The Australian grass finches are among the most popular cage birds, and as such they form a sizable segment of the bird market. Originally they were considered to be a subfamily of the weaver birds, but now they are grouped in their own family, Estrildidae (often referred to as weaver finches), which contains about 120 species and many subspecies. The grace and beauty of these birds, together with the fact that many will readily breed in captivity, have made them very popular as cage and aviary birds. The natural distribution of estrildine finches extends from Africa (south of the Sahara Desert) to Madagascar and southern Arabia, northward towards southern China and Taiwan, they are also widespread throughout the Indo-Australian Archipelago, from the Australian mainland to Papua-New Guinea and eastward towards Micronesia and Samoa. They do not occur, however, in New Zealand. In addition, they have also been introduced to other countries which have a tropical or at least temperate climate, where they have often become well established. For instance, there is one species now even on the European continent (in Portugal).

None of the Australian grassfinches are talented songsters, but these birds are highly valued for their attractive coloration and markings. Some color mutations are known, but remain relatively scarce. Many species are domesticated in aviculture.

A seed mixture comprised of the smaller cereal seeds, whenever possible augmented by seeding grasses is recommended. It is important that a variety of livefood should also be offered, particularly when birds are breeding. Gouldian finches appear to require a relatively high mineral intake. Rock salt, available from many bigger supermarkets, can be provided for them. Cuttlefish bone and iodine nibbles, as well as grit, should be available to the birds at all times.

Gouldians especially have a reputation for being rather difficult birds to maintain and breed successfully, usually being housed in individual pairs in cages for the latter purpose. In Australia however, they are free-breeding when kept on a colony system. In Europe, their accommodation may need to take account of their desire to breed out of season. It is highly recommended that they be provided with heat and lighting during cold winter months.

An open nestbox, partially filled with suitable material is usually provided. It is vital to ensure that hens receive adequate calcium, and if necessary, cuttlefish bone should be grated over their food. As many as six eggs can form the clutch, and the chicks should hatch about a fortnight after the start of the incubation period. They fledge at around three weeks of age, and begin to moult for the first time several weeks later. Losses of youngsters after fiedging are not uncommon (in the case of Gouldians), the affected birds going light. A suitably varied diet, and a comprehensive food supplement should help to prevent this problem. Take care to ensure that the young birds can feed themselves adequately.

Long-tailed Grassfinch (Peophila acuticauda): In the wild, two sub-species showing different beak colorations are recognized: P. a. hecki with an orange-red beak, and P. a. acuticauda, with a yellow bill. Pairing these two races together yields offspring resembling P. a. hecki. In common with other Australian grassfinches, these birds will usually include pieces of charcoal in their nests. The reason for this is unclear, but it may be linked to nest sanitation, and a supply of crushed charcoal should be available to them.
Parson's Finch (Poephila cincta): These finches often prefer to use a nestbox for breeding purposes, rather than attempt to construct their own nest without any support. Some cock birds prove inveterate builders however, destroying one nest as it nears completion and starting it again elsewhere in another box. When breeding, pairs may prove quarrelsome towards other birds.

In appearance and body shape these birds resemble the related true finches as well as the weavers. However, they are distinguished from true finches, as well as from weavers and sparrows, by the presence of 10 primary wing feathers, as opposed to 9 in the true finches. Many species are conspicuously colored in bright reds, greens, blues or yellows, while some are rather plain. Males and females can often be recognized on the basis of different color patterns. There is an equally large number though, in which there are no color differences whatsoever between the sexes.

Depending upon the species, the beak in grass finches is variably colored, mostly in shades of red, but often yellow, whitish, gray or metallic blue. It is either stout and thick or pointed and slender, again depending upon the individual species. The tail varies in shape, form and length with most grass finches, it may be either rounded, serrated or truncated in a straight line. The central tail feathers are often pointed, and in two species they are extended and finely pointed. Many of these finches show very characteristic tail movements. The grass finches often fan their tails impressively to the left and right. Others, such as the amarants, move their tails vertically up and down. In size, grass finches range from about 9 cm (zebra finch) to about 14 cm (crimson finch, Neochmia phaeton, and Gouldian finch, Chloebia gouldiae).

Many species live in savannah country, while others prefer dense jungle and still others live in the proximity of human habitation, such as within native villages or in city or town parks. A few inhabit mountainous regions up to considerable altitudes. Most of these finches stay close to the ground or remain within low bushes and some are distinctly ground dwellers.

Grass and parrot finches feed predominantly on ripe (dry) and half-ripe seeds, but they will also take on insects, particularly when they are rearing young. A few rarely imported species feed exclusively on insects, such as flying ants and termites, which are caught in flight. In general, these finches look for food on the ground and pick up seeds from various seed pods. Many are quite adept in clinging to grass reeds while picking seeds from the pods. Some Australian species sip water in the same manner pigeons do (zebra finch, diamond firetail finch, star finch, and masked finch). All others raise the beak, in a chicken-like manner, after each swallow.

Most grass finches are very social birds which live together in small or large groups. They exhibit a considerable degree of social behavior, such as maintaining body contact during mutual preening and when resting. Body contact is maintained either through long rows of birds sitting side by side or through individual pairs sitting side by side. Some species will not tolerate any intra-specific body contact and always maintain a certain distance between individual birds. The degree of body contact varies among the different species. The same holds true for mutual feather preening, whereby one bird picks on the head and neck feathers of another. Mutual preening is particularly strongly expressed by those species which have the greatest need for body contact. Unfortunately, in captivity such preening can intensify to a point at which the birds are pulling each other's feathers out. This was particularly noticeable during the early days when birds were imported by boat. On board ship the birds had to remain in overcrowded shipping boxes for prolonged periods of time. Nowadays, birds are transported by air, so this phenomenon rarely occurs.

During the breeding season most pairs build their nests in close proximity to each other, often in the same bush or tree. This behavior is fundamentally different from that of the true finches, which are strongly territorial even at the intra-specific level. Such total isolation occurs only rarely among grass and parrot finches; a notable exception is the rather aggressive crimson finch, Neochmia phaeton. This species not only drives offother crimson finches but also attacks much larger birds that invade its territory.

The call of the grass finches is generally very faint and often rather unmelodic. Unlike males of the species of true finches, which indicate their territory through their tone, grass finch males use the voice only during courtship. In some species the females too will vocalize. In addition to courting calls, these birds can produce a wide range of other sounds—attracting calls, which sometimes vary between the sexes in some species, warning or fright calls, attracting-to-nest calls and others.

Most grass and parrot finches are very peaceful. Courtship behavior varies among species, but usually the male performs a ritualistic courtship dance. During this dance he either sings and dances directly in front of or towards the female, or he dances a semi-circle around the female. Sometimes the courting male carries a blade of grass or feather in his beak. The female signals the male through rapid vertical movements of her tail that she is ready for copulation. This is another characteristic behavior of grass finches that departs from that of true finches, in which the female indicates her readiness by trembling with her wings.

The partners then start looking jointly for a suitable nesting site and begin building their nest. Usually the male gathers the nesting material and carries it to the nest site, where the female then builds the nest. Grass and parrot finches always build a totally enclosed nest with an entrance and exit on one side only. Some species add a more or less elongated entrance tunnel. Size and shape of the nest can vary considerably between species. It is usually ball-shaped or somewhat flattened. In some species the nest is small (8 to 15 cm diameter) and substantially larger in others (20 to 25 cm diameter). The nest-building material consists mostly of grasses; the grasses are used either fresh or dried, depending on the species. Many finches pad their nests with feathers, hairs or other soft materials. Often it is hidden among dense bushes or small trees. Thorny bushes seem to be preferred locations, as are places near wasp nests or even in the lower foundation structure of large birds-of-prey nests, all sites which give protection against predators. Some birds build their nests directly on the ground or in the grass tufts; others prefer hollow trees or deserted parrot or kingfisher nesting sites inside termite mounds.

A peculiarity is the 'sleeping nests' built by some grass finches. These nests are even built outside the normal breeding season, since these birds always spend the night inside a nest. Other species spend the night just sitting on a branch. The eggs of grass finches are snow white. A clutch consists usually of 4 to 7 eggs, occasionally more. It is difficult to determine the exact length of the incubation period; apparently this varies from 12 to 16 days. The precise time depends upon several factors: temperature, humidity and intensity of incubation. Both partners take turns (about 1 1/2 hours each) sitting on the eggs. Some pairs have been observed to leave a nest unattended, which of course, results in cooling of the eggs and thus delays the development of the embryo. As a rule, intensive incubation commences when the third egg has been laid. Therefore, the first 3 young often hatch at the same time; the remainder hatch two to three days later, since the last eggs were laid after incubation had already commenced.

Newly hatched grass finch young have a yellowish brown beak that turns black within a few days. After the young have left the nest and within 2 months or so the beak will get its species-specific coloration. Parrot finches have a yellow beak as juveniles—often with a dark cross band over the upper mandible. Young grass finches nearly always exhibit conspicuous mouth and throat markings of dot and line patterns. While these are species-specific, there are, however, considerable resemblances among closely related species. In addition, many exhibit a spot pattern on their tongue and lower mandible, some species have light-reflecting yellow, blue or white papillae with a black margin, consisting of connective tissue. Presumedly the markings indicate the location of the young nestling in the semi-darkness of the nest, thus aiding the parents in feeding their young. The mouth and throat markings and the light papillae disappear with age.

The young are cared for and fed by both parents. During the first 9 to 12 days after hatching they are attended to during the day by both parents. At night the parents usually sleep inside the nest. The adults will regurgitate part of their crop contents into the beaks of the nestlings to feed them. This food consists usually of half-ripe or sprouting seeds, with some small insects added. During the feeding procedure the young adopt a characteristic begging position; facing one parent, they will press their heads down against the nest floor and open their beaks wide. In most grass finch species the young will press their wings against their bodies while being fed. Some species will raise either one or both wings steeply. The young birds of most species will usually leave their nest after 21 days. Rice finches, banded finches and red-headed parrot finches can take a few days longer. The young will be called back to the nest by their parents for feeding and to spend the night there. After a few days the adults will also feed them outside the nest, and soon thereafter they will begin picking up seeds from the ground on their own. As a rule, the adults will continue to feed their young outside the nest for about 14 days, and within 2 to 3 weeks after they have left the nest they will feed on their own. After 8 to 10 weeks the young will undergo their first molt, which lasts about a month and ends with the young birds getting their full adult plumage. In some species the young will never return to their nest after they have left it, although they will spend the night close by.

The eggs of grass finches are snow white. A clutch consists usually of 4 to 7 eggs, occasionally more. It is difficult to determine the exact length of the incubation period; apparently this varies from 12 to 16 days.


E-Mail: berniehansen@sympatico.ca



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