The Timor Zebra Finch
by Roy Beckham
There has certainly been a trend in America for larger more robust Zebra finches of many different colors, so it may be surprising to see a small, skinny gray Zebra finch on the show bench. That has happened recently with the arrival of the Timor Zebra finch. The Timor is the only subspecies of the Australian Zebra finch that we are all so familiar with, yet for many years has been unavailable to U.S. aviculturists. Nearly two years ago a small number of Timor Zebra finches were included in a shipment of Timor Sparrows and other birds from the region as "filler" birds. They are now being established in the U.S. through the efforts of a few dedicated Zebra finch fanciers.
Male: Timor Zebra males have a smaller breast bar compared to Australian Zebras (T. guttata castanotis). Between the beak and throat, the stripes are completely missing. The voice of the Timor is also much higher in pitch and the song is more rapid than the Australian Zebra. They are much smaller than their Australian cousins, but since the Australian Zebra is so variable in size due to selective breeding for the show bench, it is difficult to use this as a form of comparison. Some Australian Zebras from the pet trade are nearly as small as a Timor Zebra while others bred for the show bench will seem like giants next to a Timor. The Timor Zebra is approximately 10.5 grams (about 10% smaller than the wild Australian race).
Female: In coloration, female Timors are nearly indistinguishable from gray Australian Zebra finches. The voice of the female Timor Zebra finch is also higher in pitch like the male and can be used to determine Timor hens from Australian hens. The gray of the Timor is said to be darker than the Australian race, but with so much variation in our Australian stock, this cannot reliably be used as a way to distinguish between the two subspecies. They are approximately the same weight as the males.
A standard finch mix will be fine with Timor Zebra finches. They do have a preference for the smaller seeds in the mix and may push aside the large white millet, returning to them only after the other seeds are eaten. They eagerly take egg food, greens and soaked seed, although I rarely feed them the soaked seeds. Grit and calcium in the form of crushed egg shells, oyster shells and cuttlebone should always be available to them. I supplement vitamins and minerals in my prepared egg food.
The Timor Zebra is probably best compared to the Australian Zebra as a point of reference. Timors are very active birds. With their small size and active nature, they have been described as Owl finches in Zebra finch clothing. Still, they are nearly as eager to breed as their Australian cousins. They will take a standard nest box and will fill it with just about anything they can get their beaks on. Coco fiber and feathers will allow them to use their weaving skills to construct some rather elaborate nests. Like Australian Zebras, they will build the nest right up to the entrance hole so that they can keep an eye on things. With most pairs, you will not catch them on the nest as they are quick to dart out. The average clutch will usually consist of 5-6 eggs and incubation is about 12 days. The young will remain in the nest for approximately 18 days before fledging and look just like the young of Australian Zebras, gray with black beaks. Many of the fledgling males will already show some faint barring in the chest and even an occasional streak of orange in the cheek. They are independent after 14-21 days. They will breed readily in cages or aviaries, as individual pairs and in a colony. My preference is to breed them in colonies whether in cages or in aviaries. It is interesting to see the interaction of the birds in this situation. I started breeding them in a 3' flight cage and would use bamboo branches tied to the cage to offer them some cover. I placed 3 pairs together in this setting with very good results. I also had very good results with a larger colony in an outside aviary. They are peaceful little birds that should be fine in most mixed colonies (avoiding colonies that include Australian Zebras). I have them in a large flight with a few White-rumped mannikins and have had no problems from either species. Another breeder has placed single pairs in large flights with various other species with no problems reported.
While I treat them very much like my Australian Zebras, the Timors cannot be considered as "indestructible". They are a bit more fragile and one may do better to treat them like a small waxbill rather than just another Zebra finch. This is not to say that they are not hardy birds. Only when compared to the Australian Zebra can they be considered more fragile. They do not seem to be able to take the lower temperatures that the Australian Zebra can as I suffered some losses as the temperature reached the freezing mark and other breeders and the importer reported similar problems. They may also be more susceptible to other diseases as well. Overcrowding of the Timors will also bring diminishing returns as the young are abandoned more readily.
The Timor should not be housed with the Australian Zebra while breeding. They will readily hybridize and you will lose the unique characteristics of the Timor Zebra finch, including the small size and voice not to mention the marking differences. I do not house the two together at any time as young males that are housed with Australian Zebras may also lose some of the unique characteristics of their song. The Timor's song is more rapid and is higher in pitch than the Australian's. The late Dr. Luis Baptista described those Timors that were fostered to Australians as having learned a "lazy" song since it was not as complex as the original Timor song.
There are no known mutations of the Timor Zebra and while it might be possible to transfer mutations from the Australian race to the Timor through hybridization, I frown upon this idea. I have produced a limited number of hybrid crosses to show other aviculturists what the hybrids will look like and thus far the results show that the physical appearance is more like the Australian race than the Timor race. (The late Dr. Baptista was going to produce these hybrids for further study and I was going to photograph them. With his passing I have produced some hybrids and am giving them to a graduate student for study. All hybrids produced have been close banded with an aluminum band stamped with the word "HYBRID". You can see my results on the internet at www.efinch.com/zebrahybrid.htm)
I have heard from others that the Timor Zebra did exist in some aviaries in the U.S. sometime in the 1970's, but later died out or were mixed with regular Australian Zebras and lost in that way. They are still relatively rare in European collections and are certainly rare here in the U.S. with only a few aviculturists now working to establish this unique species.
The Australian subspecies has probably been bred for more than 90 to 100 generations without any introduction of wild stock and through selection and the development of mutations, has been altered dramatically from the wild Zebra. Most of the Timor Zebra finches in the U.S. today are in the first or second generation from the imported stock and thus far still resemble the wild birds in physical appearance and behavior. This is certainly part of the charm of these birds and it is a pleasure to have some "wild" Zebra finches in my flights.
P.O. Box 23932
San Jose, CA 95123
©2001 Roy Beckham. All rights reserved
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