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Fostering - The Ins and Outs


What is a Foster?:
Fosters are birds willing to take on and raise eggs and chicks that are not their own. It could be that a same species pair fosters a clutch of abandoned eggs or babies, or a pair of birds who fosters a clutch of eggs/babies that are a completely different species.

What kinds of birds will foster other species?
The two most commonly used finches to foster other species are Zebra finches and Society finches. When it comes to using another species to foster Gouldians, I recommend Society finches because I have experience with using them. The best option is to first try to foster the eggs/babies under another pair of Gouldians - this is not always possible, though.

There are those who feel fostered babies run the risk of "imprinting" on the other species, so much so that when sexually mature they will not bond with other members of their species. If the babies are separated from the fosters at weaning and placed in a flight with other Gouldians, I have not found this to be a problem. I would certainly urge owners to avoid housing fostered babies with the foster species after weaning, as this could run the risk of the birds not wanting to pair with their own kind later.

"Society Finch Diseases" - Campylobacter and Cochlosoma
Society finches (and other African species) can potentially be carriers of two diseases which do not negatively impact the Societies or their own babies, but, if the Gouldians are exposed to them, will cause fatalities with babies and even with adults. These are Campylobacter (a bacteria) and Cochlosoma (a protozoa). I have been fortunate enough to have never encountered these diseases in fosters.

The best advice I can offer if you intend to have societies on-hand to foster: try to get birds from Gouldian breeders who use them to foster as well. You should also "test" them out first, by allowing them to raise a clutch of Gouldian babies. If the Gouldians successfully make it through their first molt, the Societies are probably clean. If you have chicks dying consistently at around 10 days, it is possible your societies are infected with Campylobacter. Cochlosoma usually kills the chicks at a later age, with their health noticeably declining just before or after they fledge.

Some babies just do not thrive, and it's not necessarily that the societies are carrying disease, which is why it's important to stress that this would be seen chronically in multiple (if not all) chicks in the clutch - not just one baby.

If your chicks are dying off with your fosters - get rid of them. There is no sense trying to medicate them. Anecdotal opinion is that these birds will be carriers (can continue to pass it to other birds) for the rest of their lives. Whether there is any validity to this, I do not know. Aside from them continuing to be carriers, is it really worth taking the chance? Give them away as pets, and make it known that it is possible they could be carriers of these two diseases.

Why Foster?
The decision to foster is usually a decision made because of the vast amount of information available that describes Gouldians as generally "bad parents," or "difficult to breed." While I do not consider Gouldians to be a "beginner" finch, by any means, I do not really feel they are deserving of either aforementioned title. I would consider waxbills like Lavenders or Cordon Bleus to be "difficult to breed." They would make breeding Gouldians look like a cake-walk!

That being said, having a pair of birds available to use as fosters in emergency situations is not necessarily a bad idea. Although Gouldians are not incredibly difficult to breed, there are a few behaviors associated with new parents that can leave owners frustrated, upset, and at their wits end.

Chick Tossing and Egg Abandonment:
The two most common problems breeders face when pairing up Gouldians are egg abandonment and chick tossing. For the most part, the birds I have had who have tossed babies have all been males, and they are usually young, first-time breeders. If given sufficient opportunity to attempt to raise a clutch on their own, this behavior appears to disappear. It can sometimes take between 3-4 clutches for a bird to become a truly dependable parent, and even then there can be problems in the future you aren't expecting.

Egg abandonment, again, is usually a behavior associated with inexperience. There are so many factors that could cause a pair to abandon, that it is best to approach each scenario on a case by case basis and try to determine what went wrong, so that for the next clutch you are better prepared. In these situations, having a pair of fosters around can be the difference between life and death when it comes to saving a clutch of eggs or babies.

Why do they toss their young/abandon their eggs?
There are a many different speculations as to why either of the above happens. Parents may abandon eggs because they are inexperienced/young, become overly nervous or stressed, or lack adequate diet and nesting conditions conducive to raising young. In order to avoid provoking the behavior, you should avoid disturbing new parents while they are nesting - including while they are building the nest, during egg laying, and incubation; especially if they are first time parents. Frequent nest checks disturb the parents and can result in them feeling threatened or nervous as opposed to relax and safe in their nest.

How do I set up a foster pair of society finches?
Well, first you'll need society finches, obviously! There are many combinations possible to have a successful pair or group of fosters. I have had success using the following combos:
Two Males
Two Females and One Male

Having females can sometimes complicate things because they will often lay their own eggs in addition to the ones you have given them. For this reason, it may be beneficial to get the birds started first, and once they lay a clutch of eggs, replace them with fake eggs.

This way you will have a clutch being incubated that you can transfer potentially abandoned eggs or babies under if necessary, without having to worry about producing more society finches in the process.

Society finches fledge faster than Gouldians. This can be a problem because if you put gouldian babies in with society babies, when the society babies fledge, the parents may stop feeding the gouldians remaining in the nest. You also run the risk of the parents favoring their own babies over the other species.

You can purchase finch-size fake eggs from a number of online websites. My birds have always accepted fake eggs without issue or complaint. The fake eggs would also be necessary to get a pair of males into nesting mode. The best method is to allow them to build a nest, and then add an egg a day until 5-6 eggs are present and they will typically begin incubating as normal.

Once you've got your birds - you'll need to make sure they are housed in a cage that is adequate to rearing young. The smallest size I would recommend is a 30x18x18 breeding cage.

Most importantly - remember that your societies are not machines. You should not allow your societies to foster any more clutches than you would normally allow a single pair to rear. The guideline is three clutches per year. They need to follow a cycle similar to your gouldians. They should be allowed the same opportunity to molt and rest between the breeding season, and they should be offered the same well-balanced diet.

Occasionally you may have a baby that is abandoned at an older age. In these cases, I find it useful to supplement the baby 1-2 times during the day to ensure it is getting enough food if the fosters do not immediately accept it.The formula I use and would recommend is LeFaber's Handfeeding Formula - as its primary ingredient is rice flour and not corn, which seems to be digested a little better.

If I am supplementing, I either use a 10cc Pipet, or a handfeeding syringe with a flexible tip. The pipets are generally understood to be single-use disposable items that should be discarded after one use, whereas the syringes can be sanitized and used more than once. For sanitizing between feedings, you should clean the syringe fully after every use and sanitize in boiling water before the next feeding. Yeast infections are nearly unavoidable despite the many lengths individuals go to sanitizing, so I recommend purchasing some Medistatin, which is the commercially available form of Nystatin in the U.S., an anti-fungal powdered medication that can be pre-mixed into the dry formula at a ratio of 1/4 teaspoon Medistatin to 100g of Handfeeding formula. This dosage prevents the yeast/thrush the formula seems to predispose the babies to from developing in the crop.

The temperature the formula when fed is very important, and can also affect the development of yeast and the flow of the food from the crop to the stomach. If it is too cold, it will most likely not digest fast enough and start to ferment. If it is too hot, it will burn the sensitive tissue lining the crop and potentially cause serious infection or injury. In order to get the proper temperature for the formula, what I do is mix the formula in a small shot glass to the proper consistency. I then suspend the shot glass in a coffee cup filled with water at about 115-120 degrees Fahrenheit - typically achieved by microwaving the water in the coffee cup for 1 minute. A double heater system like this brings the temperature of the formula up slowly, and also maintains the temperature so that it does not cool off too quickly before you can offer it.
Whatever you do, do not microwave the hand feeding formula, as this can create extreme hot spots that can seriously burn the chick!

Since finches can be fed directly down the back of the mouth, you don't need to worry about it "going down the wrong tube" or inserting the pipet (or other feeding utensil) down the wrong side of the throat.The most important thing is to let the baby grab hold and then slowly dispense. If the babies are very young, my advice is to get a tiny glob of food on the end of the feeding utensil and touch it to the baby's begging mouth. The baby should latch on and swallow the food on the end. Doing it this way virtually eliminates the risk of apisrating the chick.

If you start squeezing out formula before the baby latches on, you risk plunging the liquid directly into the mouth which risks aspiration. The wind pipe in baby gouldians (and other finches) is located directly behind the tongue. When the baby is begging, you can see the glottis (the flap of skin covering the opening to the trachea) open and close as the baby audibly begs (with each peep the flap opens). When you place the utensil in the mouth the baby will instinctively grab ahold and start to swallow, which closes the glottis and prevents the food from going into the trachea. If too much goes into the mouth at once, however, the baby may gasp to breathe and in turn, inhale the formula causing aspiration. This usually leads to death within 24-48 hours. The other way the baby can aspirate is if you plunge too much into the crop at once - the food will regurgitate back up into the mouth and the baby can choke this way as well.

Don't be totally paranoid though - in my experience, aspiration is one of those things that rarely happens except in extreme circumstances and is usually the result of accidentally over-feeding. Go slow, and you will not need to worry as much.

Here is a video of me supplementing a yellow baby with a hand feeding. This video is just for educational purposes - this baby was not abandoned, but was fostered under societies:

This video is narrated, and is showing me hand feeding a clutch of 7 babies. 4 from one pair, 3 from another. The four were a clutch of 6 that were abandoned on their 2nd day. By the time I realized it, they were very hungry, and very cold. I transferred them to another gouldian pair which had 1 egg hatch that day, and three others hatching within 24 hours. They accepted the babies, but they were also first time parents. By the time all eggs had hatched there were 10 babies in the nest. Too many mouths to feed. 3 died before the last two eggs hatched. There were 7 left. Unfortunately, my societies already had a baby they were taking care of (the single yellow baby featured in the video above), so it was not an option to transfer these newborns to them.The parents were just barely feeding the chicks, and only seemed to be feeding one or two. I believe the demands of the chicks became too much to bear, and on the 5th day they completely abandoned the clutch. I had been supplementing feedings throughout the day, and this may have led to their failure - but I wanted to do whatever I could to save the clutch.At the time I was unemployed, so I pulled the babies and hand fed them. I kept two of the babies, and one of them is working on her very own first clutch! It will be interesting to see how she parents :)

This video was taken on October 27th, 2008 - at this point the oldest baby is 11 days old, and the youngest is 9 days old.



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