Ask any established budgerigar, canary or foreign bird exhibitor to describe the zebra finch; and phrases such as flying mice, birds for juniors and cheap as chips are likely to be heard.
Forty or fifty years ago the slight, grey bird whizzing around in a mixed collection of foreign birds might of fitted the above descriptions but times have changed.
In terms of colour, in the UK, over a dozen varieties are commonly available which range from the wild normal grey variety to mutations such as silver, orange breasted, fawn cheeked and even a crested form. There is much scope for the experimental colour breeder when choosing zebra finches. With a bit of patience and perseverance several mutations can be combined and displayed on one bird for example you could eventually breed a crested orange breasted, black breasted, black faced. The end result would be an almost completely orange bird with a small crest on top of its head. A bird like that would certainly stand out even against some of the more exotic species still seen on the show bench or as a colourful addition to a garden aviary.
The Zebra Finch is often underrated as an exhibition bird, and while the number of dedicated zebra finch fanciers may be fewer than those for some other sections of the fancy it could be argued that this reflects that zebra finches are one of the hardest varieties to present on the show bench in tip top condition. Like all show birds, zebras have to be bred to a specific type, have excellent feather quality, depth and evenness of colour and all the correct markings as well. It is a challenge to produce a single outstanding specimen that achieves all of the above criteria but as zebra finches are exhibited in pairs the fancier then has to find a partner of the opposite sex that creates a mirror image of the other bird when placed in the show cage. An additional complication is that zebra finches due to their Australian origins can and do moult at any time of the year and also do not limit this moult to a single occasion in a year. Getting two zebras in show condition at the same time for a specific show could be said to be much harder than other varieties such as canaries. All these additional factors are to my mind one of the reasons why many fanciers stick with Zebras for so long. The satisfaction of staging a well-matched pair in show condition is immense.
An additional bonus of zebra finches is that their needs are simple, a diet of foreign finch mix and eggfood in the breeding season will keep them in fine fettle and many fanciers keep their birds successfully without heat throughout the year. Although the serious breeder that commences breeding in the winter months would have to consider the provision of electric heating and lighting. Sadly the exhibition zebra finch in some cases may not live up to the free breeding reputation of its ancestors but this is common with most types of exhibition bird as size and the amount of buff feathering increases, fertility decreases. However with proper conditioning, sensible pairings and possibly a bit of vent trimming in most cases a couple of rounds could still produce six to eight healthy youngsters.
While most fanciers expect to pay large prices for their canary outcross or foreign bird, most still regard zebra finches as only being worth a few pounds and would be reluctant to pay any more than this. As with most things in life you only get what you pay for, however, exhibition zebras still present value for money when compared with many other breeds useful pairs can usually be obtained for between £15-30. It is also worth remembering that pet type zebras usually retail in pet shops for around £10-20 a pair.
All in all whether you are a newcomer looking for a value for money variety with simple needs and a friendly show scene or an experienced bird keeper looking for a new challenge then don’t forget the humble zebra finch.