The Red-browed Finch

Words and Photographs by Peter Odekerken

This beautiful species of finch also known as the Red-browed Firetail is often overlooked in captivity, largely because it is common in most areas colonised by humans. From the time I became interested in birds at a very young age I have been captivated by the lively colours and cheerful disposition of this bird.


Distribution

The Red-browed Finch Aegintha temporalis temporalis is found along the entire east coast of Australia from Buchans Point, north of Cairns continuing south as far as Adelaide and Kangaroo Island. It has also been released into the south-west of Western Australia and various countries abroad such as New Zealand, New Caledonia, Fiji and French Polynesia. In fact, I recently saw them in good numbers on Ua Huka, approximately 1500 km east-north-east of Tahiti, feeding under the citrus trees in the orchard of the Botanical Gardens there. Overseas, this bird is often referred to as the Sydney Waxbill.

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Description

At one time there were three recognised races of this species:

Aegintha temporalis temporalis

The nominate race A. t. temporalis is found over much of its range. Weighing approximately 10 grams in the wild, the bird is predominantly grey in colour. The crown and nape are dark grey and the sides of the head, chest, flanks and undertail coverts are a paler grey.

Crimson features on the uppertail coverts and is prominent on the rump, the lores and the eye stripe.

A thin, golden olive band is found between the nape and upper back. The wing-coverts are green with an olive tinge. The cheeks under the eye are whitish as is the chin, particularly under the bill. The bill itself is red on the sides with a black stripe running the entire length in the centre of the top and bottom mandibles. The centre of the abdomen is a pale cream, the feet a pinkish red and the iris reddish brown.

Hens are generally lighter in colouration when a known pair are viewed together. The cock’s red eye-brow is also usually more extensive and the underparts are browner in the hen. Danny McGowan (pers.comm.)—who is most knowledgeable on finches and has observed them in the wild—says that ‘cocks are consistently darker at the undertail coverts than hens. Juveniles are duller than their parents with black bills. Length is approximately 120mm’.

Aegintha temporalis minor

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The Lesser Red-browed Finch A. t. minor is a distinctive race found in the Cape York region. Their exact range is sketchy because of the scarcity of accurate observations in the area. This race is smaller and generally paler overall than the nominate-particularly the grey which is paler throughout. The white under the bill, at the sides of the beak and the centre of the abdomen is very noticeable.

In Iron Range, far northern Queensland, the birds are actually darker, particularly in the underparts. And yet, in the southern part of its range, the N. t. minor is in fact whiter in body colouration (Danny McGowan, pers.comm.). Birds found in the southern part of their range in particular are wonderful examples, with very white underparts. The black and upper wing-converts are almost golden. The golden olive band between the nape and upper back seen on the nominate is not readily visible. The candy-stripe red colouration of the eye-brow is very prominent. The rump and uppertail coverts are scarlet. This smaller and more-brightly coloured race is seldom seen in captivity.

Aegintha temporalis loftyi

Formerly, A. t. loftyi was found in the Mt Lofty Ranges, near Adelaide, down to Kangaroo Island. This subspecies was said to have a browner head and belly, however recent research has found that the skins available do not show any substantial variation from the nominate. Russell Kingston of Queensland who is familiar with all the forms has this variant and describes it as being larger than the nominant.


Habitat

The Red-browed Finch is generally found in wetter areas of Australia, usually amongst the foliage of protective vegetation from which it ventures periodically to feed on the ground a short distance away. Ideal areas are forested groves with open grassland nearby - they are also frequently seen along road verges. Red-browed Finches have also become fond of the introduced lantana weed - its interlockign growth suits the habits of this bird perfectly.

This species has been able to survive where humans have altered their habitat, as long as seeding grasses and scrub are around to hide and nest within. Unfortunately, however, cats in urban open forest situations do take a heavy toll. Essentially, this species disappears as more densely populated areas are being developed and their habitat as described above is altered.

The Lesser Red-browed Finch prefers vine scrub habitat and has been found in very large flocks on occasion, with a record of more than a thousand at one sighting. Observations in Cape York indicate that the birds are more nomadic.


Habits

Red-browed Finches forage on seeding grasses using their bills to pull seed heads towards their feet, securing the heads against a perch, then extracting seeds from the heads at their leisure. While usually found in small flocks communicating with their thin, high pitched 'zeeee' call, they seem to become more solitary in the breeding season, meeting in smaller groups at a seed source to protect each other from goshawks and other predators.

Bird banding results indicate that the species is largely sedentary, with recoveries within a 10km radius - however, one bird is recorded as having traveled 42km. Another bird was recaptured at the original banding site seven years and four months later - it is thought that most birds would not live this long in the wild. Often found foraging for seeds and the occasional insect with other species, particularly other finch species, they are very often found in close association with Casuarina spp - the seeds of which are much sought after. They also enjoy the introduced lantana berry.


Nesting

In the wild, depending on conditions, Red-browed Finches can breed throughout the year.

This species has been found to nest colonially, although mostly a solitary nest is constructed in a tree or in scrub. In colony, three nests were found touching in the same scrub - a unique discovery since most pairs usually keep some distance between each other. The birds build a bulky, untidy domed nest, usually close to the centre of the plant. Preference for prickly foliage has been recorded. Up to eight eggs can be laid with 4-5 white oval eggs the norm. Both sexes incubate, relieving each other periodically throughout the day and roosting together in the nest at night. Incubation usually lasts about 13 days but this can vary depending on the climate and the behaviour of the pair concerned. The first few days after hatching young are fed by both parents - mainly on insects. Soon after, the parents feed husked seed in greater proportions.

Young usually fledge at about two weeks of age and can forage for themselves in another two weeks. Both parents and young return to the nest at night.


In Captivity

Although the nominate is frequently seen in captivity, only dedicated finch breeders tend to put the effort into breeding them. Unfortunately, these birds are easily acquired by illegal trapping so they remain a relatively cheap species. If they were rare much more effort would be placed into breeding them - such a shame as they are really worthwhile to breed in captivity. Many people see this species in large flocks around aviaries and in parks and, within these situations, aggression is countered by space.

Keep in mind that a large planted aviary is more suitable for keeping Red-browed Finches in numbers. They can be aggressive and if the aviary does not allow for escape then results in breeding will be low and deaths can occur. It is often necessary to provide more than one seed tray so that one bird cannot dominate a single food source. Aviary design shoudl allow for good sheltered areas where birds can avoid damp and draughty conditions.

Planted aviaries are almost essential to keep these birds for aviary breeding and to create security from other species if kept in communal conditions. Planted aviaries are much more attractive than stark breeding cages with a clump of dry brush in a corner. we should allow our captive birds an environment that replicates their wild state in miniature.

A prickly, bushy shrub is a preferred nesting site for these birds who demonstrate a preference for living plants - nestboxes are usually avoided. In captivity nesting usually takes place in the warmer months.

A high quality finch mix incorporating French and Japanese millet, canary seed, red and yellow panicum and niger is appropriate. Seeds from Casuarina spp are greatly appreciated. If cones are collected and placed on the floor - in a dry area or in a tray - they soon open and fall out of the casing. Livefood, seeding heads such as wild panic and sprouted seeds are essential especially during breeding.

Provide increased livefood, soaked seed and cuttlefish just prior to and throughout the breeding period. The supply of wholemeal bread and sponge cake moistened with raw sugar water during nesting benefit the young. Mineral grit, cuttlefish bone and charcoal should always be provided. Clean drinking water and bathing water is a necessity.

These birds deserve a place in a planted aviary and complement a mixed collection with their lively colours. 

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