The Zebra Finch

Zebra Finch8,11,12,13,14,22,23
Taeniopygia guttata or 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 13 grams
Approx. cost:$5-$100 (US) per bird, depending on mutation


Other common names

Spotted-sided Finch, Chestnut-eared Finch
  • P. g. guttata: Timor Zebra Finch


Origin

Australia

Area of distribution

Over most of Australia, with the following areas excepted: Cape York Peninsula, southern coastal districts, Tasmania.

Distribution


Disposition

Perky, active, noisy, pushy, social, can be territorial.

Physical descriptions

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.

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:
  • Pied: 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: 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.
  • Fawn: Everything which is normally grey on the bird becomes a light brown color. Markings remain intact. Fawn can be combined with many other mutations, including pied, black breasted, black cheek, penguin, and more.
  • Chestnut Flanked White (CFW): 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.
  • 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.
  • Dominant Silver (Silver Pastel, Dominant Dilute Grey): Bluish-silver body, similar to recessive silver except that the cock's cheek patches and flanking are cream in color, not orange.
  • Dominant Cream (Cream Pastel, Dominant Dilute Fawn): Pale cream (diluted fawn) body color where the cheek patches and flanking on the cock are a creamy-fawn color.
  • Penguin: 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. Penguin can occur in combination with other mutations (silver penguin, fawn penguin, black cheeked penguin, black breasted/orange headed penguin, etc).
  • Light-Back: Light grey body with diluted cheek patches and flanking on male, while retaining deep black breast bar and tear drops. Can be combined with a number of other mutations for interesting results, including black-cheeked, cream, silver, blackbreasted, etc.
  • Crested: Birds have a rosette of feathers atop the center of the head, the feathers sticking almost straight up, and growing in different directions. Can occur in combination with any other mutation.
  • Yellow-beak: 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: 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. This mutation can be combined with many others to create awesome looking birds.
  • Grey or Fawn Cheeked: 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. Both sexes have cheek patches, but the hens do not have breast bar or flanking.
  • Orange-Breasted: Teardrops are absent on both sexes, the once-black breast bar and barring on the cock becomes orange in coloration, 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. Can be combined with other mutations.
  • Black-Breasted: Enlarged black breast bar, 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, and the wing and tail feathers often have an orange tinge to them. May be combined with other mutations.
  • Black-Faced: The normally white area between the beak and teardrop is black, 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.
  • Florida Fancy / Isabel: 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. Cocks retain cheek patches and flanking. May be combined with several other mutations.

Combination Mutations:
  • Orange-Faced: Combination of Black-Faced and Orange-Breasted. 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. 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.
  • Black-fronted: Combination of Black-Breasted and Black-Faced. 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. 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.


Sexing

Sexing Zebras
Hen in foreground, 2 cocks behind her.
Photo by Brent Barrett.
Only the cock sings. Cocks also 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 may have cheek patches if they are of the black or grey/fawn cheeked mutations, but otherwise they share no markings in common with the cock, aside from the similar tail coverts and characteristic teardrop (which is not always present, depending on the mutation).

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 the Finch Vocalisations Guide
Sound FileCalling NoisesExternal Site from the Finch Vocalisations Guide (you may need to turn your volume up to hear this one)
Sound FileSong ClipExternal Site at Singing Wings Aviary

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.

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.

8 days old
8 day old white chicks.

Fledged
Same chicks as above, recently fledged.

Hatchlings
Hatchlings.

Dad and kids
Father and young.

Pair
Normal pair.

Fledge
Normal fledgling.

Cute baby.
Fawn fledgling.

CFW hen
Chestnut Flanked White hen.

White hen
White zebra finch.

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

Hens
Normal and fawn hens.

CFW BC
Chestnut Flanked White cock, Black Cheeked hen.

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

OB
Orange Breasted cock.

Penguin
Penguin cock.

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 cock molting into his adult colors. Photo by Julia.

Juveniles
Fawn and normal juveniles.

Adults
Same birds as above in adult plumage.

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
Charooal cocks.

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

Photo by Kersten
Chestnut-eared Charcoal cock.

Favorite foods

Millet, egg food, green food. In the wild its main staple seeds are of Iseilema spp. during the dry season and Panicum zymbirformae during the rainy season, though it will also feast on Poa annua, Kochia scleroptera, Chloris virgata, Arundinella nepalensis, Sporobolus australicus, and Brachyachne convergens.

Natural habitat

Mostly fairly open lands that provide surface water, bushes, seeding grasses, and tree cover: open grasslands near water, dry savannas, savanna woodland, open areas such as pastures, and cultivated land throughout Australia.

Habits

In the wild, Zebra Finches 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. They are nest-sleepers and will greatly appreciate roosting in a nest if provided with one. 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 live or silk plants for cover instead of a nest. Zebra finches may engage in allopreening, are very fond of bathing, and drink water by sucking. Members of a pair may clump together on perches; juveniles also clump together. One interesting aspect of zebra finches is the cock's song: when cock zebras are very young, 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.

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. Overcrowding the birds (housing Plucked Zebratoo many in a space too small) will cause the same 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. Zebra Finches may also be part of a mixed community if the other birds in the enclosure are capable of defending themselves, and if the enclosure itself is not only large enough, but has enough perches, dishes, and hiding places (such as plants) for weaker birds to escape to if needed. Because zebras are so prolific, they can be used as foster parents.

The Zebra Finch has reportedly hybridized with the following species: Owl finches, Shaft-tails, Black-throated Finches, Diamond Firetails, Star Finches, Plum-headed Finches, Silverbills, Chestnut-breasted Finches, Bengalese Finches, Black-headed Munias, Java Sparrows, St. Helena Waxbills, Senegal Fire-finches, Three-colored Munias. Take care to prevent cross breeding when housing these species together.

Breeding season

Wild Zebra Finches breed in the second half of the rainy season or following sufficient rainfall, since rains result in increased supplies of food. In captivity, being a domesticated species, zebra finches will breed year-round.
  • Northern Australia: breeding occurs from October to 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).


Breeding tips

Although these birds will breed successfully in a small cage, a larger enclosure such as a flight cage or aviary is preferred. 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; 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.

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 the female with a series of pivoting jumps, or while he hops in a circle around the hen. 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 are a common occurrence 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 and plants included), but usually prefer a large hooded/oval bamboo nest or half-open nest box. They often prefer nests placed towards a top corner of their enclosure. 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, in clumps of grass, 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 (not 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. Once the eggs hatch, both sexes rear the chicks together. Provide egg food for the parents to feed to the young and make sure a cuttle bone is available at all times. The young hatch with fuzzy down. After they fledge, young may return to the nest to roost at night. Once they are eating on their own, the juveniles should be removed to their own cage so that the parents do not pick on them. 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.

Life Cycle

Clutch size:4-6 eggs
Incubation date:After the third or fourth egg is laid
Hatch date:After 12-14 days of incubation
Fledge date:At 18-22 days of age
Wean date:Around 30 days of age
Begin molt:5-8 weeks of age
Complete molt:2-3 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


Related Article(s)

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Zebra Finches

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