Old World Aviaries: About finches—

Poephila guttata or Poephila castanotis
The Zebra Finch

by Fenton Mereness
E&F Birds

Over the years Emily and I have had tables at many, many bird shows and sales. Invariably we are approached by someone who wants us to know that at some time or another she or he has had “finches.” I have learned to respond: “Zebra finches?” Almost without exception we get a surprised look as if we are clairvoyant. Zebra finches are among the most popular of the pet finches. They are readily available and reasonably priced. The Zebra finch is an attractive bird, quite hardy, and is easily bred. A word of caution—because it is such a prolific breeder, often the birds you find for sale are clutchmates or very closely related. If you are tempted to take home a pair of these outstanding pets, try to ensure that you are starting with unrelated birds.

Years ago, in a far-off land called Marin, Emily and I were at the local humane society to adopt some chickens or ducks. We would get calls about 2 weeks after Easter, when parents would discover that the cute baby Easter gift was growing and eating and generally smelling up the place! We were the foster home of choice. While waiting for the multiple forms to be completed, I spotted a pair of tiny, really attractive birds. These, I was informed, were Zebra finches. They were not black and white, but why argue with a volunteer? I had to have the little guys. I was delighted to discover the cage and accessories were included. I had to beg Emily to let me take them, but once home, the little guys captivated us. They taught us to “beep beep” and several other useful tricks. Because of them we now have a hobby and 400 or so of their friends and relatives!

In captivity Zebra finches will eat most seeds found in “finch” mixes, various greens, and should have access to cuttle bone and a protein source such as hard--boiled eggs. A pet--bird vitamin should be furnished. The zebra will nest in almost anything, but the small braided wicker nest is our choice for them. They fledge in about 21 days after a 14-day incubation. The babies can breed in 10 weeks, hence my caution about separating clutchmates. We once met a breeder who couldn't get his zebras to breed, but most often the issue is how to get them to stop!

The Zebra finch is found throughout Australia, wherever there is access to food and water. In its native form the bird is called “normal grey.” Calling the bird grey somehow doesn't seem to do it justice. In the normal grey male the upper part is grey, the rest of the 4--inch bird includes orange cheeks, white and black tail bars, and bright chestnut and white flanks, finished with a bright red beak. The hens are mostly grey with a paler beak. There is also a non--Australian yellow--beaked variety, which may come from Tasmania. (According to a correspondent who lives in Tasmania, no Zebra finches are native to the island. Ed.) Zebra mutations are numerous and include silver, white, fawn, blue, cream, chestnut flanked, and many others. The domesticated bird has been bred for a larger, rounder body, and these “English” Zebras are available in the various mutations as well as grey.

In Zebra Finches, A Complete Pet Owners Manual, Hans-Jurgen Martin says “Zebra Finches always stay relatively wild and shy. They can therefore never be hand tamed.” Our experience has been that they are very curious and can be interactive. They will learn to call for greens. They will come to the front of the cage and eat soft food from the spoon. They can make excellent pets and can be a joy if given a chance (and if you have a good outlet for the offspring).

Suggested reading

Zebra Finches – Hans-Jurgen Martin.

Finches and Soft--billed Birds – Henry Bates and Robert Busenbark.

The New Finch Handbook – Christa Koeph.

Zebra Finches – Mervin F. Roberts.

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