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The Novice's Guide to Showing Finches


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The Novice's Guide to Showing Finches
by Vonda of FinchAviary.com

Why Show Birds | How to Show Birds | How to Find a Show | Cage Preparation | Bird Preparation | Forms, Cage Tags, and the Show Catalog | What to Do After the Paperwork | Show Volunteers | How the Show Works | How the Birds Are Judged | NFSS Points | What to Bring to the Show | Further Reading | My Results

In fall of 2004, I began showing birds at bird shows. It was something I had not considered early on-it wasn't until I started contemplating breeding finches that I began to think about what I could learn from a show. I wish I would have considered it earlier - there is so much to be gained from participating in one.

Why Show Birds?

When I decided that I would like to breed birds, I needed to know what to look for in a breeder bird. I could recognize a healthy bird without obvious defects, but could I select a bird with good conformation, proper color markings, proper size, and proper proportions? I learned that I could not. The NFSS standards are helpful for some species, but even better is the opportunity to compare like birds side by side while an avian expert comments on their differences, strengths, and weaknesses.

A bird show is an excellent tool for breeders, providing the opportunity to have your birds judged against each other and against other birds. Those that do well consistently under different judges will be the birds to breed in the upcoming breeding season. Does this exclude those of us with just a handful of pet birds from participating in shows? Absolutely Not!

Anyone can enter finches and softbills in a show, even if the bird was not bred by the exhibitor. The NFSS does not even require that your birds be banded. Why would anyone want to enter a bird they did not breed? A bird needs more than good genes to win a bird show. Part of the judging is based on condition, an aspect totally in the keeper's control. Proper training can influence behavior in the show cage. The experience you get will prepare you for the time when you can show your own bred-and-banded birds. You will also meet others with similar interests. The expert judges are extremely approachable and will discuss the birds and share information garnered from their vast experience. Entering your birds in shows also helps keep the shows alive. Most importantly, however, it is a whole lot of fun!

How to Show Birds

I was very fortunate to have met Darla Dandre at my local bird club. Darla achieved NFSS Exhibitor of Excellence (a lifetime award) from the NFSS in 2000, and has been an NFSS Champion Exhibitor (a yearly award) several times over. Despite having many things going on in her life, she offered to make time to teach me how to show my birds. I want to share that information with others. Note that while I credit Darla as the source of most of the information herein, any errors introduced are mine alone.

How to Find a Show

Local bird clubs sometimes host an annual show, possibly two, and they frequently distribute information about shows in the surrounding states. The NFSS keeps a list of some NFSS-sponsored shows on their website. Darla runs a Yahoo! Group called BirdShowClub with a calendar of upcoming shows throughout the country. There are also two national shows that are held in different parts of the country each year: The Great American Bird Show (GABS) and The National Cage Bird Show (NCBS).

Cage Preparation

Finches are commonly shown in Type I or Type II standard show cages. Plans for these show cages are available from the NFSS Finch Shop. However, you can use any small cage that you own. Better to enter your bird in a regular cage than not to enter at all. As a general rule, a better bird should not be penalized because of lack of a show cage. However, a show cage offers better visibility and the bird is likely to stay in better feather in a show cage.

The exterior of most standard show cages is painted black with glossy black paint. The interior is usually painted white or eggshell blue. It is best not to show an all white bird in a cage with a white interior. However, some exhibitors have expressed a preference for a white interior for other colored birds.

For most finches, two perches should be provided, running from the back of the cage to the front, placed a few inches apart. The width of the perch should be appropriate to the species. If the perch is too wide, the bird will have difficulty staying on the perch, and this will affect its score. When seated on a perch, the bird's tail should not reach the sides of the cage.

The cage should be cleaned thoroughly before the show. Do not submerge a standard show cage in water or the wood may rot and mold may develop. A black Sharpie marker can touch up nicks and scratches on a standard black show cage and can hide the places where the powder coating has worn off the cage bars.

A source of food and water must be provided or your bird will be disqualified. Seed is usually used to line the bottom of the cage, eliminating the need for a seed cup. Use only as much seed as is needed to cover the bottom. Placing a folded piece of paper towel or a cut piece of wax paper on the bottom of the show cage before adding the seed will make cleanup easier after the show. If seed is not used to line the bottom of the cage, corncob bedding should be used instead and seed must be offered elsewhere. Never use artificially dyed seed mixes. Seed dye can bleed onto the bird's feathers and can stain the interior of the show cage, hurting the bird's score.

Water is usually offered with a small L-shaped tube-style drinker, placed as low and off to the side as possible, so as not to obscure the judge's view of the bird. I was concerned at first that with no nearby perch, the birds may not reach the drinker. Darla assured me they would be fine, and she was right. They learned quickly where to find the water and how to reach it.

No toys or identifying marks should be in or on the cage. Nothing indicating who the bird owner is should appear on the cage. No advertising on the cage is allowed.

If using a standard show cage, after placing the bird inside, tape the door shut with black electrical tape or black masking tape to prevent the door from swinging open accidentally during handling at the show.

Bird Preparation

Make sure your birds bathe regularly every day for a few weeks before the show to ensure good feather condition. If your birds do not bathe, mist them daily with water in a spray bottle.

Cage training is often helpful in making the bird feel calm and comfortable in the show cage. This involves putting the bird in the show cage for periods of time in the days before a show. Picking up and moving the cage suddenly from behind will help prepare them for the unexpected cage movement that occurs at a show. You may also want to keep the bird in the show cage for couple days before the show so they are comfortable come show day.

If your bird will not stay on the perch (a common problem), cage training will help. Try covering the bottom half of the cage front with cardboard until the bird becomes accustomed to the perches. If the bird cannot see out, it will eventually take to the perch. Alternatively, you can fill the cage with as much seed as it will hold. When the bird sinks into the seed, it learns to prefer the perch. Do not try this on show day, however.

The day before the show, any broken feathers should be pulled. If a few pin feathers are present, a toothbrush or the stiff side of a piece of Velcro can be used to scratch off the sheath, freeing the new feather. Long nails should be trimmed, and many exhibitors do so a few weeks early for a more rounded appearance come show day. An overgrown beak will count against the bird, so it is best to trim or file it down to its natural size, being careful not to trim too much.

The bird should be placed in the show cage the day before the show (if not earlier), so that it will have time to adjust to the cage. The night before the show, the cages should be covered so that the birds spend their time sleeping and are not overly tired when it is time to enter them in the competition. Only one bird should occupy a cage unless you are showing birds as a pair.

Just before entering the bird in the show, mist it using a spray bottle filled with water. This will get the bird preening itself so that it looks its best when judged. Remove any loose feathers from the bottom of the cage, as the presence of feathers will hurt your bird's score.

Forms, Cage Tags, and the Show Catalog

At the show, you will purchase a cage tag for each cage (they usually cost about a dollar or two). You may be able to purchase these in advance from the sponsoring club. When you purchase your tags, you will also receive an entry form and a show catalog containing the classifications of the birds to be judged.

Show Catalog

The catalog will be organized into Divisions (in our case, Finches and Softbills), Sections (eg, Finches of Africa), and Classes (eg, Cordon Bleu). The Division is assigned a letter or number designation.

The NFSS standard breaks down Finches and Softbills into 11 sections as of 2005: Softbills, Zebra Finches, Gouldian Finches (new in 2005), Finches of Australia, Finches of Africa, Society Finches, Indo-Pacific Finches, Finches of Europe, Finches of the Americas, Doves and Quail, and Pairs. Zebras, Societies, and Gouldians are given their own sections because of the large numbers of mutations being bred. Each section is assigned a number. This number may be that assigned in the NFSS standards or it may be a different value assigned by the sponsoring club.

Each section is divided into classes. For example, Blue-Capped Waxbill and St Helena's Waxbill are classes under African finches; Normal Gray and Fawn are classes under the Zebra finch section. Each class is split into young (or unflighted) and old (flighted). The unflighted class is only for birds with current-year closed bands. All other birds belong in the old class, regardless of age. If your bird does not fit into any of the classes listed, it may be entered under the AOV (any other variety) class for the appropriate section. Each class is assigned a unique 3-digit number. The first digit is the same as the NFSS section number. If you need help determining how to classify your bird, the division steward will be on hand to assist you. If you misclassify your bird, the judge will correct the classification when he/she does the walk-through.

Usually, birds are exhibited singly. However, you may also exhibit your birds as a pair in the Pairs section. The pair's score will reflect the score of the lesser bird; thus, to do well, both birds must be in excellent condition. Birds exhibited as a pair should be a true pair and should compliment each other. If they are too dissimiliar, they will be marked down for it. This creates an interpretation problem when "true" pairs of sexually dimorphic species are exhibited as a pair - should they be marked down because of their difference? It is logical to say that they should not, but it has been known to happen. Also, birds shown as a pair are not necessarily birds that should be bred as a pair. If you show an albino society in the Pairs section, the other bird must be an albino as well. However, in practice, it is recommended that you not breed one albino society to another.

Cage Tag

The class, section, and division numbers from the catalog must be recorded on the tag. Also record a description of the bird (eg, normal gray zebra cock) and the bird's band number if banded. If the bird has split plastic bands, enter the color of the bands for identification purposes. Write your name and address in the designated location on the cage tag (bring address labels if you are entering many birds). When your bird is turned over to the steward, he or she will fold over your personal information and staple the tag so that the judging is anonymous.

If you are a novice exhibitor (have not placed on the top 10 bench for the Division three times [correction: I formerly reported that the 3 times must be at three different shows with three different judges, but this was incorrect - all three times could be at the same show with the same judge]), write the letter "N" on the top left corner of the tag. If the bird is bred and banded by you with a closed dated traceable band, write "BB" on the top left corner. Affix the tag to the cage with string. String is not always provided, so remember to bring string and a scissors with you. Fasten the tag in the lower left-hand corner of the cage.

Entry Form
NOTE: Your Exhibitor Number will be provided when you purchase your cage tags.

Once the tags are filled out, list all the cage tag numbers on your entry form and duplicate the cage tag information for each entry on the form. Write "NOVICE" on the top of your entry form if you are a novice. Write your NFSS number on the top of the form if you are a member.

If you cannot get tags in advance, it is helpful to record the appropriate tag information on a sheet of paper as you are collecting your birds, or alternatively, mark it on a piece of masking tape on the show cage (which you must remember to remove before entering your birds).

What to Do After the Paperwork

Once your cage tags are filled out and attached, the show steward verifies the tags match the entries on your form, then folds and staples the tag so that your name and address are hidden. He or she will then take your birds from you. You will not have access to your birds again until the judging is over.

After the steward takes your birds, it is a considerate thing to do to ask if you can help. The shows are staffed by volunteers, and while clubs try to have volunteers lined up ahead of time, there are frequently some unfilled positions come show date.

Show Volunteers

Division Secretary

The division secretary is responsible for recording the entries and the results of the judging. As the judging proceeds, the secretary checks the cage numbers being judged against the entries in the book to ensure all birds of the class are present and accounted for. When judging is over, the secretary fills out the show report.


The steward is responsible for accepting the birds entered into the show. The steward will check to make sure the paperwork is filled out correctly and will answer related questions. The steward will then position the entries on the benches according to their Division, Section, and Class numbers. Just before judging, the steward will walk through all the entries with the judge, while the judge takes a cursory look at all the birds so he/she knows what to expect. When it is time for judging, the steward will bring out the birds to be judged and will rearrange them as directed by the judge. The steward then proceeds to move the judged birds off the judging table and bring the next set of birds out, until judging is complete.

Ribbon Tier

Ribbon tier is an ideal volunteer position for novices. The ribbon tier works in close proximity to the judge and gets a close-up view of all the birds. The ribbon tier follows the judge as he/she makes the final place determination for class, section, and division. When the judge writes the place on the cage tag, the ribbon tier attaches the ribbon. The ribbon can be attached by wrapping the string around the cage tag. Rosettes for the top bench can be affixed by attaching the clips to the cage bars. The ribbon tier must also affix ribbons for best novice, best unflighted, and best bred and banded, if available.

How the Show Works

The steward will place all entries on tables behind the judging benches, ordered by class and section. The judging bench is set up in front of the tables, with lights overhead for good viewing. At a 90 degree angle to the judging bench is a table where the secretary sits and records the entries and the results. In front of the judging bench is the gallery - seats where the exhibitors and general public can watch the judging.

Before the judging begins, the judge and steward do a walkthrough of all the entries to become familiar with them and ensure all birds are classified appropriately. The judge may reclassify birds entered in the wrong class at this time. When the judge is satisfied, judging can begin.

For any given section, the birds of each class are judged together first. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in class are awarded at this time. The judge will write the bird's place on the tag when he/she has made an official decision. The ribbon tier attaches the appropriate ribbons/stickers. Best Novice in Class and Best Unflighted in Class may also be awarded. While judging is in progress, the judge will discuss the merits and flaws of the birds being judged. People in the gallery may ask questions, but one cannot say anything that identifies a specific bird as being his/her own. This would disqualify the bird.

After all birds in the section have been judged against birds in their like class, the top birds are judged against each other for the Best in Section awards. 1st, 2nd, and 3rd in section are awarded at this time, as well as Best Novice in Section and Best Unflighted in Section, if available. It is very possible for a low-placed bird in one class to place higher than a 1st place bird in another class. However, if birds A and B are in the same class, and bird A placed higher than bird B in its class, bird B cannot place higher than bird A when the section is judged. The same holds true when the division is judged. After one section is judged, the classes in the next section are judged.

After all classes and sections have been judged, the top birds in section compete for Best in Division. Once again, a lower placed bird in one section can do better than a higher placed bird in another section.

Awards for the division winners are given to the top ten birds. This is called the Top Bench. Also, a Best Novice in Division, a Best Unflighted in Division, and a Best Bred and Banded in Division may be awarded. The 1st in Division bird is usually referred to as Best In Show. After the awards are distributed, the cage tags are opened and the names of the winners are announced.

Some shows have a Best Overall in Show award. In this case, the Best in Division (Best in Show) birds from all divisions (finches/softbills, hookbills, lovebirds, cockatiels, budgies, canaries, etc) compete against each other for Best Overall in Show. The judges of the different divisions get together and discuss the merits of the birds. They then vote based on a points system to determine a Best Overall in Show.

Many shows have a banquet afterward. Sometimes there is a speaker at the banquet. The banquet costs extra and is optional. Some shows also have a raffle table. Proceeds from the raffle table help pay for the costs of the show.

How the Birds Are Judged

The birds are judged based on conformation, condition, color and markings, and deportment or demeanor. The NFSS standards break down how many points are awarded for each. It also defines how the bird should look for a number of common species. However, judges rarely record a point score for the birds being judged.


Conformation describes the body shape and posture of the bird. Is the bird proportionate? Does its back form a straight line at the proper angle, or is it humped? Is the bird cobby or snaky? Is the head proportionate? Is it rounded or flat? Do the wings stay close to the body or droop down? Is it too small or too large for its species. Conformation is broken down into Head and Body, Wings and Tail, and Legs and Feet. For the most part, conformation is a genetic trait of the bird. Only good breeding can lead to good conformation, although age and injury can be a factor.


Condition, on the other hand, is in the control of the keeper. Are the feathers torn, shredded, damaged, or missing? Is the bird overweight? Is the bird in optimal health (as a result of good diet, proper environment, freedom to exercise)? Are the nails trim and clean?


Color of the bird should be appropriate for the species or mutation. The color is judged based on depth of color, evenness of color, and lack of irregular blotches or markings. How the markings are judged varies between species and mutations. Pied birds should be evenly pied, preferably 50/50, with white breaking up all major areas of the body, but not obscuring features that identify sex.


Deportment pertains to how the bird acts and carries itself in the show cage. A bird that clings to the cage bars or sits on the floor will not do very well. Cage training can help a bird feel comfortable in a show cage and perfom better in the deportment/demeanor category.

A bird with good deportment sits calmly on the perch and is unfazed if the judge approaches and runs a baton gently across the cage. A bird with poor deportment will jump on and off the perch and startle easily when the judge approaches. Birds such as zebra finches, java rice finches, society finches, and many grassfinches should exhibit good deportment.

Demeanor applies to many of the smaller wilder birds such as the waxbills. Waxbills are expected to be active and move about. They are not expected to sit still on the perch. Ideal behavior would be hopping back and forth from perch to perch and exhibiting proper head, tail, and body movements for the species.

NFSS Points

For those serious about showing, the NFSS awards points to members every time they place a bird. Three awards honor point accumulation: Champion Exhibitor (an NFSS member who scores 50 points or more during a calendar year), Champion Bird (an NFSS-banded bird that accumulates 50 points or more during its lifetime), and Exhibitor of Excellence (an NFSS member who accumulates 200 points or more during his or her lifetime). You do not have to be an NFSS member to compete in shows, but you do have to be an NFSS member if you would like to accumulate points (be sure to include your NFSS member number on your form).

What to Bring to the Show

Besides the birds in their show cages, the following supplies may come in handy:

Cardboard File Boxes for Packing Show Cages
The NFSS Judges Handbook and Official Standards if you have it

Pens and Pencils
Black Sharpie Marker (for touching up nicks that may have appeared in transit)
Black Electrical Tape/Masking Tape (for securing cage doors)
Scotch Tape
String (for securing cage tags)
Scissors (for cutting string)
Stapler with Extra Staples
Return Address Labels
Spray Bottle with Water from Home (for refilling drinkers and misting birds)
Extra seed
Towels (for covering cages) or cage covers
Nail Clippers
Blood Stop Powder
Antibiotic Ointment
Pedialyte/Electrolyte Supplement

Hand Sanitizer
Extra Drinkers

Bird Net

Further Reading:

Preparing Birds for Show
, by Ron Castaner
Showing Birds, by Michael Marcotrigiano
Showing Finches, by Myra Markley

My Results


Great Lakes Avicultural Society
Grand Rapids, Michigan
37 entries
4 exhibitors

Fawn and White Society cock - 3rd in Division, Best Novice
Blue-Capped Cordon Bleu hen - 5th in Division
Fawn and White Society hen - 7th in Division.

Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club
Arlington Heights, Illinois
51 entries
11 exhibitors

Strawberry Finch cock - 2nd in Division and Judge's Special Award.

National Institute of Red-Orange Canaries
Arlington Heights, Illinois
48 entries
13 exhibitors

Strawberry Finch cock - 9th in Division.


Illini Bird Fanciers
Springfield, Illinois
115 entries
9 exhibitors

Owl Finch Cock - 8th in Division

See photos

Wisconsin Cage Bird Club/Central Wisconsin Cage and Wild Bird Connection (see photos)
Oshkosh, Wisconsin
27 entries
5 exhibitors

Orange-cheeked Waxbill hen - 2nd in Division
Fawn and White Society cock - 5th in Division, Judge's Special Award
Owl Finch Cock - 7th in Division
Star Finch Cock - 9th in Division

See photos

Greater Chicago Cage Bird Club
Arlington Heights, IL
106 entries
19 exhibitors

Owl Finch Cock - 2nd in Division
Orange-cheeked Waxbill - 7th in Division

National Institute of Red Orange Canaries
St Charles, IL
42 entries
13 exhibitors

Star Finch Cock - 5th in Division


Wisconsin Cage Bird Club/Central Wisconsin Cage and Wild Bird Connection (see photos)
Neenah, Wisconsin
26 entries
6 exhibitors

Orange-Cheeked Waxbill - 3rd in Division
Masked Grassfinch - 5th in Division






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