Zebra Finch experiences in Australia

Thousands of bird lovers keep Zebra Finches, but few have ever experienced these exciting birds in their natural habitat, Australia. I had this pleasure during my 1995 summer vacation, which took me through three climatic zones on the fifth continent in the Australian "winter": the tropical North, the subtropical Centre with its continental climate and the more temperate "European" South.

As a bird lover who had kept and bred these loveable Finches for years, I had high hopes for my Australian trip: No other species had me as excited as this little survival artist of the arid central Australia – and I had hopes of seeing it in all three climatic zones: I could still remember my first book about Zebra Finches, in which the author, professor IMMELMANN, almost 30 years ago had only excepted the tropical North and coastal South and East from their range. Two question marks south of the Roper River and the Gulf of Carpentaria on the distribution map indicated "lacking observations" and the annual fluctuations of the rainy season of the Northern Territory.

As any informed breeder knows, Zebra Finches rely on rainfall and adequately high temperatures for reproduction. However, this does not mean that they only feel well in the northern monsoon and rain forests – quite the contrary: Continual rain jeopardises their somewhat carelessly built nests and kills their eggs and young. So here they only breed during the favourable rainfall conditions at the beginning and end of the rainy season. In Central Australia, the breeding season is as irregular as the rainfall; when the rain fails to appear for a long time the birds have to migrate. In the East and Southeast, it rains throughout the year making the breeding season dependent solely on the temperature, which rises in October, and after the high summer in January declines from March. In south and south-western Australia, the hot summers are too hot and the wet winters too wet, so only two brief transitional periods provide reasonable guarantee of successful breeding.

In the Tropical North (Top End)
    I realised that in the hot and humid conditions of the rainy season no Zebra Finches would be seen here, but we had sensibly come during the European summer, which is the Australian dry season in which the Zebra Finches move far north and in part towards the coasts in search of food.

  Warlka Warlka Wamut's Picture
  A painting by Warlka Warlka Wamut shows the Jabiru, catfish, water lilies and the Pandanus palmtree.

On the very first day, when entering the lounge of our hotel, I got to know an aboriginal artist from the Mara clan, who when asked his name wrote down "Warlka Warlka Wamut". During our half-hour talk, he told me more about his culture and the Australian nature and avifauna than I had learnt in years. When, out of curiosity, I asked about Zebra Finches, he told me of his "youthful sins" in south-eastern Arnhem Land:
    When he and his playmates discovered Zebra Finches for instance at a waterhole between rocks, they would sit down and wait very still while imitating the hissing sound of snakes. If the Zebra Finches were curious enough to come nearer to identify the source of the noise, then a quick and accurate throw of a stone would expedite them to the great beyond and to the camp fire. Naturally, this story was not to my "taste", but finches are certainly not endangered by the Aboriginal hunting and gathering.

When our trip through the Top End national parks began on 24 July in Darwin, I impatiently told the guide of my desire to see Zebra Finches. The bus driver and his companion knew the birds from their travels and immediately promised to let me know when they saw Zebra Finches. However, the first encounter with my favourites was very disillusioning: In a large show case of the – very recommendable – Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory I saw a small flock next to other birds and reptiles on the red soil looking for seed — and they were all stuffed. In any event, we got a good introduction to the fauna and ecology of the Northern Territory.

Our excursions into the swampy billabongs of the enormous flood lands indigenous to Kakadu National Park brought us Crocodiles, Cockatoos and – even during the dry season – a breathtaking multitude of water birds, but of course no Zebra Finches.
    My hopes, however, were kept up by a small note in our guide's guidebook: Next to "Ubirr" there was a hand-written "Zebra Finches"! Ubirr is a large rocky outcrop and an important place of worship for the Aborigines at the north-western edge of the Arnhem-plateau from which large amounts of rain flood the plain of the East Alligator River. The birds had been spotted there in previous years. In spite of open eyes and ears and dried out soil and vegetation, there were no Zebra Finches to be seen. This stroke of bad luck continued trough the next days (Katherine Gorge, Mataranka, Litchfield Park etc.): In the North, Zebra Finches are nomadic – their appearance is unpredictable.

The Dry Centre
In the heart of Australia, barely below the Tropic of Capricorn, is Alice Springs, a small desert town founded in 1872 as a telegraph station near the life-giving springs from which the town got its name. This was to be the start of the second part of our journey, which was to take us to the world famous sights "nearby": Standley Chasm, Ayers Rock (Uluru), the Olgas, Kings Canyon and Ormiston Gorge. Here, all year round with the exception of a rare rainfall, the climate has the dryness of the North (Top End) in its dry season and its heat in the summer. So now in winter we had to get used to the (thankfully dry!) cold mornings and evenings, which do not bother the Zebra Finches.


Near Alice Springs in the dry Burt's Bluff desert, is a large rock that was made famous together with two distinct Eucalyptus trees in the foreground many years ago through a picture painted by Namatjira, an Aboriginal painter. When our bus stopped to allow the passengers photograph the object, I was one of the first to approach the pair of trees as I usually do to avoid getting disturbing tourists on my slides. Suddenly, I had to put the camera down: From a Mulga bush came that unmistakable, monotonous contact call that for years had been part of the sound setting of my office. I tried to move closer to the source of the noise, but only saw a few small birds fly away in the distance before the short photo break ended.

My patience was once again put to the test when we reached Uluru, the big red monolith, where I had seen Zebra Finches on TV, drinking from the few springs. No one from the bird world showed up on this cold, windy day – bad luck.

That Zebra Finches betray their presence much sooner through their sound than visually was proven a little later at Erlunda Oaks Resort where we had lunch. Next to the restaurant an Emu pen had been set up as a tourist attraction. A small pool had been placed in the red ground of the fold. A chirping quickly lead my footsteps in the direction of this pool that was obviously the only water source for the Zebra Finches in the area. Unimpressed by the big Emus and the equally thirsty Crows, the small Finches came in large numbers for short trips to the edge of the waterhole, took a quick look around and then as quickly immersed their beaks in the water. Here at last I had my Zebra Finches in real life before me, and here in their natural habitat I was able to observe the characteristic tip-down method of drinking that reduces the dangerously unprotected water intake to a few seconds.

  Male Zebra Finch

Unfortunately, the fence stopped me from getting closer to the waterhole, so I followed the returning birds:
    The Zebra Finches flew largely in pairs and in a slight wave pattern in eye to bush height – trees are rare here. They then crossed the street and mostly stopped first in a Dead Finish Mulga bush at the road side where they met other Zebra Finches on their way to the water. Between the thorny branches they feel quite safe from the small predatory birds – and obviously from humans too: As I carefully approached with my camera, they only moved slightly away from me to the other side of the bush. Due to the excitement, it was not easy to hold the telephoto lens still. After a short rest, the birds finally continued their return to the steppe where I quickly lost sight of them.

The search for Zebra Finches reached a highpoint at Kings Canyon whose picturesque hills keep amazing visitors every couple of meters. I had heard that it had rained here in the first half of July, and so due to my knowledge of Zebra Finch breeding ecology I was optimistic about seeing young birds. And I was right: At the beginning of our walk, I saw a small flock on the ground between bright red rocks and golden yellow grasses picking at grass seeds.
  "Supper" lesson
    When the flight distance fell below three meters, the birds retreated to a bush or to a cluster of grass a few meters further away. I could have watched them for hours, but there was still a long walk ahead of me. On the way back, I almost stepped on them: Right next to the side of the path, just a meter in front of me, a male Zebra Finch in the shade suddenly jumped a few centimetres back, thus attracting my attention. Calmly he showed his grey billed chick how and where Zebra Finches find food – right at my feet. Slowly – still not quite believing my good luck – I squatted while mounting my flashlight and took a few flash photos, which didn't seem to bother the birds. It was not easy for me to leave these birds in the intense evening sun.

The Flinders Ranges (South Australia)
As you will know, Australia was not always as dry as it is today. Once, big rain and eucalyptus forests covered the continent. As the continent drifted north into the subtropics of the Tropic of Capricorn in the Miocene epoch (23.3–5.2 million years ago), the world climate turned colder and drier, and in the Pliocene epoch (2 million years ago), the ice ages began which accelerated this trend. Furthermore, the subtropical latitudes are dried out by the tropical gusts. During this move north, the flora and fauna did not simply to an equal extent withdraw to the South and to the coasts, but found sanctuaries for instance in Tasmania, and the Musgrave, MacDonnell, and Everard Ranges in Central Australia, where small pockets of the climate that had formerly ruled the continent for thousands of years have been preserved. In South Australia, such niches can be found for instance at Mt Lofty and the Flinders Ranges. This Nature Park is situated north of what was once considered the border of profitable agriculture. This hilly to mountainous and partially forested area is still abundant in marsupials, reptiles and birds that owe their existence to a climate that is still too wet for a desert, but thankfully too dry for human agriculture.

My Australian relatives had seen Zebra Finches here during camping trips, so I was very anxious to see whether we would see them in the middle of winter. However, after staying for several days, I had lost all hopes of seeing them again. On the long trip back to Adelaide, we overtook a steam train of the Richi Pichi Railway. This railway was opened in 1879 as the first leg of the planned line between Port Augusta–Darwin and has now been restored and is being used for tourist excursions. So we stopped about 10 km south of Quorn at a railway crossing to get a comfortable and full-frame photo of the oncoming train. The landscape there is noticeably greener and – not least because of the cultivation – more "European" than the Flinders Ranges.

I ran across the tracks to get wait for the train with the sun in my back for the train that was already audible, when behind me someone suddenly yelled "Zebra Finches!". I turned, and there they were: A flock of least a dozen birds came from a big Eucalyptus tree, calling loudly, and flew over the tracks, then over me and landed first in a small fruit tree and subsequently, with a certain picturesque quality, on a fence. Because of the vegetation, the birds flew much higher here than they did in Central Australia. Torn between the Richi Pichi Railway and Zebra Finches, I quickly took the obligatory photo of the railway and then followed the unexpected finches that were now picking among the plants on the roadside. However, they did not tolerate my sneaky attempt to get closer. They flew across the street and disappeared between the fruit trees, their contact calls sounding softer and softer in the distance. Somewhat sad, I reluctantly returned to the car.
I'll be back.

I owe the translation of the original article to Frank Sundgaard Nielsen

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