Finches for Beginners
or
       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 of tomorrow?
    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 finch stage.
    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 3-4.

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 feat!!
    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 bachelor!!
    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 stars nest.
    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 today.
    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 finches.
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!