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