The Future of the Zebra Finch
by Steve Sass
(based on a lecture given to the RFS on 14/12/96)
Laugh if you must, it breeds easy and is inexpensive to buy...BUT...
The Zebra Finch is one of the worlds most popular cage birds ranking 3rd behind the Budgerigar and Canary. This makes the Zebra the most commonly kept finch. The Zebra's popularity stems from several attributes. We have already mentioned that it is easy to breed and it is relatively inexpensive. The Zebra is also a very social bird and so can be kept in colonies which makes for many amusing antics.
So is the Zebra Finch threatened at all? Or are some enthusiasts just over-exaggerating! Well lets look at the entire picture.
There is no doubt in anyone's mind that the Zebra Finch is kept in rather enormous numbers world wide. The number would be absolutely mind blowing! In Australia, estimates can be made on a number of factors. A recent survey in the state of South Australia estimates 10,000 plus pairs in that state alone. If we compare this figure with the increase in population to ascertain a NSW figure, I feel a conservative estimate would be around 30,000+ pairs. An estimate of the Australian population is some 190,000+ pairs of Zebras in our aviaries. Again, I ask the question, the Zebra Finch can't be threatened, the figures speak for themselves!
These Zebra Finches are kept by fanciers Australia-wide. For the purpose of this article, all bird breeders who keep 1 Zebra in a cage as a pet, 20 pair in Cabinets breeding for exhibition or the person who keeps an aviary down the back with a few Zebras; all these people are Zebra Finch fanciers. For these fanciers, the majority of these are not members of Societies. As much as we would like them to be, most are simply just in it for the hobby. (Aren't we all?)
To find out what majority do what, we look at Finch Society ring sales. In Australia, around 14,000 Zebra Finch rings are sold by Finch Societies. All breeders don't keep everything they breed, but allowing for a retention rate plus stock birds to breed these 14,000 Zebras. For those members who don't ring their Zebras, we can come up with a figure of around 18,000 Zebras that are kept by these club members. For this article we shall call these breeders, specialist Zebra Finch fanciers. These are members of Societies.
So, the conclusion we draw is that only 18,000 or so Zebras are kept by specialists - compared with 172,000 or so by other Zebra Finch fanciers, that is, for everyone 1 pair kept by a specialist Zebra fancier there are nearly 10 other pairs kept by other Zebra fanciers. So lets take a look at these 172,000 Zebras and see how they are made up.
Well these Zebras are kept by fanciers who are not members of Societies. So contact between specialist Zebra fanciers is not very high. We all know that the first place of contact by newcomers is the local pet shop. By the above figures it is then obvious that if these fanciers don't deal with Societies then they must deal with Pet Shops, Bird Dealers or Nurseries. After specializing in Zebras for the past 9 years, I am sure that most will agree that about the only color mutations of the Zebra that you are certain of seeking in these outlets are the Grey, Fawn, Whites and Pieds. If you are lucky, you will see Blackface or even a Grizzle or a YellowBill. So we have almost 90% of all our Zebras consisting of around 4 colors. These birds are bred probably on a colony basis, mixed all together, no records kept and certainly not closed rung. A little scary for us dedicated fanciers but giving many hours of enjoyment to their owners and probably securing the future of those four colors. Even if they are not breeding true to color; eventually one of those hundreds of thousands of birds will be either a Grey, Fawn, White or Pied.
So, we now get back to the specialist Zebra Finch Fancier. From my figures they account for around 18,000 Zebras in this country. From these Societies membership status there are around 300 specialist Zebra finch fanciers in this country. For the majority of these fanciers, the aim is to breed to the Standard of Perfection as set down by the Federation of Australian Zebra Finch Societies. So whats the problem? - we have 300 fanciers breeding all the other Zebra mutations...NOT QUITE!
In reality, this is not happening. If I set the scene a little the major problem encountering the Zebra Finch in the not so distant past is its ability to make a perfect exhibition bird. Such an important part in all facets of aviculture and promoting our hobby, showing is actually hurting the Zebra.
In the early 70's when the breeding and exhibiting of Zebras started to become very popular and Societies were formed specifically catering for the Zebra, the emphasis on winning became stronger and stronger. Everyone wanted to win, and sure that is what we exhibit for! What started to happen, was the fanciers of the time worked intensively on their Zebras, improving their quality to gain that elusive award at the next show. These Zebras were of course the most common in that era and at times the only birds accessible - being Greys, Fawns, Pieds and Whites and even Slates a little later in time.
For nearly 30 years, these colors won at shows. Little wonder! The majority of the fanciers of the time were concentrating on them. Stocks were increasing in quality and if you were new to the hobby and looking for that bird to win, of course you would buy the best quality birds available. So all our other colors were simply forgotten. Some more than others but still all would see better days. HOPEFULLY!
By 1989 most color mutations of the Zebra Finch would be known as CRITICAL. We are talking about Zebras! They breed easy and are kept by thousands, by both backyarders and specialists and are inexpensive to buy.
The reality was one known extinction. The Penguin mutation is thought to be extinct within Australia. One of the prettiest of the Zebra colors, only saved on the planet by our overseas fanciers buying up available birds prior to the Australian export ban on live birds.
How disgraceful! An Australian Finch, let alone a Zebra, extinct due to the majority of Zebra finch fanciers of the time mismanaging their stocks. So at 1989 we have no less than 9 colors facing possible extinction! These are the Blackbodied, Blackfront, Grizzle, YellowBill, Cream, Blue, Silver, Creamback and the Chestnut Flanked White.
The Blackfront was so close to seeing the writing on the wall when the stocks came down to just one hen! This kind of mismanagement should never have been allowed to happen. The specialist Zebra Society of Australia at the time, should have stepped in and coordinated a breeding program or something. It is fortunate that there were a handful of "old-timers" who did such and basically just kept these colors going.
One cannot talk about the Zebra Finch, its history and its future without mentioning the late Mr. Bruce Read. Bruce spent many years of pioneering work developing most of the color mutations and basically nurtured them whilst other fanciers around him discarded them to concentrated on winning at shows. Bruce and a couple of others were out on their own. If it wasn't for their efforts, we wouldn't have available what we have today.
So by the end of 1992, many color mutations of the Zebra Finch were losing the battle. The story was 12 or so dedicated fanciers, within the specialist Societies Australia wide, trying to prop up 50% of all varieties! Certainly looking like a losing battle.
The Inaugural staging of the NSW Zebra Finch State Titles Teams Competition was in the March of 1993. Societies from within NSW took part to find the "best" team in the State. More emphasis on exhibiting Zebras! Now even more fanciers would forget about these rarer colors that had fallen behind in quality and of course numbers. Not quite. The way the event works is that each Team/Society has the opportunity to enter their best 3 birds in their club that are owner bred at the show. This goes for every color as per the Federation Standard. There is no such award as Champion or Reserve Champion, however each class is scored using a points system. Points were awarded for 1st place down to 20th place. Scoring would be 20 points for 1st down to 1 point for 20th. Easy!
Well the first event worked fine. Virtually every Society/Team was on par and competition extremely tight. That is until, the judging got down to these "rarer" colors. Some Teams just raced ahead in points but most simply earned no points at all. Simply because they didn't have these colors. It wasn't long before the race was on. First to obtain these rarer colors and secondly to breed quantity and improve quality FAST.
Many fanciers see this as a "temporary fix" to a larger problem. I'm really not interested in that conclusion. I feel that if the rarer colors are being bred, being bred in numbers, and their quality is improving to the point where they are nearly as good as any Grey or Fawn, surely this can only be good for the Zebra finch.
Many fanciers ask me "What can I do?" Well I have always been of the opinion that no matter what bird you keep you must always put a little back into your hobby that you gain so much from. Why not dare to be different and obtain a few pair of these rarer Zebras?
If you don't own any Zebras why not think about it? They don't need to be kept with your Australian and Foreign finches. A few small cabinets in the birdroom would suffice. What a perfect start for any young children that visit your aviaries! It would be heartbreaking for a young fancier to be given a pair of Australian or Foreign finches only to find that they can't breed them or they die. The chances of that happening to a pair of Zebras is not very high!
If you already own Zebras, you are in an even better position. I don't ask that you discard everything you own just to breed colors that need our help. Pick one of these rarer colors and obtain (say) three pair. This will give you a good start. This is your opportunity to put that little bit back into your hobby.
Why not put your name down for the upcoming RFS Bus Trip to the State Titles. Its a perfect opportunity for all members to view the States highest quality Zebras in every color. You may also purchase birds at their planned Auction. Then there is the Bird Dealer Tour, so there is no need to look at Zebras all day.
It is now up to you, the finch breeders in our Society and Societies elsewhere in Australia. No matter where you are, there are members in your Society that are willing to assist fellow members - either with birds, questions or other assistance.
Think about it and take up the challenge!
This article appears on the RFS website courtesy of FINCH MIX - the monthly journal of the Riverina Finch Society Inc.
Copyright©1995 - 1998 Riverina Finch Society Incorporated
"Reprinted with permission from the Riverina Finch Society, Wagga Wagga, N.S.W. Australia. Article by Steve Sass, Riverina Finch Society Member."
Riverina Finch Society, P.O. Box 5760, Wagga Wagga, N.S.W. 2650, AUSTRALIA.
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