Africa’s Pytilia Finches




There are five representatives of the Pytilia genus found in Africa, south of the Sahara Desert. In Australia we are fortunate to have been able to keep three of these species—the Aurora P. phoenicoptera, the Red-faced P. hypogrammica, and the Melba Finch P. melba—also respectively known in ornithological circles as Redwinged, Yellow-winged and Green-winged Pytilias.

The fourth, the Orange-winged P. afra, was virtually unobtainable when I lived in Africa for 13 years, even though its distribution bordered in part on the Zimbabwe border with South Africa. The fifth member, the Red-billed P. lineata is very similar to the Aurora but has a red bill.

IN THE WILD

Distribution


The Red-winged, or Aurora, is found discontinuously distributed through West Africa all the way to western Uganda. The Red-faced or Yellow-winged is found across a similar distribution. I have not found a reference that indicates why the two species live over the same range, as their ecosystems seem to be very similar.

The Melba is also found ranging discontinuously from West Africa, more to the north of the aforementioned species, and then from Ethiopia through eastern Africa down to the former Transvaal, Natal across the northern Cape and up into Namibia. It largely misses the wetter regions of the southern part of Africa, adjacent to the Congo rainforest.

The Orange-winged is found in mid-southern Africa but seems to prefer wetter habitat than the areas colonised by the Melba.

The Red-billed is endemic to Ethiopia and Eastern Sudan.

Habitat


These birds are closely associated with bushy thickets close to watercourses. Being Africa, these thickets are invariably full of thorns and therefore provide refuge from predators. Pytilias are often encountered on the ground between these thickets, feeding on seeding grasses, generally in association with other birds, particularly waxbills.

I have found them to be common, usually only in pairs or in family parties, after the breeding season.

When they come in to drink, you will often find a few birds, but it is noticeable that a waxbill such as the Southern Blue Uraeginthus angolensis is much more social, and has greater numbers than the Pytilias.

I think this is due to Pytilias’ territorial disposition.
They seem to be less tolerant of fellow Pytilias. I am not aware of any of the species being considered vulnerable or endangered.

Diet


Pytilias feed mainly on grass seeds but will take livefood, particularly when breeding. As termites lose their wings when they disperse from a colony, they are consumed by Pytilias. No doubt they could also hawk them in flight, but I have not witnessed this.

They can be found on the edge of cultivations but generally avoid humans. They do benefit from the building of livestock troughs for cattle. However, in most cases wild birds don’t drink from the trough but from small hollows produced by cattle hoofs and filled by spillage or leaks.

Pytilias are host species for the Paradise Whydah Vidua spp., namely the Broad-tailed, Eastern, Sahel, Togo, and Exclamatory.

Breeding


Breeding and nesting behaviour is similar within the genus. The male will hold a piece of nesting material in its bill—usually a stem of grass or a feather. This is held high while the male bobs up and down circling the female on the ground, with his tail angled towards her. The female is more stationary but angles her tail towards the male and, if impressed with the display, wavers her tail up and down, thereby signalling her acceptance and allowing copulation. If this display is performed on a perch, males can jump up and down, with their feet leaving the perch. Females have also been recorded holding a piece of nesting material but this does not seem to be common practice.

Breeding success is influenced by predation, storms, desertion, hosting whydah spp. and food availability. Nests are built with loose dry grasses on the outside, grass-lined on the inside with soft material such as feathers inside. They are usually located within a dense thorn bush. Sites that have greater thorn density are more likely to be chosen to protect the nest from predation. Studies in South Africa suggest that success of bringing chicks to independence is less than 20%. Incubation is 12–13 days and the young fledge in about 21 days. It seems that Pytilias have a strong pair bond. The nests have a side entrance, which is generally quite large.

The usual clutch is 4–6 white eggs.





IN CAPTIVITY

Housing: Pytilia Finches


A large well-planted aviary is the most suitable environment to keep and breed Pytilias. A soil base means care has to be taken for disease, and worming the birds also becomes a consideration.

I would suggest that keeping one pair with other unrelated species is the most appropriate.

The Melba Finch is considered quite bossy and other Pytilias may not do well within the same aviary.

However, depending on the size of the aviary and the nature of your particular pair, exceptions can occur.

I find it amazing how often I read about keeping African finches in conditions that exclude cold weather. If you have seen these species in the wild, as I have, you know this is a ridiculous statement.

In many areas of the African continent (even in the tropics), finches are found at high elevations where daytime temperatures can be very hot but often at night temperatures can drop below freezing.

I have observed birds in these situations with myself shivering in the early morning before the sun takes hold. The birds are well adapted to this situation. However, the environment is dry to very dry except after summer storms when, of course, the night-time temperatures are generally quite high. So, please consider that it is protection from draughts and wet conditions that are the very real problems associated with cold areas rather than the temperature itself.

Pytilia Finches Diet/Food


Pytilias should be provided with a good quality finch seed mix complemented with green food such as seeding grasses and, if you have a pair that will pick at broad-leaved greens, this should be available, however, this form of green food does not seem to be of particular interest to Pytilias.

Livefood is important, and successful breeding is unlikely without a constant supply of termites, bushfly pupae or small mealworms.

In the spring and summer months, it is a good idea to sow your own patch of seeding grasses and, of course, you can add wild panic when we don’t have the drought conditions we experience in Australia.

Supplying a good grit mixed with small bits of charcoal will be of interest to all finches. Clean water for bathing and drinking is essential. Egg and biscuit mix is a great source of protein, as is germinated seed, fed throughout the year—but essential while breeding. I know of no seed-eater than doesn’t look forward to their share. Some fruit can be provided—a thin slice of pear or apple is appreciated by most pairs.

Breeding: Pytilia Finches


Be sure to provide a substantial amount of dry, coarse grass as well as finer grass for lining the inside of the nest. Clean feathers, of coarse, are eagerly sought-after. It seems that, as in Africa, pairs tend to breed after the summer rain. However, they have been recorded to breed at other times. A clutch of 3–6 white eggs is laid. Parents depend on livefood to rear the chicks.

CONCLUSION


There seems to be great interest in keeping the Yellow-winged Pytilia and the Melba Finch.

Certainly, they are more colourful than the Aurora, but we must sustain our stocks of less colourful foreign finches. After years of rumours of importation being allowed, I will believe it when we see it—so it is up to all of us to keep our species in healthy, viable numbers.
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