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Fire Finches

Check out the fire finches, native to African grasslands.

By Karl Lieberman

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There are about 10 species of fire finch, depending on which reference is used. These include the red bill (Senegal), black belly, blue bill and the black face. All fire finches are native to Africa and most have been unavailable in this country since the early 90s.  Fortunately, importation has resumed over the last couple of years and fair numbers of them are available to private breeders at this time. The Senegal (aka red-billed fire finch) represents the majority of the birds now in this country but the Jameson’s, black belly, black face and several others can also be found.

All species are dimorphic, meaning that males are easily distinguished from females. Male fire finches are varying shades of red accented with black, gray or brown. Some species have tiny white- or ivory-colored spots on the breast or flanks. Female birds are mainly earthy brown in color and some have a pinkish wash to the face or breast. Pair bonding is somewhat loose with fire finches and they are not overly affectionate toward one another but normally stay in close proximity.

Fire finches can be sensitive to stress and diet changes and therefore should be treated carefully when first purchased. A wide variety of food items, including high-fat seeds such as niger, seem to help them make the necessary transition. Spray millet is also an important food for newly imported birds.

Fire finches come from mostly arid regions, so damp conditions should be avoided. Sand is the preferred ground cover for aviaries.  They prefer bright and sunny conditions but should always have access to water and shade. Good lighting also shows the rich and subtle coloring of the fire finches.

All species of fire finch spend a lot of time on or near the ground and seem to like stones or very low perches that keep them off the cage bottom. Fire finches are not aggressive birds and can be mixed safely with other species but breeding results are usually better when they are housed in small groups or as single pairs.  Various species of fire finch can be housed together without aggression, but hybridizing can happen so just one species per enclosure is ideal.

Breeding In Aviaries
Fire finches are not considered an easy species to breed in our aviaries. An exception to this is the little red-billed fire finch, which has proven to be a ready breeder and good parent. I know of several cases where they have bred in fairly small spaces and without live food.  Freshly grated egg is offered as a substitute for insects and the red bill readily consume it and feed it to their babies. The red bill can also be utilized as foster parents for the more difficult species. Fostered young are usually better breeders later on because they are comfortable in captive conditions.

Male fire finches have almost no audible song and their courtship displays are very subtle and easy to miss. Nesting activity is also done quite secretly. Because of their love of privacy, nest checks are not advisable because there is a strong chance that the parents will desert the young.

Nest building is typical for African grassland finches. The spherical nest is usually built near or even on the ground in a shrub or clump of grass. In their native range, most of the vegetation is only a few feet high, which explains their tendency to nest low to the ground. In captivity, most will accept a wicker finch basket but will usually build their own nest if given a suitable place to do so. Suitable nesting material includes coconut fiber, shredded burlap, sisal and Bermuda grass. Like most African finches, fire finches like to line their nests, particularly with small white feathers. Sanitized feathers from an inexpensive down pillow are good for this.  Finely shredded white tissue makes an acceptable substitute if you don’t have feathers.

The nest entrance is built to the side or at the bottom and is well hidden. Fire finches tend to be very secretive while nesting and are rarely seen entering or leaving their nests. Disturbances should be kept to a minimum to increase the odds of success.

Sometimes fire finches build a “cock’s nest” at the top of the dome. This type of nest is a false nest, meant to fool passing predators into thinking the site is not being used, while the real nest is hidden in the center of the bundle of grasses. Sometimes the male bird will add discarded eggshells or old feathers to the false nest to add to the illusion. The parent birds are diligent about removing droppings from the nest in order to keep it odor free to avoid detection.

All species lay four to six tiny white eggs incubation lasts around 13 days. All species of fire finch babies have dark skin and long gray down. They also have fluorescent tubercles at the corner of the mouth or markings on the upper palate, which helps parents to feed them in the darkness of the nest. In the wild, fire finches are thought to feed only insects to their young for the first 10 or so days.  Their breeding season is slightly variable and always follows the rains when insects are plentiful. Youngsters fledge at about 18 to 19 days and are independent around 10 days later. Males begin to get some red feathering at around 6 to 7 weeks, making sexing very easy.


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