Getting Started with Finches


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  Zebras and Societies are very healthy, hardy, adorable finches that require minimal care.
I chose starting with them because of those reasons. They come in many different varieties and colors, and make excellent “starter birds”. This web page will discuss what you need to get started with these finches.

The Cage

The first thing you will need is a place to keep the birds. The cage is very important. The spacing of the bars should be ½” or less or the birds will escape. Also birds fly horizontally more than they fly vertically so it is more important to choose a cage with more length than height when making your selection. Most of the cages sold in the “chain” pet stores for finches do not provide enough horizontal flight room. A number of breeder use 26”x 18”x 18” cages for keeping their zebras and societies. Personally I like the 30” x 18” x 18” size cage or larger, but either one will be large enough for the birds to get the amount of exercise they need to be healthy. I have also used 30” wide x 36” high x 18” deep cages.  These make excellent flight cages, but the extra height is not strictly necessary. My experience has taught me that I prefer the cage doors that slide up and down.  It is easier for me to get things in and out of the cage. I’ve had one too many escapees from cages that have doors that swing open. But many people really like the swinging door over the sliding door.

There are many sources for good cages.  The prices range from reasonable to WOW!  Because of the number of cages I use, I am always looking for good quality cages at reasonable prices. I have found that Ebay is an excellent source for breeder cages.   Another good source of cages (including the larger flight cages) is Country Feathers.

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The next thing after selecting a cage is to look at the perches. Most cages come with what I call “pet shop” show perches. These perches are arranged from side to side, one at the front and one at the back of the cage, making it easier for people to see the birds as they sit on the perch. Perches of this type restrict the flight of the bird to the depth of the cage for flight, because the birds tend to fly from the perch to the front of the cage and back again. You can cut and notch the perches that come with the cage so that they fit front to back in the cage. You can also purchase wooden dowels of different sizes at a craft or hobby store and cut them to length. This arrangement encourages the birds to fly from one side of the cage to another, using the length of the cage to full advantage. When placing the perches in the cage you want to keep them more than 3 ½” away from the sides so that there is room for their tails without hitting the bars. Another thing you may want to do is to place one perch toward the top of the cage and the other one closer to the bottom than the allowing the flight to be diagonal.

The perches that come with the cages are usually made of soft wood. Soft wood perches have a slight disadvantage. That disadvantage is that the bird’s nails do not have a hard enough surface to help naturally trim their nails. So you will on occasion have to trim their nails for them, (more so for society finches than zebra finches). You can reduce the amount of nail trimming by tossing those perches and doing one of two things:

  1. Buying natural perches at the pet shop (which can get expensive)
  2. Cutting some branches ½” diameter or less from some trees. It is important that these trees must not have been sprayed with chemicals (fertilizer, insecticide, fungicide, etc).  After they have dried, they need to be sealed.  I have used clear nail polish for this purpose, but you could also use a water based interior sealer. 

The varying sizes of the natural branches help to exercise the finch’s feet, which is good for them. However, if you chose to cut your own branches I would soak them for at least one hour in a 10% bleach and water solution and then air drying them for at least 24 hours before using them. This way you will kill off any bugs or germs that nature may be hiding. The placement of the perches is more important then the type of perches, which you can change at a later date. On my larger cages I have also made a “swinging perch” by cutting a thick (7/8 or 1 inch) dowel about 18 inches long and putting a coffee cup hook on one end. We drilled three holes through the dowel and inserted some smaller dowels in the holes, so they are at right angles main dowel. Hooking it to the top of the cage it gives them a series of staggered perches which swing.

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Homey Touches

When in the wild, these birds will often use the natural foliage to hide from predators. Although it is not strictly necessary, I have found that they feel more secure when they have some foliage in the cage. I have tried using real plants (spider plants were especially good for this purpose) but the birds did take a toll on the plants, and the clean up was difficult. Finally, I settled on artificial plants (leaves, vines, etc) that can be found at any larger craft store. This is not strictly necessary:  the birds will be fine without the foliage.  However, it does help reduce stress and as an added bonus it allows you to view them in a more "natural" setting.

The birds also seem to be happier and feel more secure when they are not totally in the open. You can achieve this by building (or buying) a “box cage”, which is a solid box with the front replaced by a normal bird cage front. However, I have achieved the same effect on regular cages by covering the sides and back with fabric. I attach the fabric to the top of the cage with binder clips from the office supply store. In addition to helping the birds to feel more secure, these fabric strips help to contain the hulls and seeds that the birds scatter about.  They also help to keep the walls clean.  They can easily be thrown in the washer for a quick cleanup.

Food and Water Dishes

The next thing to look at about the cage is the food and water dishes that come with the cage. Most cages have what I call the “Letter D” cup shaped dishes. You can use them, but they do have a disadvantage. Zebras and Societies love to turn these seed dishes into a nest and the water quickly becomes a bath and “poop soup” and needs to be changed a lot each day. I prefer to use a water fount that hangs on the outside of the cage with a little finger sticking into the cage. That little finger doesn’t allow them to bath in their drinking water and reduces the odds of it becoming a bathroom for them, which of course means it reduces your work. Some people have managed to train their birds to drink from the water bottle that hangs of the size of the cage. This is even better if you can do it. The big trick with both of these is to get the birds to start drinking from them. To do that you will need to place a water dish next to or under the water founts until you see them drinking from the fount. Also do not place them under perches. Personally, I like to place them with a stone or small rock under them so that the bird hops up onto the rock to get its water. This also helps to trim their nails. I also have found a covered water dish that I put inside the cage which provides water without allowing them to "dirty" their water.  These dishes only need to be changed once every two or three days.

For a seed dish I use anything from a plastic lid from a peanut butter or mayonnaise jar to the 2”clay flower pot bottoms. The thing you want to ensure is that it is deep enough to hold some seeds but not high enough for them to start thinking about nesting in it. Also you should ensure it is narrow enough to fit through the cage door without spilling the seeds. I have also used “hopper type” seed feeders. One type I put inside my larger cages is actually intended for wild birds outdoors. The other hangs outside the cage
through an open door.

You should also have some type of bird bath for the cage. This can be a deeper dish filled with water inside the cage, or the type sold in pet stores which “hang” in an open door. I found that sometimes these types need to be slightly modified to fit in some of the smaller doors, depending upon your bird cage. This can be easily done with a small hobby saw or "X-acto" knife. My husband uses his Dremel Moto-tool to cut them and it takes him about five minutes from start to finish.


  This photo shows an example of a cage holding several zebra finches.  Note the spray millet hanging on the left side of the cage.  You can also see the covered water dispenser (the clear cylinder with the conical top at the left side of the cage).  The gravity  seed feeder, designed as a yard feeder for wild birds, is located inside the cage. 

Water dispenser that hangs on the outside of the cage.


Seed hopper feeder hanging outside the cage.  Also shown is a bird bath hanging outside the cage.

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Food and Supplements

I have seen many web pages devoted to the proper feeding of finches. There are many different schools of thought, and it can be very confusing. In this section I am going to talk about the “bare minimum” for getting started, and the foods that I use. I also want to be clear that I do not have any financial interest in any of these companies or products, nor do I sell any bird products (although I do sometimes sell some of the birds I breed). 

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For bird seed many pet stores carry a lot of different brands of finch seed. Any of those will be fine for the birds. Just make sure that is for finches and softbills. In an emergency, you can use canary seed. However, the seeds marketed for hookbills are too hard for the finches to crack open and eat. There are also pellet foods available. Some people report great success with these diets. I tried one of them for my finches, and most of my birds would not eat them. Those that did exhibited excessive flatulence (yes, birds can do that).

To many new owners it looks like the birds waste a lot of seed or that they have a full dish. Zebras and Societies, along with many other finches remove the hulls off the seeds before they eat them. They will dump the hulls anywhere including back in the dish. So don’t be fooled into thinking the dish is full of seeds when it is full of hulls. Finches can starve to death this way. In fact, a finch can starve to death in as little as 36 hours.  This can occur even if food is available if they don't recognize it as food.  This might occur if you took a finch who was used to eating seeds and just gave it a pellet diet.  One thing I do once a day is to hold the seed dish in a brown paper lunch bag and gentle blow over the dish. The hulls will fly into the bag and the seeds will remain. This way I will see how much I need to refill the dish. For more information about seed mixes and food in general, you can look at my page on Feeding Finches.

The next thing you need before you bring the bird home is a cuttlebone and a small dish to hold some oyster shells. These are good sources of calcium, which is especially important for hens when they are laying eggs. They also like spray millet, which you should be able to get at any pet store. My birds eat spray millet like it was candy. I attach one or two sprigs of spray millet to the inside of the cage. You can buy special holders at the pet store, but I have found that spring clothespins work just as well. Zebras and societies also like a variety in their diet. You may want to try some veggies like peas (without their shells), carrots, and romaine lettuce. But remember they are mostly seed eaters so only give them a small amount. Some times the bird has been raised on seed and after offering it several times they just won’t try it. Zebras and Societies do not need insects, mealworms or other live food. 

I have another section of this website that talks about finch nutrition in more detail. 



Selecting your first finches

Now that the cage is ready it is time to select the birds. Both zebras and societies are social finches and you will need to start with at least two of them. Societies are hard to sex by looking at them. You need to watch and study their behavior. The male will puff himself up and sing. He even does a little dance when singing if he is trying to attract a female. The female will occasionally chirp but not very often. However, do not be fooled as I was when I was purchasing my first pair. The dominant male sang and the other one was very quiet so I thought I had a pair. It wasn’t until a few weeks later when I gave them a nest that I found out differently. The dominant male built the nest and flew up to the top perch and started to sing his heart out to the birds outside after he finished working on the nest. The next day the other one started working on the nest. I thought she was just putting her finishing touches on the nest before accepting it. Low and behold after she/he finished he flew up to the top perch and started singing to the birds outside. What a surprise!  But that is okay because two male societies can get along very nicely. I have a section of my site devoted to Society Finches. Another great source of information is

Zebra finches are fairly easy to sex. A male usually has cheek patches that are either orange, black, gray or fawn colored. They have horizontal black and white stripes from the bottom of the beak to the beginning of their belly. They have chestnut or black flanks with white spots. A hen will not have these except for the black, gray, or fawn cheek hens. Both have a tear mark that is usually black just behind the eyes and dark black, fawn or gray tails with white bars. Zebras come in many color mutations. The most common are the gray, fawn, and white with chestnut flanks. If you select a pair – 1 male and 1 female they will be fine all by them selves. If you decide to have a unisex cage, I recommend that you get at least three zebras of the same sex. Pairs of same sex Zebras usually do not get along. I also have a Zebra section on this website with more information.  As with the Society finches, I recommend for more detailed information, as well as the Zebra Finch pages on my website. 

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Sources for birds

There are many different sources to buy birds. Pet stores often have a bird section, and they may have finches for sale. My first pair came from one of the large chain pet stores. If you are looking for a special type of finch, your best bet will be from a breeder in your area. They can often be found through local bird clubs. In our area the bird shows usually include a sales area where people bring birds and accessories for sale. The costs of buying birds at a “bird mart” in a show are often comparable or even less expensive than buying them from a pet store.  In my experience, you quite often get a better quality bird and more varieties from which to make your selection if you purchase at a bird fair or mart, or directly from a breeder.

A final word:

Zebras and Societies are very easy keep and maintain. Their requirements are minimal and they will provide hours of enjoyment with their antics and their singing. Take the plunge and start with a pair: you won’t regret it.

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This site was last updated 10/14/07