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Feeding Finches

By Laurie Hess, DVM Rick Axelson, DVM

Care & Wellness, Nutrition, Pet Services

General Information

Our knowledge of bird nutrition is constantly evolving, both from heightened awareness of the importance of nutrition and from increased research into birds’ different needs. As with all other animals, birds need a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Different species of birds often require different foods.

Should I be concerned about what my finch eats?

Proper nutrition is commonly neglected and critically important with pet birds. You should discuss your finch's nutritional needs with your veterinarian. Too often, owners assume they are feeding a proper diet to their finch when, in fact, they are not. Poor nutrition is a common cause of many health problems in birds. Birds' health depends on how well they are fed, so it is essential that bird owners are educated about what to feed their birds. Bird owners should stay in contact with their avian veterinarians to stay current on their birds’ nutritional needs.

What do finches eat in the wild? 

Finches are generally seed eaters that eat a variety of plant seeds, especially grasses. Depending on the season, seed availability, insects and certain fruits, berries, and other vegetation will constitute the bulk of a finch's diet during certain times of the year.

What should I feed my finch?

Like other birds, finches need to eat a balanced diet to stay healthy.

Wild finches eat a variety of seed types as different plants come into season. Commercial seed mixes may contain 2-5 different kinds of seeds. However, these seeds tend to be high-fat and nutrient-deficient and are not the same kinds of seeds that wild finches eat.  If these seed mixes are fed as the only source of food, this could lead to ill health and a potentially shortened lifespan. When offered a mixture of seeds, finches tend to selectively eat only 1 or 2 of their favorite types of seed. Millet seed is often chosen preferentially. Owners commonly offer millet in the form of a millet spray or branch. While tasty, millet offers little nutrition and is devoid of vitamins and minerals. Often, owners will also offer seed in the form of a honey stick containing seeds stuck together with honey on a stick of wood. Honey sticks, too, are delicious but are high in fat and deficient in nutrients. Other seed-based foods owners often feed finches include molting foods, song foods, and conditioning foods. These products offer different combinations of more seeds that finches like to eat but they have little nutritional value. Healthy molt, vibrant song, and strong body condition is best achieved by feeding a balanced diet of commercially available pelleted food along with smaller amounts of fresh produce and seeds. Seeds should only be a small part of a finch’s diet, not the entire diet. The bulk of the diet should be commercially available pelleted food along with a smaller amount of fresh produce and seed.

"Healthy molt, vibrant song, and strong body condition is best achieved by feeding a balanced diet of commercially available pelleted food with smaller amounts of fresh produce and seed."

As a guideline, most finches can be maintained on no more than 1 level teaspoon per bird per day of varied types of seeds offered in a shallow dish. If there is more than one finch in the cage, separate dishes should be used for each bird to ensure that all birds have equal access to food. In a flock situation, the feeding dish should be large enough to allow several birds to eat at one time.

There are several types of commercially formulated pelleted diets that come in various colors, shapes, and sizes and have been developed to meet all birds' nutritional needs. Pellets are the ideal diet for most birds. Seed-eating birds should be slowly weaned of seed-based diets and placed on pelleted diets. Pellets should ideally represent a minimum of 70% of the bird's diet. Mature finches raised on seed diets may be particularly difficult to convert to a pelleted diet. Hand-raised babies are generally the easiest to start on a pelleted diet.

Fruits and Vegetables 

Fruits, vegetables and greens should account for approximately 20% of the daily diet. Pale vegetables, with high water composition, such as iceberg lettuce or celery, offer very little nutritional value and should not be offered. Avocado is reported to be potentially toxic and should never be fed to a bird. Fruits and vegetables must be washed thoroughly to remove chemicals before feeding. They should be cut into very small pieces appropriate to the size of the bird. It is not necessary to take the skin off. Fruits and vegetables should be offered in a separate dish. If your bird appears to develop a fancy for one food item, reduce the volume of this food. Stop feeding that particular food item temporarily to encourage the bird to eat other foods.

Water 

Fresh clean water must be available at all times. Depending on the quality of your tap water, you might consider using bottled water. Dishes should be cleaned thoroughly every day with soap and water.

How do I convert my bird to a pelleted diet?

Converting seed-eating birds onto a formulated diet is not always easy. Initially, birds may not recognize pellets as food. Birds may be offered pellets in a bowl separate from any other food, ideally, first thing in the morning, when they are hungriest. If they do not eat pellets right way, birds may be slowly weaned off seeds over a period of a few weeks, while having pellets constantly available in a separate dish. Pellets and seed should not be mixed together, as birds will simply pick out the seeds they like best. It may take days, weeks, or even months to modify a bird's diet. Pelleted food may be crushed up into a powder and sprinkled over moist table food to get a bird to taste the pellets. Gradually, pellets may be crushed less fine and mixed with smaller amounts of table food until table food is no longer needed to get the bird to eat pellets. Small birds, such as finches, should be weighed daily as they are converted over to pelleted diets to ensure that they are not losing large amounts of weight. Converting a finch to a predominantly pelleted diet can be a stressful time for both you and your finch. Consult your veterinarian if you encounter any problems with this transition or with the health of your bird.

What about people food?

As a rule, any wholesome, nutritious food that you and your family eat, your bird can also eat but in very small quantities. Follow the general guidelines discussed above. Occassionally, some birds may enjoy a very tiny amount of lean cooked meat, fish, egg or cheese. Dairy products should be consumed in moderation, as birds are lactose-intolerant. Junk food such as chocolate, very salty foods (chips, pretzels, popcorn), as well as products containing caffeine and alcoholic beverages, may be toxic to birds and should not be offered.

Will my bird have any different nutritional needs throughout its life? 

Birds that are extremely young, stressed, injured, laying eggs or raising young may have certain requirements. There are specially formulated pelleted foods available for birds with specific nutritional requirements. Consult your veterinarian regarding these situations.

Does my bird need extra vitamins, minerals or amino acids?

Your veterinarian can help you assess your bird's diet and its particular needs. In general, birds that are eating pellets as the basis of their diets do not need supplements. Specific vitamins or minerals may be more important at various times during a bird's life (e.g., when a finch is laying eggs, calcium supplementation is required). Calcium supplements are available if your finch is determined to be deficient.

"In general, birds that are eating pellets as the basis of their diets do not need supplements."

Powdered supplements are often regarded as more stable than water additives. If your veterinarian recommends supplements for your finch, they should be applied directly onto moist food. Placing these powders on seeds or dried foods is of little value, since it will ultimately end up on the bottom of the food dish as birds discard the shells.

Does my finch need gravel or grit?

Controversy continues over the need for gravel. Previously, it was believed that grit was necessary for the breakdown of food in the gizzard to aid in digestion. This is true for birds that ingest seeds whole, shell and all. However, many birds, including finches, remove the shell before ingesting the seed kernel. Birds that eat this way do not need grit in their diet. When over-eaten, grit can cause gastrointestinal tract obstruction and interfere with digestion.

What pointers should I remember about feeding my finch?

  • Always monitor the amount of food eaten every day by each bird, especially if birds are housed together.
  • Offer fresh water every day.
  • Offer fresh fruits and vegetables every day.
  • Clean all food and water dishes daily.
  • If a bird rejects a food one day, it may accept it another day. Keep trying!

  Some suggested food items include:

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