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
family Fringillidae 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 - figures!!
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 colonies.
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 decades!!

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 our collections!!
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 first Chaffies!!
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 contemplate indeed!
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 amorous undertakings!!
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 scale-like noise!!
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 a-going-a-courting!!

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 massacre!!
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 forearmed!!
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 of ABK.
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 finch egg!
Fertility is generally around 70-90% but once the eggs hatch your problems really begin!!
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 me.
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 popularity.
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 Queensland.
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!