(Serinus leucopygius.)

If you were lounging around on the banks of the Nile in the southern Sudan or sprawled in the open woodlands of northern Zaire, Uganda or Ethiopia you might be tempted to dismiss out of hand the non-descript little grey birds that would probably be flitting around you. Maybe your attention is firmly focused upon the Golden Song Sparrows (Passer luteus), the Orange-breasted Waxbills (Amandava subflava) or the Red-cheeked Cordon-bleus (Uraeginthus bengalus) that might be in your locale and you miss the poor old Grey singer. You might be forgiven for this oversight but only if you were in these locations during the non-breeding season! For no matter how ‘colour fixated’ your eyes were you could not but be amazed by the courtship and mating song of this ‘small drab bird’!

Fig.1. The Grey Singer (Male)

Fig.2. The Grey Singer (Male)

The Grey Singer would have one of the most melodious voices of all the finches available to aviculturists in Australasia. People hearing them for the first time cannot believe that such a beautiful song could emanate from such a drab ‘package’!

After all that, just who is the owner of this magic voice?

The Grey Singer, as they are commonly known in Australian circles, also goes under a number of other names such as the White-rumped Seedeater, Grey canary or White-rumped Serin. There are three recognised sub-species and I would imagine our Australian representatives are a mash of all three given the absence of any new stock since legislation prevented the arrival of any imports from ‘overseas’. For those keen on scientifica the three sub-species are: Serinus leucopygius leucopygius, S.l.pallens and S.l.riggenbachi.

This species has suffered from what I like to term "drab bird syndrome" here in Australia. That is to say that if a species isn’t colourful or striking in some way it tends to disappear from aviculture or at best become very difficult to find. Another good example of this is the African Silverbill (Lonchura cantans) which was once very common in aviculture but is now highly sort after but, fortunately, a dedicated few have brought them ‘back from the brink’. However, the Indian Silverbill (L.malabrica) is but a memory these days.

Fig.3. The Pair (hen on left)

I first encountered the Grey Singer in a Sydney Bird Dealership and purchased a pair as I was taken by their plainness as much as anything else – Ok, so I like Plumhead finches (Aidemosyne modesta) better than Gouldian finches (Chloebia gouldiae) so what! The birds were a mere pittance compared to their cousins the Green Singing Finch ( Serinus mozambicus) and I was rapt in getting them for what I considered a bargain. However, these days one would be hard fetched to find a single Grey Singer let alone a pair and I suspect one would be able to afford many Green Singers for a similar price! A sad state of affairs considering what this bird has to offer but it doesn’t have the bright colours or showy nature of its cousin the Green Singer now does it?

The Grey Singer is around 11cms in length and the sexes are identical, and I do mean identical!! Some authors state that the head size is different and that the sexes exhibit different behaviour and also that the males have a white patch under the chin, which does not appear to be the case in the birds held in Australian aviaries. However, in these days of DNA sexing it is a simple matter to pluck a few feathers and wait for the mail to arrive but a few years back sexing was very much trial and error. I must admit that I had a ‘secret weapon’ in the sexing of Grey Singers in the form of a one legged male! I was given this male by a bird dealer in Sydney and the story went that he lost his leg when it became entangled in cotton wool. When we would find some singers to purchase we would put each new bird into a cage with our known male and he would tell us whether we had a male or a female within seconds. If we had introduced a female he would proceed to sing and sidle up to the hen continuously whistling then stretch himself up to his full height and bob from side to side to the hen whistling all the while. His lack of a leg would sometimes hamper his ardour and he would often slip and end up in a screaming heap on the floor of the cage. Not to be outdone he would soon be back on the perch ‘performing’. However, were we foolish enough to put another male in with him it was a rush to get the poor unfortunate out before he was shredded. In the case of a male bird our ‘sexer’ would adopt a completely different whistle, lower his wings and run (Ok, hop on one leg!) towards the unfortunate newcomer. In case you think this is twaddle we sexed 4 pair of birds in this manner which went to Bendigo and he was 100% correct. Plus all my pairs were sexed in this manner too!

The Grey Singer is an easy bird to cater for and will thrive on most good quality finch mixes. Ours are spoilt as they only get Pepper’s Superior Finch Mix from Quirindi, NSW, and they show a preference for the millets and pannicum rather than the plain canary seed – this was confirmed by winnowing the catcher tray of my present pairs seed hopper.
Charcoal, shellgrit, PVM pink pigeon powder and cuttlefish are available at all times as is fresh water.
When breeding they will consume 8-12 mealworms a day but show little interest in livefood when not breeding. Whenever possible they are given green seeding grasses, especially when young are in the nest, and, at other times, they are given Pepper’s Millet Sprays which they pick to pieces.
Some of their preferred grasses are: Green pannic, Veldt oats, Chickweed, Rye and, on occasions, Milk thistle.
They are also fed soaked seed everyday with added Cod Liver Oil& Wheatgerm and John Alers' Softfood mix. Lebanese cucumber is also relished.

Should you be fortunate enough to obtain a pair of Grey Singers you should find that they are willing to go to nest without much prompting. In Australia there is a tendency for some pair to breed in the winter while others breed during the ‘normal’ breeding season of spring and summer. The pairs that I have had always nested in the colder winter months and raised their young with frost on the ground yet, a mere 10 minutes drive away at a friends aviaries, his birds always bred during the spring and summer months.

The aggression of the Green Singer during the breeding season is legendary and woe betide any finch that stumbles near their nest! I have also read that the Grey Singer exhibits the same trait but have yet to have seen it in any of the birds I have held. I have found them so timid in mixed collections that they will fail to breed if conditions become crowded. My breeding pair are presently housed by themselves in a small flight for this very reason. Inoffensive is a word I would use freely with these birds and, should your pair fail to breed, I suggest you check that they are not being tormented by the other aviary inhabitants – I once had a pair that were ‘afraid’ of those vicious Red Star Finches ( Neochmia ruficauda)!

The nest is a variable structure in that some pairs will weave horse hair, small feathers, coconut fiber and fine grasses into a beautiful cup whereas other will simply drag a pile of cotton wool to a likely spot and mould it into a rough cup-shape.

Fig. 4. Nest of Grey Singer.

Fig. 5. Nest of Grey Singer.

On the topic of cotton wool there is a ‘homebrand’ variety available (at least in the Hunter Valley!!) that is vastly superior to many ‘name’ brand in that it is far less likely to become tangled around legs as the filaments appear to be much finer – unfortunately this product is imported from Israel and not a local product!

Two-three small whitish eggs with occasional sparse spots of brown/purple are usually laid and two chicks tend to be the norm in all the pairs I have held. They are devoted parents and will usually rear any chicks that are hatched. It must be pointed out that the fertility has decreased markedly in recent times due to in-breeding and the failure to secure fresh blood. Another manifestation of this is the appearance of what we call "bug-eyed" singers. This is where one or more of the chicks appears quite normal except that its eyes stick out of its head like old car headlights and the orbits of the eyes are swollen and enlarged. These chicks usually feather and grow as the normal chicks but generally die upon leaving the nest. It is believed that this is as a direct result of inbreeding. Unfortunately, many a ‘breeding pair’ of Singers offered for sale these days will demonstrate this trait.

Youngsters are tolerated by their parents far longer than by Green Singers and I have witnessed little aggression and have actually had independent youngsters in the aviary while their parents were feeding a second clutch. However, should these youngsters have started to sing it may have been a different matter!

Fig.6. Flight housing Singers. Fig.7. Daily Goodies for Singers.

I have housed them with a wide variety of finches and have not witnessed any instances of aggression towards any other species, in fact if there is any aggression they are usually on the receiving end and never the aggressors - unlike their cousins!

If you haven’t been put off by the drab colouration of the Grey Singer you could do far worse as an aviary inhabitant. If you are mad on brightly coloured finches these guys would offset any such collection! But just you wait until the breeding season arrives and your mates keep asking you "Jeez, I didn’t know you kept canaries." Or maybe "What species of canary is making that beautiful song?" For it is this time of the year that the Grey Singer truly makes their own. Watch visitors jaws drop when they witness the source of the ‘beautiful song’ but be prepared for the "But they are so ugly" comments – oh well, to each their own! House your males in adjacent cages and they will have competitions to try and outdo each other in song and what a delight this is in the middle of a cold Tasmanian winter!!

Don’t let the lack of colour put you off for this is one of the finest finches available to us and, if it disappears through avian apathy, what a truly tragic outcome that would be.