stewing thinking about my recent Common Chaffinch dip, I'm
looking to learn more about birds that we might see as
"escapees." I got in touch with Tiffany Park, a private breeder
of Gouldian Finches and owner of Gouldians
For those who - like me - had never heard of Gouldian Finches, they're gorgeous finches native to north Australia. They're listed by the IUCN as "Endangered in the Wild," but are extremely popular throughout the world as a pet. Tiffany specializes in Gouldian genetics, and is a member of the National Finch & Softbill Society and other regional show organizations.
Tiffany was gracious enough to talk to me a little bit about raising finches, and also about the likelihood that birds escaping. The picture she painted was at points comforting and more complicated: competent breeders hardly ever have birds escape, but the lack of enforcement of exotic bird registration laws and the potential number of bird-owners outside the show circuit world means that an escaped bird could really come from anywhere.
Birdist: How did you get into finch breeding?
Tiffany Park: I have always had birds but almost always had companion birds...Cockatiels, a conure at some point, etc. When I was in college, my cockatiel of 12 years passed away and because I was a Bio major my coursework occupied most of my time but I still wanted birds in my home. So, I went to a pet store and they had a single pair of Gouldian Finches and I saw the male doing his courtship dance and I literally burst out laughing in the store because it is such a ridiculous display. So, I bought the pair with no real intention of breeding, but just so I had birds in my home and they wouldn't require my attention in terms of companionship.
Well, I started reading and reading and reading and I joined a few forums on them, and I started learning that there were mutations, and I became obsessed. I am a bit of a genetics dork and when it comes to the Gouldian genetics I'm sort of a sick savant at it. That's what got me breeding them. I was absolutely hooked on the way the genetics worked and I spent the next 4-5 years breeding and photographing and noting visual cues in the hatchlings/nestlings to aid people in early mutation identification, which is what I am probably best known for (besides the whole genetic savant bit. :) )
Birdist: How often are birds banded and are there requirements to do so?
Tiffany Park: I can't really answer the question of how often birds are banded - it depends on the individual. I find value in banding a bird because it proves age and that band is also tied to me, as the breeder, which means that if I sell the bird and then it is sold two or three other times the owner can always track me down if they have questions. I belong to National Finch & Softbill Society and they are one of the few (maybe only?) in the US that provides traceable aluminum closed bands for captive finch and softbill breeding. [American Federation of Aviculture, Inc.] might, but I'm not entirely sure? [Note: They do.] With NFSS, you have to be a member to get the closed bands, but anyone can join.
Certain states have pretty strict regulations (NJ being one) about keeping exotics and banding them, the problem is, they're not enforced at all. I lived there for a year, and they consider Gouldians (or anything other than pretty much Zebra & Society finches, Canaries and Parakeets) to be "exotics" which means that if you are breeding and selling you have to have a "Pet Shop Permit" which is $100 a year, and you have to provide them a list of all of your birds, their band information, blahblahblah. But they never sent any inspector to my home and they never questioned anything sent in so it's sort of a, "Hey, give us your money but we don't really care what you're doing" situation.
Birdist: How widely do you think state laws like those in NJ are being abused?
Tiffany Park: I can't comment on the whole abuse situation either because I am not quite sure what the other laws are or how strictly they're adhered to. In MD, an exotic permit is optional, not required, and I got one and in order to have it issued they actually sent an inspector to my place.
It was a little depressing to hear him comment on how clean my breeding room was, as in obviously most of the other places were just total dumps or something but yet they almost always get approved for a permit if the birds at least appear to be healthy.
Birdist: How often to birds escape?
Tiffany Park: I think most escapees probably happen when transporting birds or birds that are kept in outdoor enclosures that somehow become compromised - either broken into by people or animals, or maybe because the enclosure doesn't have a safety door like the bigger aviaries do to try to prevent escapees.
A breeder I know was attending a show and was carrying cages from her car to the facility when she lost her grip and dropped some of the cages and the doors flew open and she lost quite a few of her birds that way. Most recently a guy in CA apparently didn't latch the door completely closed on an outdoor aviary and he had a bunch of society finches escape and he got all of them back except one I believe.
Birdist: It sounds like from your information that if I am going to find Chaffinches it is going to be outside the traditional "breeders and show birds" system that you are a part of (for example, I was in Miami one time and I saw a Yellow-faced Grassquit in a rickety cage on the side of a house - a bird that if it were to escape and show up at a feeder would be a real quandary for birders like me).
Tiffany Park: The problem is importation - it's expensive and time consuming. You can't just bring birds over from Europe, there is a huge protocol involving quarantine and it's pricey. Unless you have a big broker bringing in hundreds of birds at a time who is in cohorts with the quarantine facility and has the wholesale and retail buyers to back it, the investment is simply too high. I know a breeder who imported birds recently and there was a minimum order associated, so a group of local breeders got together in order to get the shipment in from Canada.
Like I said though, it's expensive, so if you're only getting one pair, it's simply not worth the financial risk as a private breeder. Also, most people who are importing from Canada or Europe are importing birds that are currently not in high circulation (or potentially new mutations). I.e.,: White Hooded Nuns, or any of the munias really (Tri-Color, Black head Nuns, etc), Strawberry Finches, and some of the other asian species like Pekin robins that are virtually impossible to locate any more because of the ban on Asian imports due to Bird Fluu. So - long story short, MOST of the big importers are bringing in more of the African species which are probably less expensive at a higher number. The more expensive species probably find themselves spending much more time "on the shelf" so-to-speak, which is money out of the importers/brokers pocket(s).
I've seen Bananaquits and Blue Black Grassquits offered on an almost weekly basis by both Singing Wings and two of the brokers in CA. I think the coolest birds I have ever seen at a show were Red Legged Honeycreepers that were being shown in NJ. She also had a few Tanagers and some other really cool softbills.
Birdist: Can you tell me more about the quarantine facility you mentioned?
Tiffany Park: I can't really say anything about the quarantine facilities because I've never used them myself. I've never imported any birds or purchased birds that were imported, I've only purchased domestic bred birds.