The Shaft-tail Finch

Shaft-tail Finch8,11,13,14,22,23,31,32,34,35,37,40,41
Poephila acuticauda
Singing ability:Somewhat pleasant
Compatibility:Pushy, mixes well with other pushy species
[Compatibility Chart]
Size:5-6" (12.7-15 cm)
Weight:22-23 g
Approx. cost:$120-180 (US) per pair

Other common names

Shafttail, Black-heart Finch, Black-hearted Finch, Black-heart
  • P. a. acuticauda (yellow-billed variety): Long-tailed Grassfinch, Long-tailed Finch, Yellow-billed Longtail
  • P. a. hecki (red-billed subspecies): Heck's Grassfinch, Heck's Grass-finch, Heck's Shaft-tail Finch, Heck's Finch, Heck's Longtail, Red-billed Longtail



Area of distribution

Northern Australia from the Kimberley region in Western Australia, across the Northern Territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria, and east to the Leichardt River in western North Queensland. The nominate (yellow-billed) race occurs in the western part of the range, whereas the subspecies (red-beaked P. a. hecki) occurs in the eastern areas. There is a blending of the two forms where their territories overlap, where birds' beaks occur in shades of orange ("Coral-billed Longtails").



Active, comical, nosy. Breeding birds may become aggressive towards more passive species.

Physical descriptions

Grey head, black "bib" extending from chin to the throat, black markings extending from each side of the beak to the eye, brown back and wings, pinkish-brown colored breast and belly, black thighs, white rump, black tail with long tail wires, orange legs. The Long-tailed grassfinch has a yellow beak, and the Heck's grassfinch (which is considered the subspecies) has a red beak (although sometimes it is more orange, probably due to indiscriminate mating of the subspecies to the nominate form). Juveniles emerge from the nest with a black beak, flesh-colored legs and feet, a smaller bib than the adult, and with duller plumage overall.

Several mutations exist including:
  • Fawn (sex-linked): a paler, more tawny brown version overall, where even the black of the throat, lores, and thighs becomes more of a dark brown
  • Cream or cream-ino / creamino (sex-linked mutation): the entire bird becomes shades of off-white, with the exceptions of the black areas on the normal bird which are more of a light brown color; irides are red
  • White: the entire bird is white and the normally black markings are hardly visible
  • Pied: random splotches of white feathering throughout
  • Pale-billed (autosomal dominant): beak is very pale in color
  • Isabel / Isabele / Isabelle (autosomal recessive): Pale fawn body color, black markings become light brown; looks like a "dilute" version of the fawn mutation
  • Grey (autosomal recessive): overall greyer colored bird, but black markings remain black.
Parsons Finch

The Shaft-tail finch looks very similar to a separate species called the Parson's Finch (P. cincta), but can be differentiated from the Parson's by the color of the bill. The Shaft-tail will have a yellow, orange, or red bill, whereas the Parson's Finch has a black bill (exception: the creamino mutation Parson's finch has a pink bill). The Parson's Finch also has a shorter tail, regardless of color morph.


Only the cock sings. Cocks may be induced to sing by temporarily placing them in a cage by themselves, out of sight of other finches. When compared to males, hens may have a slightly smaller bib, less pronounced thigh band, smaller bill, browner tail, and/or the bill may be a shade lighter than the cock's, but these visual sexing methods may be unreliable. Additionally, the shape of the bib may differ between the sexes; in the male, the bib is triangular (the bottom of the bib spreads out more at the base of the throat/sides of the neck) whereas the hen's has more of a tear-drop shape (rounded base which does not spread as far on the sides of the neck).

Shaft-tail pair; photo by Kiyo
A pair of (Heck's) Shaft-tails. This is P. a. hecki, the red-billed subspecies. The cock (on the right) has a redder bill and larger bib and can be seen in this photo singing to the hen on the left. Photo by Kiyo.


The song consists of a series of soft notes, some of which are flute-like, and ends in a long mournful note. Individual songs may vary.

Cock's songExternal Site from the Finch Stuff
Calling noisesExternal Site from the Finch Stuff


If you keep this species and have a photo of your birds to share, please submit your photo for possible inclusion on this site! Credit will be given to you.

Shaft-tail Finches
Normal (Heck's) Shaft-tails. This is P. a. hecki, the red-billed subspecies.

Shaft-tail comically searching for nesting material atop a person's head.

Shaft-tail Finch
Shaft-tail brooding her hatchlings.

Shaft-tail Finches
Chicks, 10 days old.

Shaft-tail Finches
Chicks, 14 days old.

Shaft-tail Finches
Normal juveniles.

Shaft-tail Finches
Juveniles allopreening.

Juvenile Shaft-tail (note the black coloration in the beak).

Normal Shaft-tail, an older juvenile (note the dissipating black coloration in the beak).

Fawn Shaft-tail
Fawn Shaft-tail.

Fawn Shaft-tail; photo by Steve Wildman
Fawn Shaft-tail. Photo by Steve Wildman.

Mutation Shaft-tails; photo by Steve Wildman
Two isabelle shaft-tails (the lighter-colored birds) and one fawn shaft-tail. Photo by Steve Wildman.

Long-tail Finch; photo by Matt Francey
Normal Long-tailed finch. This is P. a. acuticauda, the yellow-billed variety. Photo by Matt Francey.

Long-tail Finches; photo by Lip Kee Yap
P. a. acuticauda pair. Photo by Lip Kee Yap.

Long-tail Finches; photo by Lip Kee Yap
P. a. acuticauda juveniles. Photo by Lip Kee Yap.

Favorite foods

Live food (small mealworms, termites, ant pupae), millet, green food, sprouted seed, egg food.

Natural habitat

Sparsely timbered eucalypt woodland, rocky escarpment with eucalyptus, boab, and Pandanus trees, arid savannah grassland bordering watercourses, open Pandanus plains near the coast.


When landing on a perch, a Shaft-tail finch will bob its head up and down in a comical manner. Head-bobbing may also be used as a greeting. Clumping and allopreening occur commonly among members of a flock. Shaft-tails live in groups year-round. They love to sun bathe, but shaded areas should always be available to them within their enclosure. They may roost in a nest at night; wild Shaft-tails often build roosting nests outside of the breeding season for this purpose. For breeding, wild shaft-tails build nests high in the trees and sometimes within tree hollows, where they out compete lady gouldian finches for nest sites. Nests are usually bottle-shaped (domed nest chamber with an entrance tunnel that gently slopes downward) and constructed with grasses, leaves, rootlets, and twigs then lined with fine, soft grasses and feathers. Shaft-tails feed almost entirely on the ground, though they will catch flying insects mid-air.

Shaft-tails have a special method of drinking. Contrary to popular belief, this is not accomplished by "sucking" the water. Rather, the way a shaft-tail drinks is by tipping its bill down into water, then while the bill is immersed, using the tongue to 'scoop' water into the pharynx where the front of the larynx then immediately forces the water into the esophagus; peristalsis of the esophagus then transports the water to the crop. Using this method, they imbibe water quickly and spend less time being vulnerable to predators at water holes; additionally, their method allows them to exploit small volumes of water such as dew drops as well as draw water up vertically from otherwise difficult to access sources.

Special considerations

Because they are prone to becoming obese if housed in too small of an enclosure, Shaft-tail Finches should be kept in flights which are at least 3 feet (1 meter) long and fed an austerity diet when not breeding. Although they are generally peaceful, pairs housed in close confinement may become aggressive towards other pairs of shaft-tails or other closely related finches such as the Masked Grassfinch and the Parson's Finch. Additionally, they tend to be pushy toward other species and may interfere with those species' feeding and breeding activities by commandeering nest sites and chasing passive birds away from the feeding station. Feather-plucking may ensue if shaft-tails are overcrowded.

Because they may not fair well in the cold (at temperatures below 50-59°F [10-15°C]), they may need to be wintered indoors or provided with a heated shelter if housed outdoors. The enclosure should be kept dry, as damp conditions can result in fungal outbreaks such as Candidiasis, Aspergillus, and ringworm. Australian Grassfinches are prone to enteritis, intestinal parasites (e.g. roundworms, tapeworms, coccidia), and may benefit from regular deworming, especially if housed outdoors where they may come into contact with wild bird droppings. Additionally, Shaft-tails can be affected by feather mites. Young and older hens are at risk for egg-binding. Captive life span is about 6 years. Wild shaft-tails begin their molt during their breeding season and is one of only a few passerine species which molts its wing feathers very slowly.

The Shaft-tail has reportedly hybridized with the following species: Parson's Finch (P. cincta)--this mating creates a fertile hybrid!, Masked Grassfinch (P. personata)--this mating creates a fertile hybrid!, Black-tailed finch (P. atropygialis), Owl Finch (Taeniopygia bichenovii & T. annulosa), Zebra Finch (T. guttata), Diamond Firetail (Emblema guttata), Spice Finch (Lonchura punctulata), Chestnut-breasted Finch (L. castaneothorax), Bengalese Finch (L. striata domestica), Bengalese Munia L. acuticauda, African silverbill (L. cantans), Indian silverbill (L. malabarica), Crimson Finch (Neochmia phaeton), Plum-headed Finch (N. modesta), and Star Finch (N. ruficauda), so take care not to allow these species to breed together.

Breeding season

In Australia, wild Shaft-tails breed during the middle of the rainy season into the dry season, from January to May. In captivity, the birds may breed at any time of year provided the right conditions (bonded pairs, abundant food, suitable nest sites and material, etc.).

Breeding tips

Birds aged 1 to 3 are best suited for breeding. Shaft-tail Finches may breed in a cage, flight, or aviary. A breeding diet should be introduced about 1 month prior to breeding.

Because they are picky, individuals should be allowed to select their own mate from a group of at least 8-10 birds. Colony breeding is possible, however, the dominant pair(s) may discourage the breeding of those lower in the pecking order. While breeding, it is recommended not to mix other species in with the shaft-tails as the shaft-tails will likely harass the other occupants, disrupting them from feeding and breeding; shaft-tails have been known to steal the nests of other species. The highest productivity is achieved by breeding a single pair of shaft-tails in their own enclosure.

Bonded pairs will allopreen, remain together, and display to each other. A cock will court a hen by hopping toward her, bowing, and bobbing his head; hey may or may not sing at this time. A receptive hen may return the bowing and head-bobbing movements; she solicits copulation by quivering her tail.

In the wild, pairs build their nests in topmost branches of eucalyptus trees or in the tops of pandanus palms using grass stalks, plant silks, and white feathers. They are opportunistic, however, and may build nests in tree hollows and hollowed-out fence post tops. In captivity, they will often accept half-open nest boxes (as well as wire cylinders, woven nest baskets, and dried gourds) placed high in the enclosure or natural sites (such as dense shrubbery or clumps of dried brush) for nesting; giving pairs several nesting options is best. If colony breeding, provide more nest sites than there are pairs and locate the nests at varying heights in the enclosure. If breeding outdoors, ensure all nest sites are sheltered from rain and inclement weather. Provide pairs with coconut fiber, long stalks of grass, strips of bast, and white feathers for nest construction. Pairs should have access to nesting material at all times, as they may continue to build roosting nests which may be shared by more than one shaft-tail if housed in a colony fashion.

Both sexes will take turns incubating the eggs, and both may roost in the nest at night. Although not necessary for successful breeding, live food is appreciated. Additionally, half-ripe seed, sprouted seed, and egg food should be provided for chick rearing purposes. Young hatch with flesh-colored skin, white down, and a pale beak which begins to darken around day 8. Nestlings begin to open their eyes around day 8-10, and their first feathers begin to emerge around day 7-8. Brooding ceases when the chicks reach 9-10 days of age, so it is important to ensure the enclosure is sufficiently warm at this time. Close-banding chicks is recommended when they are about 6-12 days old. Aside from closed banding, nest checks are not recommended.

Although shaft-tails form a strong pair bond, pairs which are reluctant to breed may be stimulated by swapping their partners out for new mates. If necessary, chicks can be fostered under society finches or black-throated grassfinches (P. cincta).

Shaft-tail pairs will often rear 3 broods in a season. Juveniles can be removed to their own cage after they are fully weaned (around 6 weeks of age) if the enclosure is too small to accommodate the growing family. At the close of the breeding season, birds should be switched back to an austerity diet. Although not necessary, it may also be worthwhile to separate cocks from hens to discourage further breeding activities. Reintroducing the cocks and hens during the next breeding season will then more strongly stimulate mating.

Life Cycle

Clutch size:4-8 eggs
Incubation date:After the last egg is laid
Hatch date:After 12-14 days of incubation
Fledge date:At 21 days of age
Wean date:Around 6 weeks of age
Begin molt:Within 8 weeks of age
Complete molt:3-4 months of age
Sexual maturity:Although young may become sexually mature around the time they attain adult plumage, they should not be allowed to breed until they are at least 9 months old.

Related Article(s)

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Shaft-tail (Heck's Grass) Finches

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