The Golden Song Sparrow – or A Lucky Escape!!
                                                                  By Marcus Pollard

The Sudan Golden Sparrow or, as it is commonly known in avicultural circles in Australia, the Golden song sparrow or "Songie", Passer luteus, is an easily recognizable species.

They hail from Africa across countries such as Nigeria, Ethiopia, the Sudan and parts of Arabia in arid, semi-desert areas.

Now it is a mystery to many of us how they ever obtained their name of "song sparrow" as their "tune" could hardly be called melodious unless one was obsessively addicted to the chirp synonymous with the entire sparrow family!

Oh well, to each their own I guess and they are a tad more pleasant on the eye than the House sparrow!!

Sexing of these guys is relatively pedestrian for even the beginner as the male attains a striking lemon yellow on the head, breast and chest while the mantle, back and shoulder areas are a dark chestnut colour - a marked contrast to the yellow portion of the body.
Some males can be sexed at around 9-10 weeks as they begin to attain some small degree of colour but only males start to develop a black bill that becomes more pronounced as the breeding season approaches.
As mentioned more often than not this black on the beak is the first sign that your youngsters are going to be males however, with practise, you will be able to sex them from the nest in many cases using the subtle differences in colour between males and females – females tend to be a far lighter colour than males and this difference has been reported by several experienced breeders.
Now don’t be too disappointed if your males are more a buff yellow than lemon as there were a number of different shades in the males when these guys first made their resurgence back into aviculture. Our first males were this buff coloured type but were soon replaced by what we came to call "the Hunter Valley Lemon" strain!!
Some have even theorised that this marked variation between males was due to the injection of blood from the
Arabian Golden Sparrow, Passer euchlorus

The Arabian Golden Sparrow is a sparrow found in south west Arabia and also the coast of Somalia and Djibouti where it enjoys thorn savanna and scrub habitats...., but I cannot confirm this as it must have taken place well before my time in aviculture!! Sound feasible to me though!

    The female is a drabber, buff coloured version of the male without the chestnut mantle or black beak. The only tinge of yellow on the hen is around the face and above the eyes but nowhere near the intensity of the male's colour. Some hens may develop a dull yellow throat patch as they age.

Unsure as to whether ‘really’ old females develop male secondary sexual characteristics as commonly seen in the females of some weaver species.

History:
When I first succumbed to the finch addiction big-time – or became a finchoholic - I must admit I never saw a Song sparrow until a trip to Victoria where I was shown a pair whilst at the Burwood Pet Shop and was tod that they were extremely rare and destined for a breeding program somewhere.

It would be a very long time indeed before a call from Les Lenton at Birdsville in NSW asking whether we would be interested in a couple of pairs of Golden song sparrows. Since that oft remembered call I have never been without them in my aviaries.

Now the sceptical amongst you might be postulating as to how this species made a return to mainstream aviculture and making all the wrong neural connections!

Must admit a very similar "postulation" was voiced about these and other finch species at one of the Exotic Bird Record Keeping Scheme meetings so I shall respond as I did then!!
Two breeders were responsible for the "resurrection" of this species as far as I can ascertain - sincere apologies to anyone I might have missed though! They simply purchased every odd Song sparrow languishing without a mate in collections from all over Australia and placed them together and succeeded in breeding the odd 2 or 3 youngsters which were then mixed and matched until the species obtained a small but viable level.
One breeder in the Hunter Valley and one in northern Victoria managed to achieve a result that, most thankfully, means that finch keepers today can enjoy this boisterous species!
A similar scenario also for the all too brief rise back into aviculture of the Green strawberry,
Amandava formosa.

Mind you, as a result of it’s inclusion into the National Exotic Birds Registration Scheme (NEBRS) the Song sparrow once again sped to the point of no return as did many other Class 1 listed species – unfortunately many more kept going and are all but sweet memories these days but that, sadly, is a topic for an article in it’s own rights!!

I sadly recollect that at the time of NEBRS we listened with disbelief when the Golden Song sparrow was placed upon this list despite the incessant voice of Russell Kingston who was overruled in his attempts to prevent this travesty.

Like most middle priced NEBRS listed finch species demand for Song sparrow waned and we had trouble moving surplus stocks.
Larger breeders had the same problem and down sized their colonies – let’s face it these guys consume a lot of expensive live food!!!

Fast forward a few more years and the inevitable has occurred – yes, you guessed it, a lack of Song sparrows and everyone chasing them – sound familiar for a dozen different finch species does it? Fortunately it seems that there were enough birds remaining for a viable population to be maintained and as a result this species still exists in our aviaries in moderate numbers today.

Housing & Breeding:
First a word of warning to the unwary with regards to this species in a mixed collection. They can be pugnacious towards smaller, weaker species especially when their own young are due to fledge.

Must be honest and say that I’ve only ever experienced this once with a pair I was ‘baby-sitting’ for another breeder but they were merciless on their attacks on young finches – still, would be remiss of me not to point it out to you "just in case"!!
This pair killed a number of young Orange-breasts and even a young weaver on the day that their own young left the nest. They tried the same attack on a young Yellow siskin, Carduelis magellanica, only to have the male siskin hit the male Song sparrow in mid-air and propel him head first into the side of the aviary!!

The siskin then proceeded to lower his wings and run back and forth on the perch whilst vocalising madly above the Song sparrow daring it to try again – like most bullies it never did!

Thus alerting you I must say that my own birds have never exhibited this behaviour (yet!!) but I do limit the types of finches I keep mine with but maybe not for the reasons’ you’d first think of given my previous warning!

This species is a very active one and they tend to drive more docile, quiet species crazy with their incessant motion and noise!! Maybe I’m being a tad anthropomorphic but I still feel timid species like Auroras and Melbas look at you with the "why did you put us in here with these lunatics" look" in their eyes!!

Thus saying mine are kept in the colony system with Diamond sparrows, Yellow (Mexican) siskins, Grenadier weavers and Heck’s longtails.

However, even the flamboyant Diamonds have ‘moved’ their regular breeding season by a few months to suit the time the Songies aren’t breeding themselves – who says birds cannot learn!!!

I also house a single pair in with smaller birds such as Orange-breasts and Rufous-back manikins but in a 7x6m planted aviary– don’t worry, I also have Yellow siskins in there to keep the peace – just in case!!
So far so good and no blood shed – but mind you not many finches take on Rufous-backs!

Feeding theses guys is relatively easy during the off season as they simply require a good brand finch mix – mine is the Clifton Finch Seed & Tonic Seed Mix from Elenbee Seeds – and the usual lashings of calcium mixes, fresh, clean water, greens and soaked/sprouted seed mixes.

However, once breeding commences they transform into insect eating maniacs!! In order to rear chicks you must factor in a vast array and constant supply of live food or they will simply hurl the youngsters to the floor.

We feed mealworms, crickets and the occasional moth from the moth trap – when it’s "hot" enough to justify running it all night that is!!

Maggots are provided but they are not ‘top of the pops’ for this species.
I believe they also consume termites with a relish.
If you work during the day then some form of automatic live food dispenser should be considered to cater for their incessant needs!
They like various green seeding grasses but live food is the key to breeding this species.
In large aviaries with 1-3 pairs of Songies it is not uncommon to get nests of 3-5 eggs/chicks whereas in the smaller aviaries I tend to only get 1-3 per nest – could be due to zero population growth required to maintain the colony in a small aviary – maybe not, just a thought!!

There is much conjecture as to nest inspection with this species and I must admit I am one that has never had a problem doing so. Our aviaries are designed for the 360 cold days of the year rather then the 4-5 that are over 30 degrees and this means that the aviary can get very hot, very quickly on such days! Young Song sparrows will often move to the entrance of the nest in extreme temperatures and often end up falling to the floor. Simply dust them off and plonk them right back in the nest and they will be fine. If you feel they look hungry simply remove the head of a mealworm and feed it to them – a simple tap on the beak and the Song sparrow will open its mouth like a trash can – you can’t miss!!
Touch wood but I have not had the parents reject chicks once I have returned them to the nest – yes, I know many will tell you that you cannot do this but I can but say as I’ve found!

Also young hens tend to lay a number of clear eggs so nest inspection means that you can remove them and let the hen get on with a second, possibly fertile clutch.
Mind you this is possibly only feasible in a nest built in a box as in a huge stock nest one would have to destroy it to even find the nesting chamber!

The nest itself can take on many guises from an engineering enterprise the Pharaohs’ would be proud of to a tiny ball of feathers tucked inside an old abandoned nest.
Regardless of the dimensions there is one prerequisite and that is to supply plenty of everything! Clean feathers (they love Emu fathers), cotton lintus & wool, coconut fibre, small pieces of hessian bag and material of this nature are used by the bagful. For the outer shell we supply twigs of willow cut to around 16cms for them to build a nest Quaker parrots would be proud to call home! Don’t worry too much if they build in an open fronted box and affix a massive pile of sticks to it and this falls off due to the effects of gravity! The chicks will be tucked up neatly inside the nesting chamber which is inside the box itself immune to the result of ¾ of their home subsiding to the aviary floor!!

Thus saying nest boxes are used – both those with a half-open front and/or a Budgie-type hole – and these are crammed with soft material.

If the nest is built in the Tea-tree of the aviary it may often be incorporated in an abandoned nest of a finch like a Diamond sparrow with the soft nesting chamber tucked up inside the ‘borrowed’ outer shell.

I’d like to think that I have one pair of Songies that are the ultimate builders! They recently built their nest in an old nest and renovated it by building a large platform at its entrance out of sticks and twigs which even I had to wonder about the logic of.
Why was this so revolutionary you say? Well, every time the temperature rose and the chicks ventured out of the stuffy nest interior they simply rolled out into this ‘porch" rather than onto the floor – brilliant and they call them dumb creatures! On seeing me heading in their direction they would simply scurry back into the nest or, if I waggled a recently deceased mealworm near the entrance, they would race out and grab it and then beat a hasty retreat – a fun bird!

Personally I’d recommend this species to any aspiring finch breeder with a large live food budget – good practise for anyone contemplating a venture into soft bills too!!!
So perhaps I’ll just throw in a few more possibly salient points to finish up with. We believe it is the females that initiate mating behaviour in this species. She will often waggle her wings and scurry/fly along just above the ground pursued by a male or three! However, woe betide the males that attempts to mate with her uninvited!!
Not a bad thing really as you don’t seem to get hens with "mating feather loss" in this species.
Disease wise they are a pretty resilient species but strongly recommend the regular 3 month worming/coccidian regime and a sound quarantine program for new arrivals.
I have had 2 young hens with prolapsed oviducts over the years so I suggest removing such young hens from overly amorous males until they are fully mature.

So to all those that toiled in the past to save this species from the ever increasing finch avicultural abyss our thanks and lets hope we never lose this delightfully ‘different’ species from our list of finch aviary inhabitants.