Letter 11: Fatal violence

Problem Hello,
I have a question about some disturbing behavior that my zebra finch seems to be manifesting. I purchased two wonderful finches (female white zebra and male common zebra) about a year ago. My white zebra female died because she flew into the side of the cage and was fatally injured. I then purchased another finch (presumably female) for companionship for my lonely little finch. Unfortunately, a housesitter went into the room and found the little new finch dead and plucked bald on the bottom of the cage. The bird was bloody and had no feathers remaining.

I am wondering what happened. Is it in the nature of these finches to become violent if placed with another bird of the same sex (this bird could have been a male of a different strain) or are there other reasons why zebra finches could become violent? I had not seen any fighting of any sort (they even slept in their little nest together). Could you please give me some ideas about possible reasons for the birds death, and whether or not I should get another "buddy" for my lonely finch?

Barbara Shinn

Comment Dear Barbara, thanks for your enquiry.

Firstly I would like to know how a Zebra Finch can die simply by flying into the saide of a cage. Did it fly there within the cage (how big was it?) or from the outside? Were there any sharp edges, wires etc. that hurt the bird?

Secondly I must say I was quite shocked to read that the new arrival was lying on the bottom of the cage bloody and "had no feathers remaining". Was only the head featherless or the whole body? (Please tell me!) It is definitely not "in the nature of these finches to become violent if placed with another bird of the same sex" (what do you mean by "this bird could have been a male of a different strain"? colour strain?).

On the one hand your e-mail is ambiguous about the sex of that second Zebra Finch: In the beginning you call it "presumably female", then it is "of the same sex", i. e. male. On the other hand the sex is not so crucial: Although Zebra Finches, as swarm birds with nesting colonies, do not have territories they do have likes and dislikes in their flocks, and they have a small what one might call "nesting site territory" around their nest. So, there are no fatal quarrels among Zebra Finches in nature.

In captivity however, especially in small cages, the birds cannot avoid coming close both to other birds which do not like them and to nests owned by other birds. If one of these or even both factors were given in the case you describe, this might have been the cause for the killing. Nevertheless, the facts that you have not seen any fighting of any sort and that they even used to sleep in their little nest together contradict this speculation.

Thirdly, if you want to get "buddy" for a lonely finch (which I recommend), please never put them together in a cage abruptly but put the new bird into the old and the old bird into a second cage and let them hear and see each other for, say, two weeks while you are gradually putting the two cages closer to each other. This will inspire curiosity and, hopefully, a liking for each other ... It usually works!

I am looking forward to your explanations.
Hans-Jürgen Martin

Problem Thanks for your reply. Here are the answers to your questions:

1. In response to your inquiry about the first finches death.....This bird was a white finch female, and one morning I went into the room where the finches are kept to feed them and give water. There I found the finch lying on the bottom of the cage with her head at a strange angle, almost as if it had been broken. The birds were well fed and healthy looking, so I didn't think that illness or malnutrition were factors in the bird's death. I have read about these birds flying into the cage walls when they became confused in the dark, so I simply came to that conclusion on my own. The cage itself has no sharp edges and plenty of room, and there is only one pair in the cage. It was ther largest cage that I could find. I suppose that the bird could have died of old age, but most birds that I have owned have crawled into a corner, usually under the water dish, to die. With all these factors at hand, I assumed that the bird must have met with a fatal accident.

2. About the bird that was killed recently ... I am as confused as you are about this one. I have owned zebra finches for many years, and I have never had an incident like this occur before, which is why I am writing to you now. At the time, I was out of town, and a housesitter was here. When he went into the room to feed the birds, he found the one bird at the bottom of the cage, "completely bald", he said, and some blood on the bird. The only reason that I was ambiguous about the bird's sex is because most female common zebra finches look like the male, without the orange cheeks. This bird looked much different, with a grey body and a checkered zebra tail like the common male, only a more muted grey color. I am really only familiar with the common color strain, so I wasn't sure about the sex upon closer examination. I didn't feel that it mattered what sex the new bird was, because I am not a breeder and have never heard of situations where finches of this variety were violent.

I hope this answers your questions. My original bird is still alive and healthy, and I hope to get a new companion for him soon. I have read your book and appreciate that you took the time to write back to me and answer my questions. Please understand that I have taken the time and effort to make the living environment to the standards that you have exacted in your book, and that I have tried to care for these birds as best as I can. I hope that I have not done anything incorrect in my care for the birds that led to either finches' demise.

Thank you for your time.

Comment Hello Barbara,
I asked this question about baldness because as a non-native speaker of Englisch I was and am not sure if it only refers to the head (as in humans) or to the whole body, meaning completely featherless. (I now think your housesitter meant completely featherless.)

You seem to be wrong about female common Zebra Finches: Apart from the orange cheeks, the non-seasonal plumage of male Zebra Finches additinally shows "horizontal black and white barring continuing down to a chest band at least 3 mm (1/8 in.) wide, and reddish brown side flankings with white spots. Also, the pale orange beak of the hen is coral red in the male who sings his loud courtship song at all times of the year." (from my website)
I do admit however that these features of the naturally grey Zebra Finch tend to be less distinct in some colour strains and sometimes are not present at all.

Barbara, I really appreciate the great efforts you take with your birds, and I know the sorrow that besets us when one of the little birds has died. I think a bit more human sympathy for the craetures of nature would make this world better. Yours,

Hans-Jürgen Martin

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