The Painted Firetail
(Emblema picta)

by: Bruce Dixon, Melbourne, Australia
(NFSS – March/April 1998)

From the outset can I say how much I regret that the American market has seemingly closed their mind to this most delightful and most beautiful of Australian finches? It truly is a treasure of the bird world, and whilst as I say I regret your reluctance which is no doubt prompted by price, (a question of supply and demand), surely this would indicate that any aviculturist worth his or her title of aviculturist who is prepared to get off their butt, and start seriously looking at breeding this little bird may well reap the long term benefits of not only re-establishing it on the American market, but gaining enormous pleasure for themselves along the way.

This beautiful little bird, is truly not much larger than a zebra finch, only marginally heavier, and in reality should be as easy to breed. Providing, and it is a large proviso that a few of the fundamentals that the bird lives with in the wild are provided to it in it’s captive situation within your aviary. And those fundamentals are so easy to provide you will be staggered how easy, but can make the difference between breeding success and total failure. Perhaps it has been the failure of breeders to understand these requirements that has led to the fall in its popularity, when success has not been forthcoming.

I would really like to think that this simple article might persuade you to rethink your position on this little gem. And a gem it truly is to any aviary situation. To understand the bird you must first understand it’s roots and origins in my country of Australia, knowing these origins unlocks the mystery of perhaps why you have experienced difficulties in breeding the species.

The painted firetail finch is a true desert dweller of Australia. If you understand this base premise of knowing where the root stock originates you will have a much better understanding of some of the specialized requirements of this diminutive bird of the desert.

The bird lives in some of the most inhospitable and hostile areas of Australia, extending from western Queensland; through to Derby on the coast of western Australia they can be found in largely spinifex country. Country with very light stands of low scrubby bush, usually well interspersed, and usually established around permanent, or semi permanent waterholes.

Temperature extremes in these areas can vary between 39 Fahrenheit at the low end, to 112 Fahrenheit at the high end. The bird therefore has a great tolerance for extremes, but has a very low tolerance for damp moist conditions. And, were they kept in this condition for long periods of time could lead to a high mortality rate.

The bird spends enormous amounts of time on the floor, and if you can provide a base floor that is predominantly something like a course river sand, this is the birds ideal.

If you can also provide some rocks, of various sizes around the aviary floor, you will be amazed at the amount of time the birds will spend happily sitting on these rocks. If by chance you can obtain volcanic type rocks, the birds love picking out the various minerals they can extract from small crevasses within these rocks. Other than rocks I provide natural perching material as opposed to dowel, which the birds seem to prefer.

Visual sexing: The birds are sexually dimorphic. The cock bird having far greater concentrations of red on the throat, and chest area, often extending from throat to vent, but more often concentrated on the throat and chest. Whereas, the hen tends to have less concentration on the throat and chest. Adult birds are very easy to sex, whereas juveniles can at best be difficult.

Nesting sites and materials: Understanding this aspect of the bird is in my opinion the key, master this simple aspect of the birds make up, and you will breed successfully.

This little bird, one of several, no matter how far removed from it’s root stock of native wild birds will always revert to type in its choice of nesting site and the use of nesting materials. If you understand this and provide the bird with these simple needs then I’m sure success will follow for you.

I can only speak with any authority on breeding the bird in open flights, my peer breeders in this country in the majority of cases, use the same methods, and all enjoy prolific success.

A planted aviary is the ideal choice, a non planted aviary will likewise suffice providing brush and cover is supplied in abundance, the choice of nesting site, will vary depending on individual birds.

Some will construct a nest 2ft off the floor, others will go just a little higher but it is most unusual to go any higher than 5ft. Some birds have been known to nest on the ground although this is considered unusual. Remember this is as I said earlier it is a desert dweller, and in many cases not blessed in the wild with stands of large trees or bushes, hence the lower than normal choice of nesting site.

If the bird is building a natural nest, which is their preferred option, they MUST have access to a vast quantity of small twigs. These twigs should be no thicker than a matchstick. In fact that could be a little too thick. But small thin twigs varying in length from 2 inches to a maximum of 4 inches. If these twigs have twists in them all well and good the bird will use these to advantage in the shaping of the nest. But also make sure that a high percentage of straight ones are also available to it.

The bird will use these twigs to construct a small beautifully engineered platform. And the reason for so doing is well established in the birds’ genes. In the desert, building close to the ground, spear like spinifex grass would grow swiftly up from underneath and the spear like ends of this grass could penetrate into the nesting chamber killing the young unfledged chicks. Having constructed the platform the bird will then construct the nesting chamber using any soft pliable grass available to it.

The cock bird is the predominant nest builder, and does so with an energy and zeal that is truly amazing. The hen will assist in the decorating and the finishing off of the nest. But, the cock bird may take up to two days to construct the platform, one twig at a time. He will also use small pebbles, charcoal (see separate note) and has been known to use strips of tissues that have been provided for that use.

Don’t be unduly concerned if when the hen is actually sitting on eggs that the cock bird continues to build and or improve the structure of the nest in ferrying small twigs and grass to and fro.

Can I suggest to you that after two days, any remaining twigs that are on the floor of the aviary be removed entirely? As failure to do so will result in a platform of monumental proportions, and take far too much energy out of the bird in his diligent approach to using every one of them.

If your aviary does not lend itself to the provision of brush and natural cover, you should not feel that you can not breed the bird, other nesting alternatives are:

roll up a length of bird wire into a tube say 7inches long and 5inch diameter, position another section of bird wire in a way that closes in half of what will be the entrance area, and fully enclose the back section with bird wire.
a jam/conserve tin with half the top lid removed, leaving half in it’s originally manufactured position, and simply make safe by ensuring any sharp edges are removed.
Ensure that twigs and pliable grass are still provided however the bird will not accept man made boxes.

As I said earlier this simple attention to the birds nesting requirements may make the difference between success and failure for you.

Charcoal: This bird, probably more than any other has a great reliance on charcoal. And I have known breeders in this country who will maintain that they bring their birds into breeding condition by ensuring that additional quantities of charcoal are provided to the bird at strategic times of the year.

I mix a powdered and semi lumpy mix into the grit that I provide to my birds and they take it with relish. You will also find that the bird seemingly instinctively knows that charcoal is a natural absorbent medium and will provide the material to the bottom of the nesting chamber.

Diet: Any dry seed diet regime you are currently providing will suffice for this bird, strangely enough unlike many other breeds they are not as readily responsive to supplements, other than commercially prepared egg and biscuit mix, to which a hard boiled egg has been added.

They have a love for seeding grass heads, but will also take broadleaf greens if seed grass is not available. Whilst in the wild the natural live food available to them are termites, they will take mealworms with gusto. And as such these are ideally introduced to them a good month from the onset of the breeding season. The bird as previously stated does spend a lot of time on the floor, and as such, if a natural floor is provided gather ants and other insects that may be available to them.

Fresh water as with any other bird should be available to them at all times, unlike parrot finches however the painted does not have the same love of bathing.

Aviary characteristics: Some people will claim that this bird is timid. To the contrary, I find it almost loving in its nature. Mine wait for me at the aviary door, and are undisturbed should I meet them at their feed station, not flying off in panic.

The bird has a truly beautiful call, almost plaintive in its appeal. Prior to copulation, which usually takes place in the open aviary, the cock bird sings to the hen over a period of anything up to 2 minutes. It is only after the completion of its song that copulation takes place.

The bird is totally non-aggressive, and is therefore compatible in a mixed collection. Minor irritation rather than aggression may take place if another bird intrudes into what is perceived as their territory when nest building is taking place. But this is certainly not belligerent aggression and usually only lasts for a few seconds with the interloper being chased off by the cock bird.

The breeding season for the bird is quite lengthy if all the conditions are right, care should be taken to shelter them from cold draughty conditions, and above all else avoid prolonged exposure to damp.

The bird has the almost amazing knack of being able to amuse itself, non-stop with the smallest and most trivial of things, be it rolling a small pebble, or harassing a grass seed. The bird also has a semi hovering capability, semi only in as much as it does it without a great deal of finesse and aplomb but it helps I’m sure in the capture of flying insects in its vicinity, and aids in it’s nest building activities.

Summary: Depriving yourselves of this jewel as part of your avicultural interest is indeed so very sad, for those who are prepared to re-think, and perhaps try this little guy I’m sure you will find it will bring you so much pleasure and reward.

I hope that some of the things that I have tried to communicate in this article may help those who have tried before and failed. And like many things if I have given you a couple of small tips that will enable you to work with the bird, and provide those simple basics that will work with the birds own gene requirements for nesting and husbandry. I’d like to think it will bring you prolific success.

In reality it should be as easy to breed as the common zebra finch, unfortunately at the moment I can understand why the price you have to pay may be a major stumbling block.

(No part of this publication may be reproduced in any way without prior permission from the author.)

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