By Craig Gardner
Introduction. These charming little Australian natives are also called Cherry finches and similar names in many parts of the world. All names refer to the deep, blood plum, red on their head. Five or so years ago, I read somewhere (Australian Aviculture, I think) that these finches were in decline in Australian aviaries and needed serious breeding efforts to make its future secure. I read all I could find about them and decided to give them a go, if I could find them. Although I am certainly no expert, I was quietly confident I could breed this finch.
Sexing. Sexing adult Plumheads is easy. Males have a tell-tale bib under their beak and generally more defined stripes on their body, and a little more crimson on their head. The females also have a white eye stripe. As soon as they start to acquire their adult plumage, the young males will start to gain the brown bib. This is usually within around six weeks after fledging and is quicker in summer months.
Housing. My birds are housed in a large planted aviary (approx. 4×6 meters) of which about 1/3 is sheltered. The back wall blocks the cold winter winds from the south. The open flight has a wire roof which has a strip of galvanized roofing on the east wall to accommodate dry brush nesting. All perches are made from natural branches and vines. Three pairs of Plumheads share this aviary with four pairs of Diamond Firetails, two pairs of Gouldian finches, and one pair each of the following: Painted finches, Red-faced Parrot finches, and Cuban finches. All of these birds breed well together and although Plumheads are at the bottom of the pecking order, they regularly fledge nests of 3 to 5 young. There are nesting boxes, wicker baskets and dry, prickly paper bark brush both under the shelter and in the sheltered section of the flight.
Feeding. All my birds are fed Finch breeder mix with separate red millet, canary and niger. Cuttlebone is always placed in three or four positions around the cage and grit is always available. I make a mix of equal parts cuttlebone, charcoal and coonara shells in a (five gallon) bucket, then crush it with a pick handle and sieve it. I collect grass seeds daily from several locations. I try to pick as wide a variety as possible, excluding papsulam grass, which can be poisonous. It mainly seeds in summer and is identifiable by its black, sticky seeds on meter long stems. Plumheads love all grass seeds, especially native varieties, whether feeding young or not. All of my birds love salt bush (Rhagodia spinesens) and I feed it at least weekly. I transplanted some large clumps of dandelion into the flights and soon the parrot finches learned to open the seed heads by tearing the side away when they are about to open. Not lang after, the Plumheads also learned this and they relish these seeds. I haven’t seen any other species use this method, although they all eat the ones I pick and open for them. Palm grass grows in the flight and Plumheads are always seen feeding on this. Each day I feed either Silver beet, spinach, broccoli, or other greens and all are taken by Plumheads. Fresh corn on the cob is also fed daily, but the Plumheads rarely partake of this. Bush fly maggots are fed daily and Plumheads eat a little of these only when feeding young. I only feed soaked seed if the weather is so bad that I can’t get out and get grass seed. No commercial vitamin/mineral supplements are fed, as I prefer to feed them naturally.
Water. Clean bathing water is essential for all finches and Plumheads are no exception. My three pairs, and any young they have, come down in a flock and bath together at least once a day, all year round. Fledglings have frequently been sighted bathing the first day out of the nest. I have installed an automatic overflow system that can be programmed to come on more often in summer, or for longer periods. We manually tip it out at least twice daily, then just push “Water All Stations”. The run-off waters the garden. All water dishes are on bricks or rocks away from food. Nearby, I have placed upright standing rocks for the birds to use as intermediate perches when coming in to drink or bathe. This keeps their nails trim and feet pads healthy. All dishes have a flat sone in them so fledglings can get out if in trouble.
Courtship. Plumhead males dance a bit with grass in their beak, but their most notable courtship trait is that the males stand dancing on a branch with grass in beak, then flies across to the furthest perch snapping his wings together. This action makes a loud clicking sound. All the finch species I have, go through their courtship routines and usually get “knocked back” after it, but every single time I have noticed the Plumheads doing their wing-clicking flight, they “get lucky”. Plumhead fledglings in my aviary have been sighted displaying only 23 days after fledging.
Breeding. Most literature mentions that Plumheads can be choosy with their mates, so armed with this knowledge, I set off to the Goulburn Valley sale in May 1998. I managed to buy two cocks from one breeder and two hens from another. All the birds I selected were nearly fully-colored juveniles. Later checking my license records, I noticed the breeders addresses were 300 kilometers apart. This pleased me, as it was less likely the birds would be related. As mentioned earlier, there are nesting areas both inside the roosting shed and along a sheltered wall in the wire-roofed flight. My Gouldians will nest inside or out and the Painteds nest inside 80% of the time. The parrot finches are always inside the shelter, but the Plumheads, Diamonds and Cubans always nest in the brush under the sheltered section of the flight, without exception.
The Diamonds in my aviary don’t let any species nest within about 1/2 meter of their nest (even other Diamonds), but for some reason, they’ll allow Plumheads to nest right next to them , sometimes with entrances only inches apart. On several occasions, I have observed a Diamond chase six assorted birds (including other Diamonds) away from the perch closest to their nest, then allow a Plumhead on the same perch, unmolested. Usually the Plumhead parent waits until the Diamond is chasing another bird away to enter their nest, but occasionally, they enter in full view of the Diamond parent, but invariably they are ignored. Although I don’t look in nests, other literature states that Plumheads take around 12 days to hatch and 21 days to fledge. Unlike a lot of species, young rarely fledge before they are capable of flight, which is one less thing to worry about. They regularly fledge 3-5 young from early spring to late autumn, with the occasional nest in winter. I separate fledglings from their parents 21 days after fledging, but I leave them for an extra week in winter and for “first year” pairs. A lot of literature states they will desert their nest if you look in it. I have believed this and have never looked, so I can’t tell you whether mine are tolerant of this. The nest is fully enclosed and made from the seed grass they feed on and lined with feathers. They usually make a new nest with each clutch. Most of the time, the three pairs in the aviary have young fledge a few weeks apart. On one occasion, they were a lot closer, so knowing there were more due out soon, I put rings [bands] on the first lot so I would know them apart. Soon after, two more nests fledged and after a few days they all looked the same. I thought the parents would know the difference, but all six parents fed all the young who begged completely randomly.
Health. My finches are regularly wormed and liced, but I think good housekeeping, clean water and feed, along with adequate housing will go a long way toward keeping birds healthy. I haven’t had any helth or injury problems with Plumheads at all. Rarely does a fledgling die, and I stilll have the same pairs breeding and have formed new pairs with their young combined with new blood.
Cats and Vermin.
Mice. Galvanized iron sheet surrounds the base of the aviary. It is 300 mm (12 inches) above ground and is dug in 600 mm. At the bottom of the trench, I added a concrete buffer which extends away from the aviary 150 mm. The theory is that a mouse will burrow down but when he hits the concrete, he will not tunnel away from the aviary. Another idea I have heard is to place broken glass or charcoal in the bottom of the trench, as I’ve heard mice cannot burrow through charcoal. Mice can only pass through 11 mm (1/2 inch) wire until around 21 days old and they are independent of their parents at around 12 days. If they manage to get in, I have solid baits inside the storage area at the rear of the aviary, which the birds cannot access.
Cats. I was finding cats on the wire roof at night when a very experienced fellow aviculturist, John Carty, showed my his electric fence. (He’s fond of adding “It’ll keep the kids off, too.”) Soon I purchased a unit and ran a “hot wire” around the roof and base. I raised the wire by 150 mm (6 inches) on fiberglass posts and earthed both the wire and roof to the mouse-proof sheeting. When cats go through spaces, they feel their way through using their whiskers and tail, making it impossible for them to miss the hot wire. The fence is high in voltage, but low in amps, so it gives a harmless static shock which does not harm the cat (or possum). Cats soon learn and won’t return after being shocked. These units are inexpensive (mine was under $200 complete with wire, poles and clips) and they are easy to set up. You can purchase units that run on one D cell battery, car battery, or, like mine, from the main circuit. After the fence was set up, all the birds that were mentioned earlier that bred in the flight started to raise more young.
Summary. These interesting finches will not harm any other birds and are generally healthy and easy to keep and breed. Their crimson heads are quite stunning when viewed in direct sunlight. I wouldn’t hesitate to recommend them to anyone.
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Craig Gardner is an Australian birdkeeper from Melbourne, Victoria.
His email address is: firstname.lastname@example.org.