For the Birds Radio Program: Zebra Finch

Original Air Date: July 20, 1989

Why are Zebra Finches among the very few birds that make suitable pets?

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Zebra Finch

(Recording of a Zebra Finch)

One of the most popular cage birds is also kept in greenhouses to protect plants from common pests like mealy bugs and spider mites. The Zebra Finch, native to central Australia, is one of the most domesticated of all pet birds, so easily bred in captivity that it’s used in laboratories throughout the world, in many cases replacing the common laboratory mouse.

This tiny finch is native to semi-desert habitats, where it breeds only during irregular wet periods. These seasons are unpredictable, and so the bird is physiologically ready to begin mating as soon as the weather permits, feeling a surge of romance whenever rain falls. In captivity, water availability is not a problem, and so in cages these little birds will breed continuously unless separated occasionally for a rest. In the Australian desert, dry weather takes the place of separations, and the Zebra Finches have natural rest periods.

In the wild, Zebra Finches build a roofed, dome-shaped nest. Although captive birds are perfectly capable of building their own nests if nesting materials are provided, many people buy pre-fab units at pet stores, which accelerate breeding. Zebra Finches lay 4-8 pure white eggs which both parents take turns incubating for about two weeks. Once hatched, the babies remain in the nest for 21 days, which is long for a songbird. Blue Jays remain in the nest only about 14 days, and many warblers fledge in just over a week. Zebra Finches may have an extended babyhood, but they whiz through childhood and adolescence in an incredibly short time—many are ready to breed when only 10 weeks old, compared to a year or even two years for most songbirds.

Zebra Finches have no close relatives in North America. They belong to the family Estrildidae, which is commonly referred to as the Waxbills. Unlike most finches, they eat a generous supply of insects as well as seeds in the wild. That quality along with their small size and the tiny size of their droppings is why they are sometimes put to work as organic pest control in greenhouses.

I feel uncomfortable about many of the pet birds for sale in the United States. Many parrots and macaws have such unique and complex habitat requirements that they are difficult or even impossible to breed in captivity. Many of the large exotic species on the market today have been kidnapped directly from the wild. Since so many of these birds are endangered, this is a doubly heinous crime, and yet even in this supposedly enlightened era there are still people willing to buy them. Australia banned the import and export of wild birds in the 1960’s, and so all the Zebra Finches—as well as cockatiels and parakeets—on the market today have been bred in captivity. If you buy a pet bird of any species, please check it out first to make sure it was bred in captivity–people who steal birds from the wild shouldn’t be allowed to profit from their crime.

(Recording of a Zebra Finch)

This is Laura Erickson, and this program has been “For the Birds.”