zebra finches

Originally published in the June/July 2018 issue of Bird Talk.

Are you interested in birds, but not in any of the parrot species? Then a group of finches might in your future! And there are no better birds to start out with then the adorable zebra finches (Taeniopygia guttata). These little birds are native to Australia and are one of the most commonly kept finch species around the world.

What makes these finches so great? They are the perfect birds for both beginners and longtime bird keepers, according to Garrie Landry, owner of Acadiana Aviaries (zebrafinch.com), in Franklin, La., and author of “An Almost Complete Guide to: The Varieties and Genetics of the Zebra Finch.”

“They are completely hardy finches, easy to keep, and not prone to many of the often stress-related problems that plague more exotic species,” he said. “They are the perfect candidates for a first time finch keeper. Sexes are easy to determine by color alone, and they are relatively inexpensive from a pet shop perspective. Plus, they come in a variety of different subtle shades of grey and brown, and even solid white zebra finches are available.”

Landry loves this species so much that he’s been working with them for more than 50 years. “I started when I was in high school,” he said. “It did not take me long to develop a serious attraction to the zebra finch. My interest in genetics only added to their appeal, because there were so many color varieties available then and there are even more available today. I could never have imagined that my interest in this little bird would become a lifelong endeavor.”

What are Zebra Finches Like?

Not only are they great birds, they are also easy to care for, too. The only caveat with these species is that you must have at least two of these birds in one cage. Like many bird species, they are flock animals, but unlike parrots, they don’t substitute us as a member of the flock. Fortunately, zebra finches are small and one cage usually has more than enough room for two birds.

While one pair generally gets along with each other, more than one pair in a cage can cause problems. “Zebras are territorial, and as such pairs will establish a territory in even the smallest cage and attempt to keep all others out of their claimed space,” Landry said. “If there’s too little space they will pick and harass each other to the point of plucking feathers and making life miserable for other cage inhabitants.”

For that reason, house zebra finches in a cage large enough to keep everyone happy. (See “How to House Zebra Finches” for more information). Due to them being so territorial, it’s not recommended to house zebra finches with other finch species either.

Zebra Finches Are Easy to Tell Apart

Unlike with many parrot species, zebra finches are dimorphic, meaning you can tell males and females apart. The normal male zebra finch is mostly gray, with a white underbelly, and an orange beak and cheeks. They often sport a little black on their chests and have brown speckled feathers alongside their wings. Top that off with a tail that is black with white bars, and you have one gorgeous bird.

Females are much less colorful than their male counterparts, mostly being solid gray with no bright orange cheeks.

How to Feed Zebra Finches

Are you ready to bring a pair of zebra finches home? Do you know what to feed them? According to Landry, the best diet is a high-quality finch seed mixture, along with other foods.

“They are particularly fond of various types of millet seeds: white proso, small yellow and red millets,” he said. “They are perhaps least fond of canary seed. Zebra finches, like all other birds, always enjoy millet sprays, which they consume quickly. Such seeds should be given only as a treat and not every day.”

Other experts recommend providing finch-sized pellets for these birds, though it may be hard to get zebra finches to eat them. Along with a proper finch food, round out your birds’ diet with fresh greens and some fruits. You’ll want to break down these fruits and vegetables so they are small and easy for your finches to eat.

Along with that, place a cuttlebone in your birds’ cage. These chalk-like bones come from cuttlefish, and are a great source of calcium for birds.

If you plan to breed your zebra finches at some point, they’ll need an extra boost in their diet in the form of “nesting food,” Landry explained.

“Often called ‘egg food,’ many brands are available on the open market,” he said. “Most are dry-based foods that can be served as is or moistened with a small amount of water to encourage birds to eat it. Dry is fine, no need to add water in my opinion,” he said.

How to House Zebra Finches

As mentioned above, zebra finches should be kept in pairs. However, in some cases, you can keep more than one pair inside a cage, as long as it’s large enough.

That’s according to Landry, who added, “Pairs should be housed in a cage that is at least 18 square inches in size, no smaller. If multiple pairs are to be kept together then the cage size should be based on the number of pairs time 18 square inches per pair for best results.”

He added that most tiny bird cages available at large pet chain stores are only suitable for transporting zebra finches. To find a cage large enough, look for a local pet store that caters to birds or find one online.

Lifespan of Zebra Finches

These little birds can live anywhere from 5 to 15 years. In that time frame, you’ll easily fall in love with their antics, the little chirps and beeping sounds they make and watching them live their lives. While you’re at it, you’ll learn a lot about birds in general, especially if you are a first-time finch owner.

“They really are the perfect finch for the beginner bird keeper,” Landry said. “There are few others to consider as a first-time pet bird, except for the budgie. Start with zebra finches, and they’ll teach their keeper volumes about the care and breeding of birds in captivity.”

I am the editor in chief of Bird Talk Magazine, a California native, journalist, vegan and the proud owner of Forest and River, two German Shephards, and a turquoise green-cheeked conure named Blue.

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