Funnily enough, most of the birds described in this guide aren’t actually finches, strictly speaking. The majority of small pet birds, including the Zebra and Java finches, belong to the Estrildid family of birds. These birds, in biological terms, are waxbills, not true finches. In this guide all such birds are grouped under the unscientific but very handy term “pet finches”.
Whilst this might make a big difference in biological terms, it surprisingly makes little difference in a guide to looking after pet birds. Both branches of the family tree - the true finches and the waxbills - have very similar requirements in diet, caging, breeding and general keeping.
The Canary (Serinus canaria) is a member of the Fringillid family of finches, and is a very close relative of the Serin (Serinus serinus - sometimes confusingly referred to as the European Canary). These two birds are in fact so closely related that interbreeding between the two produces healthy, fertile chicks. It seems that a pair of Serin, blown off course a few million years ago, were the Canary's equivalent of Adam and Eve. Serins are very common across much of Europe.
The Canary - one of the Fringillid finches
The Fringillid finches are named after another, even more common European bird, the Chaffinch (Fringilla coelebs). The name comes form the Greek word phrugilos, meaning sparrow. Close relatives found in the US include the House Finch, the Purple Finch, and the American Goldfinch. The US also has healthy colonies of European Fringillid finches, including the Bullfinch, the Greenfinch, and the Chaffinch itself. This family is spread throughout the world, but has a noticeable absence in Australasia.
This is the waxbill family of birds, of which most pet “finches” are a part. These birds are found throughout the tropical regions of Asia and Africa, with a particular abundance in Australasia (filling in the ecological gaps taken elsewhere by the Fringillid finches mentioned above).
The Zebra Finch is one of the most familiar Estrildid finches in the pet trade
”Estrildid” is an odd choice of tag for these birds. It is derived from the name of an old Norse/Germanic goddess called Estrilda, associated with love and the red fire of sunrise. Other versions of this goddess, based on the “Estr” root, include Eastre (i.e. Easter) and Ishtar. This name was given to these birds due to the vibrant, red beak of the waxbills. Most, if not all families of birds are defined by a single so-called “type species”, and for the Estrildidae this type-species is the red-beaked common waxbill.
Luckily, the similarities between the Fringillid and the Estrildid birds are so similar that we can talk in general of finch diet, behavior, diseases, etc, without having to have separate sections of the guide for every aspect of the different birds’ requirements and lifecycle.
Different Types of Pet Finch
There are many varieties of pet finch and waxbill species to choose from. The popularity of certain types vary from country to country, although the Canary and Zebra finch usually are in the top three, no matter which corner of the planet you happen to be in.
Zebra and Bengalese Finches
The following sections will mention the 15 most popular pet finch species in the US today. But these 15 only really scratch the surface - for a more comprehensive checklist be sure to take a look at Omlet’s Finch Breeds pages.