Finches epitomise the low-maintenance pet. Unlike members of the parrot family, finches aren’t in the least interested in learning to talk, playing games or otherwise relating to human beings. As far as they’re concerned, all you have to do is leave their food and go away. They don’t need an audience while they strut about, energetically leap from perch to perch and happily indulge in various other finch pursuits.
But that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t play voyeur. Much of the joy in owning finches comes from watching them do their finch thing. For hours on end. They are wonderfully active and engaging, possessing delightful personalities and startling physical agility. And the fact that finches come in so many different colours and patterns makes their displays all the more entertaining.
You’ll derive still more joy listening to them. (Well, most of them. A few finches will appeal only to heavy metal fans or devotees of other such discordancy.) In the main, the finch repertoire consists of a charming and melodious combination of beeps, squeaks and songs. A few even rival canaries as songsters. (As a general rule of thumb, the more colourful the bird, the less it will sing.)
Australian breeds – Some people just naturally assume that imported finches are in some way superior to the domestic variety. While you can find some stunning finches that come from overseas, such as the African fire or red-cheeked cordon, we have 18 native species (not including sub-species) that will give them a run for their money. Because their diet consists mainly of grass seeds and their most common habitat is grasslands savanna, Australian finches are often referred to as grassfinches.
Whatever type of finches you choose, you should know that it’s not enough to just stick them in a cage, supply daily food and water and keep them away from draughts. Different species have different needs when it comes to diet, care, housing, fellow cage or aviary mates, etc. For instance, non-Australian finches are far more likely to require live food.
By the way, because all native birds are protected in NSW under the National Parks and Wildlife Act, you should check out the website of the NSW Department of Environment and Conservation. You do not need a licence to keep blue-faced parrot finches, painteds, stars, zebras or Gouldians, but you are not allowed to trap them in the wild.
To give you a starting point, here’s some information on 10 of the more easy-to-keep Australian species.
Blue-faced parrot finch (Erythura trichroa; a.k.a. blue-faced finch, blue-headed finch, tricoloured parrot finch) – Like most Australian finches, these birds hail from Far North Queensland, in particular the edges of rainforest ranging from the Atherton Tableland to Cape York (and into Papua New Guinea, the Solomons and other island groups). Males are a grass-green colour with cobalt-blue face and throat and a black bill. The rump and uppertail coverts are a faded scarlet. The females are coloured similarly but duller, with less blue. Adults reach 12-13 cm in length. They use a single short, high-pitched reedy chirp to communicate and identitify themselves with a low trill. Their song is made up of two series of high-pitched trills, followed by a single soft whistle which falls then rises at the end. A secretive species, they will hide their nests away from prying eyes and inquisitive fingers. While somewhat boisterous, blue-faced parrot finches are not aggressive to other species and can be kept as a pair or as a colony in a mixed collection. That being said, be warned that their mating ritual is fairly energetic, sometimes disturbing smaller aviary inhabitants. They should be wormed regularly.
Chestnut-breasted mannikin (Lonchura castaneothorax; a.k.a. barley bird, barley sparrow, bullfinch, bullie, chestnut finch, chestnut-breasted finch, chestnut-breasted munia) – These birds can be found in reed beds and rank grass mainly along the eastern coast, all the way from the northern tropical areas to the Sydney district. The males are a solid brownish colour with a black face, grey crown and heavy grey bill. They get their name from their chestnut-coloured breast which is divided from a white abdomen by a thick black bar. The rump and tail are golden-brown. Females are the same, only paler. They grow to 10-11.5 cm. Their call is a bell-like ‘teet’ or ‘tit’ iand their song a 12-second-long toneless phrase of four spaced segments made up of clicks, harsh notes in two series and whistles at the end. While they can be kept as a pair or as a colony in a small aviary of seed eaters, chestnut-breasted mannikins have a tendency to be aggressive and bully other birds, especially munias, nuns or yellow rumps. Despite this behaviour, they are fairly shy and will seek remote areas of an aviary to build their nests. They are relatively long-lived.
Diamond firetail (Stagonopleura guttata; a.k.a. diamond finch, diamond sparrow, spotted-sided finch) – This beautiful species has a wide range. In pairs or small flocks, they habitate grassy woodlands and open spaces from south-central Queensland through to Kangaroo Island and the Eyre Peninsula of South Australia. A solid ‘upright’ finch, males have a maroon bill with black lores. Their body is grey above and white below, divided by a black chest band. The flanks have spots of white, the rump is crimson. Females share the same colouring but have a coral-pink bill with brownish lores. One of the largest finches, they reach 12-13 cm in length. Their call is a drawn-out, plaintive, ‘twooo-heee,’ the first syllable descending and the second rising in a whistle; the female’s being higher pitched. While nesting they also emit low, snoring calls. The display song of the male is made up of a long series of low, rasping notes. Although social in nature, they may dominate other species around food stations. Befitting their size, they make huge nests. Although they will not tolerate cold or wet conditions, the anti-protozoal drugs and worming agents available today greatly aid in keeping these birds in optimum condition.
Double-barred (Taeniopygia bichenovii; a.k.a. banded finch, black-ringed finch, black-rumped double bar, Bicheno’s finch, owl-faced finch, ringed finch) – These very popular aviary birds are quite adaptabe in the wild, appearing in pairs or flocks in open forests, grasslands and alonside creeks in eastern Australia, all the way from the Northern Territory to the south of New South Wales. They are brownish-grey with a greyish-blue bill, white face, white-spotted black wings, black tail and white rump. The underparts are white and feature two narrow, black bands above and below the chest. They grow 10-11 cm. The call of the double-barred finch varies from a short, low nasal ‘tat’ in close contact to a longer, louder nasal ‘tiatt’ for identification, alarm and flight. When nesting it becomes a high-pitched squeaking. The song is a soft, repetitive sequence of nasal notes. Because a mating pair often bond for life, bringing in a new mate could prove unsuccessful. And while they can be kept with other small seed eaters, they tend to be nervous in aviaries, and their skittishness may put off smaller waxbills. Breeding may be improved with the addition of live food.
Long-tailed (Poephila acuticauda; a.k.a. black heart finch, Heck’s finch, long-tailed grassfinch, orange-billed grassfinch) – Found in open woodland and grass near creeks along the Top End, these birds used to be heavily trapped when such goings-on were legal. Males are fawnish-tan with a blue-grey head, black lores and a distinctive black bib. Their bills vary from waxy yellow in Western Australian to orange-red in Queensland. They have long, sharply tapered black tails, white rumps and orange legs. The female looks the same but with a smaller bib. Adults are 14-16 cm in length. The identifying call is a loud ‘thwirr’ whistle. When close it becomes a short ‘tet’and in chases a hissing ‘whsst.’ Their song consists of soft, flute-like whistles in two-second phrases. Although long-tailed finches can be kept in a collection of small seed eaters, paired up or as a colony, they can be a nusiance in mixed collections. Better to limit them to a single pair in an aviary. The exception that proves the rule, they can become very tame with their keepers.
Painted firetail (Emblema bellum; a.k.a. emblema, firetail finch, Tasmanian waxbill) – Rather than grasslands, these native finches prefer to live in thick forest and scrub areas, often marked by she-oak and tea-tree thickets. Rather than Queensland, they range from central coastal New South Wales through southern Victoria to southeastern South Australia, Kangaroo Island, Tasmania and islands in Bass Strait. Their appearance also sets these finches apart. Painted firetails are olive-brown with a red bill and black mask, crimson rump and upper tail coverts. The chest and flanks both display black barring. They grow 11-13 cm. These birds identify one another with a mournful, penetrating ‘wheeee’ whistle and use a low-pitched ‘cherrr-it’ for their contact call. They sound the alarm with a loud ‘tup, tup, tup’ call in triplets. Their song is a cricket-like ‘caw-caw-caw,’ which also come three at a time. The males do an unusual ‘metronome dance’ where they whirl like a clockwork toy. While they can be tolerant of other species, they also can become territorial and upset others of their own kind. Painted firetails seem to have a preference for live food.
Plum-headed (Neochmia modesta; a.k.a. cherry finch, diadem finch, modest finch, plum-capped finch, plumhead) – This species lives in pairs or small flocks in open woodlands that border watercourses from Cairns through central New South Wales to near the Victorian border. Males are olive-brown above and white below with brown barring on the chest; their wings are spotted with white. The forehead, crown and chin are a deep claret with a black bill, lores and tail. The female goes without the claret chin spot and has a thin white line above and to rear of their eyes. While they may appear drab when you first see them, sunlight makes their bibs and caps shine. They measure 10.5-11.5 cm. Plum-headed finches use a loud tinkling whistle in flight and for identification, changing to a soft, murmured ‘tlip’ when in close contact. Their song starts as very soft, high-pitched chirping combined with gargling trills which then become louder and more flute-like. While the pair bond is strong, they can be fussy about mate selection. Also, this species is especially prone to chills and the scours. If you want to feed them live food, they’ll happily tuck into it, but this doesn’t affect any desire to breed.
Redbrow waxbill (Neochmia temporalis; a.k.a. Australian waxbill, red brow, red head, red-browed firetail, Sydney waxbill, temporal finch) – Another adaptable species, these waxbills may live in areas made up of dense shrub, open grass and water features. Or partly cleared and cultivated lands. Or open forest. In pairs or flocks. From Cape York down the coast to southeastern South Australia and Kangaroo Island. Even in Western Australia where someone accidentally introduced them. They are olive-green and grey in colour with a scarlet rump, eyebrows and bill. Hens are a noticeably lighter shade of grey. They average 11-12 cm in length. When on the move they will repeatedly give out a piercing, high-pitched ‘sseee-seee’ call. They have a simple song made up of a rhythmic repetition of notes. Redbrows construct huge nests which they will defend vigorously. They spend a lot of time on the ground foraging and will gladly accept live food.
Star (Neochmia ruficauda; a.k.a. red-faced finch, red-tailed finch, ruficauda finch) – Star finches make their home in tall grass beside swamps and rivers. They’re found in pairs or flocks across northern Australia and as far south as the Ashburton River and northern New South Wales. The male looks thoroughly embarrassed with a bright red face. Their bodies are dark olive above and yellow-olive below with white-spotted chest, flanks, rump and tail. As usual, females are duller and show red only on lores and forehead. There are also a host of mutations available. Stars grow 10-12 cm. Their identity call is a loud ‘sseet,’ heard mainly in flight; this contrasts with a soft ‘pslit’ call for contact, while feeding or in small groups. Their song is a soft, high, toneless twitter. Not all that picky, they show little interest in live food but love soaked/sprouted seed and green seeding grasses.
a.k.a. chestnut-eared finch, spotted finch, spotted-sided finch) – Last but hardly least, this well-known species has a very wide range. They call most of Australia home, except for the coastal districts of northern Australia, South Australia and forested south-western Australia. In pairs or flocks, they can be spotted in most open country, showing particular preference for grasslands that border watercourses and plains intersected with scrub. But they’re also not uncommon in partly cleared and cultivated lands. Zebras have a grey body, wax-red bill, black and white tear stripes, white rump and zebra-barred tail. They’re further distinguished with a chestnut ear patch and black chest bar, fine black and white barring on the throat along with spotted white chestnut flanks and a white abdomen. In females the abdomen is a buff colour. Then there all are the mutations. Zebras are among the smaller finches, growing to 10 cm. The call is a nasally ‘tiah,’ switching to a soft, repetitive ‘tet’ in close contact. They have a great little song featuring a sharp, nasal trill heard in a series of phrases, each lasting about two seconds. Zebras are such avid breeders that they’re likely to dominate other birds in an aviary through sheer numbers.
The preceding notes are just to give you an idea of the native finches that are available. For more specific information about their individual requirements, you should talk to the breeder, join a club and/or do further reading.
Also, you might have noticed that we haven’t made any mention of Gouldians, crimsons or pictorellas here. That’s not because they aren’t fine examples of Australian finches, but keeping them might prove a tad too ambitious for beginners. Even so, it would be a shame not to at least show a pair of strikingly coloured Gouldians.
Choosing your finches – Let common sense be your guide. Stay away from any bird that evokes sympathy or pity rather than admiration or awe. Bald birds became that way through stress. Sleeping or inactive birds are probably not well. The same goes for birds with crossed beaks.
Instead, look for active birds with well-formed beaks, clear eyes and nares (nostrils) and healthy-looking skin. While feathers should be neat and clean, the fact that they seem a tad tattered isn’t necessarily a bad sign. It could be that the birds have been killing time waiting for you by jumping to the cage walls and sliding down. All that’s needed is their next moult. Missing tails in an otherwise healthy-looking bird – common where there’s overcrowding – shouldn’t dissuade you either. They’ll grow back.
If you are buying a species whose colours become more vibrant during the breeding season, it’s a good idea to make your purchases when they are in their breeding plumage or starting to moult into the colours. This way you can be sure you have the sexes you’re after. While you’re at it, try to choose birds that aren’t related, just in case you ever decide to let them enjoy parenthood.
Generally, the purchase of young birds – especially when they haven’t been weaned – is ill-advised. Even very young chicks who are all finished weaning can succumb to stress or illness very quickly and die. (The one to the right is definitely too youthful.) To save yourself the heartache, always buy adult finches. Just pick the birds that most appeal to you and that you feel you can best care for. Then look forward to anywhere from five to nine rewarding years together.
Looking after your finches – As we said at the outset, caring for most finches usually doesn’t require a lot of effort. As long as they have plenty of seeds and fresh water, some sunlight, a large cage or aviary with room for flying, and a warm and draught-free location away from the kitchen and heavy traffic areas of your home, they should do fine. However, if you want your finches to really prosper, you should expand their diet from basic finch seed only to more complex meals filled with seed, greens, vegetables and egg. Then expect your finches to live longer and reproduce more often.
Paying extra attention to diet goes with the territory when you choose some of the more exotic finch species, particularly overseas breeds that you likely won’t find in your local pet shop. Not only will you have to offer more specialized meals, probably including live foods, you may also have to control the room temperature. Some species won’t be comfortable where the thermometer goes below 27°C.
Despite the low-maintence aspects of keeping finches, there are homes in which even these undemanding birds wouldn’t make good pets. The heavy smoke generated by nicotine addicts can very quickly kill finches. Small children prone to teasing or invading cages with their hands or fingers can literally frighten finches to death. Hookbill species in the same cage tend to bite the limbs of finches while playing. While it might be inadvertent, it still happens.
Housing – You’ll probably start modesty with a pair of birds and a store-bought cage (no less than 60cm wide and 30 cm high), then as you become more seduced by these charming birds, you may add more and graduate to a small planted aviary. In time you could become completely hooked and invest in a large and decorative aviary. Some people design them to blend in with the household furniture while others add huge extensions to their garages or sheds. These little birds can have a huge impact.
Health – The problems that affect finches include (in no particular order): feather cysts, baldness and other feather abnormalities, obesity and fatty tumors, mites (air sac, trachea, tasselfoot, scaly face), egg binding, cataracts, internal parasites, bacterial diseases, constricted feet and digits, damaged nails and beak, leg fractures, fungal infections and obstructed breathing caused by inhaled seed.
The single, most common cause of many of these diseases is malnutrition. Needless to say, adhering to the feeding advice above will go a long way to keeping your finches healthy. Another good idea is to bring your birds to us for routine health check-ups. If that’s impractical, we can always come to you.
If you haven’t already been to our Birds page, you’ll discover plenty of useful information about birds in general there.