Home | Bird Research or Recent News | The Role of Learning and Instinct in Bird Song – lessons from the Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata – Part 2

The Role of Learning and Instinct in Bird Song – lessons from the Zebra Finch, Taeniopygia guttata – Part 2

Zebra Finch

Click here to read the first part of this article
Song Recognition
It seems that song recognition, on the other hand, is instinctive – female birds of all species tested respond (with an increased heart rate!) to the songs of males of the same species. Male birds of the same species, but living in different places, develop local “dialects” – similar, perhaps, to the differences between the accents of people raised in NYC and Dallas. Female birds usually recognize the song of any male of their species, but respond with increased interest (again, the heartbeats) to songs from “neighborhood” males (sorry, I do not know if any conclusions pertaining to people can be drawn!).

Zebra Finches in the Wild
We are so accustomed to seeing zebra finches in cages that it is easy to overlook their existence as vital members of a natural environment. However, free-living zebra finches are perhaps the most abundant birds in the interior of their native Australia. With the exception of coastal Victoria and New South Wales, they inhabit the entire continent. In fact, their range is expanding due to the provision of water (they must drink daily) on livestock farms. A subspecies of the zebra finch (which was actually the first member of the species to be brought into captivity), the Lesser Sunda zebra finch, occupies nearby Timor and the Lesser Sunda Islands.

Despite their common name, zebra finches are not true finches but rather are classified as waxbills, in the family Estrildidae. Nearly 150 species of waxbills range throughout Africa, Asia and Australia. A number of the zebra finch’s relatives, including the gouldian finch, the cordon blue and the white-backed munia, are also popular in the pet trade. The nearly 200 species of true finches (family Fringillidae) are absent from Australia.

Habitat and Adaptations
Zebra finches favor open woodlands, grasslands and farms, but can also be found in Australia’s harsh, arid interior scrublands. They feed mainly upon seeds, especially those of various grasses, and take insects as well. Populations living in salt marshes have evolved the ability to drink salt water – excreting excess sodium via the kidneys. They are fairly sensitive to temperature and cannot generate enough heat for egg incubation if temperatures fall below 53 F.

Like many of its relatives, the zebra finch forages in large flocks. Within the flock, however, monogamous pairs form. The pair bond appears, in most cases, to be life-long. Breeding is sporadic throughout the year and may not occur at all during droughts. As an adaptation to the harsh environment, this species has evolved the ability to breed quickly at the onset of rains during nearly any time of the year.

Zebra finches nest as discrete pairs, but communally – that is, with many pairs occupying the same tree. The female chooses the nest site and constructs the nest with dried grasses and other materials brought by the male. The 4-5 eggs are incubated by both parents and hatch in 13-16 days. The young, fed by the male and female, fledge in 20-21 days. In years with favorable rainfall and food supplies, 3 or more broods may be raised. The zebra finch’s ability to take advantage of good conditions can be a handicap in captivity – in response to the abundance of food and water, females may lay so often that their health suffers (this problem can be ameliorated somewhat by removing all nesting material).

A View from Taiwan
As mentioned earlier, zebra finches are popular pets, both here and abroad. A Taiwanese friend has informed me that they are much more “house pet” than “cage bird” in her country, and are commonly allowed to roam about. Her pet zebra finch would perch on a chair while the family ate dinner – begging for food but not actually approaching the table, and would sleep in her shirt pocket in the evening.


Further information on the parallels between zebra finch song the acquisition of speech in people is available at:

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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