Zebra Finch - Taeniopygia guttata castanotis eFinch on Facebook
Zebra Finches - Male (right) and female (left)

Common Names
Chestnut-eared finch, spotted-sided finch, Nyi-Nyi and Nyeen-ka (Aboriginal names)

Zebra finches are dimorphic. That is to say that the males and females have different coloration. Males have a number of distinguishing features including: orange cheek patches, stripes on the throat, black bar on the breast and a chestnut colored flank with white spots. Females lack these features and are gray in those areas mentioned. Beak color is generally a brighter red in males and a orange color in females. This is variable based on the breeding condition of the birds. Juveniles fledge looking like females, but with a black beak. The beak and adult colors are usually complete by the time the young are 90 days old.

There are a number of mutations that can alter these colors and dimorphic characteristics. See the individual pages on the specific color mutations for descriptions of the altered colors and how that effects the sexing of the birds.

A standard finch mix will be fine with Zebra finches. They eagerly take egg food (Roy's egg food), greens and soaked seed, although I rarely feed the later two. Zebra finches are adapted to survive and raise their young on lower protein levels than many other finches and can actually raise their young on seed alone. This is not advisable however since the young will be of substandard quality. Grit and calcium in the form of crushed egg and oyster shells and cuttlebone should always be available to them. Zebra finches will usually decimate a cuttlebone and although crushed hen's eggs have a higher calcium level, picking at the cuttlebone seems to keep the beak in shape and relieve some frustration that they might otherwise take out on another bird's feathers.

Breeder's Notes
The Zebra finch is a highly adaptable species that will breed under the most adverse conditions. It is the perfect avicultural specimen. It can take extremes in temperature, is highly resistant to disease and parasites, can survive on minimal food and water of atrocious quality, requires minimal space and gets along well with other of its kind and other species and will attempt to breed in any of those conditions. There was a report of wild specimens that were captured and placed in a holding cage attempting to breed while that cage was still in the back of the vehicle. Now that's a ready breeder! In the wild, the rains trigger the breeding season. Wild males will begin courting as soon as 48 hours after the first rains. With the domesticated Zebras, they are nearly always ready to breed. For some, it is more difficult to get them to stop breeding than to start and the only way I have found to stop them is to remove the nest box. This won't stop the hens from laying eggs, but it does remove a formal nest that they will defend, lay and incubate eggs in.

Zebras will nest in just about anything they can stick their bodies into. Breeders have used finch boxes with half open and hole entrances, baskets, both open and closed types, milk cartons and tin cans. Anything will do for the Zebra finch. I prefer to use a standard wooden finch box. I have a design with a half moon opening at the top, but also use half open fronts for many of the pairs. Some cages have an external nest box that the breeding pair enters through a hole in the cage. I usually place saw dust in the bottom of the nest box and then place some straw and/or fine grasses in the box in the rough shape of a nest. This just gives the pair a head start on the nest and if they are not spectacular nest builders, something to lay their eggs in. I then offer a variety of other materials for them to fine tune their nest to their likeing. I often provide coco fiber, jute fiber or strands and some feathers. Given enough material, the Zebras will build their nest to the entrance hole. They like to look out of the nest while incubating eggs (CFW hen in nest). Once laying has started though, the material should be removed since Zebras are notorious for building sandwich nests. That is a layer upon layer of completed nests and clutches of eggs. The average clutch will consist of 4-7 small white eggs laid at the rate of one per day.

Incubation will usually begin in earnest after the third or fourth egg is laid. Both sexes share in the incubation duties with one relieving the other to feed and drink and then both remaining in the nest at night. The eggs will begin to hatch after 12 or 13 days (chicks hatching), depending upon how tightly the pair sat during incubation. The chicks hatch out with light colored fuzz on the body which is usually dark skinned, but can vary depending upon the color or mutation of the young (see gape markings of nestlings). The young grow rapidly and are feathered by 16 days (Clutch of chicks Approx 16 days) and will begin to venture out of the nest starting at around 18 days of age (Fledgling male). The males can often be identified by the whiter rump feathers. The young are fed for an additional 14-21 days with the male taking on much of that duty towards the end. By the time the young are weaned the parents will have likely started another clutch of eggs and are chasing off the young. This chasing can sometimes seem merciless, but the young are rarely seriously harmed. If the young are independent and the parents are chasing the young, they should be removed or they will likely be heavily feather plucked. I usually remove the eggs of the second clutch if the young are not ready to be moved. It's better to let the parents rest a little between clutches rather than taxing them with repeated clutches so close to each other. I usually will take no more than 3-4 clutches from a breeding pair before giving them a rest. They are fully capable of raising clutches non-stop for years, but the resulting young are substandard and the adults are worn out. Besides, I have usually raised all that I will need from that pair within those few clutches anyway.

Although it has been shown that Zebra finches can raise their young on substantially lower protein levels than most finches, it is best to provide some form of complete protein while they are raising young. There is a marked improvement in size and vigor of the young that are produced. I find that my egg food mix (Roy's egg food) is suficient to meet their needs, but any egg food that is high in egg content should be fine. If you feed leafy greens, be sure that the pair is actually eating all that you provide and not using in for nesting material. They will take just about anything into the nest when they are determined to builed more and the wilted greens may rot and mold in the nest or they will cover the eggs with it. For more information on breeding Zebra finches and associated problems, see the Breeding section.

Additional Notes
You will find references to 'English', 'German' and 'American' Zebra finches by U.S. breeders. This is not really a reference to their country of origin (although it did originally) or a separate species, but a reference to their size and shape. In Britain and Europe, Zebra finches are bred for competition in shows. These shows have standards that required that the birds display a certain shape and size. Through selective breeding, the size of the Zebra finch has been increased dramatically and the shape has been altered as well. The birds display a more robust and rounded appearance often referred to as 'cobby', which is an English term that has no direct translation other than to say that the animal should appear to have great substance. We still refer to them as English or German Zebras because these are the countries that these show birds were originally imported from. The term American zebra really refers to a zebra that is closer to the wild-type Zebra in terms of size and shape because U.S. breeders did not attempt to alter the physical characteristics through selective breeding. The difference between the names 'German' and 'English here in the U.S. stem back to the size of the original imported stock as well. At that time, the birds imported from Germany were larger than those previously imported from England. The current situation has much of this stock mixed up, though there still appears to be some differences in the birds. I personally have found that stock labeled as 'German', while perhaps being larger than 'English' birds, resulted in offspring that were longer and more 'tubular' than I desired.

The Zebra finch is like the 'white lab rat' of the finch world. No other finch has been studied as closely or had as much written about them as the Zebra finch. There are numerous studies of wild Zebras in their natural environment as well as laboratory studies of song learning, imprinting and mate selection to name just a few.

There have been studies to determine how long these desert adapted finches can survive without water. The longest study was 1-1/2 years. The late Dr. Luis Baptista of the San Francisco Academy of Science also conducted a study on water deprivation with Zebras and told me that he gave up after 1 year and gave the birds water because he felt sorry for them, but was confident that they could have survived for a much longer period without water. They survived on metabolic water alone. However, Zebras cannot survive a single day without food. Also, don't call me if you deprive your favorite Zebra finch of water and it dies. The studies were valid, but they also incurred some losses.

Zebra finch males learn their song from song tutors, usually that is their father or the male that feeds them. There is a basic framework to their song, but during their sensitive phase they will learn and add notes and change the song to create their own. Zebra males that are fostered under Society finches will pick up the song of the Society male and incorporate notes and to some extent the rhythm of the Society song onto the Zebra song framework. They can also pick up notes from unrelated species in their environment. I borrowed a Zebra male that had been raised in the presence of Ringneck Pheasants and his song had the normal rhythm, but had the squawk of the pheasant incorporated into his song.

The Zebra finch will hybridize with a number of different species. Although they are often kept in mixed colonies, they rarely will choose a mate outside of their species. The only exception to this would be the Timor Zebra finch, a subspecies of the Australian Zebra finch. These will readily hybridize and should not be housed together. Timor Zebras are still rather rare in American aviculture so this is really only of concern to breeders of the Timor species. Those hybrids are fertile. The Australian Zebra has been hybridized with Owl finches, their closest relative and Society finches, another very common domesticated finch just to name a few. Those hybrids with other species are infertile.

Zebra finches can be used for fostering other species. The more closely the species is related to the Zebra finch, the more likely they will be successful in raising that species. Owl finch hatchlings are nearly identical in appearance to Zebra finch hatchlings. They only way to distinguish the two is by mouth markings. For some Zebras used as fosters though, this may be enough for them to reject any Owl finches that are mixed with their own. Therefore, it is advisable not to mix species or ages of chicks that you wish the Zebra finch to foster.

A 1 cent stamp from Australia featured the Zebra finch. (click to view stamp).

The Zebra finch is the most popular finch in aviculture and is second only to the Canary and the Budgerigar as the most popular cage bird.

Wild Zebra finch male

Color Varieties (click each variety to learn more)
Chestnut Flanked White (CFW)
Black Breasted
Orange Breasted
Black Cheek
Recessive Silver
Florida Fancy
Dominant Silver
Black Face
Fawn Cheek/Gray Cheek
Yellow Beak
Agate (These were imported, but not well established. They may still be around)

Timor Zebra (T. guttata guttata) - The only subspecies of Australian Zebra finch

Other mutations not yet available in the United States.
Isabel (Australia) Very similar to the US Florida Fancy
George (Australia)
Slate (Australia) Very similar to US Recessive Silver
Grizzle (Australia)
Black Front (Australia)
Charcoal (Australia)