Home | Bird Behavior | The Red-Billed or African Firefinch – Captive Care and Breeding

The Red-Billed or African Firefinch – Captive Care and Breeding

Red-billed Fire-FinchAlso known as the Senegal Firefinch (Lagonosticta senegala), this spectacular African import is one of the few entirely red-colored birds available to aviculturists.  Northern Cardinals, one of my favorites, are not legal to keep here in the USA…the Red-Billed Firefinch is the only species I’ve found that comes close to matching it’s brilliant plumage.  They are not rare in the wild or captivity, but never lose their appeal – even to lifelong bird keepers, Firefinches always seem “special”.

Range and Habitat

Ranging throughout much of Africa south of the Sahara, Firefinches have adapted well to people…in many developed areas their chirping is among the most familiar of the day’s sounds.  The typical natural habitat is savanna, overgrown scrub and the edges of lightly-wooded areas.

Several related species, some of which are equally as gorgeous as the Red-Billed Firefinch, also occur in Africa, but none are well-established in captivity.

Captive Housing

Firefinches are quite amiable towards other finches and small softbills, and are excellent candidates for mixed species aviaries.  Their even temperament allows for colony breeding.  Pairs also adjust well to indoor cages, but bar-spacing is an important consideration…their diminutive size (3.5-4 inches) may allow Firefinches to wedge their tiny heads between the bars of cages designed for canaries or budgerigars.

Despite their small size, Firefinches truly come into their own in large outdoor aviaries.  There they will remain active from dawn to dusk, foraging for insects, which are among their most favored foods, seeds and sprouting plants.  Although somewhat shy in close confines, in large cages and aviaries they seem much more at ease and willing to show us a great many interesting behaviors.

Firefinches are birds of grassy habitats, and forage mainly on the ground.  Bamboo and other grasses and shrubs planted in their aviary will make them feel at home and provide foraging opportunities.  They adapt well to cool temperatures (i.e. 65 F for short periods) if slowly habituated, but need shelter from damp and drafty conditions.


A high quality finch seed mix should form the basis of their diet, but a steady supply of insects is essential if Firefinches are to remain to remain in good color and peak condition.

Small crickets, mealworms, waxworms, grubs and wild-caught insects should be offered year-round, and are an absolute must for parents with chicks.  Canned insects should also be considered.  In outdoor situations, a variety of live plants can be used to attract local insects into the aviary.

Fresh sprouts and egg food should also be a regular part of your Firefinch’s diet.


Once habituated to their new surroundings, Firefinches may nest in either cages or aviaries.  A thick, low-growing shrub will usually be chosen outdoors, while a nest box is essential if the pair if kept in a cage.  They construct a complex, dome-shaped nest with a side opening and do not tolerate nest inspections (so leave them be!).

Females may produce up to 3 clutches yearly, each containing 3-4 eggs.  The eggs are incubated for 11-12 days and the chicks fledge by day 18-21.  They gain independence quickly, but are best left with the parents for 1 month after fledging.

Sexual maturity is often reached by the age of 9 months, but breeding is best delayed until the birds are at least 1 year old.

Further Reading

Comprehensive article on Breeding Firefinches (several species) in Outdoor Aviaries.


Red-billed Fire Finch image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Tom Tarrant


  1. avatar

    Hello Frank, hope this finds you well.

    We ended up deciding that if we are going to go through the trouble of keeping birds outdoors, we might as well give them something a bit bigger. A 8 x 6.5 wooden frame structure used for plants to climb on and to provide shade made an obvious place to start. Even better, it is right next to the dining room window so will be easy to view from indoors. Working on some of the grunt work such as wiring, deciding the door, soil, etc. but it should be done in relatively short order.

    A question or two though. Many people suggest removing most of the soil inside and covering over it with sand since it is more sanitary(this particular area has been kept quite moist through the years so I think this will definetly be an important step). I’ve seen a few sites suggests that it could be disinfected every month or two by pouring dilute bleach thru it and then replacing it perhaps once a year. Any other options out there? There is a small Japanese maple growing which will soon be enveloped by the aviary, and it’d be neat to grow some other plants too…maybe a few herps also ;). I’d keep bird numbers low.

    Also, do you think that mice will be an issue? I can’t see an easy way to keep them completely out(assuming they will burrow under and up into the enclosure, I’m sure bricks etc. would be only discouragement). Maybe their is a way to feed that would keep seed spillage to a minimum?

    Thanks! Hope I haven’t bitten off more than I can chew here.

  2. avatar

    Hello Joseph,

    Thanks for the feedback – a big project, but lots of fun in the future once its up and running.

    Sand is definitely a good idea; in large aviaries I’ve just spot-cleaned and replaced when necessary; disinfecting with bleach would seem difficult, but I’ve not tried. In any event, you’ll need to watch for respiratory distress, which in outdoor aviaries might signal a gapeworm infection, and other parasite problems; no way around that but benefits outweigh those risks in my opinion.

    Mice will get in if they try (they wind up in exhibits built along the lines of concrete bunkers!). If you see evidence of them, try placing multi-catch live traps (Tin Kat was a good one, not sure if still made) in and out of the aviary; this does away with snap trap concerns (trap on skunk’s nose, dead endangered rodent!) and the need for poisons. Peanut butter will lure them away from seeds and into trap.

    There are some “spill reducing” feeders available as well; however, a real benefit of large outdoor aviaries is that they allow one to spread seed and live food about, hide it below dead leaves, etc, which is great for birds and bird-watchers alike!

    Good luck, enjoy and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Hello Frank, thanks for the info!

    Seems like a worming regime is a must with outdoor birds? I’ve always shied away from prophylactically medicating things but I suppose this could be an exception. Might mites be an issue esp. with the wodden frame? Some websites suggest putting down a layer of Sevin dust on the floor under the sand-but again I am not keen on using pesticides unless really necessary. Suppose since it is ok around birds it is safe enough.

    Guess I’ll have to live with the mice then! Our backyard is far from wild(no coons here-don’t even think we have possums…lots of neighbor cats) but we do have what appear to be deermice living in the berry bushes. My parents were not very keen on that esp. after they left droppings on the patio table and I told them about hantavirus.

    What species would you reccomend? I plan on putting in a pair of zebras to start…but would eventually like to try something else. Gouldians seem like an obvious choice, and some claim they are quite cold hardy also…but I’d love to have something with a good song as well as to look at. Might green singers fill the bill?(I’m sure canaries would do ok aswell?)

    All the Best

  4. avatar

    Hello Joseph,

    I’m not sure that a layer under the sand would be worth the effort, likely not entirely effective. You might try contacting a local avian vet of bird club, to get an idea of what to expect.

    Mice should be controlled in general – all sorts of potential human health problems in addition to Hanto; if other rodents are not a concern, then poison is the most effective route. Use a locking dispenser so kids and pets cannot get at it; secondary poisoning usually only a concern if the predator is feeding exclusively on dead mice; your stat wildlife agency can advise.

    Green singers are a fine choice – same genus as Canaries, interbreed. My favorite for outdoor aviaries is the Eurasian Bullfinch; not easy to find, but worth keeping in mind.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  5. avatar

    I just got two fire finches from a auction . I would like some help with there diet. If any one can help please email me.

  6. avatar

    Hello Marilyn,

    Please see my suggestions under “Diet” in this article and let me know if you have any questions, Best, frank

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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