By Graham Bull. Photos by Graham Bull, Simon Degenhard, Peter Halasz (Wikicommons) and Nrg800 (Wikicommons)
The Parrotfinches are a very distinctly recognisable genus (Erythrura) of 10 finch species. More than any other group of Estrildid finches, Parrotfinches have evolved to inhabit forested areas and the clearings and grasslands adjacent to lush tropical forests within their natural range, hence the characteristic bright green body plumage.
The various Parrotfinch species have many physiological and behavioural similarities to each other, however identifying the sometimes subtle differences between similar species can often be especially helpful in assisting our success with these species in aviculture. Bearing this in mind, I wish to provide a comparison of the three species of Parrotfinch which have established populations in Australian aviaries: Blue-faced Parrotfinch E.trichroa, Red-faced Parrotfinch E.psittacae and Tri-coloured Parrotfinch E.tricolor.
The general disposition of all Parrotfinches is broadly similar. They are all very active compared to most other finches. So much so, that extended periods of inactivity by any Parrotfinch can be a reliable symptom of illness. Of the three species, the Red-faced is the tamest and most inquisitive. They are certainly much more inclined to be the first to check out and try a new food item or approach the front of the aviary whilst a person is nearby (probably in the hope of an extra food item). This contrasts markedly with the Tri-coloured which is by far the least tame, to the point of shyness. They will seek out the security of a darker corner of the aviary, which should be borne in mind when fitting out an ideal aviary environment for them - plenty of dense branches for them to feel secure behind. Blue-faced are somewhere between the other two, tending more toward the shyer end of the spectrum.
Parrotfinches’ frequent movement around the aviary can sometimes result in an unsettling influence on more timid species which share the enclosure. This has the potential to escalate to a significant disruptive issue for a mixed aviary when the number of Parrotfinches within the aviary increases above a critical point. Once they start to continually bump and thump around the aviary as a flock, the constant air traffic, impact noise and vibration from numbers of relatively large finches monotonously landing and taking off contributes to a stressful environment. In such an aviary smaller placid finch species can sometimes find it very difficult to find quiet refuge and attain the sense of security in their surroundings which is required before they will attempt to nest and breed. This situation is best avoided by housing only a single breeding pair of Parrotfinch within each mixed species finch aviary and removing independent juveniles from the aviary to prevent a buildup of numbers. This effect is more pronounced in the Blue-faced Parrotfinch, primarily due to their slightly larger body size.
Parrotfinches are not at all outwardly aggressive toward other finch species, notwithstanding the above-mentioned boisterous activity levels. Their courtship ritual involves vigorous chasing of the female by the male and does contain some apparent rough sex during copulation whereby the male grasps the female by her nape feathers during mating. This is most aggressive with the Blue-faced which at times can appear downright nasty. The Red-faced has a similar though slightly less aggressive mating style, and the Tri-coloured is notably less vigorous again. I generally recommend single pairs for the most productive breeding results per pair with all three species. If you wish to house a breeding colony of several pairs of Parrotfinches in the one aviary then, at least for Blue-faced and slightly less so Red-faced, I strongly advocate housing extra females compared to males. A good proportion would be three males to five females. If this ratio is not tilted firmly in favour of the females, regular aggressive chasing and pack-rape by several males on one female is a common outcome as hens leave the nest to feed, etc. Understandably, this places great stress on hens in such colony situations and leads very directly to increased female mortality which only lifts the ratio of males and hence lifts the impact on any remaining females. I don’t believe that this is such an issue for colonies of Tri-coloured as by comparison their males are romantic gentlemen.
These mating aggression levels appear to have an inverse relationship with pair bonding. The Blue-faced appears to have the weakest pair bond and males will opportunistically mate with partners other than their breeding partner if given the opportunity. I once had a very productive breeding trio of a male and two female Blue-faced many years ago where both hens had active breeding nests incubating or brooding simultaneously throughout the entire breeding season. The male took turns incubating and feeding young in both active nests. At the other end of the spectrum is the Tri-coloured which has quite a strong pair bond for a Parrotfinch. So much so that I believe compatibility and mate selection is a crucial key to establishing the most productive breeding pairs of Tri-coloureds. You could mate almost any male to any female with Blue-faced and Red-faced and you could be very confident of productive breeding activity under the right aviary conditions and diet. Not so much so with the Tri-coloured, which appear far more discerning when it comes to mate selection and compatibility. One finch breeder I know who is very successful with Tri-coloured Parrotfinches is adamant that the hen selects the cock and so allows his birds to do so from a group of birds housed in a holding aviary. He then removes a pair to a breeding aviary as they show obvious signs of compatibility. I recently obtained two pairs of Tri-coloureds from him of which one pair were what he described as a “true pair”. On the same day I placed this pair into their breeding aviary I also paired up another two pairs of Tri-coloureds, for which I selected the partners, and placed them into different breeding aviaries. The “true” pair were building their first nest the morning after I put them in the breeding aviary and fledged 4 consecutive clutches of young within 5 months. The other two pairs both eventually bred too but after a month or so of getting to know each other.
The nesting preferences vary slightly between the three species. Red-faced have a distinct preference for a low nest site. Most of my breeding pairs choose to nest in grasses growing in the flight section of my breeding aviaries with many nests located just above ground level. If using nest boxes these should be provided at lower locations in the aviary for Red-faced. Blue-faced and Tri-coloured are less particular about nest height but both tend to show strong preference for a shaded dark part of the aviary to nest in. All species will use either nest boxes or growing and/or dead vegetation for nest sites. Birds of each species bred in boxes will generally prefer to nest in a box and those bred in nests built in brush or growing aviary plants will tend to prefer vegetation as a nest site. All three species build large solid nests with a high volume of material used if provided. Red-faced and Tri-coloured like to line their nests with soft material like feathers and pampas grass heads. Emu feathers are highly favoured. Blue-faced tend to have unlined nests and where feathers or any other soft nesting material is used, they are just incorporated into the solid wall structure of the nest amongst the grasses.
A crucial management issue for Parrotfinches in aviculture is obesity. This is especially significant in relation to the Tri-coloured Parrotfinch, which is extremely prone to obesity especially where a rich diet is provided and/or where aviary size is small. Fertility and breeding drive will both be adversely affected when breeding birds are obese. This is best detected in the hand by checking the colour of the skin on and around the belly area. An overweight bird will show yellowish orange colour on the belly indicating subcutaneous fat deposits. A reliable indicator of the effect of aviary size on obesity is the fact that my independent young Tri-coloureds remain fit and lean whilst in my larger breeding aviaries (3.2m x 6.4m) but soon after being transferred to my much smaller holding aviaries (0.9m x 3m) they invariably become overweight. This is despite the fact that finches within my holding aviaries only receive a basic dry seed and water diet and those in the breeding aviaries are provided with a richer and far more varied diet with various soft, live and green food items available at all times during the breeding season. I firmly believe that extra aviary width is vital to reducing obesity. A very useful way to make best use of the full dimensions of an aviary is to only provide perches in the corners of the aviary. The birds must then expend far more effort to fly from front to back as well as side to side, thus maximising exercise and fully utilising the length, width and diagonals of the aviary.
The obesity issue should be an over-riding consideration when determining an appropriate diet for Parrotfinches. Unrestricted access to high protein foods such as live insects, egg food or softfood mixtures to birds which are not breeding is asking for trouble. As is regular provision of sunflower kernels, hulled oats and too much plain canary seed. These are all highly sought after by most Parrotfinches but likely to add unwanted body fat when fed in excess. Seed mixes should comprise a higher proportion of millets and limited plain canary seed to non-breeders. Canary seed is highly favoured but should only be provided as a significant proportion of a mix where birds are actively breeding. All three species love their greens which are not fattening and make excellent rearing food. Appropriate examples include Lebanese cucumber, half-ripe seeding grass heads of almost any kind, fresh broadleaf greens such as bok choy, chicory, kale, etc. and even common garden weeds like chickweed, dandelion, fat hen, amaranthus and many others will be very eagerly consumed. Sprouted seed, frozen peas and corn kernels, and broccoli heads are a few other easy options. Even fruits such as apple, pear, figs and pawpaw will be taken once the birds are accustomed to them. A real favourite that I provide occasionally are capsicum cores, which the birds first eat the seeds from and then pick at the flesh. Live food is not absolutely essential for breeding any of the three species, however larger and more frequent clutches of young will result when a regular supply of live insects are available to the breeding pairs. Termites (my favoured finch live food), mealworms and maggots are all readily taken by Parrotfinch parents whilst rearing young. Almost any softfood mixture will be readily eaten by Parrotfinches too and the importance of these foods is greater where live food is not offered. These comprise egg & biscuit mix, commercially available finch softfood powders, madeira cake, hard-boiled eggs or any combination of these with various high protein cereals. Again, the propensity of these foods to add unwanted body fat needs to be considered. I strictly limit my breeding birds to a very small quantity of finch softfood powder mixed into a green and sprouted seed mixture. The softfood component of this mix is less than 5% with the majority comprising half-ripe green seed, sprouted seed plus some frozen peas and corn kernels.
It would be dishonest of me not to point out that the Red-faced Parrotfinch stands out among all finches as the most greedy and messy eater there is in a finch aviary. If there is something fresh on offer for them to plunder, they will almost invariably be the first to get into it. The Blue-faced and Tri-Coloured are far better mannered at the dining table. The messy habits of the Red-faced does make them slightly more prone to internal parasites as they are more likely to lurk and feed in the more soiled parts of the aviary. This needs to be considered when formulating a preventative health routine. Regular preventative drenching for worms and coccidia as well as enhanced attention to hygienic feeding practices are required when keeping Red-faced Parrotfinches.
Established Parrotfinch colour mutations include the Lutino Blue-faced, Pied and Sea-green Red-faced and a Pastel/Dilute Tri-coloured mutation is also well on the way to establishment.
The Lutino Blue-faced Parrotfinch had a very inauspicious beginning in Australia due largely to the hasty (greedy) efforts of those attempting to rapidly establish its numbers with the triple whammy of excessive recessive to recessive matings, heavy reliance on Bengalese fostering and cabinet housing in indoor birdrooms. A high proportion of lutino birds were very weak, virtually blind, small sized birds with very washed out yellow colour and poor feather structure. Fortunately, they survived this initial stage and only since their significant price drop did they receive the long overdue out-crossing to vigorous normal Blue-faced stock that they so obviously required in the earlier stages of their establishment. Much better quality specimens can now be regularly seen in Australian aviaries. Such good quality stock is visually vastly superior to the poorer quality birds which some breeders continue to produce with lutino to lutino matings. Their sex-linked recessive inheritance easily allows for a lutino male to be mated to a normal female with known genotype offspring so there was absolutely no excuse, apart from greed, for the early problems to have occurred.
The Pied mutation of the Red-faced Parrotfinch is a highly variable dominant mutation. A well marked Pied specimen can be very attractive, however there are numerous less attractive pied birds for every well marked bird, such is the random nature of the pied gene. The dominant inheritance has facilitated regular outcrosses with normal non-mutant stock which translates to a great deal of genetic vigour. The Sea-green is a sex-linked recessive mutation of the Red-faced Parrotfinch, which existed for many years prior to its eventual establishment. It seemed to merely require someone to attach a name to the colour for breeders to then start to retain, breed up and pay a higher value for these birds. For many years many Red-faced breeders occasionally produced Sea-green birds and I for one regarded these as inferior coloured Red-faced and so they were the first birds to be culled and sent off to the bird dealer. I still have little regard for the attractiveness of them when compared to the normal coloured Red-faced, however there are many breeders who have given them aviary space to the exclusion of non-mutant Red-faced. Pied Sea-green is a common mutation combination which some people find attractive. Very few of these have caught my eye and resulted in anything other than bemusement at how they can possibly be construed to be more desirable than a nice normal specimen. I think many people confuse the concepts of difference and beauty when it comes to some colour mutations.
The Tri-coloured is a relative newcomer to Australian aviculture compared to the other two. It is not surprising, therefore, that mutation establishment is at a far earlier stage than are the Blue-faced and Red-faced mutations. The first mutant Tri-coloured birds I bred were a few black-eyed Yellow offspring several years ago. These autosomal recessive birds were also bred by several other breeders and have failed to become established. My experience with them was that they scarcely survived until adulthood. The other breeders who I know bred this colour are all very competent finch breeders, so I can confidently state that the failure to establish this mutation is the result of its inherent weakness, as my own experience of high mortality was a typical one. This being the case, I believe they are not worth pursuing anyway. A far more vigorous and worthwhile mutation is the Pastel or Dilute. This mutation is also of autosomal recessive inheritance and the degree of dilution in each bird is highly variable if my limited experience with them is anything to go by. A couple more years should see them established as several breeders are currently enjoying encouraging progress with this form. A bit more learning as we go is required to determine if the variation is a random factor or heritable in some predictable pattern. A possibility is single and double factor dilution, which is hard for me to fathom out given its mode of inheritance, but hopefully this will be resolved in the next couple of breeding seasons.
The different Parrotfinch species will readily hybridise with one another so if you have a finch aviary and are contemplating breeding Parrotfinches you will need to narrow your choice down to one species or build more aviaries. Fortunately, I have multiple breeding aviaries so I can breed all three species, but I hope I have helped you to decide which Parrotfinch is for you and along the way provided some ideas on how to improve your efforts to breed them.
Blue-faced Parrot Finch. Photo courtesy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue-faced_Parrotfinch.jpg / Nrg800
Well marked pied Red-faced Parrotfinch
Sea-green Red-faced Parrotfinch
Black-eyed Yellow mutation Tri-coloured Parrotfinch fledgling
Rear view of Pastel or Dilute Tri-Coloured Parrotfinch fledgling
Young Tri-coloured Parrotfinches
Blue-faced Parrotfinch. Photo courtesy https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Blue-faced_Parrot-finch_Pengo.jpg / Peter Halasz