The Painted Firetail Finch (emblema picta)

By: Kerri McCoy, NFSS 1st Vice President

 

Looking for an addition to your mixed aviary community? Look no further. The Painted Firetail Finch is an outstanding subject to consider due to their non-aggressive demeanor and social nature. Due to their rarity in U.S. aviculture, hobbyists will find the purchase of these species to be costly. At the time of this writing the Painted Firetail is gaining in popularity here in the states and domestic stock is able to be located with some effort.

Painted Firetail Finch (emblema picta) – Photo 1
The Painted Firetail geographically resides in the dry regions of Australia. A map showing the extensive range in which the Painted Firetail originated is available in “Keeping and Breeding Finches and Seed-eaters” by Russell Kingston. They are definitely considered desert dwellers. Their long pointed beak was designed for their natural habitat due to the necessity to seek out grass seed heads and insects dwelling in the rocky area in which they reside.

The bird is an overall rich brown color. The upper mandible is black, the lower red. The chest and belly area of the bird is black and is decorated with small white dots. The Painted Firetail is sexually dimorphic. Cock birds have bright red coloring in the center of their chest. The amount of red coloring on the chest of the hen is considerably less. On the cock the face itself is bright red around and above the eyes and this red extends down the throat area. The concentration of red on the face and chest can vary from bird to bird. The hen has less concentration of red on the face, that is limited to around the eye area. The white dotting on the chest increases in concentration on the throat area. The tail feathers are brownish-black and the rump feathers again show the bright red coloration seen on the chest and face. Upon fledging young Painteds also have noticeably red rump feathers.

My first Painted Firetails acquired were imports. At the time of my search locating domestic stock was difficult and my interest in obtaining these birds led me to try some imported stock. They required considerably acclimation and “TLC” but adjusted fully to their new environment quite nicely after their three-month quarantine period.

I have read with great interest several articles written on the Painted Firetail by Australian aviculturists. I have however found that the characteristics of the stock in my possession behaved and bred in a completely different manner than expressed in their writings. Perhaps the origin and the domestication of the stock play some important role in the behavioral differences. I am at present unable to offer a further explanation.

While in quarantine I allowed the Painteds to pair off at will. I have found that allowing all species that I keep (save the zebras) to choose their own mates to provide better breeding results. Once pairing had occurred, the pairs were set up in individual breeding cages housed indoors. The cages measured 3 ft long x 2 ft deep x 2 ft high. My experience with the Painted Firetail in its infancy I choose the cage breeding method to better control the monitoring of the birds characteristics, nesting interests and overall breeding habits.

Being ground dwellers, the breeding cages were provided with aspen shavings as the floor covering. Lava rocks and pieces of driftwood were also provided on the floor of the cage. The interior and exterior sides and front of the cage were decorated with silk greenery to necessitate a feeling of seclusion. Three perches per flight were provided. One at a high level to provide a good roosting spot, one at the middle level of the flight in front of the nest provided and one lower to the floor of the flight. All three are readily used by the individual pairs.

This is where my experiences begin to differ from those provided by several Australian aviculturists. I have read that Painteds prefer to build nests using chunks of charcoal and small twigs as preferred materials. My Painted Firetails readily accepted a commercial “twig material” closed nest. Nesting materials of choice were coconut fiber, down feathers, and Bermuda grass. Although charcoal was provided it was not used in the nest construction. I have however found that my pairs will line the nest with small pieces of the aspen from the cage floor. The cocks bird have also been seen on many an occasion courting the hen while holding small pieces of aspen in their beak.

The charming aspect of this specie is their early to rise nature. Well, that is depending upon whether the hobbyist is an early riser him/herself… My Painteds are always up with the sun. For lack of a better description the song of the cock bird resembles that of a squeaky windshield wiper. I have learned to close the door to the room where they are housed if I am going to attempt to sleep in.

Before I get into my experience with their breeding habits I thought I would provide information on the diet that I provide my Painted Firetails. They are provided a top quality seed mixture which is 50% Sunshine Finch Supreme (natural without vitamins added) and 50% Noah’s Kingdom Finch Seed. They are provided spray millet at all times due to their voracious love of the stuff. Beyer’s Minerals with crushed eggshell and a sprinkle of charcoal is also provided at all times. Mealworms are provided 2x daily for breeding pairs, and 1x daily for resting birds.

An eggfood mixture consisting of Proteen 25 and Bevo Universal Insect Food is mixed in a large container. Added to this is hard boiled eggs, couscous, sprouted seeds, Soluvet vitamins from VetaFarms, a powdered calcium supplement and on occasion a can of corn or peas and carrots. This is fed out daily to breeding pairs and every other day for resting birds. Vegetables consisting of: romaine, zucchini, cucumber, shredded carrots etc. are provided on alternating days. My experience has shown that my Painteds are slow to accept vegetables but with continual offering they will eventually accept and enjoy them.

Being ground dwellers they are wormed quarterly with Avitrol Plus and I have not noticed any adverse reactions to this worming product. Ivermectin or more recently SCATT is administered quarterly as a cautionary measure. Again, no adverse reactions reported using these products.

I found the Painted Firetail hens slow to begin the egg-laying process. Whether this was directly related to their acclimation or a trait of the species I do not know. However, once the process begins I have been fortunate enough to have them behave like zebra finches!

The courtship display of a breeding pair is an endearing aspect of the species. The cock bird will hold a piece of something in his mouth (mine prefer small pieces of aspen) and begin singing to her. He will stand on the perch; stretching out his neck moving his head from side to side and commence his song. The hen will watch intently and will quiver her tail if she is so inclined and mating will occur on the perch. My cock birds sing incessantly from sun-up to sundown and this song is heard even more often by young maturing cock birds.

The cock bird will bring material to the nest and the hen spends the majority of the time in the nest “arranging”. I have however found cock birds inside the nest making “adjustments” to its interior.

The hen will lay between 3-4 eggs and incubation commences usually after the 2nd or 3rd egg is laid. I have had no problems to date with egg binding in this species. Both cock and hen will share incubation and contrary to what I have read I have found both cock and hen sharing the nest at night. During resting times my Painteds prefer to settle on the floor of the flight or aviary in a corner at lights out. Hatching begins in 13 days after start of incubation. Normally one sometimes two chicks hatch per day. I am able to nest inspect without problems but limit it to checking total clutch size and determining hatch date.

The chicks are pale skinned and absent of down. Aside from the beak, which in my first experience looked so foreign to me, they resemble a society in terms of the absence of any down on their bodies. The most interesting aspect of the young is their silence. There are no begging sounds emitted from the young during the first two weeks of rearing. For those who intend to foster Painteds this must be taken into consideration. However, my experience has not called for the need to foster out this species so I am unable to offer guidance in terms of acceptable foster parents.

Mealworms are increased to 4 or so each 3x daily when there are young in the nest. Their interest in live food is moderate and not as voracious as one would experience with waxbills. My Painteds readily take to the eggfood mixture listed above and will feed this mixture combined with the mealworms to the young in the nest. Both cock and hen share in the raising of the clutch. As the chicks mature spray millet is added to the eggfood and live food fed to the young. The young will fledge at 23 days and I then band them with “C” size NFSS closed bands. They are extremely nervous in their new environment and are easily spooked. But do not fear. As the young mature the hobbyist will note the very calm nature of these birds. Next to the Parson finch I have found them most peaceful and trusting of their keeper. And they will reward you with this trust by going about their business with you sitting within inches of them.

It is important to note that Painteds are not strong flyers. Not to say they will not use every inch of a flight that is provided. You will however not find them to fly stealthily from one side of the flight to the other as one would witness in parrot finches. Night frights are not uncommon. Bald tops on the head of juveniles can attest to that! A night light provided where Painteds are housed is most recommended!

I have found the young to be extremely hardy upon fledging and have not noted any tendency for them to “expire” during molt as can be experienced with Gouldian Finches. My experience with the Painted Firetail has afforded me the ability to determine sex of offspring upon fledging. Hens have considerably duller white spots on the chest area, almost crème in color. Both fledglings pictured with their mother turned out to be hens. Cock birds upon fledging although lacking the red coloring on the face, and throat area have considerably brighter white spots on the chest area.

I normally remove the fledglings from the parents right before hatching is to resume with the next clutch. The parents will allow the offspring back into the nest even when they have renewed their breeding and laying process. The young are then moved to a mixed community flight of other juveniles. I have successfully housed juvenile parsons, gouldians, and red and blue faced parrot finches with painted juveniles without problems.

For those interested in showing the Painted Firetail you could not pick a better candidate. That is in terms of demeanor. They are easily tamed and make excellent specimens in a show cage. The only challenging aspect to showing them resembles that of showing parrot finches – feather condition. In my opinion the very best time to show Painteds is right after they have finished their adult molt. Their feather condition is unsurpassed during that time period. Occasional pin feathers and lack of “tight” feathering present on adult birds can prove more challenging for those interested in exhibiting them. My experience has also shown, contrary to what I have read is that they are avid bathers. No sooner do I introduce a fresh bowl of water, they are in it. Frequent bathing will greatly improve the feather quality for those interested in exhibiting them.

I have thoroughly enjoyed the challenges of keeping the Painted Firetails and will continue to contribute to their establishment in US aviculture. Their personalities, beauty and bright coloring make them too tempting to resist. Their easy-going nature makes them excellent candidates for a mixed community aviary. My experiences with their excellent parenting skills make them all that much more enjoyable to keep. I hope that more aviculturists give them the consideration that is due them. Although, more costly in my opinion they are worth each and every dime spent on them.

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