Ever Shrinking Finches - Or Why We Fought!

Now that the dust has settled a little on the Exotic Birds Record Keeping Scheme (EBRKS) and finch keepers in general are pretty content with the way things panned out it seems an appropriate time to explore 'our' reaction. Mind you it was certainly touch and go with removing any finches from Class 1 there for a long while but thankfully sanity prevailed and there are no finch species currently requiring mandatory paperwork.

Still we often get asked why many of us reacted as we did when it looked highly possible that lists of finch species were being prepared to go onto just such a Class 1 list. Surely it couldn't have been all that bad for finches or their keepers - could it? Or was it true that we WERE the "unwashed masses" that some chose to refer to us as!
Surely if the parrot keepers wanted such a scheme it is only right and fitting that finches be included on it - isn't it?

Guess the simplest of those to answer is the second one!
If one looks at the number of exotic parrot species that are available today as compared to when I was a mere youth then the present day list is vast by comparison. This is because of the proactive parrot keepers that successfully lobbied for several live imports of a number of Psittacine species through the Spotswood Quarantine Station. Having seen the magnitude of one of the importations at the late David Judd's premises first hand it was impressive to say the very least!!
These importations gave parrot keepers much needed new bloodlines and access to new species the likes of which finch keepers could only drool over!
Good luck to them I say as I always look forward to the opportunity to view an avian species that I've never seen before no matter what its Genera!
However, despite a number of half starts similar importations of finches have never materialised and given the current high cost of such importations and the relatively low price of the finch species themselves it is possibly doubtful whether many finch keepers could afford to participate in such a scheme these days where it to occur. Add to this the fact that many overseas locales are struggling to source finches from Africa these days and the likelihood of importation could possibly struggle.
As confirmation of this are the oft written concerns that many have these days over the export of exotic finches from Australia. A bit of "Wed better damn well look after what we have got left!" - better late than never!!
So suffice it to say that the rise in parrot species has been contrasted with a marked decline in available finch species so anything that could be done to preserve the status of the existing rare finches available to us had to be done!

On to the first question that I posed - why some of us reacted the way we did!
Guess to truly answer this we must investigate the reasons why people keep finches - just humour me for a minute!!
Now this may range from their beauty, their ability to be housed together, their monetary value or the challenge in breeding the more difficult species. Within that spectrum fall most of the finch keepers that have persevered with breeding finches that I have encountered.
There will always be the 'fly-by-nights' that take up the hobby and then drop it as soon as the going gets tough - and believe me; the going always gets tough with finches - nothing surer!! Also a lot of people who a mate christened the "5 minute-finch people" around these days - been in it for 5-minutes and know it all but fortunately their 'star's go super-nova' in a very short time!!!
Nothing wrong with those that seek only the dollar gratification because to do so they must be very good at what they do in order to succeed as they hop from rare species to rare species - or from new mutation to newer mutation.
Then there are those of us that enter the "hobby" in other ways such as from bird watching - or "twittering" as it's now known - when a parent suggests "why don't you build a small aviary and keep a few birds to study?"
This is usually known as welcome to the addiction by those many afflicted souls! My father was wandering around my aviaries recently shaking his head and asked how it went from one small backyard aviary to, to "this"!!
Now it was bird people such as I that were some of the most horrified by attempts to give the 'powers that be' a list of finches to include on mandatory paperwork. Fortunately there were many more about like me and even worse - perish the thought!
But why, is still the oft asked question?
Well, I guess "we" are that category in the finch world of those that are always looking for a challenge or a species to test/push our skills even further. You want proof - why would anyone in their right mind keep Blue-capped waxbills in Tasmania?? - Guilty as charged your honour, the prosecution rests!!!
The pattern has been so oft repeated when discussing how people 'got into' finches that I'll use myself as 'exhibit one'.

So, I started with Zebra finches, King quail and Cockatiels as a youngsters but soon the parrots gave way to more finches once I had "done my time" on the Zebbies and Bengalese manikins. Did the Neophema's and bred so many of the commoner species that it became a tad monotonous so all the parrots left bar my Green rosellas. However, cash was tight and in order to move up to the next tier of finches we had to breed a fair number of the cheaper finches - once traded the bird outlet 90 Zebra finches for a pair of Crimson rosellas!!!
This trend continued except that once I had success with a species I retained them as well as moving on which of course just meant building a few more aviaries - heard that one before have we??!
Things were going well with plenty of space to build aviaries and some success with a variety of finch species so logically it was time to look for a greater challenge so Chaffinches, Redpolls and Golden Song Sparrows were sourced and added to the menagerie. At the time Chaffies and Redpolls were around $200 a pair while the Songies were $800 - have you any idea how many Rainbow lorikeets, Stars and Painteds that equates to!!!
So I then met a few other hardy demented souls down here that were busily doing the same and lasting friendships were formed.
I was a pretty young when the Vertebrates Pest Act appeared around 1982 and the rush was on to move exotic species off-shore before they were 'banned' - unfortunately they left our shores in droves and the legislation never materialised. As an example I was offered all 3 of the Euplectes whydahs for a pittance but only if I took 10 pair of each!! Being a University student at the time there was no hope but I have not heard of White or Yellow Shoulders since that time.
However, then along came the National Exotic Bird Registration Scheme (NEBRS) which made our entire endeavours with many exotic species stand for nil in no time flat. Without wasting time discussing the pros and cons of this legislation suffice it to say that finch people on the mainland jettisoned a number of the cheaper exotic birds on this list rather than be burdened with yet more paperwork. Who can really blame them given the records they must keep for native species?
The end result of that was that we had holding cages full of these birds that we could not give away! Chaffinches and Song sparrows require profuse amounts of live food to rear chicks so very hard to justify breeding from several pairs when your cages are full of birds that no-one wishes to purchase or trade. For example at that time all we could get for our Songies was $80 a pair from a bird dealer and we had to pay the freight!!
Also given their relatively short breeding life holding them back from breeding is akin to Russian roulette and we are, unfortunately, seeing the net results of this even today.
Many of these "$200" finches are now gone or on their knees along with their much rarer cousins. Has anyone seen a Purple/Rose finch recently - yet these were kept and bred even in Tasmania prior to NEBRS.
Russell Kingston fought long and hard to have many of the finches on NEBRS removed yet even his demonstrated expertise in this area was ignored - to the detriment of all finch keepers. His repeated calls for the exclusion of the Golden song sparrow fell on deaf ears but at least they managed to survive the NEBRS years and are still available.
Birds that we had slaved for years to be able to afford and breed were basically made worthless within a few very short months. Very sad to say this now but we had 4 breeding pairs of Grey singers and a holding aviary full of chicks we could not move!
Drab grey birds that you needed paperwork to keep and breed - a sure-fire recipe for extinction. Sure, maybe it is our own fault but without the added burden of unwarranted legislation who knows?

There were a small handful of finchos down here that kept many of these 'target' finch species and we were further dismayed when one of our number rang and told us that the Tasmanian Wildlife Department had given holders of many of these 'species of interest' a few weeks to dispose of these finches before similar legislation was introduced into Tasmania. Unfortunately many chose to do just that and the last of the Purple/Rose finches (11 birds) left the state into avicultural oblivion and with them a goodly number of Redpolls.

However, us being us, decided we were not going to "go meekly into the void" so we prepared to dig in and fight. Imagine our surprise when we rang Tas. Wildlife and found out first hand that they had no such intention of confiscating birds or forcing people out of them - in fact they had no interest in instigating any NEBRS-type legislation at all! They actually prepared with us a list of finches that were of interest to them and simply included them all on the permitted bird list as per native Tasmanian birds - we were safe! Pity the same enlightened souls aren't still operating within Tas. Wildlife - but that's another story!!
You can but feel for the people who had already disposed of their finches and they were very, very unhappy indeed given the source of their information!

So you can perhaps understand our chagrin when we first received information on the EBRKS and the desire to have finches included on yet another NEBRS-like system. Devastation would be a really good description of the mood amongst many of us given that we had just 'recovered' from the NEBRS belting many finch people had taken. Fortunately the advent of the computer age meant that the likes of Russell K. would never again have to fight these laws without assistance from a multitude of sources.
Obviously by this time we again held a number of finches that were rarer exotics and we could ill-afford a repeat of the last NEBRS-style wipe-out! Gulp!
In the beginning many could not see our reticence to embrace the EBRKS but by the time the final DEWHA stakeholders meetings came around there were very few that could not sympathise with our stance based on the historical perspective we were able to present.
Lucky indeed that the representative from the Finch Society of Australia was one who was touched by the black wand of NEBRS and was able to present the fears of his fellow finch brethren at EBRKS stakeholder meetings. OK, I confess, it was me but the same holds true as I've shown you how I felt firsthand the pain of the aftermath of the NEBRS and, let's face it, if you keep and breed these targeted species then you have a far greater incentive to fight any threat to their continued existence in our aviaries.
During that particular fight two finch bodies were far better able to represent all tiers of finch keepers than one lone body.
Or, if I deliberately misquote Mr Dylan and state that if you don't keep these birds you've got nothing to lose from any legislation directed at those very same species!

So maybe you can see why many of us out these in finch land fought with whatever means were at hand to ensure that finches remained free of mandatory paperwork - once bitten twice shy!! With all the excellent work being done by clubs like the Riverina Finch Society, The Hawkesbury Branch of the FSA and the parent body (FSA) itself in trying to target some of the less common exotic species for breeding programs there may be some hope for these finches in the future - and many more Clubs that I am unaware of no doubt..
A pity they cannot work with Redpolls, Grey singers or Purple/Rose finches!!

Hopefully in the future we can see a shift in emphasis within national bodies to include the best people to represent the wishes of the largest possible 'audience'.
As has been demonstrated adequately even in my own humble home state being a member of a club or a society does not make you the "best" person to speak on behalf of breeders in that state - demonstrated expertise and experience is essential to truly gain the respect of breeders.
To use an AFL analogy you want pick one in the national draft not pick 101- even if they are playing 'outside' the inner city competition!
Or more specifically even how you can be expected to argue for the exclusion of rarer exotic species from legislation when you do not even keep them or know little of their husbandry or captive history is beyond many of us!

Avian clubs and societies are great places and do a terrific job but, for a host of reasons, not all birdkeepers are affiliated with them. In fact several of the best I've ever met fall into this category and it would be a travesty if their opinions were disregarded because of this - a wealth of knowledge and experience gone begging.

As finch breeders I know many of us hope that in the near future all 'finch bodies' will ensure that the most experienced people from all tiers of the hobby are in a position to ensure a truly representative and strong organisation to best serve all forms of finch-keeping and finch keepers - be that as one body or more!