Casey Gustawarow & Nichole Christman

The zebra finch, Poephila guttata, can be found in the wild throughout most of the Australian continent, and can therefore exist in a number of different climates and environments. The lifestyles of different zebra finch populations are somewhat varied but they generally form dense populations in arid and grassland areas. They will remain in one area as long as conditions are good but will migrate during periods of extreme climate such as drought. Zebra finches are extremely social and often live in groups of forty to one hundred birds.

Physical characteristics

The body of mature zebra finches is about 4 inches long with a 1.75 inch tail and wings that are slightly longer than 2 inches. Zebra finches have gray bodies, dark gray-brown wings, a beige underside, and a black tail with white diagonal bands. Mature males are more colorful than females and contain a number of other distinguishable characteristics, including orange cheek patches, black and white striping across the throat and brown flanks with white spots below the wings.
Both the male and female zebra finch have the ability to sing and call, but the male is generally more vocal. Zebra finches are in fact quite vocal and have a number of different calls, each with a different meaning. Generally these vocalizations are considered to be soothing and pleasant rather than loud or obnoxious. The different calls of the zebra finches can be used to warn off other birds, impress the female, or communicate with a mate or other members of a flock.


Diet

In the wild, the main diet of zebra finches consists of grass seeds, other plant seeds, and small insects such as termites, moths, and flies. The diet of the hatchlings in the first few days of life consists chiefly of insects. In captivity, the main food source of zebra finches is seed or pellets. Millet is the main component of prepared finch formulas and millet sprays often supplement the seed. The sprays provide the birds with a chance to forage, thus providing them with physical and mental stimulation.

Green foods such as spinach, lettuce, and other vegetables and fruits or sprouted seeds are another important part of the diet. It may be necessary to provide captive zebra finches with small insects or other protein sources such as water fleas, moths, or boiled eggs. It is important that they receive the required amount of vitamins, minerals, and trace elements. Vitamin formulas and a calcium source such as a cuttlebone can be used to supplement the diet; this becomes particularly important during the egg laying process.

Social behavior

In the wild, zebra finches can be found in quite large congregations participating in many group activities.

In the afternoon, they often sing and preen each other and then huddle together at dusk to roost for the night. When conditions are extreme enough to warrant a migration, oftentimes many groups will join to form flocks of over one thousand birds. When breeding season arrives, the larger group often separates into smaller groups of five to twenty pairs, at which time each pair claims its own territory. Members of a group are always in contact with each other, however, and can distinguish members of their group from outsiders by their calls. This social behavior in nature is precisely why it is important to have at least a pair of zebra finches in captivity in order to guarantee their well being. In captivity the finches will stay in close physical contact and will often groom and preen one another.


Reproduction

In the wild the male performs a courtship dance in order to impress the female. This dance consists of the male hopping from twig to twig while puffing out the feathers of its body. If the female is receptive, she will rapidly raise and lower her tail and then copulation will ensue.
Zebra finches are extremely easy to breed in captivity, and are preferred by bird fanciers for this reason. A nesting box should receive sufficient sunshine and ventilation and be positioned so the opening faces the center of the cage and not the cage’s door. The finches will press their droppings against the inner wall of the nest; these will harden and not be harmful. Although several nest box designs are available, the best choice is a nest basket made from woven raffia, wicker, or straw. This will keep the eggs warm and well ventilated without becoming too hot during the summer. Finches are avid nest builders and will do so as long as material is available. Hay and straw should first be offered so the birds can form the base of their nest, then line it with softer material such as string and feathers. Once the nest is made, all materials should be removed so the birds will concentrate on breeding. One pair can produce 2-3 broods per season, and should not be encouraged to produce more. This will drain the female’s energy and may result in harming the young. The finches should also be at least 9-10 months old before they begin breeding, even though they are capable 11 weeks after hatching.

References

Vriends M. 1997. The Zebra Finch: An Owner’s Guide to a Happy Healthy Pet. Howell Book House, New York.
Fulmer R. Aug 7 2000. Zebra Finches: Care for your new bird. http://www.finchworld.com/Birds/Finch/Zebra/basic.html
Zebra Finches. http://www.williams.edu/Biology/Zfinch/finches.html
Learning and song production in the zebra finch. http://instruct1.cit.cornell.edu/courses/bionb420.07/klidoshore/zebrafinch1.html