Home | Bird Species Profiles | The Unknown Side of the Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata castenosis) and the Timor Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata guttata): Natural History, Role as a Lab Animal and Entry into the Pet Trade, Part I

The Unknown Side of the Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata castenosis) and the Timor Zebra Finch (Taeniopygia guttata guttata): Natural History, Role as a Lab Animal and Entry into the Pet Trade, Part I


The zebra finch is so well known that it needs little introduction in terms of appearance and captive care.  However, the details of its entry into the pet trade, importance as a laboratory subject and fascinating natural history are often overlooked.  Please read on…you might be pleasantly surprised at the stories behind this pert little pet trade staple.

A Lesser Known Zebra Finch from Timor

There are actually two distinct races of zebra finches.  The nominate race, (the first to be described scientifically) was brought to the attention of European taxonomists in 1817.  Known as the Timor zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata guttata, it is native to Timor and other of Indonesia’s Lesser Sunda Islands, which lie in the Timor Sea about 250 miles north of Australia.  Only rarely seen in captivity, this bird is much smaller than the Australian subspecies, and its song is more complex

The Australian Zebra Finch Enters the Pet Trade

Australian Zebra FinchThe Australian race, T. g. castenosis, was described in 1838 and was imported into Europe shortly thereafter.  An immediate avicultural hit, the zebra finch was being bred regularly in Germany by 1872 and was featured in bird shows in England and elsewhere by the early 1900’s.  The new arrival proved easy to breed, and importations from the Australia slowed down considerably by 1915.

In 1962, Australia imposed severe restrictions on the export of native wildlife…few if any wild zebra finches have entered the pet trade since that time.  By 1969, it was estimated that approximately 80 generations had been produced in captivity without the addition of “wild” genes, leading many to consider the zebra finch as a largely “domesticated” species.

Natural Range and Habitat

Zebra finches are among the most common and widely distributed of Australia’s birds, being absent only from tropical Cape York Peninsula in the north and along portions of the southern and eastern coasts.

Although most at home on the dry, largely treeless grasslands of the interior, zebra finches have adapted to human presence and readily colonize overgrown fields, scrub, farms, ranches and gardens.  Indeed, the presence of wells and other artificial water sources has resulted in significant range expansions.  Their kidneys are extremely efficient at removing moisture from food, and they are even able to drink brackish water, a facility that enables this hardy finch to survive in salt marsh habitats.

Reproduction in the Wild

The zebra finches’ breeding biology is tied to rainfall and temperature, and varies greatly across its vast range.  Populations in the center of the continent can breed whenever the unpredictable rains arrive, regardless of the season.  Breeding is tied to temperature in the east and southeast, where rainfall is regular and predictable.  In southern and southwestern Australia, the winter rains are heavy and would destroy the nests, and the summers are extremely hot.  Breeding is therefore limited to the relatively brief intervals of warm weather and light rainfall.

Zebra finches are as adaptable in nesting behavior as they are in the timing of their breeding.  Nests have been found in trees and tree hollows, shrubs, mounds of dead grass, on the ground, within the nests of termites and larger birds and even below ground in rabbit tunnels.  These enterprising little birds will also adopt artificial nest sites, and often set up house-keeping in spaces under the eves and roofs of houses, and in abandoned or open barns and other structures.

Further Reading

A very interesting account of personal observations of zebra finches and other Australian birds in the wild is posted at http://www.zebrafink.de/en/zfinf-au.htm.




  1. avatar
    Roman Alsace-Lorraine

    I have a super-tiny Australian Zebra Finch male ; fawn coloured.

    He is the same size as the Timor
    Zebra Finch ; should I breed him
    to another small,female zebra finch?!

    Roman Alsace-Lorraine
    3/112 Lakeview Street
    Speers Point,NSW,2284.

  2. avatar

    Hello Roman, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interesting question.

    Zebra finches have been bred for so long that the genetic makeup of most individuals tends to be quite complicated. Unexpected color phases and traits pop up all the time…sometimes, it seems, without regard to the “usual rules” (at least as I learned them!).

    Pairing an extra small male with a tiny female might lead to a line of very small finches, but not necessarily. In a natural situation this might be a disadvantage, in terms of future mating success or foraging abilities, etc., but I don’t see it as a concern in captivity. There is always a chance that a harmful trait might somehow be “genetically linked” to very small birds, but we really have no way of knowing that, and I’ve not run across anything to indicate such.

    Enjoy…I’m very interested to hear how it goes…please let me know how the chicks turn out.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Although, keeping birds in captivity is both educational and it also rises awareness of the plight of the wild species that are just hanging in existence that otherwise would not capture peoples sympathy who might otherwise not have been supportive to do anything about their endangered status, I strongly oppose hybridizing and breeding mutations of any kind in captivity. Some sure are stunning but that does not give us the right to pollute their purity in the wild nor developing of any large/small strains of the species for example a well known strain of extra large British Budgerigars. Sooner or later they’ll start oozing into the wild. The aim of Aviculturists should be to preserve the species as they are found in the wild and enjoy what the Nature has given us.

  4. avatar

    Hello Mark, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for your interest in our blog.

    You make some good points, and certainly what you outline would be ideal. Hybridization has caused severe problems for several endangered animals – Asian/African lion hybrids and Javan/Sumatran orangutan hybrids, which occurred in zoos, have been detrimental to the rarer of the pair in both cases; escaped, genetically modified salmon are also causing problems in the Pacific NW of the USA.

    However, we’ve never been able to control the process in long established pet species; as you say, the interest generated does confer benefits on birds as a whole. Fortunately, the changes wrought in most pet trade species are disadvantageous to wild animals, and so do not persist when introduced into natural habitats – pigs, ferrets, oscars (pet trade fish) and a host of other species revert to their original form very quickly when becoming feral. Also, although hybrids would be a real problem where very small populations of a species are concerned, escaped pet trade birds (hybrids, odd color phases) are, at least so far, genetically swamped by the sheer numbers of normally adapted individuals, or are removed by the forces of natural selection.

    Thanks very much for your thoughts, Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    Could anyone answer this question for me? Were Zebra Finches some of the birds that were brought over on the
    Oregon Trail to keep the women from going nuts? I know there were caged birds that came across the praires but not sure which ones really did.
    This is a serious question. I am doing some research.
    Thanks for your help. Nancy

  6. avatar


    Thanks for your interest. Unfortunately I’m not aware of that story…you might try contacting the American Federation of Aviculture.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  7. avatar

    I wanna know if these zebra finches do eat mosquitoes, if so then they would be a great natural ally in preventing the spread of deadly diseases. Thank you.

  8. avatar

    Hi Carlos,

    Zebra finches are not known to prey upon mosquitos, Due to their size, habitat and preferred periods of activity, mosquitos have few avian predators other than purple martins, some swallows, swifts, nightjars, nighthawks and similar birds.

    Best regards, Frank

  9. avatar

    I read the article The Unknown Side of the Zebra Finch Part 1 but am unable to find part 2. Any idea where it is?


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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