JOHN COURTENEY-SMITH explains his passion for keeping singing finches and recalls the ups and downs of trying to obtain a true pair of these bright little birds.
I’M GOING to be bold and say it straight. I love African seedeaters. I always have and I guess this love will not waver. I have kept most of the waxbill and weaver/whydah species over the years and have enjoyed all of them. (Well, apart from a very pugnacious golden song sparrow cock. Now that was one aggressive bird!)
I grew up around birds and the bird trade, and even the commonest species have always held my attention. It is one group of these “common” species that I fell in love with as a child and with which I’ve restocked my collection this year.
Sexing: the hen green singing finch (right) has a band of black dots around her chest. The male does not have any spots, although young males do retain them until the adult moult – so be careful of this when buying immature birds
At one time, green singers (Crithagra mozambica) – or yellow-fronted canaries – were “ten a penny”. Every trader had them for most of the year and, on the whole, I think that they did fairly well. They have been regularly bred in quite small numbers and I have also seen some very tight and beautifully voiced mules.
That of course all changed when the destructive and unfair import restrictions were put in place. (I will make my viewpoint about this subject very clear. Am I as an animal welfare professional in favour in the large-scale collection and importation of wild-caught birds? No, but I am in favour of a regulated and sustainable trade with effective and recordable quarantine data. It is completely obvious that birds are arriving that in the strictest sense of the word should not and this could pose a health risk, and raises for me a very real ethical concern.)
The numbers of green singing finches that have been offered for sale this year have been higher than usual, so I guess the concerted efforts of breeders are
starting to pay off.
The grey may not have the bold colours of the green singer, but has a far more versatile voice.
The green singing finch is a welldocumented species with a few (12 listed) subspecies that are rarely available. The cock bird is a bright green, golden colour with a prominent grey-black head and linear stripes under and over the cheek. The hen is slightly less colourful, but in theory should have a “necklace” of dark dots around the throat. This is how the species has been sexed historically. In reality this is not so simple.
You may remember in the past few years before the ban that “giant green singers” were offered: big, bold birds. There is also the fabled “little” green singer. Then there is the stunning grey singer (C. leucopygia). This bird may not have the bold colours of the green singer, but is has a far more versatile voice. This is a shy bird with a very gentle quiet song that is to me not unlike that of a skylark.
The song speeds up and slows down and is a constant burble of sound. Every time I hear this bird sing I just smile, I can’t stop myself. My bird sings very early in the morning and again in the early evening, but NEVER if anyone is in the birdroom. The green singers, on the other hand, will sing “at you” even if you push your face up to the bars. They even battle with my Pekin robin and the waxbills and seedeater.
This year I decided (had that “bird urge”) to re-stock with green and grey singers. It took some hunting down, but I eventually found some from a trusted trader. At first there was just one pair of green singers. When I arrived both birds were displaying the tell-tale necklace. This is a good indication of being female.
It became obvious that one bird was damaged internally: it displayed that “flutter from the floor” that poor quality imports used to do. It died within a day, but the other bird was fit and strong and within a few days was singing. So that was a question. This bird is very small and not too brightly coloured. It has the necklace of a hen, but it sings a very loud and complex song and will actively try to fight any other cock bird in sight. So this to me is one of the subspecies, probably C. m. caniceps. I have not been able to locate another hen. The second bird is more than 20 per cent bigger than the first and vastly brighter. It has no necklace and will battle in song with any other bird that it hears. It is probably a C. m. mozambica. This is a very brash and heavy bird that is very well voiced, but has a more limited range of notes when compared to the smaller cock bird previously described.
Classic songster: the grey singing finch is also known as the white-rumped seedeater.
I then found a grey singer. These cannot be sexed visually, so it is always a risk. As you have seen, this turned out to be a cock bird in fine condition and showing a lovely dusty grey and marshmallow-white plumage. This bird was well fed, but has remained nervous. It is very keen on niger seed and appreciates this mixed in with its EMP softfood. I will continue to try and find a hen, but in the meantime will probably mule with a Fife canary hen.
John feeds his green singing finches a good-quality finch mix, to which he adds niger seed and canary mix. He also offers soaked millet spray and greenfood.
The moral of this story is, if you desire a species, you will more-than-likely find it eventually. However, do not rule out ending up with confusing subspecies and surprise singers. This is a group of species that still requires much work.
Many more keepers need to concentrate on breeding the stocks that we hold, especially if sustainable and regulated imports do not re-start.
Birdkeeping without African songbirds to me would be a very sad thing and a great loss. I will update this article early next season after I have located hens or muled the cock birds.
I ALWAYS start new birds on soaked millet spray (old habits die hard) and always make sure that they have access to fresh millet spray at all times after acclimatisation. I then offer a quality finch mix to which I add in five per cent niger seed and 20 per cent canary mix.
Interestingly, the grey singer will not eat the canary mix, but picks out the millets and niger. Every other day all of my birds receive a finger drawer of EMP and niger mix, cuttlefish and plenty of grit.
Greenfood is also offered as available, with dandelion leaves being a favourite. All birds have a dedicated full-spectrum+UVB lighting system and will readily sing at their reflections in the reflectors. I keep these as one bird per cage to stop any fighting and stress.
Article by our expert, John Courtney-Smith, for Cage and Avairy Magazine.