Will they like it? No, probably not – but listen; our birds have it made. Lady Gouldians in the wild have to travel far just to get water during this season. and we’re only backing off on foods.

Be sure to avoid giving:

  • Supplements
  • Fresh foods, wet foods
  • Protein-laden foods
  • Treats
  • Sprouts

“But Tanya,” you protest, “You’re always saying to give them those things!”

Yes but… not now. Right now we want those bodies to get ready for the next season: breeding! More>>>