The Gray Singing Finch
Robert G. Black
The Gray Singing Finch is one of those nondescript-appearing little finches that most people will never look at twice.  This is their loss, however, for hidden in this drab, mottled gray plumage is a heart and song as big as all outdoors.  This little finch has the sweetest singing voice that I have ever heard in any finch species.  You may also see this species called the Gray Canary, and most field guides and ornithological references call this species the White-rumped Serin or the White-rumped Seedeater.  This conspicuous white rump is the most colorful part of the bird, unfortunately, and it is not widely popular as an avicultural subject because of this total lack of color.

 The scientific and ornithological name of this species was assigned by Carl Sundevall in 1850 in Öfversigt af Kungliga Svenska Vetenskaps-Akademien Förhandlingar, the journal of the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences, volume 7, on page 127, as Crithagra leucopyga.  Further study of the various species of finches in the 1800’s placed this species in the genus Serinus, and the scientific name was changed to Serinus leucopygius, and that remains the current scientific name for this species.

 The Gray Singing Finch is native to Africa south of the Sahara Desert.  Its range extends from Senegal east to the Sudan, and it is found around farms, villages, and gardens.  This species is also common in the dry, brushy areas.  Ornithologists recognize three subspecies of the Gray Singing Finch.  The nominate subspecies is Serinus leucopygius leucopygius, and it is found from the Sudan and Ethiopia south to Uganda.  Serinus leucopygius pallens is found from Niger to northern Nigeria, and Serinus leucopygius riggenbachi is found from Senegal to western Sudan.

 This is one of the few finches that we maintain in aviculture that was not placed in the traditional family Estrildidae.  Like the canaries, buntings, bullfinches and siskins, the Gray Singing Finch was classified in the traditional family Fringillidae.  However, the work of Charles G. Sibley, Burt L. Monroe, Jr.,  and Jon E. Ahlquist in the 1970’s and 1980’s in protein electrophoresis and DNA analysis made major changes in the taxonomic structure of the finch families.  This research has resulted in the redistribution of the various traditional families of finches into only two new passerine families: Fringillidae, and Passeridae.  In the reorganized Sibley-Monroe checklist of the birds of the world, the Gray Singing Finches have been placed in the vastly expanded family Fringillidae.

 Sexing these tiny finches is very difficult, as there are no obvious differences between the cock and the hen.  Most works on ornithology and aviculture say the sexes are identical, but only the male will sing.  Marking the birds so that you can sex them accurately when you catch the male signing is usually the easiest way of sexing them.  Many breeders, dating as far back as the 1800’s, have noted that the males seem to have a white patch under the break that is totally lacking in the hen.  This white patch is much more noticeable when the cock swells his throat for singing.  If you maintain proven pairs of this species, check them closely to see if this difference holds true in your own birds.  Sexing of this species will be made far easier for the future if this apparent sex difference can be confirmed beyond doubt.

 Like its close relative, the Green Singing Finch, the male Gray Singing Finch can be extremely aggressive to others of its own kind and to closely related species.  Though most members of this species will be compatible with other finches of a different genus or family, some will extend their hostility to all other small birds.  Be aware of this possibility before you place your Gray Singing Finches with other small birds.

 Any diet that is adequate for keeping canaries healthy and breeding will also be a good diet for the Gray Singing Finches, since they are closely related, with both classified in the genus Serinus.  My own basic daily diet for them is white proso millet, canary seed, hard-boiled and mashed egg, crushed eggshell, and some greens each day.  They are particularly fond of dark greens such as kale, rape, collards, and broccoli leaves.   Rapeseed grows beautiful blue-green leaves that any birds in this family dearly love.  Everyone who raises any of the serins should have a small plot of rapeseed planted, so that you can give each bird one small, tender leaf of these greens every day.

 I have always used mashed, hard-boiled eggs as a high-protein food for the Gray Singing Finches, and for all other finches.  Eggs are cheap, highly nutritious, available anywhere, and they are easy to prepare.  Also, eggs contain a nearly perfect balance of vitamins, minerals, and fats.   Once any bird learns that this is a food item, the bird will eat it regularly and willingly.  In order to prepare this egg mixture, simply boil an egg for about ten minutes (a couple of minutes longer for extra large eggs).  Cool the eggs in cold water, and then peel the shell off.  You’ll find that the shell peels off very easily, because the egg absorbs the water as it cools, and this additional water keeps the shell membrane from sticking to the shell and makes the egg much easier to shell.  Once the shell is off, dry the egg gently in a paper towel to remove the excess moisture.

 Once the egg is reasonably dry, mash it thoroughly with a fork to mix the white and the yolk uniformly.  The resulting mix will be an appetizing, uniform, light yellow color.  If the color is leaning towards olive, you have boiled the eggs too long.  Longer boiling begins to tie up the free sulfur in the egg, which then forms these dirty green compounds, making the egg mix appear rather unappetizing. You can add a slightly heaping teaspoon of any commercial powdered vitamin-mineral supplement to the egg for even better nutritional results.  I have always used and recommended Vionate( for this purpose.  If you can find soy protein isolate, a teaspoon of that added to the mix and blended thoroughly will increase the protein content of the egg greatly.  When mixed with these dry supplements, the egg will not spoil during the day unless it gets wet.  Mashed, hard-boiled egg prepared in this manner will dry out and harden in the feeding dishes if the birds don’t consume all of it.  These birds will not touch anything that is wet and mushy, and an egg mix that is too wet will be spoiled and rotten within a matter of hours.  Any food that is this ideal for birds is also an ideal food for bacteria and other microorganisms.  Also, remember that it is the white of the egg that is the protein, not the yolk!  The yolk contains all of the other vital nutrients that a growing bird needs.  Crush the leftover eggshell and feed it separately as an excellent and free calcium source for your finches.

 All finches and other birds in my experience will eat this egg mix daily and eagerly, once they become accustomed to it, and it will supply all of the complete protein necessary for raising any of the finches, doves, quail and small psittacines.  If you don’t need the entire egg for one feeding, it is safe to refrigerate the remainder for a few days.  For longer periods, you can divide the finished mix into daily portions, wrap each portion in any clear freezer wrap, and freeze enough for each day’s feeding in a separate package.  Thaw one of these each morning for use in your day’s feeding.  Freezing results in very little nutrient destruction, and this method works very well when a friend is caring for your birds during trips and vacations.  Freezing does change the texture of the mix, however, so it is always better to feed the mix fresh if you can.

 All small birds love the crushed eggshells, and they will not cause any bird to start eating its own eggs.  An available calcium source is always necessary for the Gray Singing finches, because most plant foods are very high in phosphorus, while the bird’s body needs a much higher proportion of calcium.  This additional calcium available constantly is crucially important to enable the birds to balance the calcium/ phosphorus ratio in their diets and in their bodies.  They will eat this calcium supplement instinctively whenever they feel the need to balance their intake of calcium and phosphorus.

 Introducing them to the large, shelled sunflower seeds is a trick, since they may not recognize these large seeds as a food item.  If you will simply chop up a few of these seeds for them, they are sure to try the small pieces and will love them after that.  They soon realize that the large seeds are the same as these tasty little chunks, and they will take bite-sized chunks out of the whole seeds on their own from then on.  This is also an excellent way to introduce this nutritious food item to all other finches.  Niger or flax may be substituted for the sunflower seeds, of course, or given as extra additions to the diet, but they are not essential for the health of Gray Singing Finches, and they are usually much more expensive than sunflower seeds.

 Breeding the Gray Singing Finches is not too difficult, but you must keep in mind that they come from equatorial areas, and their normal breeding season begins during our autumn months here in the Northern Hemisphere.  You can expect this species to come into breeding condition beginning in September, and they will continue to breed during our fall and winter months in North America.

 The male will inform you that the breeding season has arrived when his soft, beautiful song becomes louder and more insistent.  The male will pursue the hen as the canary male does, and if you keep two or more males in different enclosures, they will try to outdo each other in singing to stake out their territory and their claim to any hen within sight or hearing.

 Though they may breed successfully in either a cage or an aviary, you should keep only one pair per enclosure.  This species is very demanding when it comes to territory for a pair, particularly during the breeding season.  They will tolerate no other birds of their own species in their enclosure, no matter how big it is.  If you try to place more than one pair in a cage or aviary during the breeding season, they will spend all of their time fighting and will never breed.

 Gray Singing Finches need a somewhat hidden nesting site to give them a sense of security as they prepare to raise their young ones.  In a flight cage, this can take the form of a clump of artificial greenery fastened up in one corner of the cage.  As a nesting receptacle, a regular tea strainer fastened securely in this hidden corner is ideal for the Gray Singers.  Many breeders have also had them accept a half-open nestbox or other covered nesting receptacle.  One of the woven, covered, wicker, nesting receptacles is often accepted, for it is reasonably open, while still giving them the privacy and sense of security that they need.

 Gray Singing Finches build a very small, extremely neat little nest, much like that of the Green Singing Finch.  When the nest is completed, the hen will lay a small clutch of tiny, mottled eggs, usually only two or three eggs per clutch when breeding in captivity.  As is true with the domesticated canaries in the same family and genus, the hen does most of the work, including all of the incubation and most of the early feeding of the young.  The male will at least feed her on the nest and as the babies grow after they hatch, he assumes a greater part of their feeding.

 Once the young hatch, they grow very rapidly and usually leave the nest before they are three weeks of age.  Any canary breeder will be familiar with the actions of the parent birds as they feed, and of the nestlings and fledglings as they are fed.  There are no more heartwarming sights in the avicultural world than these.

 Most of the Gray Singing Finches now available are imported birds, and the biggest problem you are likely to have in breeding them is to have the pair toss the babies out of the nest and abandon them as soon as they hatch.  This happens frequently with imported finches when the adult birds are unable to find the termites and other live insect foods that they are used to feeding their babies in the wild.  Sensing a famine with insufficient food for raising the young, the adult birds instinctively terminate the breeding cycle at this point.

 Though they may not recognize egg mix or the commercial crumbles as ideal foods for feeding their babies, the Gray Singers will probably accept small mealworms, especially newly molted ones that are soft and lighter in color.  If you can get a culture of Lesser Mealworms, Alphitobius diaperinus, started and available before the babies hatch, the adult Gray Singing Finches are almost certain to accept these as a food for their nestlings.  Lesser Mealworms are cultured in the same manner as the larger mealworms, Tenebrio molitor, only they are much smaller.  The worms are only one-half inch long when mature, and the beetles are not much more than 3/8 of an inch long.  Lesser mealworms are native to North America, and you can find them anywhere that grain products are exposed to the outdoors, as in the litter at an egg farm.

 Once the young ones have been raised under your own conditions and have been eating your high-protein foods all of their lives, they will be much more likely to feed these foods to their own young ones when they begin to breed on their own.  These first generation birds raised under your own conditions are your most valuable, as they can be the start of a dependable breeding strain of these finches.  Sooner or later, all importation is going to cease, and only the established breeding strains of the Gray Singing Finches will be available to supply any of these birds to the aviculturists of the future.

 If you are a new finch fancier looking for a species that is easy to maintain, hardy, and has the noteworthy advantage of a beautiful song, or if you are an experienced breeder just looking for something a little different, the Gray Singing Finch is a good choice.  What it lacks in color, it more than compensates for in its beautiful song.  You will hear this song mostly in the early morning and in the late afternoon, a series of gentle chirps and trills which is like a soft canary song, yet which is different.  This finch can teach us much about humanity, for it proves that in the most drab of physical bodies may reside the most beautiful of singing spirits!

Copyright 1998 Robert Black