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The Zebra Finch: Preferred First Time Pet Bird

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Zebra Finch on rope: Guide to the Zebra FinchWhen deciding to keep a pet bird for the first time there are many different species to choose from, however, the zebra finch is one of the easiest for first timers. The zebra finch is not only an easy to care for pet but it is also much quieter than many other birds which makes it a much more appealing choice to many bird owners. In this article we will cover everything you ever wanted to know about the zebra finch including their native habitat, physiological appearance, care in captivity and diet.

Taxonomy of the Zebra Finch

The zebra finch is a member of the T. guttata species within the Taeniopygia genus, a member of the Estridida family in the order Passeriformes.

The Aves Class

Most simply, the zebra finch is a member of the Aves class. Aves are a class that refers to all birds. Birds are believed to have begun life around the end of the Jurassic period and continue to thrive even today. Scientifically members of the Aves class are recognized as having feathers and wings, being bipedal and warm-blooded, laying eggs and being vertebrates. Most notably the Aves class is considered to be the largest class of tetrapod vertebrates with over 10,000 species still living. Tetrapods are recognized as animals with four limbs and include reptiles, amphibians, mammals and birds. The smallest known species of the avis class is the bee hummingbird which measures in at just two inches long. Conversely, the largest species of bird currently known is the ostrich that can often measure in at nine feet tall! Many people believe that birds are living descendants of the dinosaurs and that they are the “missing link” between the dinosaurs and mammals.

The Order Passeriformes

The order Passeriformes is the largest of all orders in the avis class, containing over fifty percent of all bird species! Often this order of birds is referred to as being the home of perching birds and song birds; however, these terms can be quite inaccurate. Currently there are believed to be more than 5,000 species of Passerine birds. There are three recognized suborders of passerines, these include: Tyranni or suboscines, basal Acanthisitti and Passeri or oscines. Of these three suborders of Passerines one of the most recognized is the Oscine suborder. Oscines are most commonly identified due to their ability to control the syrinx muscles which are responsible for producing vocal sounds. Uniquely though, while this variation in vocal skills can be seen in many different Oscine species, in others it can be indistinguishable to the human ear. One good example of an Oscine species that produces an impressive vocal range that is seldom recognized by humans is the crow. Where the crow may not be recognized for its vocal range another bird, the lyrebird, known for its ability to imitate, is commonly sought after simply for its vocal capacity. Passerine species are recognized for being somewhat smaller bird species with the largest of the species being the raven that can weigh over three pounds and measure over twenty-eight inches long! The smallest of all Passerine species is the short-tailed pygmy tyrant, a bird that measures in at just two and a half inches long and weighs just over four grams!

Characteristically the passerine species is known for having three toes that point forwards and a fourth which points backwards. Having this type of foot allows for these species to perch on branches as well as vertical surfaces like cliffs. Passerine birds not only have feet designed for perching but they also have a unique muscle structure in their legs that has adapted to allow for the bird to sleep while perching without falling off the branch. This unique muscle structure automatically becomes tightened when the bird is grasping a perch but begins to show signs of letting go. In addition to unique foot and leg muscle structure, the Passerine bird is also recognized for having unique tail feathers. Most birds of this order are recognized for having twelve tail feathers although certain species have been noted for having more. For many of the order, the tail feathers serve to provide additional balance when the bird is perched on a branch.

While it may seem that birds in the Passerine order have things “figured out” the truth is that these birds require a lot of parental care as young chicks. Passerine chicks are born requiring parental care since they are born without feathers and are completely blind which does not allow them to feed themselves. These young are completely dependent upon their parents for nourishment and care in addition to learning how to fend for themselves. This requirement for parenting is something which other birds prey upon however; a great example of this is the parasitic cuckoo. The parasitic cuckoo camouflages its eggs to resemble those of passerines in order to get their eggs cared for by the Passerine species of choice.

The Estrildidae Family

The Estrildidae family is also recognized as the Estrildid finch. Birds within the Estrildidae family are recognized for being particularly small finch species and are found throughout the old world tropics and Australasia. This family of small birds shows a considerable degree of variety in color and pattern of their coloring but all are characterized as having a short and thick beak which they use for feeding on seeds. One of the most recognizable traits of birds within the Estrildidae family is that they all build large nests that are dome like in shape which help them to regulate their body temperature in varying climates. These small birds are particularly sensitive to cold snaps and are much better adapted to life in tropical environments. The largest known Estrildidae species is the Java sparrow weighing in at 25 grams and measuring in at 6.7 inches long. The smallest known Estrildidae species is the Fernando Po Oliveback that measures in at just 3.3 inches long. The lightest known Estrildidae species is the Black-rumped Waxbill weighing in at just 6 grams.

The Taeniopygia Genus

The Taeniopygia genus is a genus of birds within the Estrildidae family that includes Australian finches including the Zebra finch and the Double-barred finch.

Taeniopygia Guttata or the Zebra Finch

The zebra finch is one of the most commonly recognized species within the estrildid finch family and is not only commonly recognized by bird lovers but also by pet lovers. Zebra finches are commonly sold in pet stores around the world. These small birds are commonly referred to as “ground-dwelling” due to the fact that they most often live in lower vegetation, low growing trees and tall grasslands.

The Appearance of the Zebra Finch

The zebra finch is approximately four inches long and most of the time they are sexually dimorphic in their coloring and the presence of patterns on their feathers. Most male zebra finches have bright orange cheek feathers where the female lacks these brightly colored cheeks; however, it is not unheard of for a male to lack these feathers as well. In some cases, particularly if cross breeding between finch species has occurred at some point in the ancestry of a specific bird, the coloration of the bird can be changed. This type of cross breeding can be the cause of a male zebra finch that lacks orange cheek feathers. If definitive identification is required in the zebra finch species the most common way to do so is by observing the color of the beak. The female zebra finch has an orange beak whereas the male of the species has a red beak. While these beaks are identical in structure the color differences are the single consistently utilized identification method for this species. For young birds in the zebra finch species identification through beak color can be difficult since the young birds all have black beaks until they are around four weeks old.

Vocal Behavior of the Zebra Finch

One of the most appealing aspects of the zebra finch is its vocal ability. The male zebra finch is known among bird lovers for possessing the ability to sing both loud and complex songs that are similar in nature only to those of other birds in their same bloodline. There are numerous sounds that can be heard within the call of the zebra finch including: meeps, beeps, a-ha’s and oi’s. While each male has a rather unique song they all generally begin with a few beeps that run up to a much more complex song. Interestingly to researchers the zebra finch male learns his father’s song and makes a few adjustments to that song to make it his own. Further research has shown that while the song of the juvenile zebra finch may change as a young bird as he finds his own song of sorts, once the bird hits adulthood this song never changes.

The Female Zebra Finch Does Not Sing

It is only the male zebra finch that has the ability to sing and the female does not. The ability to sing is actually something which is built in to the male zebra finch during their development within the egg. Hormonal patterns during development allow for the male zebra finch to develop a song system that begins only as a few small sounds. As the male zebra finch develops he soon learns how to create his own song mimicking his father’s song and contributing his own unique sounds to it. When developing his own song the male zebra finch often also brings in sounds that they hear in their environment which not only include outside sounds but also include sounds made by other zebra finch males.

Why Does the Male Zebra Finch Sing?

Many people want to know why the male zebra finch sings and the male does not. This question is something of a two-part question; the first answer is that it is physiologically not possible for the female to sing as discussed above. The reason why the male sings aside from the fact that he physiologically can, is because he uses his song as a way to attract a mate. A unique study at the RIKEN institute in Japan has found that the male zebra finch actually finds pleasure and emotional reward in singing for a female zebra finch. While the song of the male of the species is mostly used as an identification method and for attracting a mate, this bird is also able to hiss at other males in an attempt to chase them away from an established territory.

The Importance of the Zebra Finch Song

The song of the zebra finch is particularly interesting to a number of researchers in that it is proven through the patterns of song that male zebra finches learn their song. Due to this learned behavior many researchers use this particular species as a model avian organism to investigate a number of neutrally based activities such as memory, learning and sensorimotor integration. After the genome of the chicken was sequenced, the zebra finch became the second bird genome to be contributes to the genome project.

Video: Zebra Finch Singing

Wondering what a zebra finch sounds like? Listen to them sing in this video.

The Diet of the Zebra Finch

By design the zebra finch is a seed eater. The small hard beak of this small finch is designed to break open small seeds particularly millet. While millet is a particular favorite this small bird will venture to eat other small seeds as well. When kept in captivity the zebra finch will eat a variety of foods including small pieces of lettuce, grapes and apples in addition to egg food. While the zebra finch is loved by bird owners for their vocal ability (at least in the males), neatness is not something that should be expected of this bird when it is kept in captivity. When feeding, the zebra finch tends to spray seeds everywhere which can become problematic for bird owners who are hoping for a neat species of bird. Not only does the zebra finch feed quite voraciously, but they also feed quite frequently throughout the day and while one may be tempted to withdraw food from a zebra finch that appears to be overweight, instead exercise should be increased. Zebra finches also enjoy water and will drink readily when it is available and bathe when given the opportunity to do so in a small and shallow bowl. It is important not only to ensure that a finch always has access to fresh food but it is also important to ensure that they always have access to fresh water.

Keeping a Captive Zebra Finch

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Zebra Finches Can Be Kept Indoors and Outdoors

Zebra finches can be kept in captivity both in an indoor and in an outdoor cage and they are noted for being particularly hardy birds. It is important to note that while these birds are considered hardy, they should not be made to face environments that make them naturally uncomfortable. For example a zebra finch that is kept outdoors should always be kept out of the rain and they should be kept away from rapidly changing environments.

The Bigger the Cage the Better

Zebra finches can thrive in both cages and aviaries but since these birds thrive in small communities of paired couples it is important to have a cage that can at least fit one pair of birds comfortably. Most zebra finch owners do prefer to keep their birds outdoors in an aviary however due to the fact that they are so messy and this can cause a lot of additional house cleaning duty! When choosing an enclosure for your zebra finches the process is much the same as selecting an aquarium for fish: the larger the enclosure the better. The minimum recommended size for a zebra finch enclosure is 24 x 16 x 16 inches although this is not the ideal size for a cage it is a healthy size for a couple of zebra finches. On occasion you may run in to finches that are kept in smaller cages, this is usually done for show purposes (when a bird is being shown on exhibition,) when a bird is being bred or when an unexpected cold snap moves in and the birds require protection from extreme temperature changes.

 Provisions for Your Zebra Finch

After providing a safe cage or aviary for your zebra finches it is important to ensure that they have the appropriate equipment in order to be happy in their new environment. It does not take much to keep a zebra finch happy, namely they require feeding pots, a drinker and a bathing pool / dish. In addition if you plan to breed your zebra finches it is important to provide them with a nesting box. Breeding however is not recommended for amateur bird owners and should be left to the professionals and those educated in the details of finch breeding.

The Importance of the Zebra Finch

As you have read above, the zebra finch is not just an important bird due to its status as a beautiful finch that provides bird owners with hours of enjoyment. The zebra finch also plays an important role in the understanding of many bird species and their role in the genome project is invaluable. These small birds may seem somewhat insignificant to a race as “grand” as the human race, but in the terms of our understanding of bird species the zebra finch is a crucial part of the puzzle. Without the zebra finch researchers would have very little understanding of how the memory, learning process and sensorimotor integration neural bases function in many avian species!  This small and somewhat unassuming bird species does in fact play one of the largest roles of any other bird species in terms of helping the human race. This small creature has not only allowed us to trace its individual development pattern through the development of song but also how their developmental process compares to the various other avian species on the planet. It may be small but the zebra finch is one amazing creature representing an entire class of animal.

What do you love most about having a zebra finch as a pet?

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Amy grew up in England and in the early 1990's moved to North Carolina where she completed a bachelors degree in Psychology in 2001. Amy's personal interest in writing was sparked by her love of reading fiction and her creative writing hobby. Amy is currently self employed as a freelance writer and web designer. When she is not working Amy can be found curled up with a good book and her black Labrador, Jet.

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