By Doug Hill & Marcus Pollard

It has never ceased to amaze me how the simple topic of grasses for finches can so often lead to such a heated debate! Views range from essential foodstuffs to never, ever feed green grass to your birds - and every point of view in between we might add!!

Often your geographic location has as much to do with your stance on feeding grasses as anything. How so? Well, if you live in a dry, hot environment or a dry, cool environment then chances are that you may look very favourably upon the humble seeding grass head, whereas if you hail from a hotter, humid climate then your blood may tend to boil when the question of feeding green grasses is raised. How can this be so?
The main problem with feeding seeding grasses in hot, humid climates tends to be the rapidity with which the grass becomes mouldy and potentially hazardous to the finches that consume it. Mould and fungal spores thrive in these conditions so it is imperative that you take steps to improve your husbandry when feeding fresh grass. For example, feed it under cover so that it is free from rain and NEVER allow the waste to build up on the ground below where your grass feeding station is otherwise you will have real losses. Even in cooler climates we feed our grass over a concrete floor so that a simple hand broom and pan will suffice to sweep up after the grass is ripped to pieces. Remember too that most finches spend a large part of their daily aviary fossicking on the ground and will be only too happy to pick through this mass of discarded green material, ultimately to their own detriment. Gravel and coarse river sands still allow seeds and other grassy dregs to be hidden away to ferment nicely for the next tweezer-beaked finch to decide to free load upon them – no such problems with a strip of concrete, you can even vacuum clean it!

As most of the Australian finches are termed Grassfinches it would seem a little remiss to design a diet for them that is devoid of fresh grass! So don’t let anybodies bad experiences put you off, just sit back and design a way of feeding your grasses so that the waste is not going to poison the birds you are so desperately trying to breed.

What we are going to look at are some of the different types of seeding grasses that are available out there for your finches and try to pick a range that are decorative as well as good tasting!! As we come from differing ends of the climatic scale (Hobart and Sydney!!) we hope we can pick a selection that are freely available and able to be grown in most climes. We are aware that everybody has their favourite grasses and we know that we will offend nearly everybody by missing their ‘favourite’ but we hope you will give us your indulgence, hey, you might even pick up a few new favourites!

Before getting straight into species we thought a little about presenting grasses to your birds might help. Sounds pretty boring and straightforward doesn’t it but we hope we can stimulate your brain cells just a little!

Chuck it in a heap on the floor: Bet you’ve all seen this in action many times before! Make you shudder? It does us! Open the door and toss it on the floor is the lazy finch keeper’s way and invites disaster. Finches’ come down and trample all over it, use it for a toilet, and pick it to pieces all day. If it is hot and humid as well the lower layers build up heat and start to ferment and you are reaching for the Nizoral when your finches come down with a fungal disease or six! Add to this a dirt or sandy floor and your disease potential is increased but that is nothing compared to the same grass on a wet, damp floor. Here you have the potential environment for protozoal (single celled organisms such as Cochlosoma, Giardia and Coccidia) organisms and parasitic worms to abound, especially if the "She’ll be right; I’ll pick it up tomorrow arvo if I remember" attitude abounds!
A Pot plant on the floor: take a medium sized pot plant and insert your grass into it! The grass stands upright and the birds pick up and down the stems so more birds can feed – place half a brick in the bottom of the pot plant and they’ll never tip it out. As they are standing upright there is less chance for the grass to become soiled and fermented – still no excuse not to get that pan and broom out though!! If your pot plant is over concrete then you are looking much better. Pot plant under cover and getting there! Still problems with seed on the ground but, again, that is a husbandry matter and we tried to warn you!
A Bait holder on the wall: Take a small portion of plastic mesh and fashion it into a small basket, seal one end and attach with screws to the wall of your aviary. Keeps the grass off the floor and can be attached so that there is no need to enter the flight too often. Again better placed over concrete for cleaning purposes. A smaller pot plant serves the same purpose but the plastic mesh is better!
A loop of wire suspended from the roof: This one is a great favourite if you have Mannikins, Nuns or Munias. Simply suspend your loop of wire at the desired height from the aviary roof and place a liberal hand full of grass into it and twist the wire tight. Your birds will love climbing up and down the entire stem of the grass, as they must do in the wild. Again, easy to do and prevents the grass from sticking together. Some smart people have invented a variation on this theme by suspending a wire pot plant holder from the roof and placing the grass into it – yep, try to have it over concrete if you are worried!
The rat trap on the wire trick: take a large rat trap and securely attach it to the wire of your aviary and you now have a perfect clasp for placing small bundles of grass (and nesting materials too) to your finches – simply cock the rat trap, place your grass on the wooden platform and CAREFULLY return the metal ‘back breaker’ to the ‘dead rat’ position! Cheap and works for years sometimes, or at least until the spring breaks!
The growing grass in the pot plant: In areas with modest rainfall, short growing seasons and hot summers it can be difficult to keep up a regular supply of grass for the breeding season. Simply select the species of grass that you desire to propagate and transplant them into several large pots and cultivate them as you would a favoured indoor plant. In this manner you can pamper the grasses and ensure that they are green and seedy when you need them most – the ground outside can be scorched but your ‘secret stash’ is ready for action. If you plant enough grasses you will be able to cycle them through your aviaries. Take a nice green clump and put pot plant and all into the aviary and leave for the desired period. Usually your nice, loved grass will be torn to shreds before your eyes so that when you remove it from the aviary you can simply cut it back to ground level, water it and watch as it readies itself for the next onslaught! By cycling them in this manner you can ensure that nest are not lost when Mother Nature freezes or withers the grass outside – also handy when the council mows your favourite weed patch! Just a tip for young players is to ensure that the drainage holes in the pot plant are not large enough to harbour a mouse or three – pretty sad when you have to admit after building all that expensive rodent proofing that you actually put the mice into your aviary yourself!! A rather sneaky way to prevent this is to have a 44-gallon drum filled with water into which you sink your grass pot. After all, a mouse can only hold its breath for so long! Allow to drain, remove soggy meeces and place grass in aviary as per normal. As the root masses of most grasses may provide safe harbour to any mice that might sneak into your aviaries by having them growing in these pots you reduce this risk considerably.

Fig.1.  Bait Boxes.

Fig.2. As A Grass Holder!

Fig.3. Grass in Pots.

Those a just a few methods for introducing green grasses into your aviary but from Hobart to Cooktown the important thing is to prevent the fresh grass from becoming a health hazard to your birds and, once again, this comes back to your husbandry. So not only does the average fincho have to become an ornithologist and an entomologist but also a horticulturist! So when you are checking your feeding station list off and you note the seed, fresh clean water, crushed cuttlefish, Canundra shells, crushed molasses salt lick, charcoal and soft food mix DON’T forget your fresh seeding grasses!

Fig.4. Hanging Basket!


Ornamentals: In this category there are a number of grasses that are as much aesthetically pleasing as they are nutritious. Perhaps the two that immediately leap to mind are the two tropical species of Setaria, which are commonly seen in our aviaries.
Setaria palmifolia or Palm grass, as it is commonly known, is originally from tropical Asia and has a large, broad ribbed leaf to facilitate the run off of rainfall. It is not frost tolerant but will grow in temperate area if protected. During spring and summer it produces long erect seed ‘sticks’ which appear from the leaves in profusion. These are often not eaten until they begin to turn brown and dry off but, from this point on, very few seeds will be allowed to survive!! Napoleon weavers are very fond of these seed and will eat them when they first appear.

Setaria sp. or Pit-pit grass as we in the ‘know’(?) call it is very similar in habit to Palm grass but it has a finer, narrow leaf and grows upwards more than outwards as Palm grass does. It can be trained into a neat clump whereas Palm grass just seems to take over everywhere if left unchecked. Both provide excellent nesting sites for birds that like the lower regions to nest in. The seeds are as avidly eaten as for Palm grass. Unfortunately both these species appear to be magnets for any mice in your aviary so don’t allow either species to get out of control.

Fig.5. Palm grass Seed head.

Fig.6. Palm grass Plant.

Fig.7. Pit-pit grass Seed head.

Fig.8. Pit-pit grass Plant.

Pennisetum setaceum or African feathergrass as you may know it is another excellent clumping grass for your aviary. As it has the tendency to ‘go mad’ even in Tasmania make sure that you ruthlessly prune it every season. Weavers love to strip the green leaves to build from and Pictorellas love to nest in it so how could you go wrong! The Pennisetum family has a variety of different forms and seed heads vary from white through pink into black depending upon the species. I must point out that if you are growing these for show you may never actually get to see the seed heads as the finches favour them for nest building. I don’t believe they actually wait for seeds to form before destroying the seed heads!

If you are a Victorian then you may know this species as Zoo grass as, so I am lead to believe, it was widely propagated from samples ‘collected’ from the Gorilla cage at Melbourne Zoo!!
Among other great looking and bird friendly grasses are the Foxtails like Setaria lutescens, the Miscanthus family with M.zebrinus (Zebra grass) my favourite, the Calamagrotis or Reed grasses and, an Australian native, good old Poa billardieri or Tussock grass. The Tussock grasses are much loved by Weavers to strip for nesting and the Pictorellas and Chestnuts will build their nest from the fine leaves as well.

Figs.9 & 10. African Feathergrass In Aviary Situations.

Cortaderia sp. or Pampas grass as it is universally known is another invader that has a seed head much loved by many finches and is a very common grass throughout Australia and a noxious weed to boot in most states! Forget its ornamental properties unless your aviary is several meters high and wide but focus your attention firmly upon the fluffy seed heads, which is often 2-3metres from the ground! We cut the seed heads down when they go ‘fluffy’ and store them upright in a container until they are fully dry then cut them up with a pair of scissors and give to our birds. Ensure that the heads are really dry before giving them to your birds as they will line their nests with them and, if damp, then pneumonia is a real possibility.

Fig.11. Pampas grass Heads Drying.

Edible Species:
Perhaps one of the best grasses for feed purposes is Guinea grass, Panicum maximum, as most NSW and Queensland breeders swear by it for most of their finches. In the wild we have seen Spice, Chestnut, Double Bar, Zebra and Crimson finches feeding upon it. It is a tall, up to 2metre long grass with long stems which contain a number of radiating seed heads. The seeds start green and, upon ripening, turn a purple colour. Some breeders collect the seeds when ripe and store them in the freezer for later use. In the Sydney area the grass is normally ripe from the end of January until early April and is mainly found from Nowra in the south of NSW right through to the top end of Queensland.
It grows well in well-watered areas and appears to be lusher and taller the more water is available. Many breeders grow Guinea grass in pot-plants and cycle it through their aviaries, thus giving it time to re-cooperate after the finches have stripped it. We have grown it in cooler climes in pot-plants but it is a sad, stunted affair compared to the Branxton variety!

This grass originated from Africa and it is probably no accident that a friend in Gunnedah attributes part of his success with Orange-cheeked waxbills to the availability of this grass. The grass is fairly drought tolerant and its leaves are reputed to contain significant levels of protein. I have seen, to my dismay and deep sorrow, vast areas of this grass growing in vacant lots and on the edges of roads throughout NSW. A word of warning here should be to always check with the local council before collecting grass to ensure that they haven’t been sprayed with weed killer.

Fig.12. Guinea grass Heads.

Fig.13. Guinea grass Plants.

Barnyard grass or Watergrass, Echinochloa crus-galli, is another important weed species that is a favourite of finches around the world. This grass grows to around 1-1.5metres and is commonly found in well irrigated areas and is a common ‘pest’ species in rice growing areas – proves the old adage that one man’s pest is another man’s treasure, or did I muck that up slightly!! Even in Tasmania we can occasionally pick small amounts from irrigation ditches but there is usually a free for all to be first to it! We usually pick this grass when it is beginning to dry off or, as Doug always maintains, when the wild finches start to eat it. Some finches will ignore it when presented green but the same birds will devour it and leave only stalks when given half-ripe. This seed is well known for its tolerance to insecticides and I well remember a talk with Col Pepper from Peppers Seeds at Quirindi about this grass. We were standing in acres of the stuff and Col proceeded to tell us how much he had spent on herbicides trying to kill it over the years, still shaking his head he finished his story by telling us that he was now deliberately growing the stuff!!! Fortunately for finch people everywhere Barnyard grass is a key component of his Greens n’ Grains range! Just to show you that finch keepers are a source of constant wonderment to their partners a mate recently told me he had ‘located’ a plot of Barnyard grass in his area and was relating his good fortune to his good lady wife who, I believe, went off mumbling something about commitment and insanity, or words to that effect!!! This grass is very similar in appearance to Japanese millet – a component of all good finch seed mixes- but does not have the huge seed head. It is a native of India and Europe.

Fig.14. Barnyard grass Heads.

Fig.15. Barnyard grass Plants.

Don’t be too downhearted if you are from a temperate area of Australia as you lust after all these tropical grasses as there are two species that are terrific for cooler climes. Perennial veldt grass or Panic grass, Ehrharta erecta, is just the trick for all finch keepers. Doug calls it God’s gift to the finch breeder! It is highly drought tolerant and will re-emerge after long dry periods with the smallest amount of rainfall. We grow this in pots and cycle it through the aviaries, as it is highly resilient to ‘finch attack’ and recover rapidly for a second burst. We believe it was first introduced as a lawn seed from southern Africa due to its drought resistant qualities. However, its ability to do so has meant it has out stripped many preferred lawn grasses and it is considered a weed in many areas. Easy to grow and transplant it puts out many seed heads, mostly around 20cms high but, if conditions are good, it may grow up to a metre in height but usually wrapped through other plant and tree species. The seed heads can be fed at any time, unripe or ready to drop, and the birds will leave nothing. What is not consumed will, invariably, be used for nesting, as the stem is very pliable.

The other member of the Ehrharta family that is our salvation here in Tasmania is what we call Veldt oats, E.longiflora. At first glance you will see very few similarities between the two species as Veldt Oats appears to be a miniature oats species and E.erecta appears more like a small panicum plant. Veldt oats will grow anywhere given ample rainfall. It has a purplish seed, which hangs in rows pointing downwards from the stem the seed heads of both species are easily pulled from the plant which makes collecting a breeze. Good rains in October ensure a vast amount of Veldt oats until around January. Once the ground dries out the plants die but leave enough seed for later seasons hidden away in the soil and we have known it to lie dormant for a number of drought years only to reappear after three years absence! All birds like this grass and many parrot breeders feed this to their charges. I have seen it in a few places in Sydney but it does not appear to be to common further north.

Fig.16. Veldt Oats plant.

Fig.17. Veldt Oats Seed Heads.

Fig.18. Panic Grass Heads.

Fig.19. Panic Grass Plants in Pots.

More assistance for the temperate finch keepers is at hand with the good old Wintergrass, Poa annua. Commonly seen around paths and in lawns this small clumping grass is usually only a few centimetres high but given wet, rich conditions it can produce seed heads up to around 24cms. This species appears to be the bane of turf keepers Australia wide but as a bird feed it has few equals. The whitish seed heads are easily collected or you may like to simply use a spade to relocate the entire plant into your aviary. If growing in irrigation ditches you are often able to peel the grass up as the individual plants clump together into a large mat. Even here in Tassy it is generally available 12 months of the year. The Diamond sparrow appears to be particularly addicted to this grass.

Fig.20. Wintergrass Plants.

Fig.20. Wintergrass Seed Heads.

Rye-grass, Lolium perenne, if Perennial rye grass but we suspect that there are a number of other Rye-grass species available in Australia. Generally they are very similar in habit but their size is variable. Rye is one of the fastest growing of all grasses and, generally, has a long seed head, around 5-20cms, packed with seeds, which can be fed to your birds at any stage. What isn’t consumed in the first few minutes will be carted off for nest building, especially by the Diamond sparrow when green as it uses these stems to build the outer shell of its nest!
This species is another favourite of the good old lawn seed mix and, if you decide to keep finches to any degree, you might find your well manicured lawn would be far more beneficial if you let it go to seed – oh, the domestic upheaval!! For you will see the Rye grass heading up in no time flat so pick it for your birds and THEN mow the lawn to restore domestic harmony!! The seeds from this species are frequently seen in canary tonic mixes and they are about the length of canary seeds but narrower and lighter. Mike Fidler, now a resident of NSW, includes this in his seed mixes fed as a supplement to his breeding finches. The seeds are amazingly resilient and I recently ‘found’ a bag that was 25 years old and was stunned when it proved to still have a 100% germination rate!! As this grass has a very stiff seed head it can be hung from the aviary as mentioned earlier much to the delight of the Munias and Mannikins in your finch collection. This grass is often found in parklands and just off the verges of lawn areas.

Fig.21. Rye Grass Seed Head.

Fig.22. Rye Grass Plants.

Wild Canary grass, Phalaris sp., is a group of grasses that are cultivated for stock feed in most cases. Very common through temperate areas they form large clumps with seed heads up to 1-2m in the air. The seed head stalk is long and coarse and the actual seed head is similar to canary seed heads except more elongate and longer, there are very few seeds per head. The seeds themselves are the same shape as canary seed but a brown colour and, in the species we use in Tasmania, slightly smaller. It is an easy matter to cut a bundle of seed heads when they appear. There appears to be some debate as whether the seed heads from this grass are poisonous when green. However, if fed green, I have never had finches touch it and we usually wait until we see the wild goldfinches feeding on it before we cut it for our finches. If fed when the heads are beginning to turn brown all finches will tear it to pieces in search of those elusive seeds and, as we’ve never suffered losses from feeding this seed, we assume it is, obviously, non-poisonous when ripe! The entire Phalaris plant can be used for your finches by simply using a brushcutter to cut the grass off at ground level, gather up all the grass, leaves and seed heads and simply dry it out and give it to your finches for nesting material. Again the larger grassfinches love this for the outer husk of their nests, especially Parrotfinches and Firetails.

Fig.23. Phalaris Seed Head.

Fig.24. Phalaris Plant.

By now you are, no doubt, saying "But they haven’t even mentioned Johnson grass, Newcastle grass or Umbrella grass let alone the huge panic grasses we have in Queensland!! The very nerve of them, call themselves finchos!!" Well, that’s probably very true so we’ll leave that up to other more informed scribes as there are more grasses out there worthy of description. For instance most finches would simply ignore Yorkshire fog or velvet grass, Holcus lanatus, but the Beautiful firetail will strip this grass in preference to most that we consider ‘far more attractive fare’! It will also not have escaped the informed reader that most, if not all, of the grasses mentioned hail from countries other than Australia but, then again, so do many of the finches we hold in aviculture.

Be that as it may, we hope that we have provided a brief introduction to the types of grasses available for inclusion in your aviaries. We would be remiss if we did not include a word of warning here about collecting your grasses. As mentioned previously, check with your local council about their spraying operations in your area, try not to collect your grasses around poles and the likes as these are much favoured by canines for toiletry purposes, when you have collected your grasses ensure that you don’t just leave them in the bag but instead spread them out to reduce ‘sweating’ which can lead to fungal problems and always remove the left over grasses from your aviaries as part of your daily cleaning regime. Oh, and another thing, watch out for any signs of Ergot or Rust on the grasses that you are collecting as this fungus can be detrimental to your birds. It appears as a reddish/purple dust on the seed heads of many grain species – especially Rye grass unfortunately – and is easily seen if you wipe your fingers over the seed head. It is a fungus of the Claviceps genus and can cause convulsions and/or gangrene, depending upon the variety present!

Haven’t scared you off collecting grasses yet then? Well, if you can’t be bothered scouring the countryside with a copy of ‘What Grass is That ‘ or some other weighty tome, then we suggest you prepare a patch of soil in your own back yard and plant a portion of your best quality finch seed mix into it. For aren’t all finch seeds members of the grass family themselves? This way you can ensure that you have clean healthy seed heads for your finches when you need them most. Who knows we might even see you down at the recycling shop searching for even larger pot plants to transplant even more grasses for our finches.
Also remember that if you find a lush grass spot you can always collect more than you need for immediate use and simply place the stems from the unused portion in a bucket of water and they should keep fresh for a few more days – with seed heads out of the bucket of course! - just remember to remove the lower, wet section as they can go a little slimy in the bucket after a few days – an ounce of prevention and all that……………But beware of where this added form of finch addiction can take you for I well remember a good friend taking me on a tour of his neighbourhood renowned vegetable patch only to see slabs of Veldt oats, patches of Milk thistle, rows of Veldt panic and clump after clump of Wintergrass. When asked about his veggies he simply stared at me and shook his head saying "No room mate, I need my entire garden for the finches now, I’m putting a row of red panicum over there where me tomatoes used to be!" Did I spy his spouse reaching for the commitment papers??? Oh, and did I mention that we haven’t even said a word about the multitude of flowering plants (Dicots) out there for our birds? Finch keepers beware!!

Fig.25. Red Pannicum Seed.

Fig.26. Corner Plot of Finch Mix.

Fig.27. Finch Mix!!

Fig.28. French White.

Fig.29. Grasses Galore!!

As Published in Australian Birdkeeper 2004