The Oft Forgotten Star Finch!

Neochmia ruficauda.

When we look at the range of finches available to us here in Australia we often dream of rare Twinspots, the magnificent Blue-caps or the majestic green and reds of the Red-faced parrotfinches and we rarely spare a thought for a truly great Australian in the humble Star finch that paved the way for many of us into the world of ‘exotic’ finches!

How many of us can say that we learnt much of our ‘trade’ in finches from stepping up from Zebbies and Bengos and purchasing our first pair of ‘dearer finches’ which just happened to be the Star finch. My hand is up here too!

Off to the dealers with a box of Zebs and back with a pair of Red stars was my first introduction to the world of exotic finches. If only I’d stuck to stamps, but that’s another story!

The Star was my first step along the journey of finch breeding and I learnt patience and NOT to nest inspect from these guys! The Star is relatively bomb proof in that it doesn’t require vast outlays on live food nor does it require 4000 supplements to get it in the mood to reproduce!
However, before I get too carried away with the virtues of these guys it would be remiss of me not to give you some information on the taxonomy of the Star in Australia – don’t worry it’ll be short!!

Basically there are two recognised sub-species in the wild, these being the southern race, N.r. ruficauda, which is listed as critically endangered. This race is commonly known as the Queensland Star and was never popular in aviculture given its drab colouration where the yellow is washed out to a more beige colour and it was often difficult to distinguish hens from cocks in many individuals!
The race that is most prevalent in aviculture is N.r.clarescens which is the ‘typical’ Red star that we see with its striking red head, white throat and chest spots and yellowish body. Go to 60 different aviaries and you will see 50 different variations in the intensity of the yellow colour and the intensity of the red in the head so I guess this means that our Red Stars are a mixture of these races, a fact supported by several conversations with Doug Hill and others.

However, just when you think you have it down pat I’m afraid I must throw another Star into the mix and that is the now near mythical Kimberley star finch. Finding Kimberley stars nowadays is akin to winning Lotto or, as a mate recently suggested finding rocking horse stools!

I guess I must show my age here and say that once you have seen these magnificent Stars the rest are a tad ordinary! I have had a number of people say they have Kimberley stars and, unfortunately, have had to shake my head when shown pictures or read about them by people purporting to have the ‘real McCoy’ in magazines. Guess you want to know what the Kimberley star looks like? Imagine the brightest reds and yellows on the best cock stars that you have ever seen, got that picture? Well, multiply it by 10 and you now know what the hen Kimberley star looks like! My mate will get that far away look in his eyes and simply say "like red and yellow enamel paint son!" I have only ever owned a pair that was sent to me by Allan Johnson, the former owner of Ashfield Aviaries, who was a legal trapper in the long gone days when certain people were allowed to trap finches for the aviary trade. Ok, ok, back in the late 1970’s at any rate!
I believe that the Kimberley star goes under the heading of N.r.subclarescens but that the ‘DNA jury’ is still out as to whether they constitute a subspecies in their own right. But marvellous they still bees IF you can find any!

Whew, back to the birds themselves! These guys require little in the way of live food and are content on a good grade of finch mix – we use Peppers Superior Finch Mix. Mine have access to cuttlefish, charcoal, Greens n’ Grains (a mix of dried weed seeds cut green and dried from Peppers Seeds), PVM vitamin powder from the Australian Pigeon Company, a Tasmanian wild seed mix full of Rye and Phalaris seed and Passwells Finch Soft Food. We also feed soaked seed to which we add a vitamin and mineral mix which comes from the WA Finch Society. Nothing out of the ordinary that the other finches don’t get there!

They will eat live food if it is presented but will rear happily without it as long as there is a plentiful supply of green seeds available. Those lucky people in places like the Hunter Valley, Sydney and Queensland can, no doubt, supply plentiful amounts of Guinea grass, Panicum maximum, Veldt Panic grass, Ehrharta erecta or Watergrass, Echinochloa crus-galli, to name but a few of their favoured green seeds. However, down in Tassy we use Chickweed and Silverbeet through necessity and both these are relished. Doug Hill also has demonstrated to me their propensity to devour Endive – of course another veggie we have trouble getting down here on a regular basis. It must be said that the ‘regularity’ part of that statement is possibly the important part when young are in the nest, ensure a constant supply is available for the chicks!
All grass is fed up above the ground in holders and/or suspended from the aviary roof.

Basically if it’s green the Stars will eat it and feed it to their chicks but I suggest you have a green food substitute on hand just in case your fresh crop fails.

For some reason known only to them selves the Yellow-headed mutation of the Star finch consumes far more live food than the red-headed form when rearing chicks – well mine always have at any rate, regardless of who I get them from!

Attempts at breeding these guys can be a little variable at times. A pair may rear several nests one season and then simply sit there for the following season without picking up a blade of grass. Then, just when you are contemplating what to put in their space they will up and rear like there is no tomorrow. For example my first Stars where purchased as babies which coloured up to be 3 hens and 2 cocks and these bred 21 youngsters with all three hens breeding. For the next two seasons these birds did not look like doing a thing! Just when I was loosing patience with them they went ‘off’ again and reared 17 more youngsters. So be patient with them!
The nest of the Star has an outer woven shell which contains green grass twisted into the size of a tennis ball. From my experience there is no entrance tunnel and, should you like dicing with death, you can often see the chicks inside the nest entrance. The amount of droppings that builds up there is a dead give away to the size of the nest inhabitants! The inside of the nest chamber is a mass of white feathers and finer grasses – in my case swamp grass.

I run mine as a small colony of 4-5 pairs and have had much recent success with this arrangement and have reared 35 plus youngsters this season. However, a word of warning for the uninitiated here. This bird can be a nosey busy body and will not hesitate to wreck another bird’s nest should they let them. For this reason I run only ‘tougher’ species with my Stars. These include Parsons, Red & Blue parrotfinches and Painteds. I would not suggest you try to keep many of the smaller, inoffensive waxbills with a colony of Stars and I have had to move Pictorellas from their flights on two separate occasions. Mind you, most of my aviaries are only 4m deep and 2.5 wide so, in a larger aviary you might get away with it but woe betide you if you aren’t meticulous with supplying enough nesting materials!

They also have an annoying habit of stripping anything in the aviary from the new, fresh tea-tree that you put in there for them to nest in to anything green that you might think that you are going to grow in there with them! The good thing is they appear not to bother each other as I have had nests only a few centimetres apart without mishap. Mine have never used man-made baskets, boxes or wire cylinders and have always built in the tea-tree. However, I do know of breeders that have had them use the common wicker baskets.
They are usually meticulous parents with any chicks that leave the nest being raised. They will usually raise between 4 and 6 youngsters to a nest and 3 clutches are the norm during our shortened breeding season – from September to January here. My birds show little interest in breeding again in autumn as some of the waxbills will do here – my mate maintains that Stars have more sense than to even bother down here!

As a final tip for the unwary I strongly advise against nest inspection as certain pairs will leave their nest if you do so – and from what I can glean from others these pairs are in the majority!

If you wish to keep your Stars in top condition then I urge you to consider implementing a strict worming and Coccidia program. Ours are wormed every 3-4 months using several different wormers over the course of the year. If your birds are in a mixed aviary you might like to consider sending a faecal sample to one of the many great avian vets that we have access to these days so that your flock can be tested if you do not advocate regular worming.

Way back "when I was a lad" there was only one mutation of the Star available and that was the Yellow-headed form.

Now-a-days, with the obsession towards mutations that we see in aviculture, the Star again allows for the ‘light of pocket’ to play with this topic! There is cinnamon, fawn and, what I believe is called "cinnamon/ fawn or white" Stars. All these mutations come in both red and yellow headed forms.
As I am only a novice when it comes to these mutations I must admit that I tend to think of all of these (cinnamons and fawns) as sex-linked mutations – ones where only the cocks can be ‘split’ or carry the recessive gene.

I was recently given a couple of what are known as red-headed cinnamon/fawns from a mate in the Hunter and have had great fun with them. The red-headed form of this mutation is striking and, as the bird ages, its plumage almost goes to white which contrasts markedly with its red head colour. These are highly sought after at present and not freely available.

Hopefully, you will find something in here that will stimulate you to grab yourself a pair or three of these interesting Aussie natives. For their own natural beauty and willingness to breed or just to keep up with the "hookbillers" in regards the generation of ‘new and interesting’ mutations – the best of both worlds!