At a diminutive 10cm (4 inches) long, the Zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata) is second only to the Canary in pet finch popularity. Wild birds are found across much of Australia, with only the cool, wet south and parts of the tropical north being Zebra-free. The finch is also a native of Indonesia and East Timor, with thriving, introduced American populations in the US, Brazil and Puerto Rico. In European countries, the many escaped pet Zebra finches have failed to survive and breed, with the exception of a feral population in Portugal.
The Zebra Finch, one of the world's most popular Australians
The different native populations of the bird have given rise to subspecies - the Timor or Lesser Sundas Zebra finch (Taeniopygia guttata guttata), and the Australian, Chestnut-eared or Spotted-sided finch (Taeniopygia guttata castanotis). The latter is sometimes classed as a separate species rather than a subspecies - Taeniopygia castanotis. The differences between these types is largely down to subtleties in markings.
In the language of native Australians the bird is called Nyi-Nyi or Nyeen-ka. 99.9% of pet Zebra finches are derived from this Australian subspecies.
Wild Zebra Finches
Wild Zebra finches live in flocks. They feed on the ground or in shrubs and grasses, and nest not just in bushes and trees but sometimes at ground level, or even below ground in deserted rabbit burrows. They are very adaptable in other ways, too, with the ability to acclimatise to non-urban human landscapes, and with the huge biological bonus of having extremely efficient kidneys. These are able to extract the last molecule of moisture from any foodstuff, and also enable the birds to drink the brackish waters of coastal saltmarsh.
Zebra Finches - hardy and adaptable in the wild
Zebra Finch Facts
The Australian race of the Zebra finch was being imported into Europe within a decade of first coming to the attention of western science in 1838. In the 1870s Germany became the first successful breeder of the bird, with the rest of Europe catching up in the 1900s, led by a newly enthusiastic Britain.
Captive Zebra Finches tend to be larger than their wild cousins
Wild stocks began to plummet as demand for the birds increased, and in 1960 Australia finally banned the export of Zebra finches (and, indeed, all native animals). By this time the captive stock had been following its own biological path, and is now acknowledged as being genetically distinct from its wild cousins. Captive birds are generally larger, and there are subtle differences in behaviour and vocalisations. Like the Canary, it would seem to warrant the tag domesticus at the end of its Latin name.