The Zebra Finch was named after the characteristic barring present on the chest of cock birds, which resembles a zebra's markings. Hens lack this feature, as well as the colored ear coverts, and they also have paler beaks. It is mainly found in Australia, Tasmania and the Indonesian Islands.
In the wild, zebra finches, like other grassfinches feed largely on small seeds. They are thus easy birds to cater for in an aviary. A mixture of canary seed and millets forms the basis of their diet. Seeding grasses and other greenfood are also very popular. When breeding, zebra finches will sample soft food, and occasionally take small insects.
Zebra finches can be accommodated satisfactorily either in flight cages or aviaries. They are generally hardy birds, but should be protected from the worst of the winter weather, when they will benefit from lighting and possibly heating in their quarters. Zebra finches are not aggressive birds, either when kept in groups on their own, or as part of a mixed collection.
Zebra finches construct a fairly loose nest, the work being shared between the sexes. Studies in the wild suggest that on average about 300 individual strands are used for this purpose, the smaller pieces being woven to create a lining for the nest. In aviary surroundings, a small nestbox with an open front, or a nesting basket will suit them. Once egg laying commences, nesting material should be withdrawn to prevent continual building and consequent loss of eggs. The average clutch is comprised of four or five eggs, but up to ten is not unknown. The birds take it in turns to incubate. The incubation period is not less than 12 days, and can be longer. It depends upon when the birds began to sit in earnest. The young chicks grow rapidly, their eyes opening when just over a week old. They normally fledge around three weeks of age, but may still return to roost in the nest at night for a further period. The characteristic red beaks start to become apparent by six weeks of age, and they begin to moult for the first time when approximately two months old. The hen lays about 3 to 6 eggs.
The Zebra Finch matures more quickly than any other species of Australian grassfinch. In some instances, cocks become fertile when only nine weeks old. While pairs under three months of age have bred successfully, it is better to wait until they are least six months old. Hens should be restricted to a maximum of four broods a year, otherwise the risk of egg-binding and related problems is significantly increased. Zebra finches are normally very dependable parents but, occasionally, young birds rearing for the first time may lose chicks because of their inexperience. Avoid any unnecessary interference, and when the birds nest again, the problem may have resolved itself.
In view of the free-breeding nature of these finches, it is not surprising that a number of color mutations have appeared some of which originated in wild flocks. The following are the most widely known colors: Albino: An Australian mutation, characterized by its red eyes, which distinguish it from the white form. Crested: The crested character can be combined with any color, although the rules applying to the breeding of other crested birds also need to be observed with this mutation. Penguin: The body coloration of the cock bird gave rise to the popular name for this mutation, which dates back to the late 1940s. It is an autosomal recessive character, and remains scarce. Silver: The dominant form has cream cheek patches, and lighter coloration overall compared with its recessive counterpart, which has orange ear coverts. Combining these two mutations separately with the Fawn has produced cream zebra finches, of corresponding genetic types. White: The White was the first mutation to be established in the Zebra Finch and it dates from 1921. Black eyes distinguish them from albinos. They tend to show traces of grey in their plumage, but repeated breeding of flecked whites will eliminate this fault in some of the offspring. Perhaps the most unusual color change relates to beak color. A yellow, as distinct from the typical red-beaked variety, is now firmly established, and can be combined with any color. Various other plumage mutations are known, but remain scarce.
The Zebra Finch is also known as the Chestnut-Eared Finch, a description of this little Australian bird is almost superfluous, even if one ignores the many color mutations that have been produced, and those that may still yet appear. In the normal type, the top of the head, nape, and back are gray, and there are fawn-gray wings, chestnut cheek patches, and a vertical black stripe from eye to bib. The chin, throat, and sides of the neck are barred black and white, a band of black across the breast with white helot: The chestnut flanks are heavily spotted white, and the tail is barred in black and white. The bill and legs are bright red. The female lacks the chestnut cheek patches, flanks, and barred breast. We are now treated to an amazing variety of mutation colors, which include fawns, whites, black-breasted and chestnut-flanked whites, pieds, and many others.
The Zebra Finch has its own specialist society and is bred as a show bird, with a standard of excellence difficult for the amateur to achieve. Indeed, it has been said that the Zebra is one of the most difficult birds to breed to show standard. Show or pet, the species is readily, not to say commonly available. This should not deter a potential keeper, for it is a worthwhile and rewarding species. Zebra Finches will breed throughout the year if allowed, although their habit of making egg sandwiches by building nest after nest on top of each fresh clutch can be infuriating. They are best bred in cages as single-species pairs if controlled results are required, for they frequently interfere with other birds nesting attempts if placed in a mixed collection. If aviary breeding is desired, the best method is to suspend sheaves of long grasses from perches and aviary sides, giving natural breeding sites as an alternative to wicker nest baskets. A diet of mixed millet and canary seed, plus millet spray and some green food will do very well.
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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.