Black Crested Finch, A Decade of Domestic Breeding

By Stephen L. Hoppin, N. Fort Meyers, Florida

Little has been written and even less documented about the domestic breeding habits of the Black-crested finch (Lophospingus pusillus). In this article it is my intention to share my experiences which have contributed to successfully breeding the very beautiful Black-crested to multi-generation (4th). And, if any or all of the information contained within can offer information leading to successful captive breeding of same or other avian species, then the article was worth writing..

The Black-crested finch, incorrectly called the Pygmy Cardinal and the Crested Bunting is not a true cardinal nor bunting. Being approximately 12.5cm (5 in.) to 14cm (5 ½ in) in length they belong to the Order Passeriformes and Family Emberizidae.

The basic color scheme sounds dull because it consists of black, white and grey; but, the precise and pleasing arrangement of these colors along with a beautifully proportioned body, long tail, and prominent crest, lifts this bird into the realm of extraordinary beauty.

The lower mandible and legs are flesh colored. Upper mandible is flesh colored with a medium brownish grey cast. The cock has a long feathered black crest that is nearly always erected. The black coloring starts at the crown and continues through the nape to the back. The rest of the head is white except for a broad swath of black covering the lores, eyes, and cheek areas and a strong black throat patch. The rest of the bird is a pleasant and uniform shade of grey which is darker on the upperparts and lighter on the underparts. The center of the belly and crissum white. Wing-coverts are broadly tipped whitish and the tail dusky grey with large white corners (conspicuous in flight).

The hen is slightly less bold in color with grey tinged brownish (especially above). It retains the crest but lacks the black throat patch.

The Black-crested habitats semi-open, arid, sandy areas and shrubby plains ranging from SE Bolivia to W Paraguay to northern Argentina. They are usually found in small flocks (especially when not breeding) which feed on the ground or at roadsides, flushing when disturbed into low trees and shrubbery.

In Finches and Softbilled Birds, Bates and Busenbark describe the Black-crested finch as “a very desirable aviary bird”, “should be included in every collection”, and “not often available”. Hobbyists may remember infrequent occasions as recently as 1979 when sporadically these birds could be purchased in wholesale lots of 50 or more for $17.50 a piece. In the early ‘80’s I recall them being occasionally available in retail pet shops of South Florida commanding $100.00 – $150.00 a pair. At this price they would sell quickly to discerning fanciers.

Through the late 1970’s few recorded successful breedings of the Black-crested finch occurred within the U.S., so few that a domestic population from which to acquire birds was virtually not heard of. And following the implementation of the Wild Bird Conservation Act of 1992 specimens being imported into the U.S. became a rarity.

The year was 1980 when I , a novice finch breeder, experienced my first exposure to this striking crested finch. I attended my first local bird club meeting in SW Florida where upon members were involved in the final stage preparation of their annual bird show. By the end of the social gathering and meeting I was a new club member delegated to steward the Finch Division of the up-coming show. It was at this bird show, as acting steward that upon receiving and viewing a Black-crested finch entry that I was captivated. So very captivated, that by days end I was determined that someday I would gain enough experience to attempt keeping and breeding this finch in my outdoor aviaries. Little did I know then that if and when the time approached, the availability of Black-crest’s would be extremely limited.

In late 1987 I was achieving success parent rearing various Australian and Indo-Pacific species in outdoor cage and aviary when rumor began spreading among aviculturists the government was working on a bill that in the very near future ( possibly in the next five years) would greatly limit avian importation or stop completely. It was then I began to review my future goals and intentions as an American aviculturist. After full review, it appeared to me the number of breeders achieving successful domestic genetically diverse populations of Australian finches in the U.S. far, far out-weighed and out-numbered that of breeders concentrating on finches of Africa, Central and South America, etc. If aviculturists did not attempt broadening specialization breeding of other challenging finch species chances were many, many finch species would no longer exist in American aviculture. I then believed my experience as a breeder now afforded me to take risk and strongly consider attempting domestic propagation of other challenging finch species. At years end I made the decision to liquidate most current stock and initiate a breeding program that would include smaller African waxbills (five species; Red Cheek Cordon Bleu, St. Helena Waxbill, Senegal Firefinch, Orange Cheek Waxbill, and the Gold-breasted waxbill) and (hopefully) Black-crested’s. Had I gone mad?!?

Word spread I was selling out my current stock and within a month I was almost birdless. I began renovating aviaries primarily for the potential avian acquisitions however continued to keep and work with only a couple pair of Goulds, Red-faced Stars, and Red-headed Parrot Finches in the interim.

My short-term goal with the Black-crested was same as waxbills; to obtain five pair which would give me fairly good odds at setting up compatible pairs for the next few years and possibly long-term breeding. My first pair of Black-crested finches were acquired in late 1988 through a local pet shop.

Considering at the present time I could find little written or documented on the breeding of the Black-crested finch, my first year primarily consisted of study and observation and trial and error with my one and only pair. In July of 1989 the well acclimated pair were housed separately in a west, outdoor shaded 3’w x 6’h x 8’d aluminum aviary with concrete floor. The pair attempted nesting however, did not achieve success in this aviary until the following year.

In April of 1990 the pair came into season as the cock started singing his very loud and melodious courtship song. The pair were now readily accepting varied, non-fortified finch seed, egg food (Robert Black’s hi-protein recipe), cucumbers, peas, fresh cut corn, baked egg shells and mealworms consistently offered twice a day. Within a few weeks I witnessed the rather short, yet vigorous and aggressive courtship. The cock would continue to dive straight at the hen, while in full song, and attempt to stimulate her to a brief chase that, if and only if the hen was ready, would end with copulation taking place on a perch or aviary wall ledge. In June I started noticing the hen consistently perching, crouching, and attempting squatty balance on a small, short, and narrow west aviary wall ledge approximately 4 ft off the ground. I then realized she was demonstrating to the cock where she wanted the nest constructed. I soon fastened an open plastic canary nest to the wall of the ledge and within minutes the cock initiated nest building. Construction of the small, cup shaped, round nest was done by the cock and consisted primarily of coconut fibre. Several times throughout the day the hen would inspect the construction. By days end she found the nest unacceptable and tore it apart. Fortunately for the cock the second nest met with her approval. The interior lining was finished off by both sexes with brownish, spotted small guinea feathers from the arts & crafts store. Within two days of nest completion two bluish eggs with brown speckles/spots were laid and twelve days of incubation succeeded by the hen. Occasionally she would come off the nest to feed, bathe, etc. however, she was always scolded by the cock for doing so. The cock took pride in bringing and feeding her various foods while she incubated the eggs. His day consisted primarily of singing, eating , and making certain he met most her daily dietary needs. Two chicks hatched and were fed by both cock and hen. . The act of cock or hen landing on the nest side was enough motion to stimulate the chicks to beg straight up for food. In the first two days egg food was the chicks primary food source. In succeeding days copious amounts of small and medium mealworms were being fed, in addition to the other foods offered. Day nine; one chick dead on the floor. The sole survivor chick, covered with heavy pin feathers, a tiny crest, and very short tail fledged the nest at day twelve. He spent his first day on the ground, by day two was perching 1-2 ft off the ground, and by day three was observed perching the highest branches of the aviary. The cock and hen both fed however, at weeks end the cock took over full responsibility. At twenty six days of age the fledgling was independent of his parents and eating on his own. The chick, removed from the aviary at six weeks of age acquired cock plumage by the end of ten months. He was given to a good aviculturist friend on breeding loan, hoping, in return, for a domestic parent raised chick.

In January of 1991, having already experienced the Black-crested’s ravenous and expensive appetite for mealworms when feeding chicks, I started my first of several mealworm cultures. I simply filled a plastic shoe box container halfway with 90% bran and 10% crushed oats, placed a few potatoes (sliced lengthwise in half ) on the bottom, and added approximately a thousand medium mealworms. Occasionally I added another potato or bran and within months I was overwhelmed with freshly molted mealworms. To this day I continue to keep five mealworms cultures going with bare minimum up-keep and less expense.

Also in preparation for the up-coming season, the now somewhat experienced pair was moved to one of five replica planted aviaries having a dirt floor and southern exposure. Each enclosure (aviary) measured 8′ (w) x 14′ (ht) x 6’ (depth) and allowed rain and sun to penetrate the center. Black olive trees, xanadu philodendrun, varigated dwarf scheffelera and an occasional palm ( Kentia, Alexander, and Xmas) landscaped the interior. Nests including half-open wooden nest boxes, large hooded wicker nests already hung the aviary walls and being used by the current inhabitants; Red-faced Stars, Gouldians, Red Headed Parrot finches, and Senegal Fire finches. The pair, having the opportunity to settle in well in advance of the onset of their breeding season, became very compatible with the existing species within the aviary. During their lull I installed a second feeding station in each aviary to reduce squabbling over foods offered daily (especially livefoods) between existing finch species already feeding young and the Black crested’s. In the aviaries containing the now acclimated small waxbills this helped tremendously as all aviary species were feeding livefoods. As the Black-crested’s breeding season approached the cock’s loud courting songs could be heard and signs of the short, aggressive courtship began. Again, the hen displayed favor of a specific area which she chose to nest and I immediately accommodated her desire by fixating another open plastic canary nest to her preferred site. This nest was fixated approximately six feet high. As they initiated nest building, the pair became territorial and would lead chase to any finch wandering within two square ft around their nest. The pair commenced laying eggs in June and hatched two chicks. They soon began feeding waxworms vs mealworms 2 to one and the results were amazing. The hatchlings grew faster, were near fully feathered by fledging (twelfth day) , and took readily to eating them upon independence.

For identification purposes and proof of domesticity I attempted banding the chicks at ten days old with recommended NFSS “E” closed bands. The bands were a bit large but this was yet my major concern. After fitting the bands to the chicks I attempted to place the chicks back in the nest and each time returned they would spring and bound from the nest landing on the aviary floor. Although their fledging was instigated by me a few days early, the adult pair continued to feed the young, pin-feathered chicks. Within one week the hen returned to laying a subsequent clutch. I dared not pull the now free flying chicks from the first clutch as I was afraid of disrupting the pair. Their second clutch hatched and fledged twelve days later. Two days after their fledging I entered the aviary to check their status and if within reaching distance, attempt banding. I found the chicks to be doing well perched two feet off the ground on a Black Olive branch. I soon found out one could easily pick up the chicks and closed band with the recommended size band at this age. Although the chicks tolerated this well it was no time before the adult pair began to dive bomb and attempt threatening me. I wasted no time, banded and released the chicks. Ah yes, slowly success was being achieved… parent raised and closed banded! Needless to say I was delighted. I left the chicks produced from the two clutches with the adults throughout the remainder of the year with no problems arising.

It was towards the end of 1992 that I encountered situations of acquiring additional unrelated Black-crested stock. The timing was perfect as I now had enough experience and yes, limited success, with this species to warrant the acquisition. The remaining stock obtained towards the end of a four year period completed a stud of five unrelated pair; one import bird was obtained through a published want ad in the NFSS Bulletin, four birds were purchased from a quarantine station in Miami, and the last three import birds were donated to the cause by Mr. Cecil Gunby of Ga.. All birds acclimated well to their new surroundings.

As I cage quarantined the newly acquired stock I quickly realized cocks could not be housed together, breeding season or not. Two cocks housed together may be congenial at dawn, but mortally maimed by afternoon, should spring fever strike them.

Upon setting up the five pairs in 1993 , one pair per aviary, I quickly recognized the need for appropriate distance or space between aviaries housing pairs as cock birds would spend near all day bickering and fighting with each other through cage/aviary wire, loose the desire to settle for nesting, and keep other aviary birds tense to say the least. With this in mind I chose to set-up three pair Black-crested; one pair each in three of the five adjoining aviaries. The other two pair I set-up in my outdoor cage area in cages 18″w x 30″h x 18″. Although circumstances were similar (outdoors, diet, nests and nesting material offered) the aviaries proved highly successful breeding environments while pairs caged in various size cages never attempted nesting. Thus, pairs have been rotated between the outdoor, dirt floor aviaries ever since.

Today I am very glad I took the risk, opportunity, and time to work with this beautiful aviary bird. It was through careful study and observation – and – trial and error that I have succeeded to breed this specie to fourth generation. Parent raised and closed banded.

In summary a brief re-cap and a few other notes of interest.

The Black-crested finch has proven to be an extremely hardy bird that has tolerated and adapted well to Florida’s varying outdoor temperatures; be it the hot, humid high 90 degree summer months of August and September or the occasional 27 degree freeze experienced every few years in winter.

I find they can be housed with most finches their size or smaller providing they are allowed to be the “dominant of the aviary”. The preferred aviary having a dirt floor and minimum two feeding stations (if housed with other finch species). High protein foods (including livefoods) should be fed minimum three times a day when raising chicks.

Here in SW Florida, as outdoor aviary subjects, they routinely come into breeding condition in the Spring and their season lasts throughout the beginning of Fall.

Generally small clutches of two, possibly three eggs are laid each nesting. On several occasions I have witnessed three chicks fledging one nest however, not once has a third sibling survived to independence. And no, to the many aviculturists that have asked along the way, I am not aware of a canary or finch species that readily fosters these birds.

Chicks can be closed banded within the first three days of fledging the nest with recommended NFSS closed bands, size “E”. I have found it best to remove chicks from the aviary when closed banding as the adult birds can become very disturbed and threaten other dwelling aviary species.

Juveniles from one or more clutches throughout the year can remain with the adult birds until the season’s end. This has become routine here. I find domestic young displaying breeding signs are best removed from the adults and housed one bird per cage until sexed and paired for breeding. They take a short while to acclimate however, handle this relatively well.

If a virgin 1 year old pair in season has not commenced to nest building for whatever reason, a woven Black-crested nest salvaged from last season can be placed within an open canary nest will usually stimulate the virgin pair enough to initiate and progress into the breeding cycle. Second year cocks and older usually have no trouble initiating nest construction.

Adult cocks have been known to “take out” a fellow avian inhabitant on occasion.

If the cock is challenged or extremely frustrated by a co-habitant they will lead chase and possibly attack and peck the posterior head and or neck until the bird succumbs. In my experience this has occurred 4 times. (the dominance factor previously mentioned and two aviary feeding stations tends to alleviate this problem)

In the past few years the Black-crested’s have reacted well to further studies. Experience has shown true pairs can remain together year-round or be dissembled at the seasons end, rested and fed well until Spring release. The following season, pairs having been separated appear to be more aggressive to initiate the breeding cycle.

They do not bond for life. I have re-paired individual birds without problem.

And last season, as an experiment, several pair achieved successful fledging of young without live food. As prevention, eggfood was provided fresh minimum three times a day. I do however, continue to believe the act of catching, pulverizing and feeding live food to their young is a strong inherited factor that should and will continue in my aviaries.

Today the Black-crested finch adorns the top of the National Finch and Softbill Society’s current logo.

Unfortunately, due to lack of specialized breeding of the Black-crested finch by aviculturists, extremely limited importation, and tiny domestic gene pool available to aviculturists today, this thoroughly captivating finch may not survive another decade or two in captivity.


References:

Finches and Softbilled Birds, Bates and Busenbark, 1970; The Birds of South America, Ridgley & Tudor, 1989; Pet Birds, Simon & Schuster, M Vriends, 1984

Steve Hoppin resides in SW Florida, is a past NFSS Panel Judge, Judge’s Panel Chairman, and past NFSS president. He continues to breed the Black Crested and has reached multi-generation breeding (5th) of all waxbills mentioned within this article.

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