It may be a difficult art, but the results are among the most striking to be seen anywhere in birdkeeping. PADDY DUNNE lays out the basics of hybridising two species of finch

IN LAST week’s issue (April 1, page 7), I related the basics of creating mules: crosses between a British hardbill and a canary. There are other challenges to be mastered in the British bird fancy, when a fancier has achieved success with breeding pure pairs of native birds and canary mules. The creation of British bird hybrids is arguably one of the greatest challenges in the fancy and those who pursue it can endure much heartache, because successes can be few and far between. Those that achieve success in breeding these crosses and get them to the show bench are to be applauded. 

Quality time

As with mules, the key to successful hybrid breeding is to ensure the intended pair have as much time as possible to acclimatise to each other. When a pair of young birds have been chosen, keep them together in the same accommodation from December and gradually reduce the perching options so that they must spend time in relatively close contact. Most hardbills will start to show signs of wanting to nest from late April onwards and if an obvious pair bond has grown between the two partners it can be beneficial to create further keenness by actually separating them for a week or two in the middle of April but keeping them in sight and ear shot of each other. During this time nesting sites can be installed in their breeding accommodation and, with luck, breeding behaviour and fertile eggs will result on their reunion. 

Of course, there is no hard-and-fast rule to when birds will achieve true breeding condition; it varies from individual to individual and from species to species. If the planned pairing consists of a relatively early nesting species (say a crossbill) and a late nester (say a goldfinch), then one of the first challenges the breeder faces is in trying to hold the early nester back or bring a late nester on so that it is in better sync with its early-nesting partner. Controlling diet and light levels will all help. 

Foster for preference

If all goes well and a pair produce fertile eggs, my advice would be to ensure these are removed and fostered out to breeding canary pairs. Fertility and the hatch rate of any eggs produced by hybridising pairs is likely to be low, so to leave all the eggs in one basket, so to speak, is a high-risk strategy. I would seek some insurance and divide the eggs between canaries that are proven parents. Aim to remove any eggs laid early in the day to avoid potential damage from inexperienced young birds. 

If you are starting out, the goldfinch has a track record as a reliable hybridiser, with the cocks accepting female partners of several other species. Sexing goldfinches can be difficult, but there are a few signs to look out for. The blaze above the cock’s eye will extend beyond the eye while in the hen it cuts back behind it. Additionally, the shoulder butts and dark head feather on the cock are solid black, while the hen’s have a brown suffusion to them. 

Starter pairings

The goldfinch x greenfinch is a good pairing for the new hybrid breeder to begin with and examples that display good evidence of both sides of the parentage often do well on the show bench. 

The goldfinch x redpoll has a reputation for good colour and a steady nature, which again makes it a potential show exhibit. A good example should be a rich chestnut colour with strong flank markings and red plumage extending well down the chest. Colour feeding will enhance their appearance no end.

•Paddy Dunne has kept canaries since 1939. Today he keeps Norwich, Fife and colour canaries.