Letter 18: Feathers on the floor

Problem I'm very new to owning zebra finches, but from what I have read I have hopefully, done everything right. I have two females (I have heard that they love to breed which is not what I wanted to get into this for).
I have a question which I haven't been able to find an answer to. One of my females is a little smaller and much more nervous than the other. Recently, I have been coming home in the late afternoon to find the floor covered with feathers. At that time, over the last couple of days I have noticed that the smaller one is going "Bald" from an area under the wing moving toward the centre of her chest. Now I know birds do go through periods of losing feathers, but is this normal. From a dietary aspect I believe they are receiving everything they need -- seed diet with millet and grated carrots (both of which they adore) as treats. They also have a cuttle bone and a honey stick (which they are not crazy about). I haven't noticed a great deal of scratching going on. Other than that both are active and feeding normally.

Any reassurance or advice you could give would be appreciated.
Thank you very much. I enjoyed your site by the way.
sherry wilson, hamilton, ontario L8P 1A4
Email: shwi@gwl.ca

Comment I can only guess what is happening with the smaller female:

  1. Either the birds simply don't like each other: the bigger female is dominant and chases and pecks at the smaller one. The latter may have lost the feathers in a fight on the floor. Such a bitter fight does not happen often, I have only seen it once, and it can be avoided in an aviary which is spacious enough to allow the birds to get out of each other's way.
  2. Or the bird has suffered some kind of shock and shed all the feathers at the same time, not one after the other during several days. (Is there a cat, a dog, a child nearby?)
  3. Or the smaller bird has ectoparasites: Red bird mites, feather mites, or lice. In this case you should have noticed some scratching going on, and I would wonder why the bigger Zebra Finch doesn't get them, too.
    Remedy: Dust or paint the plumage with a safe (!) insecticide; clean and thoroughly disinfect the aviary including perches, nests etc. while the birds are somewhere else.
  4. Or there's is something basically/genetically wrong with the smaller bird: The fact that this female is distinctly smaller than the other may be the result of mass production e. g., which usually leads to weak offspring susceptible to all kinds of diseases.

As for the diet: millet (different varieties) should be the main part of it. Cuttle-bones and honey sticks are not usually appreciated, but sand, bird grit or/and a special mineral preparation are important for digestion and as sources of minerals and trace elements. Offer fresh (!) millet sprouts, chickweed or dandelion every now and then. For more detailed information, read my book and special literature on bird diseases. If you discover new clues, please write again.

Problem I believe the mystery was solved over the weekend. When I got up Saturday morning, I noticed that the smaller one was sitting in the food dish. When she left, there was an egg. I had read on another site (or maybe yours), that if no nesting material is available, females have been known to pull out their own feathers which I think is what she has done.
I had not provided a nest or nesting material -- some sites said you should for comfort purposes, others said you should not to discourage egg laying. There's a lot of conflicting information out there. I went to a pet store and bought both a nest and nesting material which they both love. By the next morning it was lined and there was another egg. The feather plucking has appeared to stop and everyone, including me, is happy.
Thanks very much for your help.
Sherry Wilson

Comment I'm glad your problem seems to be solved.
There is indeed conflicting information about nests and nesting material, both in magazines and on Internet sites. This does not primarily reflect knowledge about Zebra Finches, but simply different standpoints:

An aviculturist's egocentric view is only interested in advantages for husbandry, i. e. what is good for himself. He is convinced that he himself "breeds" the new animal generations, e. g., he will seperate the young males and females to prevent pair bonding and mating and establish "suitable" pairs himself, he will prefer hand-feeding to parent-rearing, or he will remove all nests and nesting material in order to prevent nest building and clutches (which may be thwarted by the birds, as you see).

A bird fancier's or naturalist's nature-centred view is primarily concerned with the animals' natural behaviour, i. e. what's good for his or her pets. He or she knows that, after all, it's the birds which do the breeding, and will let them select their partners for optimal reproduction.
Since Zebra Finches naturally prefer nests to perches to spend the night, a responsible keeper will always provide nests and/or nesting material for "sleeping nests". The first prerequisite for an optimal care is, of course, a spacious aviary ...

Remark Hello again! Just one final report. Both of the ladies are happy. The nest is indeed very popular and proved to be a wise purchase. I just wanted to drop you a line and let you know that the feather plucking has stopped and I can see new growth appearing.

Thanks again for your advice.
sherry wilson

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