Firefinches are a family of eleven species in the Estrildidae family of exotic finches. The most commonly known in captivity is the Red-billed or Senegal Firefinch.
The Red-billed Firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala) is a small bird found across sub-Saharan Africa, which is around 10cm in length. The male bird has scarlet red feathers with brown wings, a yellow eye ring and a pink bill. The females are brown with a small red patch at the front of the eye. For some reason, in aviculture, they are nicknamed Ruddies.
These quiet little birds often live around human habitation in the wild and will live in mixed colonies with other finches such as the Red cheeked Cordon-bleu. They are seed eaters primarily and like to live in the grassland as well as cultivation. They will often take wild vegetation and millet from agricultural crops as well as insects and spiders when rearing young.
The nest of the bird is a domed structure made from grass which is entered at the side and built in a low bush or even a wall. Three to six eggs are laid, and the nest is parasitized by the Village Indigobird. In captivity, they are said to be the easiest of the Firefinch species to breed.
The African Firefinch (Lagonosticta rubricata) is also known as the Blue billed Firefinch due to the colour of its bill and is found across most all parts of Africa. They live in pairs of small families and often live with other finches, being quiet and peaceful birds.
These small birds are mostly red in colour with dark brown feathers across the back and wings and a slate blue beak in the female while the male is deeper in colour, more of a maroon shade than red. They are seed eaters and will happily collect food from the ground as well as eating live food when raising young.
In captivity, they are more uptight than their red-billed cousins but generally breed well given the right conditions.
The Black bellied Firefinch (Lagonosticta rara) is found across most of central and eastern Africa. The male is a deep mauve-wine red colour turning to a pinkish tone across the breast and flanks and dark brown wings. The female is more of a paler, brown-grey colour with some wine-red colour on the rump and tail.
In captivity, these little birds are described as difficult due to their very nervous behaviour and inconsistency of their breeding habits.
The other species of Firefinch not kept in aviculture are:
These birds are all similar in needs and requirements to be kept in captivity so we shall discuss them as a group here. They are generally 10-12cm in length and are peaceful birds who mix well with others.
If keeping in an aviary, a planted environment is the best for them as they like to be able to hide if frightened. Also if you are wanting them to breed, the ability to go into seclusion is important for this. If kept in a cage, dress the outside with imitation greenery if the cage isn’t large enough to accommodate a small potted plant, and this can do the same job.
Feeding in captivity can be based around a foreign finch mix with the addition of egg food, millet spray, insect mix and even fresh herbs still hanging from a stalk. Always make sure there is plenty of food on offer if in a mixed environment as the quiet nature of these little birds may mean they are not the first to feed bowl and can miss out. They particularly love the pannicum seeds, so either add some to the general mix or as a separate treat food.
When in breeding condition, the live food is essential. They will feed on mealworms, but the best results have come from termites. This needs to be supplemented with half-ripe grass seeds as these are a breeding trigger for the birds, a way of knowing that it is time to nest. Otherwise, they do not have a specific breeding season.
Breeding can be trickier with some of these species than others. They are sexually mature at a very young age but is often best to wait until full adult plumage is in place. This lengthens the breeding span of the bird and is better for all round health.
As a general rule, they lay 4-6 eggs and incubate for 14 days with both parents taking turns. They are not very tolerant of nest inspections so this should be kept to a minimum to avoid nest abandonment. They fledge around 2 weeks of age and are cared for by their parents for another 3-4 weeks. The birds can produce 3-4 clutches per year in the right conditions.
Due to their preference for grabbing food from the floor, it is important to regularly worm Firefinches, usually around every three months. They should also be treated for coccidiosis after extended wet periods, and a suitable treatment to be added to water is available online. It always pays to have a treatment for air-sac mite to hand as well, as these birds can pick the bug up when in a mixed aviary and will be seen gasping as a sign of possible infection.
These are not the easiest birds to keep and can have heat requirements depending on their upbringing. They are nervous little birds which need to be able to hide from perceived threats and can lose out in the feeding stakes to bigger, more forthright birds. Once they have the desired conditions, some of the species are successful breeders, while other may be a little more tricky. But if you have experience with finches, then these beautiful little birds may be the ones for you.