The Benefits of Selective Finch Breeding




The term 'Selective Breeding' for some people conjures up thoughts of altering the appearance of species away from their natural form to something very unnatural. That is achievable if it is the direction in which the breeder wishes to head, but it certainly need not be the case.

In aviculture, the examples of Budgie and Zebra Finch show standards no longer closely resembling the wild forms of these common species are often cited as clear evidence that selective breeding should not be pursued with less domesticated species.

Selective breeding can undoubtedly be a very powerful tool to alter any heritable characteristic in a chosen direction over several generations. We only need to consider all the breeds of domesticated animals and the many varieties of cultivated plants to recognise just how very different to their original wild forms most of these have become. This is due, primarily, to the power of targeted selective breeding prior to recent advances in genetic engineering technology.

THE POSITIVES


Selective breeding can also be used to achieve unambiguously positive outcomes, such as restoring the natural features of species and subspecies when captive populations have digressed too far from their original forms. It can powerfully contribute to positive breeding outcomes and even be used to overcome common behavioural challenges in aviculture.

The relatively early sexual maturity of most finch species can lead to significant progress in selective breeding programs over just a few short years.

To me, there is no valid reason not to strive to selectively improve favoured features of our favourite species. Pairing any male to any female based purely on the most readily available pair you can get your hands on cannot reasonably be expected to give anything other than a low and totally random chance of breeding young birds which are exceptional examples of their species. Nor is this approach in any way a more natural way to breed birds.

My earlier years of finch breeding were preoccupied with trying to breed species which I had not previously kept and striving to breed each of them productively. I didn’t place any great emphasis on the specific qualities of the birds I purchased, nor on the individual attributes of the young birds bred. The primary focus and over-riding measure of success in my finch breeding at that time was to consistently try to fill holding aviaries with as many young birds as I could possibly breed. Productivity is still an obviously essential goal in breeding birds now, but just as important is to aim to continually improve the quality of each species I breed with the ultimate goal of consistently breeding top-quality specimens of each species.

By making a conscious decision to adopt a quality ethic with our finch breeding, we can take our hobby to a higher level without feeling an obligation to discard our favoured common species to make way for new species. We can find new challenges within the species we have previously bred successfully by aiming to improve them and consistently breed the very best examples of that species we have ever seen.

In pursuing that process, we can learn much more about particular species which we previously felt that we already knew well.

STANDOUTS


We have all seen individual birds which take our breath away with their incredible beauty. I am not necessarily talking about the beauty of the species overall, rather the standout individual birds within each species which really command our attention with their obvious quality. These are the very best quality birds to aim to breed, and which only a targeted selective breeding effort can produce with consistency.

New aviculturists often ask me how to tell the difference between a top-quality finch and an average one. The answer is very subjective as we all have different opinions regarding how a perfect specimen of each species should look. My answer is usually to ask the observer to examine their birds (and/or those of other breeders) of their favoured species and identify which individual bird is the most attractive standout specimen in the collection. Closely examine that bird to determine exactly which physical features stand out to you as particularly attractive and which make it the best example of that species.

Therein lies your target list of features to select for.

THE PROCESS


The main procedural difference in starting a selective breeding program is that it is vital to allow all the young birds bred for the season to mature into adult plumage prior to selecting future breeding stock and disposing of surplus birds. Hence, adequate holding aviary space is crucial.

By making selection decisions only after all young birds have completed the adult moult, any visual differences between them can be confidently attributed to a genetic difference rather than the possibility of one bird being at an earlier stage of physical development. The ultimate goal of this annual selection is to correctly identify the very best birds for your chosen checklist of traits and retain them as breeding stock for next breeding season. If partly coloured birds are compared to fully coloured ones, it is possible to overlook your very best bird and dispose of it as it may not yet have had the chance to adequately present its best features.

In just a few short consecutive breeding seasons of retaining only the very best quality young birds to breed from, significant improvements in the chosen features are assured. As the best quality young birds surpass the quality of existing breeders, those substandard breeders should be culled from the breeding program, unless they consistently produce progeny of superior quality to themselves.





MAKING CHOICES


Many of the exotic species we currently keep in Australia are a genetic cocktail of the numerous natural subspecies which comprised their ancestral imported stock from last century. Our existing stocks of Saint Helena’s, Ruddies, Melbas, Orange-breasts, Cut-throats, Green Singers, Strawberry Finches and others exhibit significant variation in their plumage features which is directly attributable to the mix of different subspecies traits.

Very few specimens of these species now kept here exhibit pure features of just one of their original subspecies.

If they do, it is most likely that the aviculturist who bred them consciously selected for and improved those features. Some are a blend of 10 or more subspecies. What we see of these species in Australian aviaries is not at all natural. I contend that the only way to have a collection of one of these species resembling their natural form(s) is to identify the features of a subspecies, select breeding stock exhibiting some of the traits typical of that subspecies and then select future breeders from each generation of young birds which are the best examples for those chosen distinctive traits.

For example, our Orange-breasts in Australia are a mixture of two subspecies. Amandava subflava clarkei from southern Africa, is slightly larger and more golden yellow on the breast of the male and very soft pale yellow on the front of the female. A. s. subflava from northern Africa, is slightly smaller and much more intensely orange on the front of the male, while females are brighter buttercup yellow compared to clarkei. I much prefer the appearance of A. s. subflava features, so I deliberately target my selections toward the smallest and most intensely bright orange-fronted males and the more vibrant buttercup yellow females. By doing this consistently each breeding season, these features become significantly more pronounced over a few years.

PLUMAGE


Plumage traits are an obvious feature which can be improved, and these can be exaggerated or reduced as desired through targeted breeding stock selection.

Starting with only average-quality Painted Finches, I once developed a stud of full red-fronted Painted Finches within just five years. The males had unbroken wing-to-wing red frontal colour and females had attractive red facial masks and belly splashes.

These birds were very highly sought after by other finch breeders.

BODY SIZE


Body size is another highly heritable trait. Many aviculturists default to large body size in all species, but there a few species where smaller body size should be preferred. Orange-breasts are the smallest Estrildid finch we have in aviculture and, apart from this being a unique distinction for them, selecting for reduced body size is also a way of ensuring that Orange-breasts are free from possible hybrid Red Strawberry Finch genes. Red Strawberry Finches are a slightly larger closely related species and their hybrids tend to pass on strong orange/red frontal colour. If you are selecting for strong colour and avoiding the chance of hybrid genes, select the smallest and brightest birds as breeding stock.

This also applies to Tri-coloured Parrotfinches and Red Siskins, where there have been some hybrids with larger Blue-faced Parrotfinches and Yellow Siskins respectively. The smaller Tri-colours and Red Siskins also tend to be the more intensely coloured birds due to the yellow (intensive) and buff (frosted) feather principle (as in canary breeding) in which birds with intensive feather structure have shorter and more intensely pigmented feather filaments, tending to appear as smaller and brighter birds.

If breeding Blue-capped Waxbills, I would certainly select for larger body size to avoid the possibility of any hybrid Red-cheeked Cordon genes, which have been an issue in some collections. Pure Bluecaps are significantly larger than Red-cheeked Cordons, so this should be strongly considered both in initial acquisition of quality breeding stock and selecting the best breeding stock from young birds thereafter.



 

GOULDIAN FINCHES


When breeding any finches which are naturally comparatively big birds, such as Gouldians or Diamond Firetails, I select strongly for larger body size because this is an attractive natural feature for them.

Gouldian Finches are a tropically evolved species whose natural breeding season coincides with winter in southern Australia. Gouldian hatchlings lack down and most Gouldian parents will cease to brood their young after 9–10 days. If nights are particularly cold at the 10-day-old mark, young Gouldians are especially vulnerable to premature death, especially if they don’t enjoy the extra body warmth of a large clutch of siblings to cuddle against.

Some, but very few, Gouldian parents will brood their young in the nest until they are feathered. A finch breeder friend recently recounted that he once had a pair of Gouldians who brooded their young until fledging. He purposely selected their young as breeders, hoping that they would also do this, which they did. From these birds, he ultimately established his whole Gouldian collection as full-term brooders.

AGGRESSION


Aggressive temperament is a significant management issue with several finch species.

Cuban Finches are a common example in which some individuals will tolerate their own progeny sharing their aviary well beyond independence, sometimes all the way to adult maturity. Other pairs will viciously attack and kill their own young even slightly prior to them becoming fully independent.

I have had many pairs of Cubans fitting both categories. However, reassuringly, I have found this temperament is highly heritable. Without exception, I have found that young Cubans whose parents tolerate them sharing the breeding enclosure beyond the first stages of the adult moult will invariably also become tolerant of their own young when retained as breeders.

This warrants further experimentation with other species prone to aggression.

CONCLUSION


Selective breeding is an under-utilised but very powerful tool available to all aviculturists. It can be used to improve desirable features of the birds we breed, restore natural subspecies traits lost through domestication, avoid hybrid genes, address common mortality challenges arising from seasonal factors and aggression issues.

There are many other potential benefits which selective breeding could possibly deliver. With some lateral thinking and experimentation, many existing challenges in aviculture may be overcome with thoughtful targeted selective breeding programs. I see great potential for work on sex ratios of young, fertility, and clutch size as selection projects. I strongly urge all aviculturists to consider how your birds may benefit from your own selective breeding efforts.
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