The Red-faced Parrot Finch

Erythura psittacea


If you have ever 'done the rounds' on an aviary visit you have probably peered into many a finch aviary for a glimpse of its inhabitants. While recently in the Barossa Valley, South Australia, I was doing just this in company with a number of 'parrot people' many of who were rapidly becoming bored with straining their eyes trying to pick out finches in planted aviaries! I was receiving a 'gentle ribbing' and being told to "get some real birds" when a finch shot out into the sunlight and proceeded to trill to all the onlookers. "Gotta get me some of them", one parrot man remarked. Another suggested it was the most beautiful bird he'd seen.
    'It' was a male Red-faced Parrotfinch, Erythura psittacea. If you can imagine a bird about 11-12cms long that has a stunning green body, a vivid red head and tail then you have a fair idea of the beauty that graced us with its presence. Enough of my feeble attempts to describe them - check out the photos!
    The Red-faced Parrotfinch is now firmly entrenched in Australian aviculture and is freely available for a modest sum these days. However, it was a different story around 20 years ago. I still remember the first attempts to keep and breed them in Tasmania when they were way above my humble price range! Despite originating from the far warmer climes of New Caledonia they are now at home even in our …err….'moderate' climate! In fact they are bred in a number of aviary designs - from 'lawn-locker' types to large, fully roofed, planted flights. The one compromise we must make is to separate the pairs to discourage winter breeding and egg bound hens - or worse! In their native habitat they are, apparently, quite common and one member of a club I belonged to asked about them while there on holiday a while back and a villager offered to get the children in the village to get him a sugar bag full for $5!!



Pair - Hen on right


So you've seen the pictures and have decided to get hold of a pair of these. How do you sex them then? Well, here I'll have to consult with others 'far more knowledgeable than I'. They seemed to come up with these points:

• "If you can get youngsters straight out of the nest you should find that cocks come out with red on the chest and/or head and the hens are simply green all over". I have had several pairs sexed this way and, so far, I have had 100% success. The person that showed me this admits that, of late, this method has not proved infallible!

• In a mature 'classical' pair the hen is often smaller; has a less prominent red head mask which does not usually extend past the eye; the lores (between the eye and the beak) are often a light brown - as against the males darker black or red; if 'really mature' the red colouration of the hen is often more 'washed out' and orange.

• Some people sex them by blowing on the vents like canary breeders. Males tend to have a prominent 'lump' and the vent appears separate from the rest of the body and points downwards while the hen has no such lump and the vent points straight out behind. My apologies to 'proper' canary people - perhaps you should consult one if unsure! Males also tended to have a few red feathers around the vent. I have seen birds sexed in this manner and it was during the breeding season but I could denote no such difference in juvenile birds.

• In most birds only the males will trill long enough for it to be called a 'song'. I have heard cock birds trilling but it was usually only in the breeding season. I have never heard a hen indulge in an extended burst of this trilling.

• If juvenile buy six and hope you get a few hens!! Maybe you will be able to discern a subtle difference in the green body colour - males are often brighter in natural sunlight.

• One well-known breeder sexes his young birds by the squeals they emit when handled. In his experience only the hens will 'squeal' when handled and he has never heard a male do this!

Our birds are fed Peppers Superior Finch Mix and Greens n' Grains mix. They appear to prefer the plain canary and white millet rather than the smaller pannicum seeds. The great thing about these birds is that they will eat everything that you put in front of them but beware they also have the habit of scratching through feeders like chooks! If you are planning on introducing a new food stuff into your aviaries make sure that you have Red-face in there and they will show all your birds how to eat it! Just like a canary!
    Green and dried seeding heads are relished as are dandelions, chickweed and silverbeet (if nothing greener is available!). Plain cake is fed in small quantities as other aviculturists have stated that these birds tend to gorge themselves to a degree where they eat little else. Most softfood, soaked seed and supplements are also sampled.
    Livefood in the form of maggots and mealworms are taken - especially during the breeding season. They will squeeze the contents of the mealworms out like a tube of toothpaste and discard the skins. I read 'many moons' ago that our European counterparts used to lightly cook their mealworms and peel them as the skins were thought to be hazardous to digestion in these birds - obviously our birds have read the same article and leave the skins alone!
    Basically Red-face will eat anything you present them with and as long as you maintain a constant supply of 'goodies' they should present you with a number of youngsters. This bird is also 'addicted' to Lebanese cucumbers, which it will consume with gusto at every opportunity - great source of vitamin-C.


Light Pieds.

   Seagreen & Normal.

Opinion differs as to whether they are best kept as single pairs or in small colonies of 3-4 pairs. There are several breeders that favour each method but all quote great success with either arrangement. With a single pair it gives you far greater knowledge of parentage - very important when breeding the various mutations. They will nest in any type of nest box or wicker basket you give them or they will renovate another birds 'left-over' nest or construct their own structure. Most feathers, lintus, coconut fibre, green grass and swamp grass are acceptable for this purpose. They have a real fondness for Emu feathers in their nest building and these can often prove to be a stimulus for the onset of nest building activity. The height of the nesting site varies but Gary McCrae, a noted breeder of these birds, places a number of his nest boxes ½ metre from the floor with excellent results. Allan Oliver also related that a number of his birds would build their own nest in tea-tree at about the same height. My own showed a preference for wooden nest boxes but were placed near the top of the aviary because that was where I put them! When placing nest boxes or wicker baskets it is advised that you have twice as many receptacles as you have pairs as some pairs will recommence laying whilst still feeding nestlings. The availability of extra nest sites means that they wont be forced to use the same nest box and risk the fledging young breaking the new eggs.
    In my experience this bird appears to suffer from heat stress when temperatures rise in the aviary so this lower nesting may be a mechanism for avoiding the higher temperatures near the top of the aviary - I have lost nests of young from these raised positions as has Allan, but the lower nests were not affected. Topic for further research maybe?
    A number of breeders have stated that the Red Parrotfinch prefers to nest in darkened secluded corners of the aviary. It would seem like good sense to prepare just such an area in your aviary where they can hide if you are thinking of obtaining a pair of these finches.
    Young, first season, pairs of these birds are often highly variable as parents. Some will hatch chicks and neglect them; return to nest and hatch more then rear them for a week and then abandon them. This can go on for 3-4 nests so that you are tempted to leave the air rifle up against their cage as a 'hint' of what might happen if they don't cease this annoying behaviour! Well, next season these same pair of birds will probably rear 4-5 nests of perfectly healthy chicks with no problems. I have had this happen on many occasions and succumbed to using Blue-faced Parrotfinches, E.trichroa, as fosters out of sheer desperation. The interesting thing was that the Blue Face would neglect their own chicks and raise ALL of the Red-face chicks - and we profess to know all about finches! To illustrate this I found a nest of 3 tiny, cold Red Face that were revived and placed in with 3 Blue-face chicks that were twice their size. I intended to return and place them somewhere 'more appropriate' but promptly forgot all about them. You guessed it, the parents raised 3 healthy Red-face and I could find no trace of their own progeny in the nest!! Makes you wonder if baby Red-face have the manners of Velociraptors!
    The clutch usually consists of 4-6 eggs and fertility is generally around 85-90%. During breeding the parents will be even more active than normal and will 'sweat' on you coming in with more greens and livefood for their chicks.
    Young will sometimes return to the nest once fledged, a trait we pray for down here, but many will simply roost on the perch. Chicks often leave the nest before they can fly and will flutter around the floor of your aviary. One breeder used to find that these birds would often die on colder nights so he placed a few bushy branches of tea-tree on the floor for the youngsters to roost on - this dramatically reduced the number of lost chicks, and not just Red-face.
    They should always have access to clean, fresh water, as they will bathe in zero degree temperatures if you let them! As a word of warning try not to refresh their water bowl late in the afternoon on cold days as they will bathe and could suffer pneumonia - "see fresh water, bathe in it!"


"If this bird is not going at 100km/hr then start to panic!" A quote that I well remember as the most accurate way of describing the health of Red-face. They are one of the most active birds in any finch collection and if you see them sitting still during the day then chances are that they are ill.
    This 'active lifestyle' and inquisitive nature means that these birds spend a great deal of their time on the ground and should be regularly wormed - especially for tapeworm, as should any bird that consumes a great deal of live food. Our birds are regularly treated for coccidia and protozoal parasites. If compost heaps or damp floors exist in the aviary I would imagine that they would be prone to fungal infection. My own experiences with tapeworm in this species were devastating. I used a product that claimed to be able to remove tapeworm but following a number of microscopic analyses, proved to be as useful as raspberry cordial! Once I 'found' a product that DID remove tapeworm my breeding went from ordinary to excellent in a few months.
    When these birds are moved they will often go into a heavy moult and care should be taken to ensure that they are given some form of moulting tonic or, at the very least, a multi-vitamin supplement during this stressful period.
    All things considered they are now a reasonably vigorous bird and will even bathe in the ice-cold waters of Tasmania in winter - they will even wait for you to crack the ice on their water bowl so that they can have a bath!!
    A good health program and limiting their nesting to 3-4 nest every year should see these birds in your collection for a number of years. But, be warned, miss their worming and you will lose these birds very rapidly.


These birds now come in a range of colour schemes that are eagerly sought after by a number of breeders. As "beauty is in the eye of the beholder" I will limit my comments on making comparisons to the 'normal' coloured birds!
    Sea-Green: in these the green of the body is replaced by a pale sea-green colour and the chest, tail and head is a pale orange, or even duller. This is a sex-linked mutation, which means that it can be carried by a male that is 'split' (heterozygous or has one dominant gene for normal colour and one recessive gene for sea-green) but a female is either sea-green or normal. There is also a darker form of the sea green that some call 'par blue' where the body colour is a deeper blue.
    Pied: There appears to be a number of 'classes' of these with birds either being a light, medium or heavy pied. There is some debate as to what constitutes each class but a heavy pied has, I am led to believe, around 70-75% yellow instead of green. In the pied the beautiful green of the body is splashed with areas of yellow. The genetics of this appear to be a 'little muddled' depending upon whom you read first! Most swear that it is a dominant mutation. Well, it may well be, but it must also have something to do with a acquired trait as birds that have a normal mother and a pied father may leave the nest with no pied in them yet they will show it after 2-3 moults. Other breeders point to the fact that it must be a random gene where some young in a nest of pieds will show a marked amount of pied while others only a feather or two - and some none (that is obvious to our eyes at least!). An accepted trait is that pieds will have a yellow beak, or at least a mandible, from when it is in the nest and others state that the colour of the toes can be an indicator - the lighter the toes the greater chance of the youngster being a pied. There is a bird that has hardly any green on it at all and some call it a 'double factor' or others a 'very, heavy pied'! But should it be called a yellow if it doesn't have enough green left to quantify it as a pied? With pieds there appears to be an imbalance of males so purchase your pairs from someone you trust to sex them correctly!

Group of Mutations!

Medium Pieds.

Par-Blue Seagreen.

    As mentioned, as these birds moult the areas of yellow increases such that a light pied can become a medium pied, and so on, so make sure you know the ages of the birds you are getting as you might find your beautiful heavy pied has a pension card! Thus saying a 'proper' heavy pied should/may leave the nest with the correct percentage of yellow - although some have issue with that statement too!
    All breeders contacted agreed that you can breed heavy pieds form two light pieds and it did not necessarily follow that two heavy pieds mated together would give you a nest full of heavy pieds. In other word put any two pieds together and be prepared for anything, sit back and hope for the best!
    Sea-Green Pied: As the name suggests this is achieved by crossing a sea-green with a pied. The sea-green part is sex linked (carried on the sex chromosomes only) but the pied is autosomal (carried on the 'body' chromosomes - anywhere BUT on the sex chromosomes). Both male and females will show the pied trait but only males can be 'split' for sea-green. Females are either sea-green pieds or else they are just pied.

This species is arguably one of the most beautiful birds available to us here in Australia and it is a credit to Australian aviculturists that they are secure in our aviaries. They are generally free breeders and easy to maintain but they also require a rigorous health program to keep them in good order. They are not as boisterous as their cousins the Blue-face and have the potential to produce many youngsters with the addition of a few extras during the breeding season. Hens are particularly prone to 'burn out' unless you are fairly ruthless on stopping their breeding and prevent them from breeding during the colder months.
    Whether you are into unlocking the secrets of the genetics of the pied bird or simply looking for a bird that will be the envy of all those hookbill people then you could make no better choice that the Red-faced Parrotfinch.
    My thanks to Gary McCrae for his invaluable input, the use of his photos and for suffering through my many questions and to Allan Oliver for his advice in the preparation of this article.

By Marcus Pollard - Previously Published in Australian Birdkeeper.
Copyright remains with the author.

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