Painted Finch? Nah, it’s just an Emblema!!
By Marcus Pollard

Now I had noticed that some of the Painted finches in the aviary were looking at me oddly lately until I realized I had neglected to include them in my first few outings for this column – seems humans aren’t the only ones that are avid ABK readers these days and with a pointy beak like that who am I to argue with them!!

However, before we sally forth and discuss the Painted firetail, Emblema picta or Emblema as they are also known allow me to digress yet again and outline my own problems when trying to obtain a pair here some years ago.

Well, I had down-sized my collection due to various reasons and had passed on all my Painteds. So, like all good finch people, some 2 years later I had decided that my aviaries lacked for their presence so set about grabbing another couple of pairs. After ringing around many of those that had purchased my stock a while back I had drawn a blank.
Many I’d called stated that they were ‘soft" and most confirmed that they had "died out" which surprised me as I had considered them one of the easiest most reliable finches I had ever kept. Soft was definitely NOT a word I would have applied to them!!

Mystified I continued my search and it was while attending a speaking engagement in the north of the state that I encountered the solution to this perplexing question – well, to one of them perhaps!!
While billeted at a club member’s home I asked about Painteds and he scoffed at how "weak and soft" they were and about his inability to keep them alive let alone breed them!! Ever the mug I offered to help him solve the problem of the "mysterious case of the dying Painteds"!
Once in the aviary the cause became very, very obvious as there were deep piles of wet seed husks everywhere and water running down the back of the aviary and onto the floor like Niagara Falls – every footstep left a print like the Abominable Snowman!! Trying to be diplomatic I asked him if he knew where Painteds originally came from. "From the Pet Shop" was not the enlightened answer I was hoping for let me tell you!!

To attempt to keep a desert bird in such conditions was appalling and to keep one that spends 95% of it’s life on the floor was doubly so!

I guess this is a great way of introducing the notion that in order to keep and breed finches to the best of our (and their!!) ability it is necessary to thoroughly research the species we intend to keep – whether the relatively inexpensive Painted or the rare Red-crested finch - it is imperative that we read all that is about on that species both in captivity and in the wild.
So an aviary whose floor resembles the Mekong Delta in flood might be great for Mandarin ducks but is a death trap for dry climate ground dwelling finches!
I can always remember eagerly obtaining my first Russell Kingston book and upon reading it several times his catch cry of "dry, dry, dry" in all matters pertaining to finch keeping has always been the motto of the ‘enlightened few’ down here too!

So if you are experiencing unnatural deaths among your Painteds then I would look long and hard at your floor as a first port of call – and remember that most of the nasty bacterial, fungal, protozoan and parasitic infections we find in our aviaries start life in wet areas of the aviary!

Don’t despair if you have an open flight as I’m sure there is a landscaping agency near to you that could supply you with some suitable gravel or pebbles with which to cover your open flights to allow for better drainage!

Right, better get back into the Painted finch and a little about its many endearing habits!

The Painted firetails needs no introduction description wise as they are common finches found throughout the world and much loved for their confiding nature and ability to breed in any aviary situation – from building their own nests in the Tea-tree to utilising any manner of boxes, wire bunts or nest tubes.

They can dominate an aviary if kept as a large colony (same is true for most species in reality) yet they show little overt aggression to other denizens – in my humble opinion I hasten to add!!
To explain that I mean is that because of their quiet nature and indifference to the bird keeper they are the first to arrive at and feast on any goodies supplied and large numbers of them can deprive more delicate species of these food sources.

In fact I had to remove my Painteds from the Gouldian aviary as they were constantly harassed by the Gouldians to the point that their nesting attempts were being reduced to zero!!
The wild-type Painted is often referred to as the True Painted by many in the game which suggests that they also come in a variety of colours!

Most common is the Yellow Painted where the red is replaced by orange/yellow and this mutation is autosomal recessive (both males and females can be split for yellow colour).

There is another mutation where the red is almost completely gone and only a few spots of white break up the black colouration – I have seen only a few of these and am unaware as to the current status of this mutation in Australian aviaries.

I have also seen Painteds with fawn wings some many years ago – unfortunately these birds were allowed to die out before the mutation could be established.

I have heard that there are pure fawn Painteds lurking about in Oz but have not personally seen these birds.

I also once bred 2 male Painteds that were the colour of Silver/’blue’ King quails but neither were fed by the parents upon leaving the nest and I managed to only keep them alive for 3 weeks using a crop needle – I have included a rather bad photo of one from a video as they preceded the digital camera age unfortunately!!!

The big ‘thing’ with these guys at present is the red-fronted Painted. Now at the risk of being howled down I’ll give you my 5-cents worth and say that I believe that this is not an actual mutation as such just a case of unnatural, ‘man-instigated’ selection!!

How so? Well, in every population there is a degree of diversity in regards any physical trait – be it height, hair colour or nose shape to name just three!!

The same is also true in birds. Sample any wild population and you will see that this variation is also commonplace – whether it is the amount of red on certain Swift parrots or the intensity of yellow body colour in Eastern rosellas - individuals vary!
Having observed Painteds in the wild it is obvious that they have this huge range of natural variation in the extent and intensity of the red on their faces and chests.
Now, I speculate that someone bred some Painteds that had a large area of red on the chest and then selected their offspring for further breeding. If you think that is too simplistic or ’far-fetched’ then that is how most mutations are established I do believe – select the trait you desire to replicate then add a little dash of inbreeding to give yourself a sample populating to work with then set about out crossing that to strengthen your strain.
However, my own mucking about with these red-fronted Painteds has led me to believe that they do not follow any of the set ‘rules’ of genetics – autosomal recessive/dominant, X-linked or sex linked and the likes.

There I’ve said it!!

Obviously the gene for red colour is lurking about but its inheritance appears to me to be not set in concrete. For example yellow plumage is recessive to red in Painteds but the same is not true for red ‘frontedness’ from my out crossing. If you only select red-fronteds then you are selecting for a trait and it may breed true but introduce ‘normal’ coloured Painteds into the equation and it becomes a lottery!

Anyway, they are a beautiful sight to behold and certain breeders in NSW of the caliber of Glenn Bowden and Graham Bull produce some of the finest you’ll ever see!
There is even a ‘strain’ about now where the white of the hen is almost as vibrant as the red in the cocks in some it appears that the entire chest is a mass of white so inter-joined are the dots!!

As long as the ‘dry floor surrounds’ rule is followed these guys can be kept in any aviary situation from the largest flight to a small breeding cage.

We feed ours on Elenbee Seeds Clifton Finch Seed & Tonic Seed mix as a dry seed mix and feed plenty of soaked/sprouted seed mix with blended vegetable and vitamin mix. They always have access to clean, fresh water, cucumber, green seeding grasses, charcoal and Polly’s blended calcium mix of grits - pigeon vitamin mixes, oyster shell and treated sieved shellgrit).

Mine are housed on the colony system and are fine in mixed collections but just ensure that the ‘weight of numbers’ isn’t allowed to build up too much as they have a propensity to outbreed many species and take over as previously mentioned!!

When breeding ensure that you have copious amount of nesting material available to the pairs.

When constructing their nests they will build a very thick platform of sticks, pebbles, bark, large pieces of shellgrit and anything that is basically not nailed down!!

If you are unaware of why they do this then a little wild bird ethology is required here!

Once on a fabulous trip to speak in Western Australia I had the opportunity to spend a day at King Park Perth with Truis Alers (wife of the late highly respected finch breeder John) who was a treasure trove of knowledge of the bush and every species in it.

She pointed out several clumps of Spinifex grass that was on display there and told me that Painteds often built their nests on these in the wild. She also said it was VERY tough, prickly and especially sharp!
Ever the one for ‘scientific research’ I then proceeded to test this piece of information and I was like sticking your hand onto several stiletto sharp knife blades – unbelievable pain!!
So when next you curse at their habit of picking up pieces of material and piling it everywhere imagine building your nest amid a pile of razor sharp steel needles and maybe you’ll cut them some slack!!
Apart from that material for the bases they will then build quite a conventional nest of swap/November/blown grass and fill it with Emu and white feathers. Dried and cut up Pampas grass heads are also tackled with relish.
They also seem drawn to cotton lintus too which is possibly explained by the amount of Kapok trees in their natural range that produce a very similar material in their seed pods.

The urge to breed is strong in these guys and one season I tried to control the onset of breeding by with holding nesting grass. They simply utilized old cup breeders nests and reared their chicks with no nest apart from the old slightly, shop-soiled cup nest base – basically the chicks were simply sitting there like a nest of Goldfinches!!
They are particularly forgiving of nest inspection so are great for younger bird keepers. To illustrate this I once had a pair nest in an open flight in the top of a clump of African feathergrass, Pennisetum macrourum, in the only open section of any of my aviaries – of course they would I hear you say why would you even think they’d try for a saner spot!!!

So after the chicks were soaked and near dead one morning I dried them off, filled them up with the good old crop needle and began a search for a suitable ‘home’ for them.

I found two nests with suitable sized chicks and placed three into each nest. Checked them over the rest of the day and all seemed to be going well and promptly forgot all about them but little could have prepared me for the fact that one nest later fledged 8 healthy chicks and the other 9 of the same!!

Possibly one trait that Painteds seem to show more than some other finches is that they often seem to drag their youngsters out of the nest and you will often find them on the floor just underneath the nest – just pop them back in and 90% of the time life will go on as usual!

One thing to remember with these finches is that once they leave the nest they do not (normally!!) return to it and they often head straight for the floor!

In extreme cases they will even freeze on the floor so try and arrange some sort of dry bedding where they may choose to roost which may keep them off the cold floor- especially if a concrete one.

However, if several nests fledge at the same time they often form min-crčches on the floor with a pile of chicks huddling together in a dark fluffy pile! Once had around 20 in a heap such as this and it was great to watch parent birds land near them and see their own chicks race out of the huddle to be fed…..amazing how they recognize their own…or do they?!!!
Sexing of fledglings is relatively easy as hens are a fawn colour and males are almost black from day one. For some reason this does not always hold true for the progeny of the red-fronted strain where both sexes appear dark.

So having hopefully redressed the balance and pointed you towards a native species for your finch collection I hope you will avail yourself of the opportunity to keep them as they are one of the most confiding of finches available to us.
Easy to keep and breed they are a must for the beginner and old-hand alike.

Just remember that as a ground dwelling species you must maintain your husbandry and ensure that your worming and coccidian regime is spot-on. Also, given the extended wet, humid periods in some states it might well pay you to have your finches tested for Cochlosoma and Giardia this season – as these Protozoal parasites appear to be relatively abundant this year!!
If your birds are so diagnosed might I suggest you could do far worse than to have a chat to Dr Colin Walker at the Australian Pigeon Company as regards a proper treatment program – he has been terrific at dealing with similar problems for us down here!!

So there you go folks! Hope there is something of use there for you to consider grabbing a pair or two of these great native Australian finches!!