There are many finch species, but one of the most popular kept as a pet is the zebra finch. This species is hardy and relatively easy to care for. It is an excellent choice for a first-time bird owner. Zebra finches are typically kept in pairs and entertain themselves without a lot of interaction with their owners. This species is a good choice if you don't have a lot of time to spend with your pet bird. Other finches may be more brightly colored, but few are easier to keep successfully than zebra finches.
Common Names: Zebra finch, chestnut-eared finch, spotted-sided finch, and Australian Aboriginal names "nyi-nyi" and "nyeen-ka"
Scientific Name: Poephla guttata
Adult Size: 4 inches long; one of the smaller (though not the smallest) finches
Life Expectancy: 3 to 15 years, although 3 to 5 years is typical
Origin and History
Zebra finches live in large flocks in its native habitat of the arid areas of central Australia, Indonesia, and East Timor, too. The zebra finch has been introduced to Costa Rica and Portugal, where wild flocks now exist. Its preferred habitat includes a range of grasslands and forests, preferably close to water.
Zebra finches are small birds that are active and fun to watch. Although small, the zebra finch needs a large cage for flight.
All finches are social and should be kept in pairs. A male and female pair will usually breed quite readily, so you may want to consider keeping only females. Some people recommend keeping them either in pairs or in groups larger than six. If you keep more than a pair, you will need a larger cage, such as a flight cage or aviary.
Even though they are social with each other, zebra finches do not bond strongly with people. They may become tame, but do not relish handling. With much training, you may get it to come to your hand.
When it comes to vocalization, the bird emits quiet chirps and peeps that are easy to tolerate. This species should be suitable for apartments or condominium living.
Speech and Vocalizations
All finches have a variety of whistles and calls. The zebra finch has a quiet, trilling, conversational song. The father bird usually teaches the young chicks to vocalize. He teaches a song, and they improvise with little trills and whistles to personalize it. Many of their improvisations sound like external sounds they have heard. Some finch owners sing to their birds or play music to inspire them.
Zebra Finch Colors and Markings
Zebra finches are attractive birds. They are dimorphic, which means you can tell the sexes apart by looking at them. Males have black and white bars on the throat and breast, orange cheek patches, and brown on the sides of the body. Females are gray colored in those spots. Both males and females have red-orange beaks, although the male's beak is much brighter in hue. In captive-bred zebra finches, a wide variety of color mutations are available.
Caring for a Zebra Finch
When keeping zebra finches, the height of the cage is not as vital as having room to fly horizontally, so a long but short cage is acceptable. It is a good idea to get the largest cage you can. A good size for a pair of finches is 30 inches long, 18 inches high, and 18 inches wide. If you are going to get a larger group of birds, you'll need an aviary or flight cage. Wire spacing should be 1/4 inch to 1/2 inch.
Supply a variety of perches, but make sure the cage is not so cluttered that the finches cannot fly back and forth. For perches, you can use dowels in a couple of different sizes, or add some natural branches, perhaps angling them to provide variety, so their feet are not always holding onto the perches in precisely the same way.
You can provide swings and ladders, although ladders will likely be used as perches instead of for climbing. Consider giving them small bells or hanging toys, although finches are generally not very interested in toys.
Place the finch cage in a quiet, secure location in your home. Unlike parrots, finches do not crave social interaction with people so, they will be less stressed if kept away from an activity hub.
Finches tolerate a white range of temperatures but avoid placing them in direct sunlight or drafty areas near heat- or air-conditioning ducts. In warmer climates, you can acclimate finches to outdoor aviaries.
Provide a shallow dish of fresh water several times a week for bathing.
Common Health Problems
Zebra finches can be prone to a scaly face caused by mites, which requires treatment by a vet. Zebra finches are prone to air-sac mite infection, especially when overly stressed. If you want the bird to live, this serious condition needs immediate veterinary care. If your bird ever appears to have difficulty breathing, seek help from an avian veterinarian immediately.
Diet and Nutrition
In the wild, most finches forage for seeds from plants, weeds, pine cones, and berries. Some finches chew up fruits to get to the seeds while leaving the rest of the fruit behind.
To mimic their foraging instinct, put food dishes on the floor (not under perches). Or, you can attach their feeder to the side of the cage.
Feed your finches one to two teaspoons of good quality finch seed mix every day. Check to make sure that the brand you get is fresh by sprouting the seeds (put some in a plastic bag with a damp paper towel). If the seeds do not sprout, then the seeds are too old to feed. Seeds are at peak nutritional value when sprouted.
A variety of greens should be provided, including romaine lettuce, dandelion greens, kale, and spinach (in moderation), along with a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits. Give about a tablespoon of this salad or chopped fruit/vegetable mixture. Never give avocado; it is toxic to most birds.
Experiment to find what they like and keep offering a variety. It may take your finches a few tries to accept new food items.
Provide a teaspoon of pelleted food daily. Pellets are a formulated nutrition source, which is good to offer as part of a varied and balanced diet. Be persistent in getting your finches to accept the pellet food.
Other supplements you can offer a couple of times a week include eggs or a commercially prepared egg food supplement. This is great for all birds and is essential for breeding birds. Provide cuttlebone as a calcium supplement; birds also use it to hone their beaks. Grit is not supported anymore as a supplement for finches. But, if you offer it, only provide a few granules at a time and very rarely.
For a treat, millet sprays are a big favorite. Offer it occasionally; you do not want your bird to develop a preference for millet and exclude other foods.
Provide fresh drinking water daily. Clean out all food dishes need at the end of the day.
These small birds get most of their activity from straight-line flights across the cage, as well as climbing on perches and branches. Make sure your cage or aviary is large enough for flying. They don't require much more in the way of exercise.
Quiet, low-volume chirper; good pet for apartment living
Does not require exercise time with you
Good first pet bird
Not affectionate or social with humans
Needs a larger cage for flight
Does not like handling
Where to Adopt or Buy a Zebra Finch
Zebra finches are usually sold at pet stores, by breeders, and can be found at rescues or through adoption agencies. They can cost $20 to $100, depending on the color mutation. To find available birds, some online sources you can try include:
If you're going the breeder route, ask the breeder long they have been breeding and working with the species. If you can, tour their facility. Look for signs of good overall health of the flock. The birds should be active and alert with bright eyes, clean feathers, and full crops.
More Pet Bird Species and Further Research
If the zebra finch is a species that interests you, you might want to consider one of these other finch species, as well:
Otherwise, check out our profiles of other small bird species.