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Finch Facts – the Natural History of Popular Pet Birds

When ornithologists use the term “finch”, they are usually referring to birds in the Family Fringillidae.  However, the “finches” kept by pet owners are more often of the Family Estrildidae – the waxbills, weavers and sparrows.  Today we’ll take a closer look at the Family Fringillidae, the True Finches.

Classification and Range

The 140+ species of True Finches range across all continents except Antarctica and Australia.  The most commonly-kept birds in this family are the Bullfinch and the European GoldfinchThe American Goldfinch, is a close relative and, in captivity, interbreeds with its European cousin.  Most True Finches are classified within the Subfamily Carduelinae. They nest solitarily and defend only the area around the nest.  Mated pairs forage with others in loose flocks. 

The Hawaiian Finches (Subfamily Drepanidinae) are unique birds restricted to the Hawaiian Islands.  Many are endangered; the Kauai Akialoa may already be extinct.


Finches are seed-eaters and raise their young on seeds (regurgitated from the crop) and insects.  Linnets, Crossbills, Redpolls and Siskins are unique among birds in raising their young entirely upon seeds. Finch bills show unique modifications to help process seeds.  Most have a groove in the palate that holds a single seed in place while the lower jaw crushes it.  The tongue assists in peeling the shell. Finch bills may be thin, long, thick, or rounded, depending upon the specific types of seeds that are taken.  Such specialization allows several species to co-exist within the same habitat. The beaks of Crossbills do just that – the tips cross each other.  This unique adaptation enables them to extract seeds from pine cones.

Red Crossbill


The Crossbill’s unique diet of pine seeds sometimes forces it to breed in mid-winter.  In Russia, nests have been found at air temperatures of -2 F… but brooding females can raise the temperature within the nest to 100 F!  Unlike most birds, finches that raise their young on seeds visit the nest infrequently – only 1-2 times each hour.

An in-flight breeding song is utilized by the males of many species.

Breeding is timed to food availability.  Insect-eating specialists such as the Chaffinch usually have a short nesting season; those that take a variety of seeds, such as the European Goldfinch, may breed throughout the spring and summer.

Variable Migration

While most birds migrate at specific times and to specific places, many finches change the timing and destinations of their migrations in accordance with food availability. This is most likely the result of unpredictable food supplies – the plants they rely upon do not produce seeds at the same time each year.

Hawaiian Finches

Red Legged Honecreeper MaleThe Hawaiian Finches, or Hawaiian Honeycreepers, are an amazing group of approximately 30 species.  Much like Darwin’s famous Galapagos Island Finches, they are thought to have all evolved from a single species that crossed nearly 2,000 miles of ocean to reach the islands.

Hawaiian Finches exploit habitats ranging from coral islands to cloud forests.  Various species specialize upon nectar, snails, seabird eggs and wood-boring beetle larvae.

The often brilliantly-colored Hawaiian Finches sport an array of unique beaks.  Most unusual is that of the Akiapolaau.  It holds the thin upper bill out of the way while chipping at decaying wood with the thick lower bill.   The upper bill is then used to probe the wood chips for insects.

Further Reading

Please see Keeping the Bullfinch for finch husbandry info.

Footage of a beautiful Hawaiian Honeycreeper is posted here.



Red-legged Honeycreeper image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Terence and LTshears

One comment

  1. avatar

    I did not know that most of the pet finches like society finches and zebra finches are more like sparrows. It makes sense by the fact that true finches nest by themselves, which is the exact opposite of society finches. Society finches love bundling up, sharing songs, and so much more. It seems as if both types of finches (pet and wild) share feather coloring, with a wide color display.

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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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