Timors: The other Zebra Finch


Ask most fanciers where the zebra finch comes from, and they will quickly reply Australia. It is certainly true that the zebra finches we see in the UK today originated from stock brought in from Australia some fifty or more years ago. The formal name for this finch has been the subject of much historical debate, but is generally described in publications as either Taeniopygia guttata castanosis or Poephila guttata castanosis. However there is another form of the zebra finch which inhabits the Lesser Sunda Islands in Indonesia, lying some 250-700 miles off the Australian coastline, and therefore geographically isolated from the Australian race. Generally known as the Timor zebra finch, this Indonesian race was given the formal name T. g. guttata (or P. g. guttata), and is therefore the nominate race, having been the first to be described..

Pair of Timor Zebra Finches bred by Roy Beckham

The Timor zebra finch has in the past been occasionally been imported into the UK, since unlike Australia, export from that area has not been permanently banned. When they have been advertised, they have been quickly snapped up. However it is vital that populations of the Timor race are kept separately from the more commonly kept Australian race, since the two will readily hybridise and the interesting characteristics of the Timor species will be lost in the process.

Although the characteristics of the Australian and Timor races are in general terms very similar, there are some differences. In appearance the Timor is much smaller than the zebra finches we normally see in the UK, and even slightly smaller than the wild Australian bird. The typical chestnut cheek patches and flank markings are present in the cocks, as are the barred tails in both sexes. But in the case of the Timor, the area under the beak is a soft uniform grey, lacking the characteristic zebra stripes of the Australian species, and the breast band is much thinner. In the case of the hens, the contrast between the grey throat and the white underparts is much more pronounced than we see in the UK today, although this may be because this contrast has been lost in UK bred zebra finches as the underparts have become creamier over the years. Being smaller, slimmer birds, the Timor stands more upright on the perch than we are generally used to seeing, again because over the years the body shape of our zebras has changed. It has been reported to be a very active (even hyperactive) bird, and is probably more suited to an aviary environment than to cages, although they have been bred in cages by several people.

One of the defining differences between the two sub-species is the song, which for the Timor is described as more rapid, more complex, and more highly pitched than the familiar Australian version. However the leading American breeder of the Timor finch, Roy Beckham, has reported that if young Timor cocks are housed with mature Australian cocks, some of the unique characteristics of the Timor song are lost. Dr Nicola Clayton, writing in the Zebra Finch Society 1989 Yearbook also commented that Timor zebra finch chicks beg more quietly in the nest than their Australian counterparts, which she ascribed to the greater exposure to predators like monitor lizards in the Sunda Islands.

Timor male (left) Australian male (right). Notice the lack of stripes under the beak of the Timor.

Unlike their Australian cousins, no mutations of the Timor zebra finch are known. Whether this is because they less numerous in the wild than the Australian species, and have also been less intensively bred in captivity, is not immediately apparent. Since they hybridise so readily with the Australian zebra finch, it would presumably be possible to introduce the known zebra finch mutations into the Timor by this route, but whether it would be desirable to do so is a very different question!

Timor zebra finches are reported to be ready breeders, and broadly speaking should be treated in exactly the same way as the familiar domesticated zebra finch. They will lay 5-6 white eggs in the usual type of nest box lined with hay, feathers etc. Hatching time is typically 12-14 days after incubation starts, which is usually after the third egg is laid, and youngsters start leaving the nest at about 3 weeks old. Several people have noted that the Timor species achieves the characteristic adult plumage very quickly, cocks in particular often show signs of orange cheek patches when leaving the nest.

There are a few breeders of Timor zebra finches around the world, notably Roy Beckham in the USA, and Dr Nicola Clayton reported that in 1989 there were 200 examples at the Bielefeld University in Germany, and Professor Birkhead at Sheffield University had a smaller group at about the same time, but I am not aware of a viable stud presently in the UK. This situation is unlikely to get any better in the near future as a result of the current concerns about Asian influenza!

Reported Weights of Zebra Finches

Timor (wild) 10-11g
Australian (wild) 12-13g
UK (pet-type) 16-20g
UK (exhibition) 25-30g


A stamp showing both the Australian and Timor Zebra finch from the African Republic of Guinea.

Photographs kindly supplied by permission of Roy Beckham, visit Roy’s site for more great pictures:  www.efinch.com