Some Preliminary Observations on the Beautiful Firetail, Stagonopleura bella in captivity.

By Marcus Pollard

Being from the Apple Isle used to be a license for every wag from the Mainland to take a free shot about everything from the weather to our "relative" habits!

However, most finch breeders will be aware that it is also the stronghold of a little known Grassfinch in the Beautiful firetail or Tasmanian firetail, Stagonopleura bella.
In times gone there were a few soles that kept them here under license but for a number of years they have been lacking in captivity despite their relative abundance in the wild.
After finally having tasted real success with the breeding of the endangered Swift parrot, Lathamus discolour, I have always aspired to breed the Beautifuls given their place in Tasmania's avifauna as our only representative of the Estrildid group.

On a few trips to the mainland I gathered that there were a few hardy individuals persevering with the species and when I was asked whether I was interested in assisting just such a group I nearly broke my neck to say yes!!
The only"small" hurdle was that we were not allowed to keep or breed them in Tasmania.
So after much canvassing of the local Wildlife Authorities a license to import a pair of Beautifuls was obtained and I thank those concerned for their confidence in me to issue such a permit.

The birds are housed in a 10m x 7m fully enclosed aviary along with Himalayan Greenfinches, Mask Doves and a pair of Orange Bishops.
The aviary was basically built with this species in mind and I was fortunate enough to be granted a permit. I would not attempt to keep them in any of my other smaller aviaries - at least not at present!

Much has been written on this so I will not bore you further with details suffice to say that the Tasmanian 'form/race' is a brighter, more vividly coloured bird than the mainland 'forms' and this is especially true for the male where the vivid black between the legs and onto the lower chest is far more pronounced than mainland males. Tasmanian males brighter, what more need I say!!!

In mature birds the colours of cocks and hens is marked with cock birds a blacker grey while females tend to be a far lighter grey.
There appears to be a propensity towards breeding hens in this species.
The cock of the pair at home is extremely secretive and rarely seen whilst the hen is always out and about in the hope of green food miraculously appearing!! The only way I know of checking on the cock is to call him and he will invariable answer you and then pop out to check where the noise is coming from. Must be a rude shock seeing me on the end of that provocative call!!

Adult Female First Hour Out!! Greens Munching

The main feed for these finches was green growing grass of any description that was in the aviary - this included all three of the Ehrharta species, Rice millet (Piptatherum miliaceum) Rye and Winter grass.
It is intended to supply Guinea grass next season if stocks can be kept going in our "temperate" climate!!

Other grasses growing in the aviary, such as Miscanthus, Johnson and Pennisetum were pulled to pieces and some of the soft head parts found their way into the nests themselves.
A number of planter boxes were set up into which a combination of Clover, Peppers Greens n' Grains and Finch mix were added. These were allowed to germinate and then placed in the aviary and were "mowed" off to ground level by the Beautifuls, especially when young were in the nest.

Following a suggestion by Michael Baker I shall be adding a cover to the planters next season to allow the grass to get to a reasonable height in the hope that it will provide a longer period of greens for the birds should they desire to breed again next season!!
For any person who viewed weather reports for Tasmania over this breeding season the word "rain" was non-existent. This unfortunately meant that the green grasses were few and far between when the Beautifuls decided to nest.

After begging to be allowed to harvest a number of weeds from a small, yet well watered, market garden I discovered a "new" weed that proved to be the salvation of the youngsters. This was Panicum gilvum or sweet panic which has a prostrate habit and was widespread and lush green even during the driest periods here. The other huge plus was that the birds devoured this in preference to most other grasses available and I dare say it was the difference between breeding and losing their young despite all the seed planters in the aviary.
Despite having large seeds and being readily available another Panicum species, P.Hillmanii, was ignored by the Firetails - who says we know what is best for them!!
My thanks to Matthew Baker at the University of Tasmania's herbarium for his time in naming all these weeds for me!!
One interesting observation was that when a Chili plant was placed in their aviary for "safe keeping" the Beautifuls chewed the leaves to pieces ignoring the fruit. Of course a 'necessary' scientific "test" was undertaken to test whether there was any heat in the leaves which came up negative - anyway, I believe it is a fact that all birds have no receptor for the hot ingredient in Chilies - capsaicin. Also the only Chilli attacked in such a manner was a Manzano-type Chilli (characterised by its black seeds) as Tabasco's and other species were not touched at all.

Bulky Nest In Live Tree.

Casuarina Nuts

Apart from greens all birds were supplied with Peppers Greens n' Grains & Superior Finch Mix, Niger, Phalaris, soaked/sprouted seed and Casuarina seed.
Both types of local Casuarina seeds were use, namely those from the Bull-oaks and the She-oaks - there appeared to be no recorded preference for either species as both were consumed with relish.

Perhaps more interesting to us termite starved people was the lack of any provided live food being taken even when chicks were in the nest. Mealworms and maggots were ignored at all times.

Over a period of a number of years I have collected a host of snippets and conversations regarding this elusive finch. With no cross-reference to any other published works I present some of these here for you interest.

Many that I spoke to who once kept them referred to a tendency for one very good breeding season followed by a year or two where there was little or no breeding together with the unexplained deaths of birds in the colony.

Following this there was another breeding high followed by a spiral.
All that I spoke to kept them as a colony having seen them that way in the bush yet I hasten to add that this is a non-breeding trait in my experience.
From my limited experience I would suggest that these peaks and troughs may be related to the high level of aggression directed towards each other by this species in captivity. I also add that this aggression is solely directed at its own kind and not to any other aviary inhabitants - in my experience!!
In Tasmania flocks of between12-20 are not uncommon outside the breeding season with flocks of juvenile, black-beaked youngsters very common at Melaleuca Inlet.
During a visit there in January one year flocks of juvenile birds were very common and these often flew into you whilst strolling along paths in the Tea-tree thickets! During the same period 35 nests were observed in the foliage and horizontal grasses at Melaleuca.

These nests were isolated from each other and, very roughly, around 1/2 a kilometre 'buffer-zone' usual.
Whilst counting the Orange-Bellied parrots there at a feeding station it was noted that there appeared to be no aggression between adults and young at the feed tray yet adults frequently chased each other off the tray - and it was not a low-intensity chase!!

How I was expected to concentrate on counting parrots with so many Firetails about was beyond me at times!!

In the aviary there was no sign of aggression between the adult pair and their previous broods even when they had assumed adult beak colouration. However, they shall be removed well before next breeding season!!

In captivity, until recently a CSIRO-type research permit was needed to hold and breed the birds anywhere in Australia. This tended to limit any long-term prospects for the species in captivity as permit holders could not pass birds along to suitable aviculturists. Hence this may well be one major reason that the Beautiful firetail has never become established in our aviaries.
Maybe the habit of those with the birds "in the old times" persevering with colony breeding is also another factor.
Currently I believe that a breeder needs only to hold the top category license from their state to hold them in their aviaries - maybe not in Western Australia I suspect.
Also many spoken to maintained that the Beautiful was a very "timid" and "nervous" species and prone to dropping dead if handled or placed under any form of stress - this appeared to be believed equally for both captive and wild birds.
From my experience this nervousness is certainly true and any holding cabinet should take this into account and should allow them the luxury of a "hidey-hole" for their own privacy. Any wire cage arrangement I suspect would prove fatal for any number of reasons!!

Following their arrival and subsequent worming I housed mine in a 2 metre long cabinet with a towel draped across 1/2 a metre of the cage as far from the cage door as possible. The birds would peer around the corner upon my approach but did not appear unduly alarmed whilst they could hide behind the towel - remove the towel and it was a much different scenario!!

It is unfortunate for me to have to write but I saw no sign of courtship behaviour in my birds due to my work commitments and the very shy nature of the species. The occasional flash of grey closely followed by a blade of grass was about it!
The nest itself was a huge ball of material! The nesting chamber was lined with white and Emu feathers, cotton wool, dog fur and cotton lintus. In the wild the feathers of the Ground parrot, Pezoporus wallicus, made up the bulk of the nesting material in a nest that had been recently pulled apart by something furry we suspected!
The bulk of the nest consisted of 2 basic 'outer' layers. The 'inner' portion was very similar to the traditional Diamond sparrow nest of green grass, long stems of Panic and Rye grasses plus a mixture of dried hay and grass.
Surrounding this on the outside was an 'outer shell' of coarse pieces of Tea-tree broken from the growing plants which surrounded the entire nest and was woven into a tight funnel at the front - in one nest the funnel was so tightly woven that it could be removed from the old nest in one piece!!

My removal of one old nest was necessitated because the Himalayans were removing the soft nesting chamber pieces for their own nest. It would be recommended to leave the old nests where they are as the fledged young will camp in the old nest and the pair has now returned to their original nest to sleep. To date a new nest was constructed for each brood but my observations hardly constitute a statistically significant data-base!

In the wild:
Fairly locally common species in Tasmania it can be spotted at many areas around the state in numbers -the Tasman Peninsula and areas of the Huon Valley, much of the East Coast of Tasmania and right through the North-west coast.
An interesting report from a friend in the lower Huon Valley suggested that the advent of the Rabbit Calicivirus in Tasmania has brought hard times upon the Beautifuls here. He has reported seeing Native Cats or Quolls, Dasyurus quoll, actually predating upon Firetail nests located in apple trees whilst out spot lighting. He caught one Quoll "in the act" of devouring birds and saw evidence of several other destroyed nests in that and other orchards. Given, I believe, that Tasmania still has the highest Feral cat problem of any Australian state the future for the Beautiful firetail in its stronghold may not be all that rosy.

A similar occurrence was noted after Calicivirus removed many of the rabbits that Swamp Harriers, Circus approximans, began to target Masked Plovers, Vanellus miles, when the rabbits died out. Judging by the piles of white feathers on my driveway one season this 'end of impunity' obviously came as a rude shock to the Plovers!!

Whilst my short time with this species hardly qualifies me to make any long term predictions I might be so bold as to suggest a few possible outcomes.

This species appears to be far more shy and nervous than any other Grassfinches in captivity and I suggest it needs to be kept in aviaries that reflect this nature and I suspect they would not appreciate overcrowded conditions.

There are others that have a number of fostered birds which it will be fascinating to see how they react when sexually mature - will they revert to their nervous nature or will they be as many of the other 'domesticated' Australian Firetails? Cannot wait to see how this experiment goes.

Either way the Beautifuls may well be the winners. If they revert to their wild nature then it is great from a conservational perspective as it may well prove a valuable source for re-release birds should, perish the thought, such birds be required to restock areas.

However, from an avicultural point of view it is to be hoped that birds fostered in such a way will prove to be a boon for establishing the species in captivity and making them available to many more breeders with a more diverse collection of aviary types.
Hopefully this will be the case but time will tell.

Having seen Beautifuls reared by Longtails I must admit I suspect that the experiment will be a success as these birds had a flock mentality where they did everything together and even nested next to each other - a far cry from any I've seen recently that were parent reared.

Looking forward to keeping you updated as to future news with this Beautiful yet elusive species.

My thanks go to Mike, David, Rob and Feeb for their advice and assistance in getting this far with this species.