Above: A pair of orange-breasted chestnut-flanked white (CFW) zebra finches. Dave’s coveted pair also had the black-breasted mutation, an uncommon and interesting combination. Of course they had to be the ones to fall victim to rodents! 

Take your eye fractionally off the ball, and birdkeeping tends to turn round and bite you… DAVE BROWN shares a lesson in husbandry that can’t be learned and applied often enough.

WHEN things are ticking along, it is easy to get complacent: a trait that should be avoided in birdkeeping, if disasters are to be averted.

Back in the summer, a new pair of stylish, orange-breasted, black-breasted, chestnut-flanked white (CFW) zebra finches, bred by Dutch fancier John Spijker, arrived in my birdroom. In appearance, they were certainly different, with the vivid orange usually seen in cock orange-breasted/black-breasted combos taking on a subtler, diluted peach shade. Even better, both showed reasonable UK type with a bit of head quality and size.

I had high hopes for the pair and, for several months, both birds lived happily in the birdroom flights. Thoughts of lots of eye-catching chicks in the weaning cages started to form in my mind. As is often the way with birdkeeping and good old Mother Nature, literally as my instincts told me the pair looked fit and ready to pair up in a few days, I came out to the birdroom the next morning to find the cock on his back on the flight floor, stone cold dead. It took a while to get over the shock, because there was no warning and he looked a picture of health. Yet these things happen and, if you keep livestock, inevitably you are going to have some dead stock, too.

Two days later, I came out to the birdroom to find a useful lightback hen dead on the flight floor. Two seemingly unrelated deaths was more than unlucky and I was starting to come up with various theories. There was no sign of illness among the affected birds or their companions and an issue with feed would have affected birds in greater numbers.

Then I noticed a few bobbles of the insulation I line the birdroom roof with dotted around the wire of the air vent that’s fitted in the upper part of the dividing wall between my finch and canary rooms. Some investigation in the canary room led to the discovery of more bits of insulation on the tops of the cages. This was accompanied by a scattering of mouse droppings. The conclusion was that I had a mouse living in a section of the canary room ceiling. It had probably accessed the finch room side via the vent, and then spent a couple of nights clambering around the wire on the tops of the flights that is unlined to allow for some skylights. This caused the roosting birds to panic and probably led to the casualties as they flew up and banged their heads or necks on the flight tops.

The introduction of a couple of traps around the two obvious escape points swiftly dealt with the offending rodent. Having removed both the ceiling and wall panel, it would appear the mouse gained entry via the guttering and then slipped through a gap in one of the ridges of the onduline roofing, because there is no obvious chewing in the wall insulation.

So here is where complacency steps in. Dotted around my garden are strategically placed bait traps that I’d hoped would see off any pests before they make it to the birdroom. Of course, this only works if you check them regularly and ensure they are actually baited. With the nights drawing in the task started to be neglected, as did the pruning of a buddleia bush that grows on the lane at the back of my birdroom. Despite listening to it scraping on the roof when the wind was up and thinking “I must prune back the overhang”, several weeks later I’d not got around to it. This probably provided the mouse with a climbing frame up to the birdroom guttering and roof.

Finally, with only a single pair of choice birds, I should have thought a little more about conditioning them earlier and got them paired up to capitalise on the investment!

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