The Painted Finch Emblema Picta
A Prolific Pair
David Pace, Anglesea
The first birds I introduced into a newly set up aviary in July 98 were a pair of Painted Finches Emblema Picta. By December 98 they had reared three nests of 3, 5, and 3 chicks respectively and at the time of writing were currently nesting for the fourth time (January 99). The following documents the breeding of this prolific pair.
The face, throat, centre of the belly and rump are red, with a great deal of variation between individuals in both the intensity of the red and the area it covers. In some males the red of the throat region extends down to, and joins, the red region of the belly. The chest and underparts are black with white spots extending down the flanks. The crown, nape, back, tail and wings are earth brown. The upper mandible is black tending to red at the tip. The lower mandible is red tending to pearl coloured at the base. The feet are flesh coloured.
Similar to the male, however the belly has only a small area containing red feathers and the chest and throat region is more heavily spotted with white. Individual hens vary in the amount of red on the face, with some only having a few feathers making a line above the eyes while others have a red mask covering each eye.
Young birds are duller versions of the female, with a great deal of variation between individuals. Some birds fledge with more of the white spotting on the chest and belly than others, while others exhibit a darker chest and belly region with almost no white spotting. Some individuals fledge with several red feathers on the belly while others will have none.
All young do have black beaks, a dull red rump and dull brown head, back and wings.
Sexing young birds is difficult. The appearance of white spots under the beak may indicate a hen bird. The appearance of red feathers above the eyes well before the bird has attained adult plumage is most likely an indication of a cock bird. Young males begin to practice their courtship song at around 7 weeks of age well before they have attained adult plumage. Adult plumage is attained at 12 weeks, while my young birds have commenced breeding as early as 18 weeks.
The painted finch is distributed throughout the dry interior of the continent in areas that have permanent deep waterholes from Derby in Western Australia across to the Gulf of Carpentaria, into far western Queensland and northern South Australia.
The painted finch is locally common in northern and western parts of its range but is some what more erratic in the southern part of its range. (Rowland)
I have had the pleasure of seeing the Painted Finch in the wild on only one occasion. This was in Kings Canyon, Central Australia in 1990 when a single pair perched on a rocky out crop and then flew into a deep riven. The main vegetation in this area was dominated by spinifex grass and occasional stands of scrub.
Status in Captivity
The quite nature, beautiful markings and their free breeding in captivity has ensured the painted finch is a well represented within Australian aviaries and is in fact one of the most commonly kept species apart from the zebra finch Poephila guttata and gouldian finch Chloebia gouldiae. 1995 figures from the then Victorian Department of Conservation and Natural Resources recorded as many as 2148 birds held in that state alone.
On the 25 November 1997, the Victorian Wildlife (Amendment) Regulations came into effect, moving the painted finch into Schedule 4, with the result that it may be held without a licence for private purposes in the state of Victoria.
The Painted finches are housed in a rectangular aviary measuring 6m x 3m x 2.5m. The aviary is open to the north and east while the south and west walls are covered and fully protected from the cold winds we experience in Anglesea. The roof is two thirds covered in colour bond sheeting and insulation batts have been utilised under the roofing and on the western wall.
Generally painted finches do well as a single pair within a mixed collection of other finches or in a colony situation. I currently house 11 painted finches with a small colony of diamond firetails Emblema guttata and red-browed firetails Aegintha temporalis, two pairs of double-bar finches Poephila bichenovii and single pairs of star Neochmia ruficauda and Cuban finches Tiaris canora. With all birds except the diamond firetails successfully breeding, the aviary is at its holding capacity, nevertheless, there are no major compatibility problems. It is only during nest building, that painted finches exhibit mild bouts of aggression when they chase other painted finches away from the immediate nesting area.
Painted finches spend a great deal of time on the aviary floor and so I am hesitant in housing quail in the same aviary as they may interfere with courtship behaviour and compete for food items on the ground.
Bird keepers at Taronga Zoo recorded problems associated with the keeping of Inland bearded dragons Pogona uitticeps in a mixed bird exhibit when two painted finches went missing without a trace. Meikle and Atchison recorded, “The lizards were seen to stalk the birds as they ate seed on the ground and were noted to run at the birds when they took flight.....it is cautioned that the mixture of Inland bearded dragons with small finches and larger bird species may result in predation of the birds. The shinglebacks, though less active, had no apparent effect on bird behaviour.”
As a boy in my early years of aviculture, I introduced a jacky lizard Amphibolurus muricatus, a small native dragon, into a mixed collection. I recall the lizard eating a young king quail chick. As painted finches, especially newly fledged young, spend large amounts of time on the ground, I would strongly discourage the inclusion of dragons.
Anglesea is dominated by dry woodlands and heathland due to the relatively low rainfall experienced here when compared to other nearby coastal areas such as Lorne and the Otways. These areas tend to receive the majority of rain that comes from the west, leaving Anglesea with a low annual rainfall. As the painted finch is associated with the arid areas of cental Australia, the low growing indigenous vegetation of the Anglesea area proved to work well in creating a natural habitat within the aviary.
The plan was to house three bird species in the aviary. The local red browed finch, the diamond firetail and the painted finch. The indigenous heathland plants of the Anglesea area proved a good compromise in creating an aviary habitat that reflected elements of the natural habitats of the above mentioned species. The main plant species within the aviary are silver banksia Banksia marginata, pink heath epacras impressa, the grass tree Xanthorroea australis, Chaffy saw-sedge gahnia radula, golden wattle Acacia pycnantha, coast wattle Acacia longifolia and the common tussock grass Poa labillardierei. The aviary was constructed around an area that was already vegetated and so little planting was required except for an area within and around a pond. This included tall rush Juncus procerus, spiny-headed mat rush Lomandra longifolia and Hop goodenia Goodenia ovata. All the plants were below 1.5m in hight except for the lone golden wattle which stood up to the full 2.5m hight of the aviary.
Dead branches, stumps and rocks
Dead branches and burnt stumps were included to provide open perching positions and added to the natural effect, contrasting well with the living vegetation. These were used most frequently by the Painted finches as were clusters of rocks that contained iron ore and hence retained the suns heat. These rocks were placed in the areas that received the most sun and the painted finches would often cluster on these. On one occasion after 5 young had fledged from a nest, all 5 young remained on these rocks for the best part of the first 3 days.
One cluster of rocks located near a small natural pond within the aviary is also home to a group of water skinks Eulamprus tympanum that have occurred naturally and co-exist with the finches. On several occasions I have observed both the skinks and painted finches basking together on the same rock.
The western and southern walls are brushed with the local coastal tea tree Melaleuca lanceolata utilising both PVC and plastic forestry tubes. Brush is also secured in 4 wire mesh cylinders, each 1m in length and 600mm in diameter. These are secured to the ceiling in a horizontal position. The Painted Finches to date have exhibited a preference for these wire cylinders rather than brush attached to the aviary wall. Of the 4 nests built to date the first 3 were located in 3 of the 4 cylinders provided. A young pair nesting for the first time are also currently utilising a wire cylinder.
It is fascinating to watch this pair of painted finches go about the task of selecting the site for a new nest. To date they have not reused a breeding nest once the chicks have fledged, however a younger pair currently nesting for the first time have reused one of the old breeding nests. In all occasions the adult breeding pair began searching and building a new nest one day prior to their then current young fledging. The pair would inspect several areas, chasing away other painted finches, which were their previous young, and poke and prod potential sites.
Painted finches tend to use a variety of course objects to create a dense platform prior to working with grass to construct the upper area of their dome shaped nest. In the wild painted finches nest in spinifex grass. It is hypothesised that a dense platform to the nest is created to ensure the sharp needles of spinifex grass, that grow rapidly after rain, do not pierce the eggs or young.
The main item collected by the male included small chunks of a termite eaten stump that was positioned in the aviary. His long beak was particularly suited to breaking off pieces and carrying them to the nest. On one occasion I viewed several other painted finches that were not nest building, join the adult male in breaking off bits of rotten wood. Other favoured items included the fragments of a dead grass tree trunk, charcoal taken from the many dead branches, sticks, clumps of dirt and the odd piece of insulation wool taken from the roof or western wall.
I have observed both sexes involved in collecting material, however it is the male that seems to do most of this gathering while the female remains in the nest and positions each item deposited by her mate. The construction of the nest takes up to 7 days with the final result being a dome shaped nest with a small opening and no entrance tunnel. On several occasions I have observed this pair of painted finches building two nests simultaneously, however one is abandoned within a day.
Incubation seems to take 14 days and both sexes share this duty. I do not interfere with nesting finches and so record the date when one bird is missing, obviously incubating, and wait until I observe one of the adults, usually the male, consuming mealworms. This pair of painted finches will only consume mealworms, the only live food I offer, when they have young in the nest.
The young can be heard being fed at around nine days of age. Once the young are about 2 weeks old, brooding of the young is reduced and both adult birds are visible at the same time. The young fledge at around 21 days and spend a great deal of time on the floor of the aviary, usually in open sandy areas or on clusters of rock, huddled together for warmth and protection.
Eleven days after fledging the young are seen picking at dirt and attempting to feed themselves and at around the 13th day after fledging, the young are seen at the seed hoppers with adult birds feeding on seed. They are however still fed by the parents.
The young are fully independent by 3 weeks of age and are fully coloured at 3 months of age. I have left all young with the adult birds and to date there has been no detrimental effects.
Seed is fed in two seed hoppers that are divided into four separate compartments making it easy to feed seed separately. Each hopper contains yellow pannicum, red panicum, white millet and plain canary. Based on casual observations, it seems the painted finches have a preference for the smaller seeds, in particular red and yellow panicum.
Sprouted seed is fed each morning and consists of the above seeds mixed together and soaked for 12 hours. The seed is then washed thoroughly, strained and left for a second period of 12 hours. The seed is then washed and strained once again. This is repeated 12 hours later after which the seed, which has now just begun to sprout, is placed in the lower section of the refrigerator.
I mix enough seed to last around a week and find that it will keep very well providing it is washed and strained thoroughly. Your nose will determine when it has been washed “thoroughly”. I have found that the top of the refrigerator is an excellent place to keep the seed during soaking seed and sprouting. The warmth generated by the refrigerator ensures the seed sprouts quickly even in winter.
I feed sprouted seed in an open plastic dish and feed enough to feed all birds. Prior to feeding, I mix in a vitamin supplement called Ornithon. The painted finches do seem to enjoy sprouted seed even when they are not rearing young.
I am a firm believer in the importance of feeding all finches seeding grass heads. I recall as a junior member in the 1970’s, asking a panel at one of the societies meetings, then held in the Victorian Railway Ballroom at Flinders Street Station, the question, Why are all my female finches becoming egg bound? I remember the late Bill Gordon removing his glasses and stating sternly, Because they’re not getting enough seeding heads. He was right and I learnt a valuable lesson. From the following day onwards I have placed a great emphasis on collecting and feeding this essential dietary component.
All my finches receive seeding grasses every morning and afternoon throughout the year except during the shortest days in winter between May and July. During this period seeding grasses are only fed in the mornings. The main grasses fed include panic velt, Ehrharta erecta winter grass Poa annua and velt grass Ehrharta longiflora. Other grasses fed include many of the native grass species such as those from the tussock grasses genus Poa, the wallaby grasses genus Danthonia, the spear grasses genus Stipa and kangaroo grass Themeda triandra..
Painted finches, although they consume their share of these grasses, are not as eager as other finches to fly down and begin feeding once I have left the aviary. The diamond firetails, red browed finches, stars finches and Cuban finches seem to be more dependent on fresh seeding grasses.
In meeting the demands for a constant supply of seeding grasses, I tend to collect a large garbage bag of fresh seed heads and keep the bag closed and in a cool place. I would feed off the entire bag within three days, ie two feeds per day for three days for approximately 30 finches.
The only live food I feed are mealworms. These are fed once daily throughout the entire year and placed in a round plastic plant pot dish. I feed more than will be consumed and so mealworms are always available. A painted finch consuming mealworms is a sure sign they have young in the nest as my birds do not eat them otherwise.
Calcium and grit
A tray containing fine shell grit, broken pieces of cuttle bone and microwaved egg shells is placed on the floor of the aviary and used very frequently by the painted finches. In addition there is an area on the floor of the aviary containing fine beach sand. This is also well frequented by the painted finches.
Charcoal is provided throughout the aviary via burnt tree stumps, branches and logs. Small chunks of charcoal are also found throughout the aviary floor. Painted finches are often observed picking at charcoal and carrying it into their nests. The sight of an adult male painted finch sitting on a partly blackened burnt stump is breath taking.
A vital ingredient - luck
From time to time aviculturists are blessed with a remarkable pair of birds that seem intent on breeding. Management techniques and housing certainly play an important part but luck is another important ingredient for success. The aviary was primarily designed for a colony of diamond firetails of which there are 9 individuals. Despite many nests being constructed and a great deal of courtship behaviour, no young have resulted. In fact after ringing each bird with a different coloured led band and watching for the tell tail courtship behaviour, I fear that 8 of the 9 individuals are cocks! This is when a little luck is really needed.
Keeping some of the offspring
When faced with a prolific pair the danger is to become complacent and sell off all the offspring until one of the adult birds eventually dies. I have exchanged birds with another breeder to obtain two unrelated cock birds and aim to house 3 breeding pairs in a colony situation and study the dynamics of several breeding pairs.
The painted finch is an attractive and interesting aviary subject. They are free breeding, sexually dimorphic, display lots of character and are incredibly tame. I would have no hesitation in recommending them to both experienced and new comers to aviculture.
I can remember how timid this pair was when they were first released into their aviary. In fact they were so timid they remained on the aviary floor, only moving within a space of a square metre for the first day. I was so concerned that I sprinkled seed all over the floor to ensure they found food. Eleven days later they had settled in so well they had begun to build their first nest. Now, some six months later, they have fledged young every 7 weeks and are incubating once again - what a prolific pair!
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1990. Meikle, W. & Atchison, N. Predation of Australian birds by Inland Bearded Dragons in a mixed exhibit at Taronga Zoo. Thylacinus 18 (3) 15.
1996. Pace, D. The Status of Australian Finches in Victorian Aviaries. September 1995. Australian Aviculture, 50 (5) 118-119.
1998. Pace, D. Mounting Brush with forestry tubes. Australian Aviculture, 52 (12) 284.
1996. Rowland, P. Edited Strahan. Finches, Bowerbirds and other Passerines. The National Photographic Index of Australian Wildlife. Angus & Robertson, Sydney.
1988. Smeelie, C. Attaching brush to aviary walls. Australian Aviculture.
1989. White, D. The Flowers of Anglesea River Valley. Lutheran Publishing House, Adelaide.