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Zebra Finch

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Zebra Finch - Male

Zebra Finch - Male

Alan MacNeil

The zebra finch is the most common finch in the dry interior grasslands of Australia, but it is also one of the most familiar finches throughout the world thanks to a thriving pet trade that has imported and bred these small birds for generations, making it one of the most popular cage birds in the world.

Common Name:

Zebra Finch, Chestnut-Eared Finch, Spotted-Sided Finch, Nyi-Nyi

Scientific Name:

Taeniopygia guttata

Scientific Family:

Estrildidae

Appearance:

  • Bill: Thick, conical, waxy orange or orange-red color
  • Size: 4-4.5 inches long with 9-inch wingspan, short tail
  • Colors: Rufous, orange, black, white, gray, tan, buff, brown, red-orange
  • Markings: Dimorphic species. Males have a gray head and nape with a prominent orange auricular patch and a black “tear” stripe under the eye. The throat and upper breast have fine horizontal black and white stripes, with a broad black patch on the chest. The back and wings are tan, and the flanks have bold rufous patches with white spots. The tail is thickly striped black and white, and the rump, lower abdomen and undertail coverts are white. Females have similar markings but have no auricular patch and only a faint buff wash on the flanks with no spots. The female's bill may be slightly less colorful. For both genders, legs and feet are pale. Juvenile birds look similar to females but are more brown overall, and the bill is black.

It should be noted that domestic zebra finches are often bred for specific colors and plumage patterns, but those variations are not found in wild birds.

Foods:

Seeds, insects (See: Granivorous)

Habitat and Migration:

Zebra finches are common in dry scrub areas and grasslands throughout central Australia and similar habitats in southern Indonesia, though they avoid thick forests and tropical regions. They are widespread in Australia but can be uncommon because of their nomadic habits. They may be found in orchards and gardens as well, but are not typically found near wet coastal areas, though the drier western coast can be suitable habitat.

These birds have been introduced into isolated areas is the United States, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Brazil, but these feral populations are not always reliable for sightings or adding the zebra finch to a life list.

Vocalizations:

These finches have a shrill buzzing call and a honking chirp that may be strung together a nasal warble. When agitated, they use a hissing call.

Behavior:

Zebra finches are highly gregarious and can gather in large flocks of a hundred or more birds. They are very active and are constantly foraging, though because of their dry, desert habitat, they are more likely to be active in the mornings and late evenings when temperatures are cooler. When drinking, they suck water into their bills instead of scooping it like most birds, and they can survive without water for several days if necessary. These are nomadic birds and while they do not have a specific migration pattern, they will travel to follow the best food sources as crops and precipitation patterns change.

Reproduction:

These finches mate for life but do not have a defined mating season. Instead, they breed after a heavy rain that brings better food to their habitat. Because of this, they may go many months without breeding, but during wet years could raise a dozen or more broods. Nests are built in any suitable spot, including shrubs, tree cavities, rock niches, abandoned burrows or simply on the ground, and are constructed of fine grasses and feathers.

One brood will have 2-7 white eggs, and both parents share incubation duties for 12-16 days. The altricial young are cared for by both parents for an additional 19-21 days before being chased away to find their own territories. If the parents are incubating a second brood, they are less tolerant of older juvenile birds remaining nearby.

Zebra finches have been recorded as occasionally hybridizing with other grassland finches.

Attracting Zebra Finches:

In the appropriate habitat, these small finches will readily visit backyard bird feeders where different seeds, especially millet, are offered. They will also frequently visit bird baths and other backyard water features.

Conservation:

These birds are highly adaptable and in no danger of being threatened, and in fact their range has expanded with development of artificial water sources. In some areas, feral cats can be a problem, and extended periods of drought can gravely impact their breeding success.

Zebra finches are popular birds for scientific research because of their short mating cycle and ability to breed year-round, and they have been used for studies on fledgling imprinting, song learning, mate selection and other research.

Similar Birds:

  • Double-Barred Finch (Taeniopygia bichenovii)
  • Long-Tailed Finch (Poephila acuticauda)
  • Painted Finch (Emblema pictum)
  • Orange-Cheeked Waxbill (Estrilda melpoda)

Photo – Zebra Finch – Male © Alan MacNeil
Photo – Zebra Finch – Female © Lip Kee Yap
Photo – Zebra Finch – Juvenile © Lip Kee Yap

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