All About Long-Tailed Finch

Meeting: Long-Tailed Finch

Long-Tailed Finch Guide

The Long-Tailed Finch Poephila acuticauda is one of the best known and widely kept of all the Australian grassfinches. It has long been established in Australian aviculture, and in countries including England, Europe and North America. Its yellow beak and smooth feathering, coupled with its distinctive markings and attenuated central tail feathers make it an easy species to identify.

It can be housed and bred as a single pair in a small aviary, or as a small colony of 3–5 pairs, allowing these birds to interact socially with their delightful mannerisms and quirky behaviour. The Longtail has also adapted extremely well to cage-breeding in bird rooms in countries where finch and waxbill species need to be housed and bred in indoors, due to inclement weather conditions.


This species was described and named the ‘Long-tailed Grass Finch’ by John Gould in England at a meeting of the Zoological Society on 8 October 1839, information from which was then published in the Proceedings of the Zoological Society of London, March 1840 (p. 143). The type specimens were collected in Derby, Western Australia, and sent to Gould by Benjamin Bynoe, assistant surgeon on HMS Beagle during its historic survey expedition for the British Admiralty. The appointed crew included Charles Darwin as naturalist and it is often referred to as Darwin’s ‘Voyage of Discovery’—which it was! It left England on 27 December 1831, returning home on 2 October 1836.

In Australia, the red-billed subspecies of the Long-tailed Finch P. a. hecki, is probably referred to more often as the Heck’s Finch rather than the Long-tailed Finch or Longtail. It was described in 1901 by Oskar Heinroth, a German biologist who was on a collecting expedition for the Berlin Zoo, who named it after Ludwig Heck, the zoo’s director.


The range of the Long-tailed Finch extends from the Kimberley in Western Australia, across the top of the Northern Territory to the Gulf of Carpentaria in Queensland. It is common in savannah grasslands, especially in lightly timbered Eucalypt woodlands, along creeks and rivers. Its range corresponds approximately with the nominate form of its close relative, the Masked Finch Poephila personata. It has become established around permanent fresh water that includes creeks and waterholes. In the drier interior, it is found near cattledrinking facilities, dams and bores.


A detailed description is not necessary as the accompanying photos eloquently convey the charm of this delightful bird.

One of the best descriptions I have read was by the ornithologist Neville W Cayley, author of Australian Finches in Bush and Aviary (1932), who wrote: ‘Its colouring is a perfect harmony of grey and shades of fawn, enlivened with striking patches of black and white; added to which are the yellow or orange-red bill and the long attenuated black tail…The Long-tailed Finch is, to my mind, the most graceful of all the Australian finches’.


The Long-tailed Finch has more than one call, with two very distinct main types.

One is a low conversation call, while the other is a very loud identity or alarm call. The latter is a plaintive, sad, but penetrating ‘peee-ew’, whereas the alarm call has been described as a chattering ‘cheek-chee-chee-cheek’.


In adults, the sexes are alike. The black bib of the male is broader, and triangular in shape compared to the female's pearshaped bib. Head colour of a mature male is a silvery blue-grey, whereas a mature female’s head colour is slightly duller and darker. Russell Kingston (2010) wrote: ‘The trouser stripe of the male is broader and marginally more forward than that of the hen’ and ‘When compared in intense light, the male bird’s tail is velvet black, whereas the hen’s tail has a faint brownish suffusion’. A notable aspect of the male’s behaviour is its activity, bouncing from perch to perch, and the head-bobbing and soft cackling sound when it lands on a perch.

When they leave the nest, young birds are a dull replica of their parents and have black legs and beak.


The Long-tailed Finch is not a difficult species to house. It will quickly adapt to most types of aviary, provided it is built to cater for the climatic conditions of the area, is draught-free and faces the correct direction. Likewise, in cooler climatic areas, Black-throated Finches should not be housed in large open aviaries that only have a small shelter section.

As their habitat in the wild is warm and dry, and the average temperatures throughout the year range from 23-35ยบ Celsius it is most important that the housing of this species be given careful thought and planning. Bearing in mind the previous statement, it is easy to understand why this species has adapted well to being housed and bred indoors in birdrooms in the cooler climes of the United Kingdom and Europe.

The observation by Russell Kingston that they do best in dry, fully roofed aviaries is worth repeating and more aviculturists seem to be accepting this housing for Australian finches. The added benefit is it minimises the chance of worm infestation.

how to breed Long-Tailed Finch
Breeding: Long-Tailed Finch

How to Breed Long-Tailed Finch

The Long-tailed Finch and the closely related Black-throated Finch (Parson Finch) have the strongest pair bond of all the Australian grassfinches. This pair bond makes both species fascinating avicultural subjects—especially when they indulge in mutual preening.

The Long-tail performs a courtship dance that is preceded by head-bobbing by both sexes and frequent beak-wiping. The male hops towards the female, bowing and constantly bobbing his head up and down.

The head and throat feathers are raised which, in turn, extends the black throat bib. During this ritual, the female indulges in frequent bowing and head-bobbing.

Copulation follows.

Long-tails are an easy species to cater for because they vary in their choice of nesting sites from building their nest in dry brush attached to a wall of the aviary shelter, to a shrub in the open flight, to a nest box or receptacle. However, it is important to supply a variety of nesting options as a lack of same could result in the birds failing to breed.

The nest is a typical dome-shaped grassfinch nest, with a tunnel or side entrance. The outer material is coarse grass, with liner grass for the inside and, if provided, soft material such as feathers or torn-up pieces of facial tissue are used for the actual lining. The male collects most of the nesting material from the floor of the aviary and both sexes share the task of nest-building.

The nest is approximately 20cm in length, with about an 8cm entrance tunnel comprising 350–500 pieces of grass, measuring about 20cm long. The average clutch is 5–6 white eggs, with both sexes sharing incubation of 12–14 days.

Young remain in the nest for approximately 21 days before fledging.

Young have a greyish-black beak and a short tail and usually attain adult colouration at approximately 12 weeks of age. The colour of the beak turning from black to yellow (red in P. a. hecki) is the first sign of the gradual change from juvenile to adult plumage.

Nest inspection of the Long-tailed Finch (and its close relatives) is not recommended as they don't readily tolerate such interference.

Any youngsters that leave the nest too early should not be placed back into the nest, as this will result in the remaining young abandoning through panic. Fledglings should be collected each night and placed in a warm, dry area of the aviary.

Like several other Australian finches, Long-tails build a roosting nest for use outside the breeding season. These are much smaller than the breeding nest and usually don't have an entrance tunnel or lining.

The Long-tail is not suitable for housing in a mixed collection of finches due to its inquisitive nature. Some pairs will overdo inspection of the nests of other finches, some are interfering, and some just plain boisterous. It is important to carefully evaluate how they are to be housed, with what species, and the number of pairs per aviary.

Long-tails can be successfully bred one pair to an aviary of small dimensions, however, I think they look at their best when housed in a colony of three or more pairs as the only species in the aviary. As they breed and move around in colonies in the wild, housing them in a colony in captivity is a natural method to adopt.

It is unwise to house them with either Black-throated or Masked Finches because interbreeding is likely to occur.

how to feed Long-Tailed Finch
Feeding: Long-Tailed Finch

How to Feed Long-Tailed Finch

The basic dry seed diet usually includes small seeds—white and Japanese millet, canary seed, yellow and red panicum. It is advisable that fine shellgrit, small pieces of baked crushed eggshells, cuttlefish bone and small pieces of charcoal be provided all year round. Clean, fresh water, supplied in water bowls that keep the water cool at all times, is essential to health and wellbeing. Like several other Australian grassfinches, the Long-tail drinks by sucking—possibly an adaptation to living in dry, open country.

It is important to supply seeding grasses whenever available, particularly when these birds are breeding. Greens, including lettuce, cos lettuce and endive, are enjoyed.

During the breeding season, many aviculturists supply livefood in the form of termites, mealworms or bush fly maggots.

The vinegar fly Drosophila can be attracted to the aviary by creating a culture of rotting fruit—especially cut-up pieces of lemon, orange and grapefruit. The usual method of establishing ‘vinegar fly culture’ is to place the fruit in a small open-topped container (such as a plastic ice cream container) and cover the top with small wire mesh. This allows the flies to escape from the culture before being caught on the wing by the finches in the aviary.

Although this species can be bred on a dry-seed diet, it is important to provide green food, seeding grasses, soaked seed and other forms of softfood in the form of plain cake or egg and biscuit food, all of which are acceptable. It has long been acknowledged that a balanced diet, including the feeding of livefood, produces bigger clutches and stronger young.

Over 80 years ago, Neville W Cayley wrote: ‘Most observers (in the wild) remark on its habit of catching and eating flying termites, an important observation, and one that is most useful to the aviculturist’. This is evidence that feeding livefood to the Long-tail, or other Australian grassfinches, is not a new idea.

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