The Yellow-winged pytilia or
"How Hard Can it REALLY Be!?"
By Marcus Pollard
everyone has a tale or three about "that" finch species that has always
proved difficult to breed for them –
from the guy who has bred most of the rarer exotic foreign species and
struggled with the common Double Bar to the Red-crested cardinal breeder
that had "difficulties" with Zebra finches!
Well, the magnificent Yellow-wing has probably sent more finch breeders back
to the ‘Sanatorium for Frustrated Finch Keepers’ or even to search out their
long forgotten stamp collection than any species we can think of!
Yellow-wing pytilia, or
with a scientific bent is a denizen of Sierra Leone, north-east Guinea
through to Cameroon in Africa.
here is a classic example of the advantage of the scientific (Latin) name of
bird species. This finch is also known as the Red-faced pytilia or Red-faced
aurora or even the Red-headed Red-winged Pytila in some circle which leads
to the general confusion here in Australia with actually which species you
are dealing with.
How so? Well, there are basically three species of Auroras or Pytilias
recognised in Australian aviculture. These are the Yellow-winged pytilia,
the "normal" Aurora and the Red-winged pytilia.
Fine I hear you say or even "so what!" The "so what" is that outside of
Australia the Red-winged pytilia is basically unheard of and in the ‘Hancock
House Encylopedia of Estrildid Finches" (Vriends & Heming-Vriends,
2002) there appears a picture on page 112 on the bottom left of the page
that every Aussie would know as the Red-winged pytilia with a caption which
reads "Male Yellow-winged pytilia. Possibly a hybrid!!"
In fact when I sent a number of photos of the "Australian" Red-winged
pytilias to renowned aviculturist and waxbill expert Ian Hinze he stated
that he had never seen them before in Europe!
Unfortunately, the only reference that Ian & I could locate that even
mentioned this ‘race’ of pytilias was found in ‘Estrildid Finches of
the World’ (Goodwin, 1982) where the Red-winged ‘version’ was
referred to as Pytilia hypogrammica lopezi or simply
confusing, but then again maybe not with a short investigation of the
history of these species in captivity in Australia!!
Aurora or P.phoenicoptera is a common exotic finch species which is a
free breeder and has a charming quiet disposition in the aviary.
Red-winged and Yellow-winged pytilias are very similar in appearance with
the males of both ‘types’ having the distinctive red head and, as the name
suggests, with one having red wings and the other yellow.
I once read somewhere that the husbandry for all three was very similar but
it has been our experience that the Aurora is the far easier species to
propagate than either of the other ‘types’.
far, clear as mud I suspect!
when we first reached the top of a breeder’s sale list and were able to
obtain 2 pairs of both Yellow & Red-wings there were a few differences that
appear to have disappeared from the present day birds available in
most obvious was the colour of the hens – these were vivid grey much akin to
the cock Aurora and nothing at all like the dour hen Aurora. The hens also
had fine stippling of black lines through the chest feathers and were
striking in their own right.
This is no longer the case with many hen Red & Yellow-wings resembling hen
Auroras and it is a rarity to see the dark coloured hens.
I’m sure there are a few sneering and saying "you aught to see my hens"
however, may I be so bold as to suggest that they need to be certain that
this bright coloured hen is in fact a hen at all!!
this is the second ‘variation’ that has crept in to the Pytilia gene-pool -
that of the cock bird without the red head!!
When I first ‘postulated’ this bird with a friend in NSW he suggested I’d
had one sherbet too many!!
Unheard of he stated as no-one he knew had ever seen such a bird-
Fast forward a few months and he rang me back and said he had just had a
‘hen’ Yellow-wing DNA sexed and it confirmed that the bird was a cock – yes,
a Yellow-wing cock with no red head at all!!
Following that a few people I knew started to report similar ‘occurrences’
within their flocks. Turned out that these startling throwback hens were in
fact startling throwback cocks!!
Strike three in formulating my tree of Pytilia genetics was/is the
continuing debate as to the notion of the ‘split’ Red-winged pytilia. Some
say that if a Red-winged pytilia has one Yellow parent it must be a split –
in other words even though it looks like a Red-winged pytilia it carries the
gene for Yellow wing colour in its genetic make up and if two such splits
are mated together then it is possible to obtain yellow winged offspring.
Some say this is set in concrete other say it is not. Unfortunately I cannot
contribute to this debate suffice to say that when I once had a cock
Yellow-wing and a hen Red-wing breed in a holding aviary all six youngsters
had red wings.
Regardless of your beliefs one way or the other one would have to ask why
there are no huge populations of Red-winged pytilias in the wild and why
most authors nominate Pytilia hypogrammica as the
‘super-species’ for Pytilias?
Maybe, just maybe, this all came about because of the infusion of Aurora
blood that went into both the Red & Yellow-winged forms throughout their
journey in our aviaries.
Every honest Pytilia keeper will cite an example of where they purchased a
pair of Red-wing pytilas only to find they had a Red-wing cock and a "hen"
normal Aurora male!!
I even know of one person who used to cull these "grey headed hybrids" until
I assured him that they were normal Auroras and not some new hybrid at all.
do I know? Well, I also received one of these birds - supposedly a hen
Pytilia but in reality a cock Aurora – and when paired to a normal hen
Aurora produced me a couple of nests of normal healthy Auroras. Not a red
head feather on any of them I hasten to add!!
good friend in the Hunter has also confirmed this for me.
all this may seem irrelevant until one considers that if the Aurora blood
was not injected into the Pytilias then chance are we would all be sitting
around saying "Hey, remember when we had those beautiful Red & Yellow-winged
Pytilias to breed, pity they all died out!"
the only thing to remember, as a consequence of this mingling of blood, is
take care when purchasing and buy from reputable breeders – thus saying
though honest mistakes can be made!
Breeding:|Similar to the
Blue-cap I believe the frequency of live food delivery is a key factor with
this species. They eat both smaller & mini mealworms and maggots with relish
but, naturally, favour termites (white ants) when feeding young.
In case you do not feed termites relax as we have bred them here in Tasmania
without them as have a number of English aviculturists that Ian spoke to.
They seem ambivalent to green food and soaked/sprouted seed in my aviaries
but a mate tells me his birds love the Lowe-type blended vegetable mix he
feeds – yet our initial stock came from the same source!! They also love the
African Waxbill Mix we feed as outlined in an earlier edition of
Australian Birdkeeper – in fact Blue-caps. Orange cheeks and
Pytilias seem to be drawn to this mix.
general finch mix is fed – we use Elenbee Seeds Clifton Finch Mix –
supplemented with a little extra Red panicum.
own ‘Polly’s’ calcium mix is always available as is clean fresh water.
common with many other finches they spend a lot of their time on the ground
so a good shellgrit/Canundra shell mix is a good idea for them and as a
consequence a clean dry floor is a seriously good idea too!
When nesting these birds are perhaps one of the worst nest builders I have
When asked to describe their attempts I suggested their nest looked like
someone had thrown a handful of mixed nesting material at the Tea-tree!!
have also seen them build behind seed hoppers, bowls and small cages in
their aviary – unfortunately eggs can be and regularly are lost if the nest
is not supportive enough!
I favour the medium sized cane wicker baskets feely available in good pet
White medium sized Emu feathers are favoured to line the nest while
swamp/November/Blown grass is a firm favourite for the nest proper. If made
solely from this grass the nest has a propensity to be brittle and
non-supportive so watch that eggs do not fall through!
Pairs are variable as to nest inspection so know your birds well before
Young pairs seem to be infertile for their first few nests so it is not such
a bad idea to inspect nests to avoid them spending days sitting on clear
eggs or even laying fresh eggs amid old, rotten ones!
keeping with the Aurora they are a placid species and we do not recommend
keeping them in with the more boisterous finches as they tend to be
dominated by such species. In my specialist flights I keep them with a pair
of Blue-capped waxbills in a 3X1m flight.
Chicks are black and easily identified if found jettisoned on the floor. I
have had some success rearing difficult finches under the "new" Javan munias
but they have baulked at rearing Pytilias so far!
Health wise they have a reputation for suddenly ‘fluffing up’ with very few
fully recovering. If you have them autopsied the usual cause of death comes
back as liver damage but we have yet been able to pin-point the causes of
Droppings show the usual signs of malabsorption and tend to be a cheesy
yellow colour and very large.
a general rule of "finchkeepers thumb" we recommend a 3 monthly worming
regime supplemented with coccidian control medication at least 3 times a
year or even concurrently with your worming program – depending upon your
if you are looking for the ultimate finch breeding challenge you could do
worse than consider tackling the Pytilia family.
A large group of Australian breeders worked tirelessly to ensure that we
would have all three species remaining in our aviaries for years to come so
the rest of us mere mortals owe it to them to preserve their "legacy"!
Before purchasing these species try and gain as much information from
breeders as possible and be prepared for some heartbreak along the way, but
stick to it as these are one of the most stunning finches available to us.
If after several attempts you have not managed to ‘crack’ this species you
can always join us at Finch Keepers Anonymous where you can announce
yourself with "Hi, my name is……..and I’ve been keeping Pytilis for too
We’ll all understand!!!