Text by Graham Bull, photos by Graham Bull and Simon Degenhard
The Star Finch, Neochmia ruficauda, is a very popular aviary species, enjoying pride of place in the finch aviaries of many novices and experienced breeders. This species’ secure captive status over many years has helped give rise to a few popular and attractive colour mutations. In discussing certain aspects of Star Finch mutations, I don’t wish to discourage finch breeders from keeping and breeding the natural form of the Star Finch. In fact, I would like to enthusiastically encourage maintaining (and improving) pure non-mutant stocks of the Star Finch as they are a beautiful and engaging species just the way nature intended them to be.
I don’t believe a new colour mutation deserves aviary space simply because it is different. To gain a place in my finch collection, a finch mutation must be an attractive and desirable form in its own right. As a result of this, I keep and breed very few finch mutations. A couple of Star Finch mutations do feature prominently in my finch collection as I have very high regard for them as truly beautiful birds. When breeding a mutation of the Star Finch (or any other species) I give utmost precedence to the best natural Star Finch features. A top-quality Star Finch mutation should be first and foremost a top-quality Star Finch with the best possible Star Finch type, head colour, spotting, tail bars, belly colour and size. It is not the fact that it has unusual mutant features which makes it a good mutation bird. It must possess features of such quality that it would be a top-quality Star Finch even if that particular bird did not have fawn body colour for instance.
There are several established Star Finch colour mutations in Australian aviaries. These mutations are now so prevalent that it is becoming increasingly difficult to source pure normal Star Finches devoid of any mutant genes. The Yellow mutation has been established for over 50 years, so it is now a commonly held variant. In this mutation the red face area is replaced by a rich and dark glossy yellow. Outstanding yellow specimens appear to have an enamelled head. The tail colour is more golden yellow and the back is olive green with a distinctive gold tint. Legs and feet are bright yellow also. Yellow Stars were the first Star Finches I ever kept. At the time we obtained them they were $12 per pair and normal Red Stars were then $6 per pair. Yellow Stars have always been quite a vigorous mutation right from early on. I can vividly recall regularly breeding clutches of six and seven healthy young in the first few seasons we kept them in the mid 1970s. This is quite notable given their recessive inheritance and regular yellow to yellow matings over many generations. Much like normal Red Stars, a high-quality Yellow Star is a spectacularly attractive bird yet all too scarce. This is very disappointing, as there are numerous Star Finches (red and yellow) kept and bred in Australian aviaries but it appears there are far too few aviculturists who take pride in the quality of the birds they produce. All too often the colour, type, spotting and size of young finches produced are not even considered. Most finch breeders seek gratification in playing the numbers game and overlook quality in the process. If we consider the enormous numbers of beautifully coloured wild caught Star Finches which were the genetic base for our current captive population, there is no excuse for our captive stocks to be of lesser quality today. Unfortunately, I firmly believe that the average quality of Star Finch currently held in Australian aviaries is well below the quality of the captive population 30 years ago. I have heard some aviculturists blame the prevalence of mutant genes for this deterioration. This may well be a contributing factor; however, I contend that the major cause of declining quality in Star Finches (and other species) is a sadly lacking proportion of finch breeders paying due attention to improving the quality of birds they keep and breed.
Another couple of established colour mutations are the autosomal recessive Fawn and the sex-linked recessive Cinnamon mutations. There has been much confusion between these two mutations over the years as they are quite similar in appearance. Both of these mutations dilute the body colour to paler tones. The head colour is not diluted so they attractively enhance the apparent brightness of the head as the vivid red (or yellow) head colour appears darker due to the paler body colour. There is a high degree of variation in the Fawn mutation which adds to the confusion between Fawns and Cinnamons. Some breeders of the Fawn mutation have selectively enhanced the paleness of the fawn body colour as this in turn enhances the brighter head effect. These paler Fawns are most similar in overall appearance to the Cinnamon mutation. Cinnamons are generally heavily diluted greenish body colour with a yellowish hue on the back and wings. The most distinctive trait which distinguishes a Cinnamon from a pale Fawn bird is the upper tail colour which is pale pink on a Cinnamon as opposed to the dull red of a Fawn bird. The white tail bars of a normal Star Finch should be still clearly evident on a Fawn bird, but Cinnamons have an overall pink tail with poorly defined white tail bars which are usually very hazy on the edges compared to a normal or a Fawn.
I tend to favour slightly darker Fawn Stars than these extra pale ones. I find that paler body colour on Fawns also dilutes the clarity of the white spotting. I wish to selectively enhance white spotting in my fawns, so this has the consequence of tempering the degree of dilution in the Fawn mutation. As I cull the lesser spotted Fawn birds, they almost invariably are the paler body coloured birds also. I especially find that the best hens for spotted traits will carry strong white upper tail bars, almost as good as on some males. Poorer spotted Fawn hens and extra pale bodied ones rarely show good tail bars. These darker Fawns which I favour tend to also enhance the brightness of the yellow belly colour or at least allow the birds to clearly exhibit their brightness here and hence allow us to select the birds with brighter yellow belly colour. When the body colour is diluted to the point where these desirable Star Finch traits are hidden, we are narrowing our scope of colour traits to improve upon. The belly colour is most variable on hens.
The size and brightness of the red head colour is the most universally desirable feature on any Star Finch. Most of my efforts to improve on head colour in recent years have been with Fawn mutation birds as they were the best quality birds for those traits I could find to breed from. Unfortunately, the only normal non-mutant Star finches I have seen for sale in the past few years have been substantially inferior in size, colour, and spotting to my fawn birds so to use any such inferior birds would be a backward step in my efforts to improve on those traits.
As with belly colour, head colour quality is most variable on hen Star Finches. As a result, the quality of hen Star Finches is generally the best gauge to the overall quality of a strain of Star Finches. Hen Stars with strong red colour traits should carry red colour on the throat and forehead in addition to the face. The face colour should extend behind the eye in well-coloured hens.
As head colour traits are enhanced, males exhibiting red suffusion on the chest are often produced. Red head colour may sometimes also “break out” of the head area into the adjoining throat spotting zone on males with exceptional red colour traits. One of my Fawn Star breeding pairs recently produced two young males which exhibited red head feathers at fledging. This was a first for me. They have both recently completed their moult into adult plumage to reveal exceptional red colour traits - far better than any of my other Star Finch young bred over the past few years.
The Yellow-bodied Star is a mutation combination which has been produced by several finch breeders in recent years. This is a combination of both the Fawn and Cinnamon mutations in the one bird. Since I first saw a photo of an adult pair of Yellow-bodied Stars, I have been captivated by the beauty of this form. Most people who see mature Yellow-bodied specimens in the flesh are very impressed. By combining both of these diluted mutations you get a doubling of the red head enhancement effect with a beautiful yellow ground colour to the body. Hens are a pale lemon yellow, whilst males are a brighter buttercup yellow with a bright red head which stands out like a beacon.
My last few breeding seasons have been aiming toward establishing this combination using my best quality fawn birds as regular genetic infusions to ensure the best quality possible by the time this colour is established. I started two years ago with a single Yellow-bodied hen which I obtained from a friend who bred six Yellow-bodied hens that season. A year later I obtained two excellent Fawn males which were also split to the Cinnamon gene. Given the sex-linked inheritance for the Cinnamon mutation, Yellow-bodied hens are more easily produced than males initially. When combining a sex-linked and an autosomal recessive mutation eventual establishment takes a few years, especially when regularly out-crossing using quality birds during the establishment phase. Some aviculturists advocate mating colour to colour from early on when attempting to establish a new mutation, then later using outcrosses to strengthen the mutation. I contend that this is entirely the wrong way to establish a new mutation. Regular outcrossing using top quality vigorous unrelated birds right from the earliest stages and throughout the entire few years of establishment will result in a far more vigorous and worthwhile new colour mutation. Much of the plausible arguments against breeding mutations are validated by hasty and haphazard attempts to race to establishment point without showing constant vigilance in maintaining and improving on colour, type and size at the same time. Generally, once a poor quality, weak mutation is developed the problems associated with its reduced vigour will dog it for decades if it lasts that long.
Whether you prefer to keep the natural form of the Star Finch or some or all of the available colour mutations, I strongly recommend keeping all current season’s young until they fully colour, then select from these only the very best quality birds for use as breeding stock. This way you can rapidly improve on all of your desired traits within the space of just a few breeding seasons. Top quality Stars really are a sight to behold in any colour. The best quality bird is no more difficult to look after than the worst, so why not strive for the best?
Cock Fawn Star Finch
Cock Fawn Star Finch
Hen Fawn Star Finch
Fledgling Yellow-bodied Star Finch
Cock Yellow Bodied Star Finch
Hen Yellow-bodied (Cinnamon Fawn) Star Finch
Cock Yellow Bodied Star Finch
Yellow Bodied Star Finch
Cock Star Finch
Cock Star Finch