Spotted a zebra finch today…

6 minute read

November 7, 2015, 11:42 PM

So I was on my layover right before starting my last trip of the night, when a bird flew into the bus shelter, and ran right into the glass sides.  The bird apparently didn’t hit very hard, because it never even appeared to act dazed.  It was like the Chumbawamba song “Tubthumping“, in that it got knocked down and then got up again.  And here it is:

A zebra finch, standing in the bus shelter

I immediately recognized what this bird was.  That was a zebra finch.  I knew what those were, because I used to raise them in the early 1990s (more on that in a moment).  This one, though, was out in the city, and was clearly having trouble finding its way out of the bus shelter.  It flew into the sides a few more times, and then flew into my behind once.  That had to have been an amusing sight for the passengers, watching their driver react loudly to a bird flying into his butt.  Of course, as my mother can tell you, I’ve never been one to take abrupt surprises like that quietly.  It eventually flew away, and thankfully not into the bus (I didn’t want to have to shoo it out).

Seeing this actually brought back pleasant memories.  When I was very young, back when we lived in New Jersey, my mother had zebra finches.  Then when we moved to Arkansas, we had parakeets (budgerigars), or, as my mother was fond of calling them, pigs on wings.  Their names were Sunny and Sky.  Sunny was a yellow female parakeet, and Sky was a blue male.  The parakeets were neat because you could give them some out-of-cage time, and they would stand around on your finger and such.  Kind of fun, but we eventually gave the parakeets away, because they were too much of a mess.

Then we had another experience with zebra finches in the early 1990s.  I wanted to have birds again, and so in January 1991, my mother got a male zebra finch that I kept in a cage in my room.  We bought it at Walmart (yes, Walmart sold more live pets than just fish until around 1992).  That first day was amusing: while we were trying to transfer it from the box that we got it in to the cage, it got out and flew all around the room.  Mom had to catch it and finally return it to the cage.

I also got a book about caring for zebra finches around the same time.  We quickly learned something from the book: zebra finches don’t do well alone.  It said:

Are you aware that Zebra Finches (like all Estrildidae species) cannot be kept singly?  Since these birds cannot become attached to humans, a Zebra Finch that is kept by itself misses very acutely the company of others of its kind and suffers from loneliness even more than many other (larger) cage birds.  The results are disturbed behavior, susceptibility to illness, and, all too frequently, death.

I showed Mom that, and soon we were back at Walmart again for a second bird.  This one was a female.  I named the newly formed pair Joel and Jane, after two swim instructors at the pool where I had lessons at the time.  And when we got Jane, Joel (the original bird) got out a second time, and had to be caught and returned to the cage.

Those two birds taught me a lot about responsibility: I had to feed them, water them, supply the grit and cuttlebones, and clean the poop out of the cage.  I usually did all of this before school in the morning.  I also got to breed them.  Mom got a wicker nest, and I hung it up in there.  We put some material in the bottom of the nest, and then the birds lined the rest with their own feces (lovely, no?).  And we had our first group of baby birds.  That was fun, watching them grow up.  We ended up forming a relationship with a pet store in Bentonville, where I sold most of the young birds for $1 each, as well as a trade for one.  With this first group, I was able to expand my flock.  I kept two birds from the original group, and then there was the bird that I got via a trade, and I got a third bird from Walmart.  So in total, I now had six finches: Joel and Jane (the original pair), Debbie and Ron (named for friends), and Bruce and Mary (named for my relatives).  Debbie and Bruce were the birds that I bred and kept, Ron was the other Walmart bird, and Mary was the trade bird.

I also quickly learned something about birds and space needs.  I had two dividable breeder cages for Joel and Jane and for Debbie and Ron.  I’m pretty sure that my parents got these cages before I was born, and they housed the zebra finches from New Jersey, then they housed the parakeets, and then they housed my zebra finches.  But for Bruce and Mary, I had a cage that was smaller than I would have liked, but I didn’t have any more breeder-sized cages – just a small one.  And Bruce plucked Mary just about bare.  I don’t remember where Mom and I got another cage from, but we got a second small cage, and separated the two so that Mary’s feathers could grow back while we came up with a permanent solution.

The permanent solution ended up being a new breeder cage.  This thing was big.  It had a double door on the front of it, i.e. a large door with a smaller door inside the large door.  It wasn’t stackable like the others were, but it was definitely a step up from the older cages.  So we shuffled things around a bit: Joel and Jane, as the original pair, got the new cage (seniority has its perks), and Bruce and Mary got Joel and Jane’s old cage.  It turned out that the plucking issue was indeed space-related, and it did not occur again when Bruce and Mary were reunited in the larger cage.  So, awesome.

With all of my space needs resolved, things went well, and I bred a number of birds, and sold them to the pet store in Bentonville.  I was particularly pleased when one of Debbie and Ron’s male offspring was a lightback.  I never really bred for any specific characteristics, though the inspiration behind the expansion from two to six birds was to improve my chances of getting some unique colorings by diversifying the gene pool, since Joel and Jane produced all standard-colored birds.

Then a sad moment came on my birthday in 1992.  I got up that morning, went to feed the birds, and I noticed that Jane was at the bottom of the cage, on her back, and not moving.  It didn’t take a rocket scientist to know what happened: Jane had died overnight.  Well, crap.  I told my parents about the death, and I indicated that I wanted to bury Jane in the backyard.  However, since I had preexisting outside plans that day, I left Jane’s body in the cage for the time being, and went out.  I got with a group from school, and we went to Braum’s for ice cream, and then saw the movie Far and Away at Dixieland Mall.  When I got back home, I was disappointed to find out that my father had cleaned up the body while I was gone, putting it in the trash outside.  I wanted to give Jane a proper burial, but that clearly wasn’t happening anymore.  I was disappointed, but I got over it.  About a week later, we got a new female bird, again at Walmart, and I named her Linda.  So it was Joel and Linda at that point.

However, that pairing was extremely short-lived.  In July 1992, my parents told me that we were leaving Arkansas at the end of August.  It would be impractical for the birds to come with us, so I had to get rid of them.  I was fine with this, because the intention was to get new birds when we got settled in Virginia.  So I visited the pet store in Bentonville for the last time, and sold my birds, and that was that.

Unfortunately, that turned out to be the end of my time as a bird breeder.  I never did get new birds in Virginia, because my father, who never was much of a pet person (and still isn’t), didn’t want to deal with it anymore.  I was disappointed, but with all of the other changes in my life at that time, having just moved to a new area and such, it was fairly easy to move on.

I always have looked back fondly on my days with the zebra finches.  Raising birds was a fun hobby.  I never made any real profit off of it, but that wasn’t the point of it.  It was fun.  I’ve occasionally thought about the idea of doing it all again, but I have mixed feelings on it.  Part of me thinks it would be fun to do, but another part of me wants it to remain a fond memory, since I’m a very different person now than I was when I was ten.

In any case, the bird at the bus shelter certainly brought back some lovely memories.

Categories: Childhood, Work