The Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata) is the numerous and common of the Estrildid finches across its home continent of Australia and also one of the most commonly kept finches in aviculture or bird-keeping. It is widespread across much of the country and has also been found on Indonesia and East Timor, as well as an introduced species to Puerto Rico, Portugal, Brazil and parts of the United States.
It comes from the family of finches that are considered the most exotic of the branches to us in the northern hemisphere. They are cousins, of sorts, to finches we are used to seeing such as the greenfinch or goldfinch or could be viewed as the Australian version of our Blue Tit.
In the wild, zebra finches live in a whole array of habitats from grassland to forests but always near open water. They can live near human habitation as well as using deforested land. Their breeding season comes after the heavy rains, so does not have a set time of year and can nest in a wide range of places such as cavities in trees, bushes, rabbit burrows or even disused nests of other birds.
Life expectancy in the wild is around five years but in captivity, they have been known to live as long as seven years, with odd birds reaching the age of twelve. They have been comprehensively studied by science and were the second bird after the chicken to have their genome sequenced.
In adult birds of wild colour, sexing is quite easy. The male birds have orange cheek patches and bright red beak while the cheeks are grey on females and the beak orange. With different mutations, it can be more difficult but depending on what the bird is, there are many tips to sex. As always, a singing bird is a male.
Most all estrildid finches are seed eaters and Zebras are typical in this fashion. Their little beaks work ideally for de-husking small seeds and one of their favourites is millet. In captivity, the primary food given to them is a good quality Foreign Finch mix, which contains different types of millet, canary seed and sometimes variations such as niger seed or oats.
Egg food is another advisable element to the captive bird’s diet. This is as readily available as finch seed and adds vital vitamins to the diet. Different birds have different preferences, but I have found they enjoy experimenting with fresh foods and have readily eaten greens such as kale and spinach, corn, peas, cabbage and broccoli. They will also nibble at apples, grapes, and oranges (peeled). One tip to remember with apples is always to remove the pips as these contain tiny amounts of cyanide, which has very little chance of affecting your bird, but is always best to be cautious.
Bird grit is another useful element as this helps to aid digestion, build up calcium to make eggs and is enjoyed. Experienced breeders have suggested taking the shells from boiled eggs, baking them in the oven for half an hour then adding this to bird grit after breaking them up to increase the minerals.
Zebras are enthusiastic bathers so while fresh water should always be available for drinking, fresh water in a bowl of some sort, or a bird bath, is essential. This helps them maintain their feather condition, and they enjoy it. Sometimes they become so wet they can hardly fly but will preen out the water for premium feather health.
Zebra finches are very vocal and rarely are ever quiet! The males have a delightful finch song, which is to say they will never compete with a canary in quality, but make up for it in enthusiasm. Each male will have a slightly different song though sons will learn from their dad and have a similar pattern. Research in Japan has suggested that the males enjoy singing for their females, and when you see them doing this, you can agree. The females do make a range of noises , the typical zebra ‘meeps’ and ‘beeps’ which make up their basic conversation.
If you have a male and female zebra, then it is highly unlikely that they won’t breed. They are able to breed from the age of two months though it is better to wait until at least six months for their long-term health.
In captivity, a nesting box or wicker finch nest can be provided, and supply of nesting material provided for successful nest building. They will use whatever they can find to finish the nest, including stealing feathers from unsuspecting aviary companions but prefer materials such as coconut fibre or jute which they can shape as required. Once they have selected their nest site, they will sleep in it.
Zebras will be defensive of their nest and will chase off other birds they deem too near. But it is mostly noise with little physical intent to harm.
The number of eggs laid is usually between two to seven and are incubated by both birds for 14-16 days. When the chicks hatch they are tiny and blind, with the eyes opening after about a week. The chicks stay in the nest until around three week, at which time they will be fully feathered, but their beaks, bright red or orange in adults, will be black. The changing of beak colour after fledging is a sign of maturity.
Some fledglings, chicks that have just left the nest, can fly adequately while others tend to stay on the floor. Their parents will feed them for around another 2-3 weeks, and a sign that a fledgling is nearly self-sufficient is the noise level. The older they are, the less the parents feed them and, the louder they get!
The zebra finch is small, active, entertaining and easy to feed, breed and home. They will be interact with humans very much but if you want a little character who’s antics will keep you interested and will provide you with a close-up view of nature, then the zebra is the finch for you.