Breed: Australian Finches
Temperament: Active, independent
Lifespan: 5-7 years
Cost: $15 (Zebra pair); $70 (Gouldian pair)
Recommended for: Novice to experienced birdkeepers
The Australian Finch belongs to the family of birds known as Estrildidae. They are small, native, grass seed eating birds whose popularity as captive birds is only exceeded by the budgerigar, also native to Australia. Although finches are not unique to Australia, it is the Australian finch species, particularly the Zebra Finch, that have become most popular among breeders around the world.
Their distinctive colour, lively behaviour and quiet song made Australian finches very popular with bird fanciers from a very early period in Australian history. It is believed that wild finches were caught soon after settlement in Australia and during the early 1800s the first finches were exported to England and Europe.
Finches have many bright and varied colours and patterns. It is these colourings that make Australian finches some of the most fancied birds in the world. Numbering 19 different species in total, each is distinct with its own unique markings and colourings. Variation in colour also exists within each species, resulting in numerous possibilities of colour variation.
Australian finches are small birds ranging in size from 10-14cm in length from tip of beak to tip of tail, depending on species. They are a finely built bird with slight anatomical variations between males and females. The degree of this variation is determined by the particular variety of finch but will usually involve females displaying a more pointed beak, slightly smaller skull and duller colourings.
Of the number of species available to the public, three are particularly popular:
Zebra Finch: Native to most parts of grassland Australia (apart from the colder southern regions) this is one of the smallest of the grass finches, but without doubt the most popular. Ten basic colours combined with other markings and patterns can result in more than 100 variations of the Zebra Finch. White, fawn, pied, black, blue, silver, cream and cinnamon are common, with new colour variations constantly being developed.
Gouldian Finch: Larger than the Zebra Finch and native to northern Australia, the Gouldian Finch is a nomadic bird whose numbers in the wild have declined in recent years. Controlled trapping, breeding and release programs are set in place in the hope of ensuring that sufficient numbers of wild birds remain (it is illegal to trap native birds without permits). The Gouldian is the second most domesticated Australian finch. Larger than the Zebra Finch, the Gouldian has three naturally occurring colour variations but literally hundreds of domesticated colour variations throughout the world. The head may appear black, red or gold (rarest) with breast colours ranging across a white and blue spectrum and various back colours of yellows, greens and blues.
Star Finch: These birds are fancied among most finch breeders, particularly those starting off, as they are a hardy bird and quite easy to breed. This species is rare in the wild.
Finches are colony birds and prefer the company of other finches in an aviary environment. They can be very timid and generally do not form relationships with humans. Gouldian Finches are more friendly and inquisitive than other types and may perch on their owners once they are familiar with them. The Australian species make very little noise, apart from a quiet chittering.
Health and lifespan
Most birds will live for about 6-7 years. As grass seed eaters, it is natural for Australian finches to spend time feeding off the ground. It is important therefore to ensure that the cage or aviary is vermin proof. Mice urine and faeces can prove fatal for finches. A regular worming program is also essential. Do not overcrowd the birds as this may also lead to problems.
Gouldian Finches are susceptible to what appears to be a viral disease. This as yet unidentified disease may be carried undetected by other varieties of finch without harm but will kill Gouldians once exposed. Burke’s Backyard recommends that if you are purchasing Gouldian Finches, consider the following; Only purchase Gouldians directly from a reputable breeder. Purchasing Gouldians from any other source such as pet shops may greatly increase the risk of exposure to viral diseases. Other varieties of finches may be bought through good pet shops without concern. When purchasing Gouldians for breeding, purchase your foundation birds from one source and do not introduce any further birds to this colony. Introducing new Gouldians to the foundation colony at a later date, even from the same supplier, will increase the likelihood of exposure to this fatal disease. Do not mix Gouldians with other varieties of finches. Gouldians are the only variety of finch which should be fully segregated from all other varieties. Gouldians should be fed and their aviaries cleaned before other finches. This will limit transfer of this disease from aviary to aviary.
Care and feeding
Finches must be supplied fresh water daily and must have access to clean seed and shell grit. Seeding grass heads also make a great treat. Your finch will also love extra treats such as fruit, sprouts, greens or cake (they love madeira cake!). However this should not take the place of a proper seed-based diet. Proprietary feeds such as finch mix are satisfactory and may be purchased from pet stores. These pre-mixed feeds should be slowly introduced to the diet. Separate drinking and bathing water facilities are ideal. Finches love a bath but will not drink from water in which they have bathed. Make sure the birds nails don’t get too long (if you are a novice, have a vet show you how to cut them back when required).
Cost and housing
A breeding pair of Zebra Finches can be bought for as little as $15 each, but you will pay around $70 for a pair of Gouldians. Bird cages are not suitable for finches. All finches are best housed in aviaries which face north to maximise exposure to the sun. There should be shelter at the rear to provide weather protection for the birds, their nests and the seed. Whatever the type of enclosure being used, it must protect the birds from damp and draughts.
You can build your own aviary, but kit form aviaries can be purchased self assembled or assembled for you. The basic aviary size is 2mx2mx1m. This size will comfortably house 10-20 birds. Prefabricated aviaries can range in price from $300 to $3500 depending on size and materials. Tree branches are recommended as perches in aviaries as the variation in diameter of the perch helps exercise the birds’ feet.
Australian finches are ideal for children, the novice or the experienced bird fancier. If starting out, Burke’s Backyard recommends Zebra Finches. This variety is easy to breed and much hardier than the Gouldians, which are more susceptible to weather extremes. Australian finches breed better if they are offered treats of seeding grasses (summer grass, guinea grass, winter grass) plus chickweed, madeira cake and some live food such mealworms. They are also an ideal and fun introduction for kids to learn about pet ownership, breeding principles, genetics and animal care.
Finch Society of Australia
If you are considering keeping species such as the Gouldian or breeding your finches, it is strongly recommended that you join a club such as the Finch Society of Australia (based in NSW). Finch clubs can provide friendly, reliable, intelligent assistance and information for the novice breeder, without the politics associated with some other animal and breed societies.
We filmed this story at Peter Phippens house. Peter is a member of the Finch Society of Australia.
For more information on this club or to contact interstate or regional clubs in your area, contact;
Finch Society of Australia
President: Doug Hill
PO Box 9
St Marys NSW 1790
Phone: (02) 9623 2850
In Sydney, Finch Society meetings are held on the second Wednesday of each month at Brenan Park Community Hall, Bourke Street, Smithfield at 8pm.
Doug Hill also contributes articles on finches to ‘Australian Avi-Trader’ magazine:
Australian Avi-Trader Magazine
PO Box 6370
Coffs Harbour NSW 2450
Phone: (02) 6656 4410 or 1800 777 122
The Australian Birdkeeper magazine is published each month and is full of advice, tips and contacts for the amateur or expert bird enthusiast. It is available from selected newsagents or contact them direct:
The Australian Birdkeeper
PO Box 6288
Tweed Heads South NSW 2486
Phone: (07) 5590 7777 (local)
1800 633 493 (other)
Fax: (07) 5590 7130