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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.



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