An Escapee from an English Country Garden!!!
By Marcus Pollard
Now by now many will be sick of me commenting about such and such being one
of my favourite finches but I’m afraid I’m going to have to do it again with
the Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs) as I am most smitten with these
guys and have been for a long, long while.
For those not up to scratch with their Latin the
contains what are known as the true finches and most of what are commonly
referred to in aviculture as ‘the cup-nesters’.
The Chaffinch is one of the largest of these cup-nesters still available to
us here in Australia although its numbers tend to oscillate far too much for
us to ever be comfortable with their avian status.
Hailing from Europe this guy is a natural for finch breeders down here in
Tasmania except that Tasmanian finch breeders are not allowed to import them
Fortunately I imported mine well before the species was banned and have had
some success with them over the journey.
We find the ban here is a tad illogical given that there have been several
attempts to release them into the wild by acclimation societies in the past
in Victoria and South Australia. All these releases failed miserably. We
surmise that the reason for banning them is based on the New Zealand
experience where a number of European Fringillid species were released into
the New Zealand environment and were mega-successful in establishing viable
Mind you the complete lack of mammalian predators and mid-order predatory
bird species probably explains the success of such introductions – as is
also the case in Hawaii which is another island state.
Some may point to the large population of Green & Goldfinches in Tasmania as
a reason but this again would appear illogical given that both these species
were introduced from birds captured in the wilds of Europe and not from
closeted aviary bloodlines that haven’t seen wild-type blood in many, many
However, despite such foibles of legislation the “Chaffy” as we Aussies call
them appear to be enjoying an increase in numbers over the past few breeding
seasons which is great to see but, like so many finches before them, let’s
not wait until the rarity factor intercedes before deciding to add a few to
Thanks goodness for many of those expat-Maltese finch breeders out there
that still adore their cup-nesters!
If you were ”finching” in the early days you’d possibly remember the Chaffy
as being in the $200 bracket and to many of us they were the next tier of
finch keeping that one aspired to in order to gain experience and knowledge
as a finch breeder. As cash was always a premium I cannot remember how many
Zebbies, Painteds, Stars and Parrotfinches I traded in order to obtain my
Unfortunately, just as many of us started to experience real success with
the Chaffy and similarly priced exotics like Redpolls, Grey singers and
Purple/Rose finches along came the National Exotic Bird Registration Scheme
and for some inexplicable reason all these finches were placed under the
scheme and required mandatory paper work to hold and trade. Basically people
shunned such middle-range/middle-priced finches for this reason alone and we
suddenly had holding cages full of unwanted finches – and as you can
possible surmise a holding cage full of Chaffies resembles a battleground in
no time flat!!
Talking with a mate the other day and wondering what any Aussie would give
today for the 20 young Grey singers in our then holding cages – very sad to
This event just about ‘killed’ the aspirations of many of us that had these
birds and it took us a long, long time to be able to afford to drag
ourselves up to tackle more of what remained of the exotic species.
Guess that’s what made us in the Finch Society of Australia Inc. fight so
hard when another rehash of just such a scheme was mooted with the Exotic
Bird Record Keeping Scheme recently – always told you that eternal vigilance
in this game should not just be confined to eradicating parasitic worms!!
Back to task!!
The male Chaffinch is a sight to behold with his brown chest and face, vivid
grey head colour and magnificent black and white patterned wings. Alas the
female is ‘resplendent’ in her drab, dour brown ‘camo’ colours but as all
the ladies out there will no doubt tell us she is the one that has to do all
the real breeding work so no use looking like a Peacock!!
The male Chaffinch changes colour slightly with the onset of the breeding
season and the brown and grey becomes far more intense – even to a rust
brown as I see it - as the photoperiod increases and his thoughts turn to
As pleasant as this colour change is the best part to a Taswegian finch
keeper is the loud ‘song’ that the male produces in the wee small hours of
the morning! Ah yes. I hear some say that revolting loud, repetitive
Hey, it’s July, 6am on a freezing weekday morning, the only lights in the
countryside is my ever-trusty Daylight Extender and I’ll take any harbinger
of warmer times I can get thank you!!!
Mind you to the hen Chaffy it means ‘run/fly like hell’ as it heralds the
onset of the breeding season and many a male is less then ‘polite’ when
On this point I must state here that the aggression of these birds is
extremely variable. When I first held them I housed them with all manner of
finches – from Waxbills to weavers – and saw no evidence of aggression
towards any other species. I bred them with Orange-Breasted waxbills – the
smallest of the small - and the perfect target for any finch with bully
tendencies and never had a problem.
Yet I’ve had others tell me their bird were “killers’ and attacked anything
that moved and no young fledgling finch was safe. Must admit I’ve never seen
it in the host that I’ve kept over the years. In fact a chap I knew once
told me that he had to get rid of his pair of Chaffies because the Yellow
(Mexican) siskins he kept them with used to pull their nest apart and beat
up the cock Chaffy!! Not bad given the Chaffy is twice its size!
Now that may be well and good for me to state that but the same cannot be
said for intra-species Chaffinch relations!! They will kill their own kind
with a vengeance!!
If juvenile colouring cock birds are left with their parents their days are
well and truly numbered!!
Also you might like to rethink the common cup-nester habit of running a trio
(2 females with the one male) with these guys in light of my experience.
My first arrivals were 2 hens and a cock which I released into a 7x6m aviary
with great fanfare only to watch as the hens ‘reacquainted’ themselves some
30 seconds later. How? By locking together in mid-air and falling to the
ground where they rolled around until I picked both up and separated them –
the cock bird didn’t exactly help matters as he was hopping around them on
the ground chirping encouragement!! Again, I reiterate, my experience only
but had 2 hens with no male together in a similar sized aviary recently and
these hens attacked each other on sight until I intervened!!!!!
I once hand-reared a number of Chaffies and kept a particularly scrawny one
as a pet who had free-range of the house. As with most tame birds there
comes a time when you forget about them with fatal results!! Mine was
forgetting he was on my shoulder and walking outside and going to the back
aviary where his parents resided to present them with some more live food.
He must have hopped off my shoulder onto one of the trees and stayed behind.
By the time I noticed his absence to returning to the aviary was around 15
minutes which was plenty of time for his parents to have reduced him to
several piles of bloody feathers!! Savage indeed!
I also know of one hen that ‘did the rounds’ that had a pathological hatred
of cock birds and would kill them once they were released into the aviary
together – fine with them in a holding cage but once in the aviary it was a
Hopefully she was the exception to the norm and it is usually the hen that
receives unwarranted attention from the male during the breeding season. As
with most species that have a tendency for such violence I always release
the female into the aviary well in advance of the male to allow her to find
all the ‘escape routes’ before the male arrives!!
Again I have bred Chaffies in 4x4m aviaries and in a 10x8m aviary without
any such mishaps but, given the experiences of others, forewarned is
Have had a few scalped females but nothing more serious and once the female
begins sitting the males I have had have been devoted parents.
The breeding season commences in Tasmania around mid-August with the cock
bird issuing his distinctive call. Shortly after this he is usually seen
chasing the object of his desire around the aviary as a prelim to breeding.
My observations re breeding are limited to around my work commitments but I
believe that the hen does most of the nest building having seen her with
beaks full of grass and material many times. I admit to having also seen
cock birds doing likewise but only seen the hens actually constructing so
presume my males were selecting material for the hens final say – as it
should be I hear you say!!
The clincher for me was seeing the magnificent nests constructed by lone
hens I have in various aviaries.
The nest itself is a work of art and contains a wide variety of materials
but must rival the best doonas for comfort and warmth!! Cotton wool,
feathers, horse body hair, dog & possum fur, coconut fibre and teased
hessian are all used with relish.
Another material that they adore is the squashed bark from stringy-bark
Eucalypt trees which is often found by the side of the road (or embedded in
it!!) – The more run over and flattened the better, and if you have to
literally peel it from the asphalt then that makes it irresistible – and
they will often completely build the base from such fibres.
Breeding sites areas variable as imaginable with Tuna tins, wicker cups,
wire cylinders among the sites used but most prefer to construct a sizeable
cup nest in the Tea-tree of the aviary. Mine show a preference for the ‘John
Alers’ type hanging Tea-tree bunts’ as featured in an earlier issue
3-5 eggs are usually laid and, as can be seen from the picture, they are
beautifully ‘painted’ and a far cry from the usual boring white Estrildid
Fertility is generally around 70-90% but once the eggs hatch your problems
Once young mouths have to be fed the parents become highly insectivorous and
unless a stream of live food can be produced results are variable. These
days I use moth traps to supply a lot of free-range insects along with the
conventional mealworms, maggots and crickets. Crickets are their favourite
and, being large; they go a long way to sating the veracious appetite of the
growing young Chaffies and are also very easy to gut-load for the maximum
benefit of the chicks.
Back in the ‘old days’ mealworms were the only source of live food available
to many of us and they were the cause of the loss of older chicks – not so
much the contents of the mealworms themselves but rather their skins which
tended to compact in the chicks throats – also a common killer of young
Mesias I am told.
Given recent ‘bad press’ over mealworms let me state here that the mealworm
is your best friend live food wise as long as you ensure that the best of
materials goes into your mealworms to allow them to build the best body
materials to pass along to your finches. Leave them in bran at your birds
peril but grow them in wheat germ/hearts or even egg & biscuit mix and your
bird will thrive – also even improves calcium uptake abilities too.
Those worried about the mealworm skins being hazardous can relax as regards
most Estrildid finch species as they simply squeeze the contents out and
discard the skins. However, in the case of the Chaffy the skin and all are
consumed with relish so variety is the best for these guys when feeding
young and your impaction problems should be minimal or non-existent.
If you have the task of hand-rearing Chaffies then there is one important
thing to factor in – this species does not possess a crop!!
“So what” I hear you utter!
Well, I was amazed at the amount of food that I could crop needle into my
first baby Chaffy until I noticed what was coming out the other end was the
same colour and texture as what I was religiously cropping into it!!!
Still, the Chaffy is a tough finch and no harm done and I didn’t have to
feed him for a very long time after that initial ‘squirt’!!
As a hand reared bird they are actually quite endearing as far as finches
can go and my initial ‘guinea-pig’ Chaffy used to go on surfing trips with
He like nought better than relaxing around the fire of an evening waiting
for someone to swat a mosquito so he could race over and swallow the remains
– no spiders in tents with him on the job. Might mention here that his wings
weren’t clipped and that he only left the safety of his carry box to
retrieve said bugs and never made any attempt at self-liberation and
actually preferred to hop around rather than fly!
Despite his docility he reverted to a ‘wild’ bird when placed into a
breeding situation and would never allow you to handle him although he did
deign to sit on your hand if, and only if, said hand contained a liberal
quantity of moths or mealworms!!!
As far as diets for these guys go there is very little that they will not
have a nibble at and are certainly not in the fussy bracket.
Mine are fed Clifton Finch Mix & Clifton Tonic Seed (with added sunflower
kernels) from Elenbee Seeds in Sydney and are now ploughing through
Elenbee’s re-issue of the old Green n’ Grains recipe which I can strongly
advocate to all finch breeders. This mix can be added to your
soaked/sprouted seed mix and fed separately and the reports back from some
of Oz’s premier finch breeders suggest Elenbee may need to get a bigger
warehouse real soon!!
They will tackle Madeira or any other bird-type cakes, soaked/sprouted seed,
cucumber and avidly consume the blended vegetable mix now gaining in
Any sort of live food will be eaten and I believe that it is not an
essential addition outside of the breeding season but if it’s there you can
guarantee that they will eat it.
They appear not to be hugely attracted to green seeding grasses but will
have a nibble if it’s there – most cup-nesters are drawn to greens like a
moth to the flame but not so the Chaffies I have held.
So there you go another excellent yet challenging avian species for your
next finch aviary – but definitely not recommended for the beginner! Being a
cold-climate species they tends to do better in the cooler southern climes
but many are also bred up through NSW but I believe it is also banned in
Hope I haven’t put you off with the discussion of their potential for
aggression but as with everything ever written on finches it is just my
humble opinion so make of it what you will!!
A magic bird in all respects but it is up to the next generation of finch
keepers to ensure that they never join so many exotic finches in that long
dead-end road to avicultural extinction – up to you!