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Finch 411

Sunday, November 28, 2004; Page M12

Happy hour destinations as far as the eye can see, street vendors selling everything from egg rolls to pasta -- living in the city definitely has its perks. Unfortunately, abundant apartment space usually isn't one of them. What's an aspiring bird owner to do? Consider a pet finch. Generally pretty quiet, they offer companionship at a fraction of the space, time or cost of a bigger bird.

1 Z is for zebra

"Hey, pretty baby, perch here often?" (Imagebroker)

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Finches come in more than 50 multihued species, some from as far away as Africa, Australia and Southern Asia. But for the beginner, the best option is the Zebra finch. Not only is it one of the world's most popular caged birds -- meaning there'll be plenty of places to find supplies and information if you need help -- but it's also active, relatively inexpensive and easy to take care of, without the complex food and cage needs of exotic cousins like the Green Twinspot or Violet-Eared Waxbill. Standard Zebras usually start around $15, with more unusual color mutations (white, crested, pied, etc.) sometimes costing much more.

2 Choose a go-getter

A healthy Zebra finch doesn't keep still. So in buying one, say April Romagnano and Christa Koepff, authors of "The Finch Handbook," look for an active guy who's eating, drinking and moving about the cage. His feathers should be neat and clean -- messiness can be a sign of intestinal disorder. And be prepared to care for him for a while: A healthy pet can live up to 10 years.

3 Home sweet cage

For finches, like humans, more space is always better. Traci Atwood, manager at Petsmart at Potomac Yard, recommends your cage be at least 12-by-12 inches; other sources put the minimum at 20-by-20. Place it in a low traffic area with 12 to 14 hours of natural light a day, but access to shade. And, because birds have fragile respiratory systems, be sure to keep yours away from air fresheners, scented candles or other strong odors.

4 Hands off

Don't expect to be able to handle your new bird like a parrot. "Finches are nervous by nature, so they panic at attempts to hold them," says Roy Beckham, creator of the hobbyist site eFinch.com. They're "looking pets, not touching pets."

5 Love birds

Finches are social

creatures that thrive in groups, so you'll probably want to get at least two. However, they also breed

incredibly easily, with minimal encouragement from you. If a

pair is all you can handle, remove all nesting material from the cage or consider getting two females rather than a mating pair.

Lauren Silva

Need some pet info? Drop a line to pets@washpost.com. Include your name, city and phone number.

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