When stimulated to breed, your birds may engage in:
Defensive & Aggressive Behavior
Gouldians which are paired together do not always get along. This is especially true if the birds were artificially paired and not given the opportunity to select their own mates. Gouldians tend to be passive birds, but if they become overly aggressive towards each other, separate the pair before any injuries occur. A more common form of aggressive behavior that may be witnessed during the "breeding season" is defense of the nest, surrounding territory, food supply, and/or mate. In this case, a pair may be bonded to each other but attack any other birds that they perceive as a threat. Gouldians will typically give "open beak" warnings while emitting a low "growl" and may even engage in "beak fencing" with another bird. Because some gouldians may become very uneasy about disturbances to their nest, the area should be visually isolated from other birds.
In order to attract a mate, a gouldian engages in courtship behaviors. Typically the male gouldian engages in his courtship ritual in order to attract a female of the same species, although it is not entirely unusual to see a male in captivity court a hen of a different species, or even to see him court another male. The cock courts through his use of song and dance. Gouldian cocks may use variations on a theme in their song, so that one cock's song may sound surprisingly different from another cock's song. The male gouldian begins his courtship display by shaking his head rapidly for a few seconds; next, he stands up proud, puffs out his chest, and hops up and down on the perch while singing, all while keeping his tail pointed towards the hen of his affections. In some cases, a hen may initiate courtship by encouraging a cock to sing to her--some gouldian hens will mimic the song and dance routine of the cock to provoke his advances (although hens chirp instead of sing). Keeping birds in a community flight and letting them pick their own mates is best, if possible, since not all courtship rituals will result in a pair bond (not only does the cock have to fancy the hen, but the hen must also accept him).
Acceptance of a Mate
Signs of mate acceptance and pair bond formation include: perching or sleeping side-by-side (sitting near each other, but generally not in close physical contact), toleration of each other's presence, cooing or calling to each other, and cooperative nest building. If the cock is interested in the hen, he will court her (sing & dance); if the hen accepts his advances, she may simply seem to tolerate him (i.e. not fly away or hiss at him) or even mimic some of his courtship behaviors (e.g. a gouldian hen who may shake her head, stand proud, and hop for her mate with her tail pointed, while chirping since she can't sing). Signs that two birds are not compatible include: threatening [leaning towards the offending bird with the neck extended and the beak open], hissing or "growling," chasing, "beak fencing," feather plucking, and other signs of aggression. Some birds will pair off with a partner of the same sex or of a different species...if you wish to breed your birds, neither of these scenarios will do.
Although most captive gouldians will readily accept an artifical nesting site (such as a nest box), they may sometimes prefer to build their own nests "from scratch" when given the opportunity. Nesting materials which are appropriate to provide for your birds include: coconut fiber, burlap cut into 3" strips, shreds of newspaper, and shreds of facial tissue. Avoid small, synthetic fibers such as yarn, stringy material such as hair, and avoid hay, soil, eucalyptus leaves, and corn cob (which may lead to fungal growth).1 Usually, both the cock and the hen will participate in nest construction. If your birds do not seem interested in nest building, you might try to encourage them by placing a light source near the entrance to their nest in order to illuminate its inside. You may also need to provide a different nesting enclosure or location, until you find one that suits your birds' needs.
The male finch does not have any external genitalia, including a penis. Internally located sex organs are thought to be an adaptation for flight. Instead, both the cock and hen must use their cloaca for mating purposes. The cloaca is the common chamber into which the intestinal, urinary, and reproductive tracts open. Externally, the opening to this structure is called the vent, and it is located on the underside of the bird near where the tail joins the body. In order for copulation to occur, the male must touch his cloaca to the female's cloaca to pass his ejaculate to her. This maneuver is referred to as the "cloacal kiss," and usually involves the hen lifting her tail and the cock placing one leg over her back while flapping his wings frantically to help push his body up against hers. This entire ordeal takes less than three seconds. You may never witness this phenomenon, as gouldians prefer to mate in the privacy of their nest box. Once copulation has occurred, the hen may store sperm in her reproductive tract for several days. Each pair may mate several times.
Typically, the hen will lay one egg per day in the early morning hours, shortly after she wakes up. Signs of imminent egg laying, or oviposition, are straining, decreased defecation, increased fecal volume, and a wide based stance. Unless there is a problem, you usually will not be able to witness the actual event; however, because I set up a camera in the nest box of one of my breeding pairs, you can find a short video of a hen laying an egg in the Video Documentation page. Clutches may vary in size from 3-8 eggs, with 4-6 being the most typical number for most gouldians. One complication which may occur during egg laying is egg binding or dystocia. Note: Hens can lay eggs even without the stimulation of a male, so a single hen or a pair of hens may lay eggs, and the eggs will be infertile.
Most gouldians will not begin incubation until their clutch is complete and all eggs have been laid (some pairs may begin incubation after the 3rd egg is laid). Once incubation has begun (where at least one bird is covering the eggs not only during the day but also at night), healthy, fertile eggs should take roughly 14-16 days to hatch. In most cases, the cock and the hen will share the responsibility of incubating during the day, while the hen tends to incubate at night. The cock may or may not sleep next to the hen in the nest while she incubates at night. Successful incubation requires the parents to keep the eggs at the proper temperature, to keep the humidity sufficient (usually by bathing), and to gently roll/rotate the eggs periodically throughout the day.
Nest & Egg Abandonment
Unfortunately, if the birds sense famine or if they are disturbed while incubating, they may abandon their nest and eggs. Disturbances may come from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to: the presence of people (especially high traffic near the nesting site, placing hands in the cage, or tampering with the nest), loud noises, pets, nosey cage mates, predators, pests (cockroaches or ants, for example), and night frights. This is why breeding birds should be disturbed minimally, and only when absolutely necessary (i.e. to provide fresh food and water). If possible, dishes should be accessible from outside of the cage, to minimize the need to place one's hands within the cage. Providing an adequate diet and a sufficient amount of food daily, a dim "night light" at night, and a quiet/secure environment for your birds to breed in will help to reduce the possibility of nest & egg abandonment.
If all goes as planned, the parents will take turns feeding their young by regurgitating food as the hungry chicks beg. Providing the parents with a large assortment of high-quality foods will ensure that the chicks get the best start. For the first day or two after hatching, the young do not need to be fed because they are still using the last of the yolk sac for energy; however, parent birds may still regurgitate some fluids to their young at this time. The parents may also be seen gently prodding at and picking up their young in order to situate them for incubation. Chicks are often incubated daily until they are about 10 days old, after which time they are usually incubated only at night. This corresponds with the time that their juvenile plumage begins to develop. Before the feathers come in, a well-fed chick's crop can be seen bulging out around its neck (arrows in photo). The crop is a storage area for food before it empties into the stomach and GI tract. A crop packed tight with food is a good sign, unless it is not emptying or is filled with air bubbles (usually a sign of infection, and should be treated immediately). Gouldian chicks have pearlescent blue nodules--four in total--at the corners of their beaks. These reflect light and are thought to help the parents locate hungry little mouths in the dark recesses of the nest box. Chicks usually open their eyes around day 6 of age, and fledge around day 20.
Chick Tossing or Abandonment
As with nest and egg abandonment, if the birds sense famine or if they are disturbed while young are in the nest, they may abandon, kill, and/or toss their babies. Disturbances may come from a variety of sources, including, but not limited to: the presence of people (especially high traffic near the nesting site, placing hands in the cage, or tampering with the nest and/or babies), loud noises, pets, nosey cage mates, predators, pests (cockroaches or ants, for example), and night frights. This is why breeding birds should be disturbed minimally, and only when absolutely necessary (i.e. to provide fresh food and water). If possible, dishes should be accessible from outside of the cage, to minimize the need to place one's hands within the cage. Providing an adequate diet and a sufficient amount of food daily, a dim "night light" at night, and a quiet/secure environment for your birds to breed in will help to reduce the possibility of chick tossing or abandonment. If chicks die due to infection or infestation, the parents may toss them or abandon the nest. In this case, the dead babies and the parents should be presented to an avian veterinarian to determine the source of the problem and, if necessary, administer medical treatment to the pair before they breed again. The enclosure will likely need to be disinfected and the pair will need to be provided with a new nesting receptacle and fresh nesting material in order to start over. The Problems & Solutions section has tips on how to avoid and/or solve the problem of chick tossing or abandonment.
Weaning occurs at about 6 weeks of age. Normal weaning takes place as the parent birds feed their begging chicks less and less, encouraging them to eat foods on their own instead. In some cases, the parents may begin to chase their young, a sign that the parents want to breed again and therefore want the chicks out of the cage. Once all of the chicks have been seen eating and drinking on their own, they should be removed to their own enclosure, separate from the parents. After the chicks are placed in their own cage, you may wish to allow the parents to breed again; however, limit breeding pairs to only 2-3 clutches per year.
1. Ritchie, B. W., Harrison, G. J., & Harrison, L. R. (1994). Avian medicine: Principles and application. Lake Worth, FL: Wingers Publishing.