The Grassfinch family, Poephila, are a member of the Estrildidae family of finches who live in Australia and mainly occupy the grasslands. There are three species in the family, all of which are kept in captivity in this country.
The Masked Finch (Poephila personata) is found across northern Australia from Kimberley across the Top End, the Gulf country and the south part of the Cape York Peninsula in areas always near water.
It is 12.5-13.5cm in length, and the male is generally larger than the female. They are a cinnamon-brown colour with paler shading on the underparts and a white rump. There are black marks on the flanks and a black face mask with a thick yellow bill and a black tail.
These finches live in pairs or small flocks and forage for grass seeds. On an evening, they gather at waterholes to drink and to bathe then preen while chattering to each other.
In the wild, these birds build a domed nest from grasses and line it with soft grass and feathers usually late in the wet season or early in the dry season. 5-6 eggs are laid and incubated by both birds for around 13 days. The chicks fledge at 18-21 days and should be disturbed as little as possible when in the nest to avoid abandonment. In the event of abandonment of the nest, these birds can be fostered to Bengalese finches but should be returned to their own kind as soon as possible to help avoid a repeating cycle.
The Long tailed Finch (Poephila acuticauda) is known as the Heck’s Grassfinch in Britain or as the Shaft-tailed Finch. It lives in the dry savannah of northern Australia from Derby east across the Leichhardt River in northern Queensland.
Usually around 15cm in length, Hecks have a prominent black bib on the throat as well as a long, pointed tail. The upper parts are a pinkish-brown while the lower breast and abdomen is a paler shade. Their head is grey with white ear patches and black patches on the upper flanks. Beaks are typically bright red but can be orange and yellow in some sub-species. Sexing the birds is not easy and is done mainly in comparison when the female usually has a smaller bib than the male.
Even the birds cannot sex one another visually so a male will approach a new bird and engage in their courtship display before attempting to mate and therefore sexing the new bird. They hold themselves upright and sing as well as bobbing their head.
In captivity, these birds adapt easily to life although are said to be better in an aviary setting than a cage. Personally, I think this depends a lot on how the bird has been raised as a bird born and raised in a cage will be perfectly happy in one as this is it’s natural environment.
Nesting occurs in natural hollows with parents sharing the responsibilities. 4-6 eggs are laid and incubated for 13-17 days. They fledge at 21 days old and are weaned by the time they reach 6 weeks. They complete their first moult by 3-4 months of age but should be prevented from breeding until at least 9 months of age for long-term health.
There are fawn mutation birds available where the grey parts of the bird are fawn, and the bib is a cinnamon colour, as opposed to black.
The Black Throated Finch (Poephila cincta) is known as the Parsons Finch more commonly and lives in the grassy woodlands of north-eastern Australia across the Cape York Peninsula to north-eastern New South Wales. It current suffers from declining numbers due to loss of habitat.
The Parsons finch is around 10cm in length and has black bill and throat, a pale grey head and wings, belly and breast which are pinkish brown. The tail is black as is the rump, apart from some subspecies where it is white.
As their name says, these birds are grass finches and eat grass seeds as well as some live food such as spiders and ants. During the wet season, they will hunt flying termites.
In the wild, they breed from September to January in the southern parts of their territory or after the monsoon season in areas where there is one. One or two broods are raised each year in a round nest woven from dried grass. They use eucalyptus trees to build in and are around 5metres from the ground. 4-6 eggs are laid and incubated for 12-15 days. They fledge at 21-22 days and weaned by 6-8 weeks of age.
With their velvety feathers and beautiful muted colours, these finches are a pleasure on the eye. Whilst not particularly tameable birds, they can learn to trust humans enough to come to the hand for food but are primarily kept for the entertainment of watching them. Their calls are reasonably quiet, and they live well with others birds. It is advisable not to keep any of the three species in the same cage or aviary simply because they can hybridize.
Generally these birds need shelter from the worst extremes of our climate but otherwise can live outside no problem. They like to bathe regularly and roost in nest boxes at night. They can be prone to obesity so if you keep them in a cage, make sure it is big enough that they can exercise well to avoid this.
You can feed them on a good foreign finch seed mix as well as fresh fruit and vegetables, egg food and live food when rearing, though some birds may not bother with this. Always have calcium or grit on offer for the birds to take as needed, especially when breeding.
These finches make a great pet or breeding bird for all but the most inexperienced of keepers. The price of them has risen recently due to the ban on imports from Australia, but the Hecks particularly are still widely kept, so finding a reliable breeder shouldn’t be too difficult.