Finches for Beginners
Welcome to the Club!!!!
Not so long ago I was discussing the merits of finch breeding at a bird
club meeting when one of the members referred to me as one of the 'new wave'
of finch keepers. This came as a bit of a shock as I had never even
considered that before. I looked around and, to my horror, realized that
there were very few finch people there that were younger than me!! Yea gods,
I thought, where is the future of our hobby and where are the finch breeders
So from this simple observation has come an endeavor to
provide some information that might be of benefit to the younger finch
breeder trying to get some basic information about where to start.
I guess too often we become obsessed with seeking out
information on the more 'exotic' species and forget that we too were
beginners once and wanted to know what was best after the initial zebra
This was illustrated to me recently when I was lucky enough
to see a video of the finch shipment that reached New Zealand shores. The
person filming the quarantine establishment was showing more exotic finches
than us Aussies could dream of when he spotted some Chestnut-Breasted
Mannikins. With all these 'exotics' to chose from he was fervently wishing
that, if he could chose any birds, the chestnuts would be sitting in his
aviary after their quarantine. I guess this demonstrates that we can develop
'avicultural blasť' as regards what gems we have under our very noses!!
So this is an attempt to help out the younger/newer people
entering this rewarding hobby by 'road testing' some of the commoner
finches. I'll leave the species descriptions to others more observant and
literal than I, and concentrate more on their behaviour and compatibility.
But first a word of warning. As you are by now aware, the
prices of finches tends to increase rapidly after your zebras and bengalese
mannikins. There is a reason for this. The two previously mentioned species
are fairly 'domesticated' while the majority of the other finches are not.
So be prepared for hard work and a little heartbreak along the way! So here
goes, some great little underrated Aussies and where best to start than with
the ubiquitous zebra finch.
THE ZEBRA FINCH: Well, this little 'Aussie Battler' needs no
introduction to the majority of the avicultural population! Their confiding
nature, willingness to breed and great little song has made them a truly
cosmopolitan species. The grey zebra is the true 'wild-type' finch but there
are multitudes of mutations available at present.
The presence of so many mutations has been one of the major
factors in the reemergence of the zebra finch in many of our aviaries. From
the pastel tones of the Isabel to the darker colours of the Charcoals and
West Australian fancies, the zebra finch is to be found in most of our
aviaries - if not for their mutation monetary value then simply for their
song alone. Anyway, it is great to be able to get their nests down and hand
their chicks around to children that visit your aviaries - try that with
most other varieties of grassfinches!!
They are easy to keep going and will live and breed on a diet
of finch mix and a few leafy green vegetables. Breeding is no problem as a
friend once stated, "If ya stood still long enough the little beggars would
nest in yer hair" - never a truer word was spoken in jest! They are best
kept by them selves as they have a tendency to outbreed the other occupants
of the aviary and dominate the other birds. Thus saying, a single pair in a
mixed aviary is usually OK as long as their young are removed regularly.
To give an example I once had 5 pair in a large aviary and
went to Queensland for 4 months. On my return I took 195 young zebras out of
that large aviary! The few longtails and diamond sparrows that shared their
aviary breathed a sigh of relief!
Without a doubt the zebra finch and its various mutations
would have a popularity of 10 but I feel their compatibility would be around
THEDOUBLE BAR: Here I must admit to never having seriously kept them but
they are one of the most popular Australians in our aviaries. They appear to
do better as a small flock of 2-3 pairs in an aviary and will bathe, feed
and socialize together. No one that I know has accused them of aggressive
behaviour but some have alluded to the fact that they are very nervous in
the aviary and may annoy smaller waxbills because of this skittishness.
Breeding appears to be relatively easy with friends stating
that they have a fondness for soaked/sprouted seed and green seed when
rearing young. Others have stated that breeding can be improved with the
addition of small amounts of live food into the diet. Chickweed and winter
grass are avidly consumed. Consensus is that they prefer to build their own
nest in tea-tree or fern out of swamp grass and feathers. However, I have
seen them using nest boxes in one person's aviary.
They would probably have a popularity of 9 and a
compatibility of 10.
THE CHESTNUT: This bird is a member of the mannikin family and, as such,
should not be kept with nuns, yellow rumps or munias. I have always found
them to be peaceful in a large aviary and, if trouble erupts, they are
usually the victim rather than the aggressor. However, I am aware of people
that have kept them in small aviaries and had them bully other finches. Will
breed happily with just soaked/sprouted seed and green grasses.
They are fairly shy and will look for remote areas of the
aviary to build their nests. No lining is usually used in their nests and
this can present a problem if they attempt to breed in cooler months. In the
wild they climb up seed heads to feed and if you hang green grass heads from
the ceiling of your aviary in a loop of wire they will spend hours stripping
these. They are long lived and I have a friend who has one that is 8 years
old and still going strong!
A popularity of 4 and a compatibility of 7.
THE REDBROW WAXBILL: Another beautiful Australian that is a gem in a
mixed collection. The origins of this species are debated frequently but its
red tail and huge nest must suggest some ancestral ties with the firetail
group. When sexing pairs forget the red eye stripe just look at the body
colour - males are a grey colour while the hens tend to be far lighter.
Again this species shows a preference for soaked/sprouted seed and a
fondness for green grasses. In a mixed collection they are usually
inoffensive but I have witnessed a male in a small aviary that behaved like
a male Comoro weaver!
However, I know of one breeder that kept and bred them in a
collection of waxbills with no signs of aggression directed towards the
smaller birds. As stated, these birds construct a huge nest and they prefer
to use a living tree if possible. The breeder previously mentioned showed me
several nests that were all built in living trees and yet he had bred many
in smaller, unplanted aviaries. When constructing their nests these finches
require plenty of green and swamp grass plus plenty of white feathers or
pampas grass heads. As with the other 2 species they will consume livefood
but it is not essential to rearing youngsters.
A popularity of 9 and a compatibility of 9.
THE LONGTAIL: This species was one of the commoner finches during the
days of legal trapping but is becoming harder to find these days. Two forms
are usually encountered: the yellow billed form, or blackheart, and the red
billed form, or Heck's. There are a number of weird looking mutations
available but none, in my opinion, can hold a candle to the original forms.
This bird has a reputation for being a nuisance in mixed collections. This
is a well-founded reputation as the species is constantly 'checking out'
nest sites and raiding choice pieces of nesting material. They will often
intimidate other species and cause them to abandon their nests. This is most
commonly witnessed in smaller aviaries. A single pair in an aviary is not
too bad but any more can create a real problem. They are a confiding bird
and can become very tame towards their keepers.
Again livefood is not essential to breeding this species, as
I know of one breeder who produced 35 odd youngsters with no livefood at
all. They will consume soaked/sprouted seed and love green seeding grasses.
If you are fortunate enough you may even have a male that sings! These are a
rarity and I have only ever heard the song from one bird in the dozen's that
I have kept and bred. He would sit on the seed tray and sing to his female
and would not allow my appearance to perturb him in the least - no mean
The longtail and the closely related Parson finch are worth
including in most collections but you need to be aware of their inquisitive
nature. Their relative the mask finch possesses none of these vices but does
lack the endearing nature common to the longtail.
A popularity of 8 and a compatibility of 5.
THE EMBLEMA: Commonly known as the Painted Firetail and star of the
recent 45 cent stamp! One of my all time favourites. These were bred in the
hundreds in my 'neck of the woods' until about 6 years ago when a number of
breeders 'gave them away' when prices fell dramatically. They are a very
different looking finch to the majority that we see in our aviaries. Their
gaudy colours, fantastic disposition and friendly nature make them an ideal
bird. The one serious problem that you face is that of livefood dependence.
They will breed happily without livefood but will also consume plenty if it
is offered. If you don't have access to termites it is a pain to have to
break them of this habit. You will get small clutches until you do but these
youngsters should then produce 'normal' clutches without termites. This was
the case in Tasmania a number of years ago where 3 pair would regularly give
you 20-30 young in a season. We used to consider them the easiest finch to
breed after zebras - but not any more!
They construct an elaborate nest platform and construct a
nest that will consist of EVERYTHING that can be found in your aviary! Some
will use nest boxes but the majority will construct their own nest. Despite
their habit of nesting close to the ground in the wild I have never seen
them do this in an aviary - unlike the Pictorella Mannikin. They are worth
keeping just to watch the male do his 'metronome dance' where he whirrs like
a clockwork toy. They are tolerant of other species and more than one pair
may be kept in the same aviary. They don't appear to have many preferences
for food items and mine show little interest in supplements or
soaked/sprouted seed. Will pick at chickweed and other greens. Spend a great
deal of time on the ground so would be prone to worms and coccidia.
A popularity of 8 and a compatibility of 9.
THE BLUE FACED PARROTFINCH: A good contrast in colour schemes to all of
the previous species. With their green bodies, blue heads and red tail
coverts they are a stunning inclusion to your aviary. They are a secretive
species and like to hide their nests away from prying eyes and fingers! The
nest can be an elaborate structure or something that is so small that the
chicks are in peril every time a parent arrives or departs! Many will take
over another birds abandoned nest and renovate it. Nests are often reused
several times. Any nesting material is used but they appear to prefer larger
grasses to build the initial 'dome' out of. The mating ritual of these birds
is reasonably 'enthusiastic' and care must be taken to ensure that you don't
end up with more males than females in your collection - or you'll have NO
females! Their energetic chasing of females can disturb smaller aviary
inhabitants especially where the aviary is not heavily planted.
I once witnessed a male slam a female into the aviary wire
during mating - right on top of an unsuspecting Rufous Backed Mannikin!! The
Mannikin was less than impressed with being the 'meat in the sandwich'
during this mating frenzy! After receiving counseling he is now a confirmed
The Blue Face will raise young on soaked/sprouted seed; egg
and biscuit mix and loves any sort of green seeding grasses. I know of many
that rear them this way. Thanks to "Bucko' I now know that they love
Lebanese cucumbers too! If livefood is provided they will consume it avidly
but in my opinion, it is not essential for good breeding results. A regular
worming program is fairly essential for this species but care need to be
taken in your choice of worming agent.
A popularity of 6 and a compatibility of 6.
THE PLUMHEAD FINCH: This finch is often overlooked by many finch keepers
but is as pairs or as a colony. They appear drab at first glance but, in
sunlight, their claret coloured bibs and caps shine. This finch will breed
happily on soaked/sprouted seeds and green seeding grasses. They will
consume livefood if presented but are happy to breed without it. This is one
species that is fussy about mate selection and simply putting a male and a
female together may not always guarantee a bonded pair. Try 2 pair just to
make sure you get a good pair.
The other no-no with this species is nest inspection. Either
wait till the chicks leave the nest or wait till you can smell something
wrong before inserting your 'pinkies' into their nest. I know many will
laugh and say "Mine don't care" but now that some fool has written it down
the next time you inspect they will abandon the nest - Murphy's Law!!
I prefer these finches to many of their gaudier cousins and
they are a great contrast to these multi-coloured finches.
Having sung their praise it is prudent to point out that they
can be 'soft' and are especially prone to chills and the scours. If kept in
dry, draught proof aviaries they will usually be fine but any sign of damp
and they will usually be the first to look ill. I know I'm not from the
hottest part of Australia (!) but when the other birds are panting with the
heat the Plumheads are whizzing around at 200km/h!
A popularity of 5-6 and a compatibility of 10.
THE STAR FINCH: This finch was one of the commonest finches in our
aviaries until recently. Vast numbers were legally trapped and these
produced countless numbers of young in our aviaries. Whether because of a
drop in popularity or a drop in breeding, there does not appear to be as
many about as in the late 1980's. This finch has always been a source of
some confusion to me. They either breed like there is no tomorrow or they
simply sit there and do nothing! I obtained 5 uncoloured birds that turned
out to be 2 males and 3 females that subsequently reared 17 young. All 3 of
the females raised young. For the next 2 years the birds did not breed. The
year after this they reared some 20 young again!
Requirements for these are, once again, fairly basic. They
show little interest in live food and love soaked/sprouted seed and green
seeding grasses. The nest is usually not very elaborate and resembles a pile
of grass and white feathers thrown into a nesting receptacle! I have no
evidence that they will use nest boxes. I have never witnessed aggression
amongst these finches and they are safe with smaller waxbills. For some
reason they appear to attract the attention of longtails and, if you have a
desertion problem, it could be due to the longtails pilfering bits from the
The commonest form is the red headed star and the yellow
headed star. There are a host of mutations available that are faded
imitations of the 'real' birds. The red headed star comes in 3 types: the
Queensland race which has very little colour and is often difficult to sex;
the normal red form (that is common in most of our aviaries) and the
Kimberley star that is stunning - the dullest hen is 2x the colour of the
brightest male normal red star.
A popularity of 7 and a compatibility of 10.
THE DIAMOND FIRETAIL: Commonly known as the Diamond Sparrow here in
Australia. This bird is one of the largest of the finches and is extremely
difficult to sex. There are a dozen people that will give you 2 dozen ways
to sex these birds, all I can say is good luck!! The calls of the sexes are
noticeably different and older hens have a pinker bill in the breeding
season but, apart from this I suggest you ring 6 birds and let them pair up
in your aviary and remove the unpaired birds. Works for me! The nest of this
finch is huge. Green grass stems are used to construct the outer limits and
every feather, pampas head, piece of tissue paper or animal fur in your
aviary will disappear inside this structure. The nest has a small funnel
attached to the front. Young are reared on soaked/sprouted seed and green
feed and little interest is shown in live food. The Diamond has a reputation
for aggression but I have not witnessed this.
They will defend the area around their nest but I have never
seen them hound smaller species. I believe that they may dominate around the
food stations and care would need to be taken to be aware of this occurring.
If you have more than one pair in a smaller aviary you may find that only
one pair actually produces youngsters. The Diamond would have to rate as one
of the most beautiful of all grassfinches. Despite their size they are one
of the 'softer' species and will not tolerate wet, damp conditions. However,
with the advances in anti-protozoal drugs and worming agents available the
task of keeping these birds in first rate condition is vastly improved
A popularity of 7 and a compatibility of 5.
Well, that covers a few of the Aussie finches available to the newcomer. No
doubt the seasoned salts have picked holes in my writings and that is great
for I am always keen to see how others breed and keep their finches. Let's
hope they write it down and we have a host of articles on these commoner
All of the finches I have listed will eat live food if it is offered to them
or they see other birds eating it but they have all been bred successfully
without it. No doubt the new comer will also be seduced by the colours of
the African Fire (Ruddy), the Orange Breasted Waxbill, the red Cheeked
Cordon and the stunning Red Parrotfinch but each of these can requires a
little more input to breed than many of our native species.
I haven't mentioned Gouldians, Crimsons or Pictorellas either amongst the
Australian finches because they have requirements that, I believe, are not
suited to the beginner. But, hey, we were all beginners once; I've got
Pictorellas now so let's not forget how we started.
When you see that new member hovering around the fringes at your next bird
meeting go over and introduce yourself and make them feel welcome because
they are the future of this hobby and the next wave of bird addicted
aviculturists keen to snap up your surplus birds!