Zebra Finch

Taeniopygia guttata

Zebra Finch
Jim Bendon/Flickr/CC by-SA 2.0

The zebra finch is not only the most common finch in the dry interior grasslands of Australia, it is also one of the most familiar finches throughout the world thanks to a thriving pet trade. This species has been exported and bred in captivity 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 and Identification

These small finches have colorful plumage and many bold field marks that make them easy to identify. Despite their familiarity, however, it is important to be familiar with all the zebra finch's field marks as many other Australian finches can look similar.

  • 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: Male and female birds look distinctly different. Males have a gray head and nape with a prominent orange cheek 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 under tail coverts are plain white. Females have similar markings but have no cheek 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 browner 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, Diet and Foraging

    These are granivorous birds and eat a variety of seeds and grain. During the breeding season, they eat more insects to provide protein for proper egg formation as well as healthier chicks.

    These finches will quickly nibble on seeds, manipulating them in their strong bills to crack seed hulls.

    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, wandering 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 in the United States, Puerto Rico, Portugal and Brazil, but these feral populations are not always reliable for sightings. For serious record-keeping, feral bird populations are not suitable for 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 birds do not have a specific migration pattern, but they will travel to follow the best food sources as crops and precipitation patterns change.

    Reproduction

    Zebra 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 contain 2-7 white eggs, and both parents share incubation duties for 12-16 days.

    The chicks 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 occasionally hybridize with other grassland finches.

    Attracting Zebra Finches

    In the appropriate habitat, these small finches readily visit backyard bird feeders where different seeds, especially millet, are offered. They will also frequently visit bird baths and other backyard water features. Planting seed-bearing flowers is a great way to make a backyard habitat friendly for zebra finches.

    Conservation

    These birds are highly adaptable and in no danger of being threatened or endangered, and in fact, their range has expanded with the 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. 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)