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Painted Firetail Finch
By Paul Ceiley

Emblema picta

The Painted Firetail Finch has a reputation for being rare and more difficult to breed than the more common Australian finches.

In respect of it being rare the Painted Finch certainly fits that bill, with the recent survey result indicating a total of 36 birds held by seven members and with a survey response of 50.2 %, it is reasonable to believe that there are less than 100 birds held by members. Indeed when talking to other members most had not even seen a Painted Finch other than in a picture. Whether or not they were difficult to breed was an unknown quantity, as I could find very little written about these birds other than the basic information of where they came from, etc.

For me the breakthrough came when I obtained Russell Kingston’s Complete Manual on the Keeping and Breeding of Finches. In this book was more relevant information about this Finch than all the others put together, and it contained the magic words "not difficult to breed". However "not difficult " in Australian terms, where they are breeding native birds, with native seed/food and in Aviaries larger than my entire garden was another matter. Living in London and limited for space meant that a different approach was needed if I were to be successful.

In the early part of 1998 I was lucky enough to obtain three cocks and five hens from a member who unfortunately had to sell up. I hope I impressed on him how grateful I was for this chance to fulfil my dream. He has my undying gratitude. I now had to seriously think what to do, as I would try to breed in cages 22in x 18in x 12in.

The first lesson I learned was that they were not good travellers, and the cocks seemed to suffer from stress more than hens. I quarantined the birds for three weeks and by this time the cocks seemed to have recovered; however on moving them to their permanent quarters in the bird room the youngest cock again went down hill and never recovered. This seems to bear out advice I had received that once under the weather it is very difficult for them to recover; this was despite the provision of a hospital cage and ultimately, antibiotics. Nevertheless I quickly paired the two remaining cocks with two of the unrelated hens. I introduced the cocks to the cage first, which included a normal half-open nest box attached to the outside of the cage in the top right hand corner. This was only because all my cages are set up this way. My cages are in blocks of nine, 3 deep x 3 across and as these are said to be near-ground nesting birds.  The cages I chose were one on the bottom layer and one in the next layer above, to cover all eventualities. I filled the nest boxes with hay and coconut fibre in the same way as I would for my other finches. After two days, (this being time enough for the cocks to fully investigate the cage and nest box) I introduced the hens. I also put in the bottom of the cage some white sisal string as the member who had passed the birds to me had said that they liked it. This was an understatement, as it appears that these birds are obsessed with anything white.

After four days the pair in the upper cage started to roost in the nest box and six days later the first egg appeared. The eggs are very small and not much bigger than a Bicheno egg. The hen sat very tight and did not leave the nest box when I was in the room even when hoovering. The second pair on the other hand showed no inclination to even go near the nest box and so thinking that they might want to nest on the ground I placed another nest box in the bottom of the cage. Still no interest.

I had been feeding the birds on a basic mixture of 40% plain canary, 40% white millet and 20% foreign finch mixture. In addition they were given a mixture of Japanese millet, panicum millet and canary condition seed every few days as a change. They were also given dried egg food (I use "Sluise Eggfood plus") and half a dozen mealworms every other day. I tried giving them green food in the form of spinach etc. in the hope that this would encourage the second pair to nest. Whilst they seemed to like everything else offered, neither pair would touch the green food. I have recently revised this diet following discussions with another member and switched to making the bulk of my mixed seed made up of Japanese and Panicum millet, with the emphasis being in offering them as much small seed as possible. The birds seem to have taken to this change quite readily so I assume that I am moving in the right direction.

At this point I had decided that the second pair were just not going to nest in a cage and I had virtually given up on them when the profile appeared in the Grassfinch which I read with great interest. In the profile Ron Pratt said that he thought a sandy floor was important in encouraging these birds to nest. I had given up using bird sand about two years before as I considered it too messy and didn’t really want to go back to this. So, with nothing to loose, I decided to try filling one of the larger type airline trays with sand in an attempt to contain the spread and placed it in the cage. The next day it was obvious that there had been a lot of activity in the sand. Two days after this they started roosting in the nest box and seven days later laid their first egg.

As soon as the second pair started laying it was time for the clutch of the first pair to hatch. About four days before they hatched I started giving dampened egg food daily in readiness. The first chick hatched OK and the second, but in the afternoon of the third day I came home to find all three chicks out on the floor of they cage. They had all been severely pecked, presumably by the cock. The two remaining eggs were clear. The same pattern occurred with the second pair with the exception that the two remaining eggs were placed under Bengalese. Within six days the first pair had started laying again, and again sat diligently on the eggs, but this time cock threw the chick out from day one. At this point I decided that all subsequent clutches would be placed under Bengalese.

I had been warned by members I had spoken too that Bengalese are not interested in feeding painted chicks. I was also told that painted chicks leave the nest very early, sit on the floor not on perches, and do not return to the nest. The problem that this causes is that the Bengalese will roost in the nest over-night and therefore do not keep the chicks warm. Also, Bengalese like to feed chicks in the nest at this stage and are not happy to feed chicks on the ground. To alleviate this problem I lowered all the perches to 2 inches from the ground and closed the Bengalese out of the nest box. I did not remove the nest box as I didn’t want the Bengalese to loose interest in the whole idea. I found that they roosted on the perches near the ground with the painted chicks sitting happily underneath them. With subsequent nests I tried letting the Bengalese back into the nest box with no ill effect, and I have also found that some of the chicks will return to the nest, but not all. Therefore I continue to place the perches close to the ground to try to cover all the angles.

I had heard on the grapevine that the chick mortality rate in the nest with these birds was very high. I have certainly found this to be the case with up to 50% mortality before leaving the nest. For the first day after hatching each chick lives on its remaining yolk sack and for the next two, sometimes three, days the Bengalese did not seem interested in feeding the chicks. I had experienced similar problems with Bicheno chicks and had decided that this was because the chicks were so small on hatching the foster parents were unsure what to do with them. After hatching chicks increase in size each day at a phenomenal rate and I felt that if you could keep them alive for two or three days after the absorption of the yolk sac, so long as the fosters continued to sit on the chicks and keep them warm, by the third or fourth day from birth they would reach the size of a newly hatched Hecks Grassfinch, for example, which most Bengalese are happy to rear.

I kept the Bicheno’s alive by feeding them a fine hand rearing food morning, afternoon and last thing at night, so as it had worked well for them I decided to do the same for the painteds as their chicks were about the same size. Again, it worked well and at the end of this period the Bengalese were happily feeding all the chicks in the nest. However, after about two weeks I noticed one of the chicks was falling behind, (this was usually the last chick to hatch) and then the second to last chick would fall behind. No matter how much I topped them up with hand rearing food they always fell behind and subsequently died whilst their older brothers or sisters were healthy birds always with full bulging crops. This is where the high mortality rate comes from. I have come to the conclusion that similar to other birds that live and nest in harsh climates, (the Painted being a desert dwelling bird), competition between nest mates is very strong with only the strongest birds in the nest monopolising the available, and sometimes limited, supply of food, to the detriment of their brothers and sisters. In other words the later chicks in each nest were natures expendable insurance policy should there be anything wrong with the first two or three to hatch. This is a common strategy for survival amongst Raptors where breeding success and the survival rate of chicks in the nest is directly attributable to the availability of the food source.

In conclusion I feel that from a personal point of view I have only partly achieved what I set out to do. Whilst I now have a number of young painted finches independent and moulted out, I have not managed to parent rear. This may be due to the cage size, over fit cocks or in some way stress on the birds. I do feel however, that these are all things that can be remedied.

Whilst I would say these birds require a little more time and effort to breed than say Gouldians, I would not say that they are difficult to breed and cannot understand why numbers of this attractive bird have declined so greatly in this country.

I hope that by passing on the experience I have gained it will encourage other members to also try to re-establish the painted finch in aviculture in this country. I could not finish without thanking those members who, when asked gave freely of their time, knowledge and experience, without which I would be none-the-wiser.


Diamond firetail Gouldian Firetail Blue faced parrot finch Red Browed finch Pintailed parrot finch Cherry finch