The Yellow-winged pytilia or "How Hard Can it REALLY Be!?"
By Marcus Pollard

Now 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!
The Yellow-wing pytilia, or Pytilia hypogrammica, to those with a scientific bent is a denizen of Sierra Leone, north-east Guinea through to Cameroon in Africa.
Now 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
How confusing, but then again maybe not with a short investigation of the history of these species in captivity in Australia!!
The Aurora or P.phoenicoptera is a common exotic finch species which is a free breeder and has a charming quiet disposition in the aviary.
The 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’.
So far, clear as mud I suspect!
Now 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 Australia.
The 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.
Now 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!!
For 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- preposterous!
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.
How 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!!
A good friend in the Hunter has also confirmed this for me.
Now 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!"
So 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!
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.
A general finch mix is fed – we use Elenbee Seeds Clifton Finch Mix – supplemented with a little extra Red panicum.
My own ‘Polly’s’ calcium mix is always available as is clean fresh water.
In 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 encountered!!
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!!
I 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 outlets.
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 checking nests.
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!
In 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 this.
Droppings show the usual signs of malabsorption and tend to be a cheesy yellow colour and very large.
As 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 climatic conditions.
So 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 long!!!"
We’ll all understand!!!