The Zebra Finch

Zebra Finch8,11,12,13,14,22,23,30,31,32,34,35,37,40,41,45
Taeniopygia guttata, previously Poephila guttata
Grass finch
Hardiness:Hardy
Reproduction:Very prolific
Singing ability:Somewhat poor (scroll down to find song clips)
Compatibility:Pushy, mixes well with other pushy species
[Compatibility Chart]
Size:4" (10 cm)
Weight:Around 17-19 grams (wild birds range 10-17.5g)
Approx. cost:$5-$100 (US) per bird, depending on mutation


Other common names

Spotted-sided Finch, Chestnut-eared Finch
  • T. g. guttata (nominate form from Indonesia; uncommonly kept in captivity): Timor Zebra Finch, Indonesian Zebra Finch, Lesser Sundas Zebra Finch
  • T. g. castanotis (subspecies from Australia; this is the race most commonly kept in captivity): Australian Zebra Finch, Zebbie, Shelley, Spot-sided Finch


Origin

Australia

The Australian Zebra Finch is thought to have dispersed from the Kimberley region of Australia to Timor during the Pleistocene glaciation period. At that time, the sea level had dropped, extending the coastline and narrowing the water gap between Australia and Timor. The mountains in west Timor were likely visible to Zebra Finches who had been swept out to sea by strong storms, encouraging them to make landfall.

Area of distribution

1. T. g. guttata inhabits the entire Lesser Sunda Islands chain from Lombok to Timor and Luang.
2. T. g. castanotis is found over most of Australia, with the following areas excepted: Cape York Peninsula, southern coastal districts, Tasmania.

Distribution


Disposition

Perky, active, noisy, pushy (self-assertive), social, can be territorial.

Physical descriptions

The Australian Zebra Finch (T. g. castanotis) normal ("wild type") cock: red beak, black "teardrop" extending vertically downward from each eye, white space between the beak and teardrop, rusty-orange "cheek patches," grey head, white and black barred ("zebra-like pattern") feathering extending downward from the chin, covering the throat, and ending in a wide black breast bar, white belly, reddish-brown/chestnut-colored side "flanking" (under the wings) with white spots, grey-brown wings and back, white rump, black tail with white and black spotted tail coverts, orange legs and feet. Normal ("wild type") hen: all grey, buff underparts, no visual markings except for the characteristic black teardrop and spotted tail coverts, orange beak. Juveniles appear similar to the hen, but have dark grey beaks.

The Timor Zebra Finch (T. g. guttata) cock: has greatly reduced or absent barring on the throat and breast, sporting only a thin black breast band; belly is more buff than bright white; both sexes are smaller than wild T. g. castanotis.

See the photos and articles (below) to view more mutations. Genetics information (including breeding outcomes) is also available on the commonly-kept mutations.

Many mutations are known to exist, including (but not limited to):
  • Pied: (Autosomal recessive). Splotches of white feathering are present on the bird, sometimes so much so that the birds' characteristic markings are completely whited-out. Some birds are so heavily pied that they appear all-white with absolutely no markings, not even the teardrop; these birds are known as fully-pied whites. Pied can be combined with any other mutation.
  • White: (Autosomal recessive). Both cock and hen are completely white (no markings, not even teardrops), sometimes with some minor grey or fawn flecking on the head and back of the bird. The way to tell the difference between the sexes is by the color of the beak: cocks have the red beak, hens have the orange beak. Prolific breeders.
  • Fawn: (Sex-linked recessive). Everything which is normally grey on the bird becomes a light brown color. Markings remain intact, but black coloration is replaced with dark brown. Eye coloration is reddish brown and helps to distinguish fawn hatchlings from grey ones in the nest. Fawn can be combined with many other mutations, including pied, black breasted, black cheek, penguin, and more. Prolific breeders.
  • Chestnut Flanked White (CFW): (Sex-linked recessive). Both cock and hen are an all-over ivory white color, but the cock and hen retain their respective markings (even the tear drop is intact). Usually the cock's cheek patches, breast bar, and flanking are slightly diluted and seem paler in comparison to the markings on a normal bird. Fawn-series CFWs are referred to as "Continental CFWs" and have a cream cast; grey-series CFWs are called "English CFWs" and are more pure white in color. Occasional out-crossing of CFWs to well marked grey birds may help improve the intensity of the CFW's coloration. Prolific breeders. Note that CFW is in an allelic series with the Lightback gene.
  • Recessive Silver (in grey-series birds); Recessive Cream (in fawn-series birds): (Autosomal recessive). Silver: The normally grey body of the bird appears dark silver, being lighter in body coloration than a normal bird. The markings all remain intact and as vibrant as on a normal bird. Cream: Pale cream (diluted fawn) body color; again, the markings remain intact and vibrant.
  • Dominant Silver (Silver Pastel, Dominant Dilute Grey) if in grey-series birds, Dominant Cream (Cream Pastel, Dominant Dilute Fawn) if in fawn-series birds: (Autosomal dominant). Silver birds (grey-series): Bluish-silver body, similar to recessive silver except that the cock's cheek patches and flanking are cream in color, not orange. Cream birds (fawn-series): Pale cream (diluted fawn) body color where the cheek patches and flanking on the cock are a creamy-fawn color. Potentially has a lethal factor in the double-factor form. Outcrossing with recessive silver or recessive cream may improve coloration.
  • Penguin: (Autosomal recessive). The top of the head, back and wings are the normal body color (laced or edged with a silver lining to edges of wing and tail feathers), but the underparts (sides of body, breast, and belly) are all bright white--the cock has no breast bar or teardrop but retains flanking and cheek patches. The hen has white cheeks in addition to the white breast and belly and no tear drops. Tail barring is diluted. Penguin can occur in combination with other mutations (silver penguin, fawn penguin, black cheeked penguin--which has white cheeks, etc.). Occasional out-crossing to normal greys or fawns can improve the intensity of the penguin's coloration. Prolific breeders.
  • Lightback: (Sex-linked, recessive to normal but dominant to CFW*). Light grey body (distinct from 'silver') with diluted cheek patches and flanking on male, while retaining deep black breast bar and tear drops. Underparts bright white. Can be combined with a number of other mutations for interesting results, including black-cheeked, silver, blackbreasted, etc. (Combination of this gene with other sex-linked traits, e.g. Fawn Lightback, requires the phenomenon of crossing over to occur, so is not guaranteed). *Note that Lightback is in an allelic series with the CFW gene.
  • Crested: (Autosomal dominant). Birds have a rosette of feathers atop the center of the head, the feathers sticking almost straight up, and growing in different directions. Does not appear to cause a lethal condition in the double-factor form as in canaries. Can occur in combination with any other mutation.
  • Yellow-beak: (Autosomal recessive). Both cocks and hens have a pale yellow beak instead of a red or orange beak. Can occur in combination with any mutation, but looks particularly attractive when combined with a dark-bodied bird to create contrast.
  • Black-cheeked: (Autosomal recessive). The cock's normally orange cheeks are completely black in color, and the flanking is a much deeper brown-black. Strangely enough, then hen of this mutation also sports black cheek patches, but she does not have a breast bar or flanking. Black-cheeked young also fledge with black cheek patches. This mutation can be combined with many others with interesting effects. Prolific breeders.
  • Grey Cheeked (if on grey-series bird) or Fawn Cheeked (if on fawn-series bird): (Autosomal dominant). Silvery-white to cream body with rich buff underparts. Black breast bar and tear marks are present. The cheeks, however, are not orange but range from orangish-fawn to grey. Cheek patches can also be half-orange & half-grey. Both sexes have cheek patches, but the hens do not have breast bar or flanking. The best coloration is achieved by breeding a grey cheeked bird to a normal grey (or a fawn-cheeked bird to a fawn); if two grey (or fawn) cheeked birds are bred to each other, offspring may be blind. Prolific breeders.
  • Orange-Breasted: (Autosomal recessive). Teardrops are absent on both sexes, the once-black breast bar and barring on the cock becomes orange in coloration (especially in fawn-series birds; grey-series birds may retain some black edging), his cheek patches become enlarged, and both the cock and hen's tail coverts are orange and white spotted instead of black and white spotted. Birds which are carrying a single copy of the gene ("splits") may exhibit reduction of the teardrop, slight orange edging to the white bars on the uppertail coverts, and males may have a smattering of orange coloration in the breast bar. Can be combined with other mutations. Prolific breeders.
  • Black-Breasted: (Autosomal recessive). Enlarged black breast bar sometimes with large, white spotting, enlarged orange cheek patches (sometimes so enlarged that they cover almost the entire head), the white 'spots' on the flanks and tail coverts are elongated, teardrops are absent on both sexes but there is now a prominent black mark adjacent to the beak, the wing and tail feathers often have an orange tinge to them, and the uppertail coverts lack the normal barring but instead are mostly buff with a black shaft. Hens have cream to buff cheeks and throat, the breast is grey or buff, and the belly and rump are buff. Birds which are carrying a single copy of the black-breast gene ("splits") often have uppertail coverts where the white bars are no longer completely separated by black, but rather join together/touch. Additionally, split cocks may also exhibit more prominent cheek patches and breast bar and/or oddly shaped white dots on the flank feathers. May be combined with other mutations. Considered to be prolific breeders.
  • Black-Faced: (Autosomal dominant). Causes the bird to appear melanistic: the normally white area between the beak and teardrop is black in cocks (& grey in hens), and the cock's breast bar continues down past the chest onto the belly, ideally all the way down to the vent so that the entire belly is black. Hens have grey extending past the chest and down the belly instead of black. Can be combined with other mutations. May be moderately challenging to breed.
  • Florida Fancy: (Autosomal co-dominant). When "double factor" the bird lacks all black pigment and has bright white to off-white body color with rich buff-colored underparts. Cock's breast bar is absent and neither hen nor cock have teardrops or black barring in the tail. Cocks retain cheek patches and flanking. When "single factor" (called the "Florida Silver") birds are silver or pale grey overall and black markings (breast bar in males, teardrops and tail bars in both sexes) become dark grey. May be combined with several other mutations. Prolific breeders.
  • Isabel: (Autosomal recessive). European mutation that is identical in appearance to the double-factor Florida Fancy, but which has a different mode of inheritance (recessive) and therefore is only seen in the "double-factor" bird.
  • Eumo: (Autosomal recessive). Dark grey bird with black vent and rump; the space between the beak and teardrop is also black. Additionally, the cock's orange cheek patch is mostly or entirely missing (replaced by grey); the area from the chin to the vent is largely black; tail coverts and flanks are partially or completely lacking white dots. Eumos have a feather abnormality (the wing feather barbs do not interlock) which gives them a frizzled appearance and prevents them from flying well; they are best suited to smaller enclosures for this reason. Newly fledged chicks also require additional low-placed perches in the enclosure and are susceptible to chills. Eumo chicks can be identified in the nest 5-7 days after hatching by the color of the feather tracks on the belly (dark grey in eumos, buff in normals); they are also very darkly colored upon fledging and have frizzled feathers. Eumo is a recessive gene, but split-to-Eumo chicks have a darker grey face upon fledging which fades as they mature; they can therefore be identified as splits upon fledging but at no other time. Prolific breeders.

Combination Mutations:
  • Orange-Faced: Combination of Black-Faced and Orange-Breasted. Most notable in the cock: The entire area from chin down to bottom of breast and occasionally parts of the upper belly are orange in coloration. Also the majority of the head is orange. Feathers on the back and wings may be orange or laced with orange as well. Cocks retain flanking, but do not have a black teardrop nor the white space near the beak, as they are orange.
  • Orange-fronted: Combination of Black-Breasted and Orange-Breasted. Most notable in the cock: All of the would-be black areas on the bird are orange and the cheek patches are enlarged enough to cover most of the head. The entire breast is also orange.
  • Orange-Bodied: Combination of Black-Faced, Black-breasted, and Orange-Breasted. Most notable in the cock: The entire head, throat, and chest are orange. Feathers on the back and wings may be orange or laced with orange as well. Cocks retain flanking.
  • Black-fronted: Combination of Black-Breasted and Black-Faced. Most notable in the cock: Enlarged orange cheek patches, black area between beak and cheek patches, almost entire breast and belly is black.
  • Phaeo: Combination of Florida Fancy (Isabel) and Black-Breasted. Most notable in the cock: Ideally the entire head is orange with the exception of the white area between the beak and cheek patch (the teardrop is replaced with orange). The rest of the back and wings are white with heavy orange lacing, the underparts are fairly buff, breast bar is ideally absent.
  • Note that Black cheek penguin males have white cheeks.


Additional mutations exist in Australia and Europe which are not yet present in the USA.

Sexing

Sexing Zebras
Hen in foreground, 2 cocks behind her.
Photo by Brent Barrett.
Only the cock sings. Cocks also tend to have a redder beak (the hen's beak is usually more orange), spotted flank feathers, and depending on the mutation, cheek patches and/or a breast bar. Hens lack cheek patches unless they are of the black or grey/fawn cheeked mutations; hens also lack the flank markings and breast bar (though in some instances, hens may present with a few black/dark feathers on the chest, and a few mutations may cause faint spotting along the flanks).

Song

The song is a repeated strophe of loud, nasal notes which resemble a toy trumpet, interspersed with softer trills. There is great individual variation from male to male.

Sound FileSong ClipExternal Site from Finch Stuff
Sound FileCalling NoisesExternal Site from Finch Stuff
Singing
Florida Fancy zebra cock (right) singing to normal hen (left). Like most captive zebra finches, these belong to the race T. g. castanotis. Note how the cock flattens the feathers on his forehead while fluffing the feathers of the ear coverts and back of the crown, forming an "angular head." Lesser Sundas males (T. g. guttata) raise all the head feathers when courting and do not form this angular head. Photo by Prab Bhatia.

Pictures

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.

Note: Where the phenotypic information was not provided, those labels marked with an asteric (*) are my best guess as to the mutation pictured.

Eggs
Zebra eggs. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

6 days old
6 days old. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

9 days old
9 days old. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

12 days old
12 days old. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

14 days old
14 days old. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

20 days old
20 days old. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

Fledged
Recently fledged. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

Normal Cock
Normal adult zebra cock. Photo by Jim Bendon.

Dad and kids
Normal father and young.

White Cock
White adult zebra cock. Note the red beak (hens have orange beaks). Photo by Quimby.

White hen
White zebra finch hen (orange beak).

8 days old
8 day old white chicks.

Fledged
Same chicks as above, recently fledged.

Fawn hen
Fawn hen. Photo by Karen Hull.

Cute baby.
Fawn fledgling.

Pied
Pied cock. Note the hint of a cheek patch and breast bar.

Pied cock
Pied cock.

Pied hen
Pied hen. Photo by Patricia Stockebrand.

Pied juveniles
Pied juveniles: grey on left, fawn on right.

Zebra molting
Young pied cock molting into his adult colors. Photo by Julia.

CFW hen
Chestnut Flanked White hen.

CFW BC
Chestnut Flanked White cock, Black Cheeked hen.

BC cock normal hen
Normal hen and Black-cheeked cock.

Florida Fancy
Florida Fancy zebra finches (hen in insert).

OB
Orange Breasted, orange face fawn* cock.

OB
Orange Breasted fawn* cock. Photo by Bill and Mark Bell.

Penguin
Grey penguin cock.

Father and young
Recessive silver cock, white fledgling.

Eumo or Charcoal
Charcoal cock. Very similar in appearance to Eumo. Charcoal exists in Australia, and Eumo exists outside of Austrailia. Eumo birds have a feather defect that prevent them from flying which Charcoal birds do not exhibit.

Charcoal
Charcoal cocks.

Charcoal Juvi Charcoal Juvi
Charcoal juvenile. Photos by Rich H.

Photo by Kersten
Chestnut-eared Charcoal cock.

LB Eumo
Eumo (in combination with a dilute mutation-likely dominant silver)* cock (left)
compared to normal grey (right). Photo by Cathy.


LB Eumo
Eumo (in combination with a dilute mutation-likely dominant silver)* cock (left)
compared to normal grey (right). Photo by Cathy.


BC BF
Black cheeked black faced grey* zebra cock. Photo by Mohammad Abdullah.

BC BF
Black cheeked black faced grey* zebra cock. The tip of this bird's beak is slightly crossed.
Photo by Mohammad Abdullah.


BC BF
Left: Black faced grey* zebra cock. Right: Black cheeked black faced grey* zebra cock.
Photo by Mohammad Abdullah.


DS Lightback
Dominant silver lightback* cock. Photo by Mohammad Abdullah.

BF DS Lightback
Black-face dominant silver lightback* cock. Photo by Mohammad Abdullah.

Favorite foods

Panicum, white millet, Japanese millet, canary seed, egg food, green food. In the wild the main staple of the zebra finch consists of grass seeds including: Enneapogon sp., Panicum decompositum, Echinochloa crus-galli, Danthonia sp. Cenchrus ciliaris, Digitaria brownii, Poa annua, Cynodon dactylon, Amphibromus neesi. Zebra finches always dehusk all of their seeds. Interestingly, spinifex (Triodia spp.) seeds are rarely eaten even when this species of grass is predominant in the zebra finches' territory.

Natural habitat

Mostly inhabits arid and semi-arid grassy, open lands that contain surface water and scattered trees and bushes: open grasslands, saltmarshes, dry savannas, savanna woodland, open areas such as pastures, and cultivated land. Avoids wet or damp coastal forests and dense woodlands.

Habits

In the wild, Zebra Finches are highly social and live in groups year round. Members of a breeding colony will often meet up several times a day to drink, bathe, fly, and feed together. Zebra finches may occasionally engage in allopreening and are very fond of bathing. Birds may quarrel over food, nest material, shade, nests, nest-entrance perches, and in defense of their partner; members of a pair defend resources as a team. Bonded pairs clump with each other on perches; juveniles also clump together. Wild zebra finches appear to be mostly monogamous (only occasionally engaging in extra-pair mating) and are thought to pair for life. Nests are built near feeding sites in thornbush thickets, dense shrubs, tree hollows, and hollowed fence posts. Nest construction material is collected from the ground; lining material (usually feathers) are usually stolen from other nests. Zebra finches engage in intra-specific brood parasitism 13-32% of the time, where a hen sneaks into another pair's nest to lay an egg.

They are nest-sleepers and will greatly appreciate roosting in a nest; wild zebra finches build nests outside of the breeding season specifically for roosting. Providing a nest is not necessary, however, and giving a male-female pair a nest will result in offspring (if the pair consists of two females, they will likely lay a lot of eggs)! If you do not want your birds to breed (or suffer the consequences of excessive egg laying), provide a perch located up high in one of the far corners of their flight, surrounded by either nontoxic live or silk plants for cover instead of a nest.

Zebra Finches have a special method of drinking which is thought to be an adaptation to living in an open, arid environment. Contrary to popular belief, this is not accomplished by "sucking" the water. Rather, the way a zebra finch 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. Zebra finches may also ingest leaves of a succulent plant, the Large Pigweed (Portulaca intraterranea), as a means of staying hydrated when surface water is not nearby.

Zebra Finches feed primarily on the ground, but will also feed in vegetation and from grass stems; they can catch flying insects (e.g. flying ants, termites) mid-air but rarely take insects, even when breeding. Wild Zebra Finches avoid foraging in damp or wet foliage. Wild chicks are reared primarily on grass seeds and greens.

Notes of Interest

When choosing a mate, a zebra finch hen prefers a male with the reddest bill and the highest song rate, both of which are thought to indicate good condition. They also prefer males with symmetric markings. Studies have also shown that adding leg bands to the birds can affect their attractiveness to the opposite sex; hens prefer cock birds with (symmetrically placed) red bands (& dislike those wearing light green bands), while cocks prefer hens who wear black bands (& dislike those wearing light blue bands). Orange colored bands appear to be neutral to both sexes.

Although zebra finches pair for life, high mortality rates lead to frequent re-pairings. The pair bond is maintained by the ability to see and/or hear the partner and sealed by laying a clutch together. A bird which is held without visual or auditory contact with his or her mate will form a new pair bond almost immediately if a suitable individual is available. Interestingly, this new pair bond does not inhibit the old pair bond from being re-established if the original mate is reintroduced, especially if the reunited pair had made a prior breeding attempt.

Zebra finch hens have a 14-day fertile period and can store sperm from a mating for 10-13 days. Although a single successful mating can fertilize an entire clutch, zebra finches mate frequently until eggs have started to be laid. Only 67% of copulations result in sperm transfer and egg fertilization. Additionally, the final copulation the hen has prior to egg-laying will fertilize 50-80% of her eggs. Extra-pair matings timed appropriately can therefore allow a 'stray' cock to father a significant proportion of offspring to be reared by another male. Frequent copulations, copulating after return from a separation, and guarding of his partner ("insisting" she stay in the nest and driving off rivals) are thought to be a pair-bonded male's strategies to guard against this risk. Once the hen's fertile period has ended, her mate is more likely to seek out extra-pair copulations himself. Hens appear to seek extra-pair copulations when they encounter males which are more attractive than their mate.

In the wild, zebra finches begin incubating their eggs after the 4th or final (if fewer than 4) egg is laid, thus all the chicks hatch within a 2 day period. In captivity, because food and water is easier to obtain, pairs start attending to their eggs earlier. Because incubation starts earlier in captivity, one egg usually hatches each day resulting in chicks with a greater range of ages and sizes. Zebra finches are the only species of Australian finch observed to practice nest hygiene, albeit sporadically.

Chicks start making barely audible begging noises at 3 days of age. After the chicks are 6 days old and their begging becomes louder, only one parent enters the nest at a time to feed the young so the other parent can stand guard. Young chicks up to 13 days of age can be stimulated to beg by a number of tactile, auditory, and visual cues such as vibration of the nest, stroking of the bill or head, hearing begging calls, and seeing a red-colored pencil at eye level. Between day 13 and 16 of life, chicks begin to distinguish the features of their parents and no longer beg in response to foreign stimuli, showing a fear response instead. Chicks over 13 days of age can be spooked from the nest and fledge prematurely.

The amount of food a hen receives during her first month of life permanently affects the size of her clutches and eggs such that larger clutches with larger eggs are produced by hens who have higher rates of food consumption as nestlings. Additionally during the first 40 days of life, imprinting on the rearing parents occurs. As adults, zebra finches are most attracted to partners which resemble the parents who raised them.

Juveniles as young as 2 to 3 months of age may initiate breeding within the same season that they hatched. High mortality rates experienced by wild zebra finch fledglings and juveniles (only 22% of fledglings survive to 80 days of age) is thought to select for the ability to breed precocially.

In the wild, the date of hatching significantly affects the age at which juveniles molt into adult coloration. Young hatched in the first half of the season start their molt before 80 days of age, young hatched in the second half commenced the molt between 80-100 days of age, and young hatched at the very end of the breeding season waited until winter was over before molting. Molting is consierably slower in zebra finches (each cycle takes 235-290 days) compared to most other finch species studied, and tends to slow further during intense breeding activity and/or unfavorable conditions. This is thought to give zebra finches better mobility to improve survival in the wild. Zebra finches molt in a continuous step-wise manner and can start a new molt before a previous one has completed, or stop a molt completely if conditions are too poor.

Zebra finches have a number of adaptations that allow them to survive in their arid habitat. For example, nestling zebra finches have the lipid (fat) barrier in the skin that greatly reduces water loss through the skin, but its impermeability gradually declines after 10 days of age. However, dehydrated adult birds have the ability to mobilize cellular lipids to partially restore this impermeable skin barrier. Nighttime temperatures in their habitat can drop considerably; Zebra finches' use of roosting nests is thought to help mitigate the dangers of cold stress since huddling together in a nest allows the birds to stay warm at night and conserve energy.

Another interesting aspect of zebra finches is the cock's song: when cock zebras are very young (within the first 3 months of life), they learn the song of the male with whom they have a strong bond; under natural conditions, this is the biological father, but if the birds were fostered, they may mimic the song of the foster parent.

Special considerations

Zebra finches are arguably the most popular and commonly kept Australian finch species. They are free breeders, undemanding, and easy to care for, and therefore, ideal for beginners. They also come in a wide variety of appealing color mutations. Their captive life expectancy is typically 5-7 years.

Because they can become somewhat aggressive, zebra finches should be housed either one pair per cage or three or more pairs per enclosure (as long as it is large enough to comfortably fit them all). Housing 3, 4, or 5 birds together almost always results in quarreling, chasing, feather plucking, and other signs of aggression. Zebra Finches may also be part of a mixed community if the other birds in the enclosure are capable of defending themselves. Due to their pushy demeanor, zebra finches housed in a mixed collection tend to do better when housed with munias and weavers than with waxbills and other grassfinches. Additionally, the enclosure housing the collection must be large enough and have enough perches, dishes, and hiding places (such as plants) for weaker birds to escape to if needed.

Plucked Zebra Overcrowding the birds (housing too many in a space too small) will cause the same aggression problems, which is why zebra finches housed incorrectly in pet stores are often plucked bald or missing tail feathers. The image to the right shows a typical plucked Zebra Finch's appearance: missing the feathers behind his neck. Occasionally, an individual bird may develop a penchant for plucking and may not improve despite providing an appropriate environment and diet; in this case, the offending bird should be removed to its own enclosure as it is unlikely to be 'rehabilitated.'

Egg-binding can occur in zebra finch hens, especially if eggs are continuously removed from their nest. Removal of eggs stimulates the hen to lay more, depleting her calcium stores. Removing all nest receptacles and materials and/or allowing the hen to sit on several infertile or dummy eggs until she becomes bored with them is a safer alternative. Young and old hens are most susceptible to egg-binding, particularly if exposed to cold/wet weather.

Zebra finches can also suffer from intestinal parasites (e.g. roundworms, tapeworms, coccidia, etc.) and may need deworming; external parasites can include mites, mallophagan lice, and hippoboscid flies. Obesity may occur if birds are housed in too-small an enclosure or fed too-rich a diet year-round; they should therefore be given adequate opportunity for exercise and fed an austerity diet when not breeding. Although they are a hardy species, providing a heated shelter is recommended if birds are housed outdoors in temperatures below 43°F (6°C). Because zebras are so prolific, they can be used as foster parents.

The Zebra Finch has reportedly hybridized with the following species: Blue-faced parrot finch (Erythrura trichroa), Owl finch (Taeniopygia bichenovii), Black-throated Finch (Poephila cincta), Masked Finch (P. personata), Shaft-tail (P. acuticauda), Diamond Firetail (Stagonopleura guttata), Plum-headed Finch (Neochmia modesta), Star Finch (N. ruficauda), Bengalese Munia (Lonchura acuticauda), Black-headed Munia (L. atricapilla), African Silverbill (L. cantans), Chestnut-breasted Munia (L. castaneothorax), Society finch (L. domestica), Grey-headed silverbill (L. griseicapilla), White-spotted munia (L. leucosticta), Indian Silverbill (L. malabarica), Tri-colored Munia (L. malacca), White-rumped munia (L. striata), Java Sparrow (Padda oryzivora), St. Helena Waxbills (Estrilda astrild), African Fire-finch (Lagonosticta rubricata), Red-billed firefinch (L. senegala), White-rumped seed eater (Serinus leucopygius), and African Quailfinch (Ortygospiza atricollis). Take care to prevent cross breeding when housing these species together.

Breeding season

Wild zebra finches are stimulated to breed by the availability of ripening grass seed and are capable of opportunistic, aseasonal breeding when provided with favorable conditions. In their native Australia, the timing of breeding usually does follow a seasonal pattern, but varies with the climate of the region the birds occupy and that region's plant growth cycle. Generally, this means birds in the south and east tend to breed in the spring (and sometimes autumn), birds in the north breed in the summer, and birds in the inland areas breed erratically (sometimes going a full year without breeding at all) owing to unpredictable precipitation and grass growth there.
  • Northern Australia: breeding peaks in the summer; occurs at the start of the wet season (November & December), stops during the middle of the wet season due to very heavy rainfall, and restarts at the end of the wet season (March & April).
  • South-western Australia: breeding occurs in spring and again in autumn (the majority of the rain occurs during the winter months, but those months are too cold to allow for breeding).
  • Eastern Australia: similar to south-western Australia.
  • In a spray-irrigated area in N.S.W.: breeding occurred year-round except during July (the coldest month).

In captivity, zebra finches will breed year-round.

Factors that appear to stimulate breeding in zebra finches:
  • Availability of ripening grass seed
  • Availability of nest sites/receptacles

Factors that tend to inhibit breeding in zebra finches:
  • Low ambient temperatures
  • Drought/dehydration


Breeding tips

A breeding diet (which may include: egg-food, greens, sprouted seed, half-ripe seed in addition to dry seed) should be started about 1 month prior to planned breeding. Pairs should be introduced to each other in the same enclosure, as the ability to make physical contact is a prerequisite to pair bond formation. Birds who bond will clump together and preen one another. Pair bonding usually only takes a few days.

Although these birds will breed successfully in a small cage, a larger enclosure such as a flight cage or aviary is preferred. Ambient temperature should be at least 54°F (12°C), ideally 68-86 °F (20-30 °C). When not breeding, the enclosure housing a single pair of zebra finches should be at least 36" long. Zebra finches can be bred in a one-pair-per-cage set up or in colony fashion. The one-pair-per-enclosure breeding is more productive and allows better control of breeding outcomes. If breeding birds in a colony, remember to house no fewer than 3 pairs in the same (amply-sized) enclosure to reduce the incidence of fighting. More nest receptacles than pairs should be present in a colony breeding enclosure, with all placed at the same height to reduce bickering. Colony or mixed collection breeding may result in zebra finches stealing the nests of other pairs, resulting in conflict, loss of eggs and chicks, and disruption of breeding activities.

The male Zebra Finch courts a hen by hopping toward her with his tail angled toward her and the feathers of his neck, cheeks, breast, and flanks fluffed out. He will sing his song for her as he approaches her with a series of pivoting jumps, or while he hops in a circle around her. As he moves closer, he frequently bows and wipes his bill on the perch. If the female accepts his courtship, she will crouch and quiver her tail to invite copulation. After mating, the male may also quiver his tail. This entire courtship sequence (including copulation) may be repeated several times each day. Although pair bonds are strong, extra-pair matings and intra-specific brood parasitism are common occurrences reported in numerous scientific papers which have studied the zebra finch breeding in a colony fashion. This means that if several pairs are allowed to breed in the same enclosure, the paternity of the clutches cannot be guaranteed.

Normal zebra cock
Zebra nesting in just about anything.

Zebra Finches will nest in just about anything (seed dishes, the floor of the enclosure, and plants included), but usually prefer a large hooded/oval bamboo nest or half-open nest box. Although they often prefer nests placed towards a top corner of their enclosure, they are usually willing to build a nest at any height. Wild zebra finches often build their round nests in thorny or prickly species of shrubs, bushes, or small trees, though they have also been recorded as using hollow stumps, holes in trees, old nests of other species, within large stick-nests of birds of prey, and in nooks or niches of buildings. In captivity (as in the wild), Zebra Finches will accept a wide variety of nesting materials, including: grass, burlap, coconut fiber, canary nesting material (avoid hair), feathers, shredded toilet paper, and shredded newspaper; they may even try to use pieces of green food and spray millet!
  • Tip: Zebra finches have a tendency to overstuff their nests, so much so that eggs roll right out of the opening, appearing to be "tossed out." They may also be such avid nest builders that they will continue to construct a second nest on top of the first one, even if it already has eggs in it, thus making the eggs 'disappear' beneath the layers of nesting material. To prevent both of these problems, only provide a small amount (about a handful) of nesting material each day, and stop providing nesting materials when the nest looks complete enough for the pair to comfortably raise chicks (about ½ inch below the opening of the nest basket or box). If your problem is zebras breeding too often, remove all nests and nesting receptacles from their cage (including seed cups which should be replaced with tube-style seed feeders or seed hoppers that hens cannot lay in). If they do not have a good spot to lay eggs, they will eventually stop. Separating birds into same-sex aviaries when not breeding may also help to reduce the drive to breed.

Both cock and hen will build the nest and incubate the clutch, even sleeping in the nest together at night. Interestingly, in the wild, if environmental temperatures exceed 100.4°F (38°C), birds will leave their eggs uncovered during the day. The incubation period ranges from 11 to 15 days, depending on how attentively the pair incubates. Once the eggs hatch, both sexes rear the chicks together. In addition to seed, provide egg food and green food for the parents to feed to the young and make sure a cuttle bone is available at all times. Live food is not necessary and is infrequently taken even when available. The young hatch with fuzzy down, open their eyes at 6-7 days of age, and are brooded until they reach 10 days of age. The nestlings are completely feathered by 14 days of age, but the hen continues to brood the chicks at night until a few days prior to their fledging. Nest checks are well tolerated. Closed banding should be performed when chicks are about 6 days old.

After they fledge at 21 days of age, young may return to the nest to roost at night. Once they are fully independent (about 3 weeks after fledging), the juveniles should be removed to their own cage so that the parents do not pick on them, and so that the juveniles do not interrupt the parents' breeding. Pairs will often want to continue producing clutch after clutch, so they must be restricted to 2-3 clutches per year to limit reproductive stress. When not breeding, birds should be fed an austerity diet where egg-food, greens, and sprouted seeds are limited. Nests and nesting material should be removed from the enclosure. To further reduce the drive to breed, birds can be separated into male-only and female-only enclosures, ideally out of sight and sound of each other.

Life Cycle

Clutch size:2-7 (usually 5) eggs
Incubation date:After the third or fourth egg is laid
Hatch date:After 11-15 (typically 14) days of incubation
Fledge date:At 18-22 days of age
Wean date:Around 35 days of age (40 days for the Timor zebra finch)
Roosting independence:Around 50 days of age
Begin molt:5-8 weeks of age (some as young as 3 weeks of age)
Complete molt:2-3.5 months of age
Sexual maturity:Although Zebra Finches may become sexually mature around 3 months of age, many breeders recommend waiting until the birds are at least 6-9 months of age before breeding them


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