A recent article ‘Conservation Corner’ in the Bird Keeping in Australia magazine mentioned some of our species of finches that are of ‘conservation concern’, and prompted me to consider some of the birds that I have kept, and what had happened to them. To help with this I went back through all of my old National Parks and Wildlife stock record books and found that our interest in keeping birds began in 1969, and it is interesting to recall the birds that were kept as our interests changed. I was able to recall the transactions, bought and sold, that had been made with people long forgotten. Of course, in those early days many of our finches were kept under permit conditions.
The finches were readily available in large numbers and were reasonably priced, as many thousands were legally trapped from the wild and dealers received their allocation. These birds were excellent breeders in captivity and responded to being provided with a smorgasbord of food, good housing, and ideal breeding conditions.
I will mention just three of these finches of ‘conservation concern’ that I kept, namely the Masked Finch, the Yellow-rumped Munia, and the Blackheart and Longtailed Grassfinches.
The Masked Finches were kept in a colony situation and were ideal as colony breeders. The aviary was large and planted, and catching up of birds with a net was not easy. Breeding was good but colony breeding means you needed to be on the ball to keep track of which young belonged to which pairs. Management was not as easy as having aviaries of mixed birds of single pairs. I was still working at the time, which really only left weekends, and there always seemed to be pressing reasons why I couldn’t find the time to trap the young ones. It is easy to let a colony “get out of hand”. Such was the case and eventually all of the birds were sold. We had bred Masked Finches for some time and thought we would try something different for a change, always with the thought that we could get back into Masked Finches again should we wish to do so – WRONG! Although there had been rumours for some time that the availability of birds from the wild might cease, it happened, and within a few years these birds became increasingly difficult to get, and even moreso now.
Some time later I had another decision to make over White-eared Masked Finches. Although with finches we all like to buy birds which are sexable but not quite fully coloured (i.e. known young birds) I saw three pair of adult White-eared Masks, leg-rung, together with a number of young which were still difficult to sex. I was assured that all these birds came from the same source. I thought ‘why did the owner sell what appeared to be all of his birds – his breeding pairs and his young?’ “Was he strapped for cash?’ After much thought I went against the usual decision, and decided to take the oldest birds, that were definitely three pairs, with the hope to get at least one breeding out of them. I kept these birds for three years without any breeding success. I regretted not having bought six of the younger birds.
Another growing interest required the conversion of two aviaries into a glasshouse and a shadehouse, and one of these aviaries housed a colony of Yellow-rumped Finches. These birds are remembered for being able to almost destroy a large clump of Johnson’s Grass as they stripped the grass into long shreds for nest building. The same reasoning (We can always get these back later) was applied, as with Regret 1A – the Masked Finches – and so at the time seventeen Yellow-rumps were sold. The difficulty in obtaining these birds now and their low numbers held in our aviaries is reflected in their price.
The third regret, the Longtail, was a bird that I had always admired, being sleek and elegant. We had really good breeding results from these birds years ago. The wild stock adapted well to aviary conditions, and over many years from three pairs, and with more pairs made up from birds bred, the stock record showed that we had bred one hundred and twenty two young, and with few losses. I cannot remember why this bird disappeared from our own aviaries, but again it was probably only for a change.
In more recent years I looked to get them again, but they were rarely available or only as an old bird. Strangely, I have seen more of the coral beaked Heck’s Finch available, which years ago was the rarer. Eventually I purchased three pairs of Longtails and was pleased because they were just like we like to buy birds – not quite fully coloured but sexable. Over a three year period some were reared, some were lost (including some of the original birds). At one stage the number of birds was up to twelve but these birds never seemed as hardy, strong and virile as the wild birds that we bred years ago and gradually we lost the birds. They fluffed up, looked miserable, and died with dirty vents. This problem is shared with other members in the Society. Consequently, when their number was reduced to just five birds, I sold them.
These are just three species that were bred in my aviaries in the past, at one time in good numbers, and we can all recall our own ‘regret stories’. Unfortunately, I see two factors that may be against the recovery of these birds of ‘conservation concern’. One is the difficulty in obtaining suitable breeding stock, and secondly, because of their low numbers and the dollar driven price (which will only increase), many breeders will be put off being involved in their recovery. This of course applies even more so to the Pictorella and Crimson Finches.
Considering the thousands of birds that were trapped from the wild in the past and which propped up the numbers in our aviaries for many years, their obvious demise in aviculture prompts me to ask the question – ‘Have we done the numbers of these birds in the wild a great dis-service, and did we really deserve to have them in our collections?’