We sit in our gardens and enjoy the birds who come to our feeders, delight in their antics and bask in the glory of their songs. But did you know that you can keep British Birds in a cage or aviary under the right conditions?
The law on the most common birds, such as the Greenfinch, Goldfinch and Bullfinch, is simple. You can only buy these birds if they have a special closed ring on one leg which are obtained from one of the two main British Bird councils. These are the BBC and the IOC. These rings are put on the chicks at around 5 days after hatching and prove the birds were captive bred.
You can gift someone a un-rung bird as long as you have records to prove it was captive bred. This would usually be the ring number of the two parent birds. But it is illegal to sell birds without rings.
As a general rule, British captive bred birds are more reticent around humans than species such as canaries. This can be overcome with interaction from an early age, but this runs the risk of abandonment by parents. Therefore, in my opinion, British birds are best enjoyed as a visual and auditory spectacle as opposed to birds physically interacted with.
One of the most frequently found species is the Goldfinch. This stunning little bird with its black and gold wings and bright red face will live happily in a large breeding cage or aviary. They are partial to weed seeds as well as a proper seed mix and particularly love dandelions, teasel and chickweed.
Goldfinches start breeding in May and build a nest of moss, twigs and cotton wool. They can have two rounds a year, though the males have a reputation for sometimes being destructive with his eggs. This can be combated by having two hens to each cock, which will meanwhile one is on eggs; he can be chasing the other around and vice versa.
Another popular species from the garden to the cage is the greenfinch. These solid looking, olive green birds may not be the most colourful in our gardens, but they have a fine song and a great personality. They can be a little forceful around other birds, so check their background and watch them when first introducing them to a mixed set up.
Figure 1: Greenfinch Hen
The main problem with greenfinches is an illness called ‘going light’. This is a sulphur deficiency which sees the bird almost waste away. However, there are some good products available now to treat this at a young age to prevent this happening as the birds get older.
Greenies start breeding from late March to early April and like to use a nesting pan high off the ground and surrounded by some greenery. This mimics a tree environment and allows the hen to feel she has blended into her surroundings while incubating.
Special greenfinch mixes can be bought from suppliers and in addition, they can enjoy safflower, sunflower and hemp seeds, mung beans, defrosted garden peas, egg food and niger seed. They are sturdy birds so if kept in a cage; watch levels of fattening seeds such as sunflower and niger to avoid overweight birds.
I’m a bit biased towards the bullfinch; it has been my favourite bird since a child. That startling red breast, black head and neat little beak have always made them irresistible. As a bird to keep in captivity, they need room to fly around, so a cage is not always ideal. They can be prone to illness due to being overweight and poor diet, so are a little bit more specialist than the previously mentioned species.
Most successful breeders recommend a canary mix rather than a bullfinch mix to feed them with as there are less fatty seeds in a canary mix. They also enjoy treats such as blue maw, also known as poppy seeds, and apples. The whole dandelion plant can be offered, as long as it comes from a spot which has not been treated with any chemicals.
Bullfinches are easy to sex as the female is a brown bird compared with the flashy male. They start preparing to breed from March onwards and like a nesting pan with some greenery around to feel protected. While breeding, chickweed is offered to the birds to supplement their diet as well as sow thistle and groundsel. Bullfinches are good parents, with a female rarely abandoning her nest, though sometimes the male can get over-keen and toss chicks. If this happens, remove him from the area so he cannot have access to them again.
Depending on where in the country you live, the redpoll may not a familiar bird to you. There are two main types of Redpoll kept in aviculture, the Lesser and the Mealy. The Lessers are the smaller of the two and cross-breeding should be avoided.
Redpolls are great little birds to have in a mixed flight or large cage. They are busy, interesting subjects to watch but cause little trouble. They will happily live on a good seed mix supplemented with extras such as blue maw, niger seed, egg food and wild food such as dandelion and chickweed.
They will nest in nesting pans and like to build a nest up with coconut fibre or similar materials.
As far as breeding British goes, these species mentioned are just the tip of the iceberg. There are a great number of species kept in captivity as well as mutations of these birds and European versions, such as the Siberian Bullfinch and Goldfinch. These are very similar to our familiar British birds so when purchasing, always find out exactly which bird you are buying.
Figure 2: Male Skylark
Other species kept include crossbills, twite, linnet, siskin, chaffinch, sparrow, skylark, yellowhammer, brambling, thrush, blackbird, and the hawfinch. All of these birds have different characteristics and requirements, so always do your research. And then enjoy close encounters with the best Britain has to offer.