Handicapped Finches

by Jayne Yantz

First Published in Bird Talk Magazine (June 1995).
Copyrighted material used with permission. 

I have a young zebra finch with crippled legs. I don't know how this happened. Could it have fallen from the nest (about 7 feet above ground)? Will the bones heal if they are broken? It has a hard time getting around in my large aviary. What can I do for this bird?

Many causes exist that would explain why your bird has handicapped legs. Babies can hatch with physical defects, for example, or nestlings can suffer from nutritional deficiencies that cause poor growth and development. Nestlings' legs or feet can also be injured by getting tangled in inappropriate nesting material, including Spanish moss or threads from synthetic fabrics.

In addition, parents can inadvertently injure their young. If parents are startled while brooding, they may panic, trampling their nestlings and accidentally dragging or knocking them from the nest. (In my experience, babies rarely fall from nests on their own, unless nests are poorly designed or badly constructed.) Larger siblings can also injure smaller, weaker ones through competition or crowding, especially in mixed broods containing fostered young of different ages.

In both young birds and adults, leg and foot handicaps can also result from attacks by other birds, trauma caused by collisions with solid surfaces, nails that become caught (on wicker nests, for instance), infections that develop at the site of minor wounds and pressure from abdominal masses, such as tumors.

If you suspect broken bones, check with your veterinarian. Fractures heal best and there are fewer chances of complications when separations are correctly aligned. In general, veterinary intervention may prevent or reduce the severity of handicaps.

If your bird is permanently and severely handicapped, consider moving it from the large aviary to a roomy cage, where it will not be physically stressed trying to reach food, water and perches. If possible, cage the handicapped bird with a gentle companion or place the cage near the aviary so the handicapped bird has company.

Regardless of where your bird lives, it needs special facilities. Most of all, birds with handicapped legs or feet need a variety of perches that are easy to grasp. Natural tree branches are particularly good for this purpose because bark is easy for disabled birds to grip. Branches also provide natural give when birds land. At various heights in the enclosure, try branches with a network of small twigs at the end, which can cradle your bird if it needs to lay on its belly (rather than perch on its legs and feet). Also try open wicker nest baskets and small platforms for the bird to sit on. (Make platforms from wood or cut the bottom off a small cardboard box, leaving a one-half inch edge around the bottom of the box.)

If your handicapped bird lives with other birds, provide extra food and water dishes, since handicapped individuals do not compete effectively. Try a variety of dishes, so you can identify the types your bird uses most easily.

Any finch with handicapped legs or feet needs frequent nail trims, because nails on disabled limbs may receive little natural wear. Long nails can easily catch, causing further injuries. A handicapped bird must be protected, because it cannot afford more physical damage.

Peg and Pete, two one-legged society finches I rescued, each lost a leg while caged beside lovebirds in a pet shop. They are doing well in a mixed flight with special platforms for perching.

At first, they shared a nest with two other societies. These societies laid eggs in the nest, then moved out, leaving fertile eggs for Peg and Pete. As a result, my handicapped birds had the chance to raise a family. I wanted to share this story with readers.


Thanks for the story, which shows that handicapped birds can lead rich, full lives. In fact, with the right kind of special care, handicapped birds can be very rewarding pets. One-legged birds often fail to produce fertile eggs, since successful mating requires firm footing. If both members of the same pair have only one leg, chances for fertilization are particularly low. However, handicapped birds, which still experience breeding drives, often nest and lay eggs. Societies, especially, will make every effort to raise a family, because these domesticated birds have a very strong desire to breed.

Finches that cannot raise their own young frequently make excellent foster parents. Among my finches, thwarted efforts to breed often increase a pair's desire to reproduce, so pairs laying infertile eggs often willingly accept fostered young. Consider using Peg and Pete as foster parents for any future abandoned eggs or nestlings, which may save baby finches and allow Peg and Pete to enjoy being parents again.

Thanks, also, for reminding us never to mix finches and hookbills. Even when bars separate them, hookbills sometimes manage to grab toes or legs of small birds. The results are painful injuries and permanent handicaps.