These beautiful Australian finches, which are also commonly referred to as Bicheno Finches, are fairly common in South African aviaries and are a popular finch for many reasons. The Owl Finch’s native habitat is Australia, particularly the woodlands, grasslands, and scrublands, though they can be found in city parks as well. They travel in groups numbering four to 40, and are active flyers.
The name “owl finch” is derived from their facial and overall patterning and colouration because it resembles that of an owl. Although they may not have the bright colours of other Australian finches like the Gouldian Finches and Zebra Finches, the Owl Finch with its distinctive markings and social disposition give it a character all on its own. It stands between 7.5 -10cm in length, and has two distinct black bars above and below a whitish-beige chest, one bar circling the underpart of the chin, and the other rounding the bird’s underside. The wings are brown with white speckles, and the face mask is white. The beak is gray and the eye is black.
There is one subspecies listed for the Owl Finch, T. b. annulosa, or the Black-rumped Owl Finch. The only difference that survives of this subspecies in aviculture is the black rump colouration, which is autosomal recessive to the nominate form. In the wild there are some other differences in size and tail length, but these have been lost in the crosses with the nominate whiterumped variety. Birds that are the result of a white-rump crossed with a black-rump will show some mottling of the rump colour. These birds hold the recessive gene for the black-rump colouration. These birds can then be crossed with other birds showing this mottling or to Black-rumped Owls to produce more of the black-rump colour.
The sexes are nearly identical. Most of the visual clues have been “educated guesses” at best for me. The most reliable method of sexing has been to wait for the males to sing their courtship song. Some of the visual clues include: the thickness of the breast bar, the width of the crown, and the whiteness of the face mask. In males the breast bar is said to be thicker, the crown of the head wider and the face and upper breast whiter than the females. All of these methods are more reliable if you have a number of birds to look at and compare. Just trying it with one pair is difficult unless you’ve seen a lot of Owl Finches.
Their call (or song) resembles that of a meowing kitten and they are a lively addition to a community aviary and a good bird for the novice who may not have a lot of experience with birds. The Owl Finch needs generous housing, and does best in a larger space. An aviary is great, one that’s full of branches and safe foliage. They will get along with most other Australian and Old World finches, as well as canaries, but they don’t like to be crowded. Because they are closely related to the Zebra Finch, these two species may successfully interbreed, resulting in “mules”: birds which can’t reproduce. This is discouraged among birdkeepers.
Owl Finches can be bred in cages or aviaries, in pairs or in colonies of 3 or more pairs. I have bred them in my standard breeding cage and in longer flight cages. They will take a variety of nest boxes and baskets with a real preference for the baskets. They will use dried grasses, coconut fibres, feathers and strips of paper in their nest construction, often lining them with soft feathers, paper or fibres. Soon after, 4-6 small white eggs are laid with incubation starting after the 3rd egg is laid. Incubation is carried out by both the male and female and lasts about 13 days depending upon high tightly the pair sits. The chicks hatch out with dark skin and gray fuzz, looking nearly identical to Zebra Finch chicks. Owl Finches fledge in about 18 days and look similar to the adults with the exception of the dark beak and the white areas are much grayer. The fledglings are independent in about 2 weeks.
The biggest difficulty with Owl Finches is getting them to settle down long enough to nest (problem is second only to accurately sexing the Owls). The little guys act more like waxbills than their nearest cousin the Zebra Finch. I learned from another breeder to offer plenty of cover when trying to breed them in cages. I’ll tie bamboo branches or plastic plants to the outside of the cage to offer them some cover (bamboo covered cage). Even though they have a definite preference for the woven baskets, I try to get them to use nest boxes instead. The baskets are difficult to check on and their nails can get caught in the weaving.
Owl Finches can breed at 6 months of age, but it’s best to wait at least nine months to a year to breed them. This gives the owner a chance to get them into prime breeding condition, which is done though a varied and healthy diet and enough light and exercise. Owl finches are generally good parents, but some can be a little too carefree with their sitting habits, or can toss the occasional baby out of the nest. It’s convenient to have other similarly sized finches nesting at the same time, such as zebra and society finches, who will generally willingly foster the eggs or babies. Owls that are good parents will also foster other species as well.
When trying to foster eggs with a pair of Zebra Finches, I recommend not mixing the clutch with Zebra eggs. Even though the chicks are nearly identical in appearance, I could still identify them by the greater amount of fuzz and the mouth markings. Apparently, so could the Zebra Finches who tossed them out. It could have been the amount of fuzz, the mouth markings, the begging noises or their more rapid head and neck movements of the begging chicks. I feel that the Zebras would have taken care of them had they not been mixed in with their own chicks. I have not had any problems fostering them under Bengalese Finches, even when mixed with Zebras, Rufus-backed Mannikins and Bengalese Finches.
Owl Finches that are housed indoors will appreciate as large a cage as possible, at least 0.6m x 1m, longer and wider rather than taller. These birds are small, but they’re active. Females can become eggbound if they don’t get enough exercise. Because they can succumb easily to cold temperatures, this finch must be kept in temperatures no lower than 10°C, though they prefer to be warmer. They do not like drafts, and can’t handle prolonged periods of direct sunlight unless they have a cooler shady spot where they can retreat.
The Owl Finch should be fed a good-quality seed and pellet-based diet, along with egg food, a mineral grit, and charcoal. They will also appreciate nestling food, as well as packaged easy-to-make soft foods for birds. A cuttlebone should also be available as a source of calcium.
Owl Finches relish small mealworms, and can have two to four per bird per day. Nesting Owl Finches and those feeding babies should have live food available as a protein source. These birds hunt insects in the wild, so it’s a natural food for them. If these are not available, another protein source can be used, such as well-cooked hard-boiled egg crumbled into a separate cup.
Overall the Owl Finch is highly recommended species to work with and they are a great addition to a community aviary and excellent finch to keep alongside your other finches.
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