I once saw a group of quite large and very attractive finches in a cage at a local bird traders’ facility. This would have been in the late 1980s early 1990s. These were large birds, steady on the perch with a robust beak and attractive red/pink plumage over the head and breast. I instantly liked what I saw, being told that they were rose finches. However, it was not until the early 2010s that I finally obtained a group and kept the species myself. Even after all that time they had lost none of their charm, even if the purchase price at this time was now far lower than it had been in the days of mass availability.
Yes, the species that I would like to suggest to you this time is the Mexican house finch. Sometimes also called the Mexican rose finch Carpodacus mexicanus. These should not be confused with other species of ‘rose finch’ that used to arrive from either Asia or eastern Europe, they are very different, quite rare now and very costly.
The Mexican house finch is one of the larger species of true finch being around 5-6” from head to tail tip. As per the name, they are common in Mexico but have expanded the range both naturally and via pet escapees and introductions over much of North America and now into Canada. There are particular hotspots in Texas I am told where the bird is found in large numbers. This is testament to the bird’s ability to thrive in changing and diverse habitats. They seem able to adapt quickly to habitat types and fair just as well in towns and heavily built up areas as they do forests and grasslands. As we will see when we look at the captive diet, they can be seen as being opportunistic omnivores with a tendency towards seeds and insects.
Yes, it is their adaptability that made them the perfect caged bird, especially in the USA where they became very popular in the early 1900s. As time progressed, they started to become available in the UK and EU settling down well and reproducing readily. Now that the days of wild harvest are behind us we still have access to stocks through much of the year being truly captive bred and for a fraction of the cost that I for one think that they are worth. I have bought single birds at cage bird breeders’ sales for less than £10.00, that’s not a lot of cash for a very robust and attractive bird.
As always, we must defer to the statement that ‘beauty is in the eye of the beholder’, in this case I cannot find much in the bird that is not to love. This is a dimorphic species with the cock and hen being easily distinguishable. In full breeding colouration which is seasonal to a degree and very much linked to diet and exposure to sunlight the cock is a sight to behold.
The male of the species is robust and ‘cobby’, having a rounded head that is pink to red in full breeding plumage.
This colouration is over a grey/brown and quite speckled base plumage. The red can cover from the top of the head, over the face and down over the breast before giving way to grey stripes on cream white around the belly. This continues under the wings and down over the underside of the tail. The rump can be red also but with the top of the tail being dark grey. The back is dark grey into brown with white lined wing feathers. The beak is robust and curved slightly forwards as a typical seed cracking finch. The beak is silver grey. The legs are ‘twiggy’, being long, scaled with age and grey brown. The hen is identical in every way, but without the flashes of colour. However, I have seen hens with very light colouration over the breast, but not over the full head. Quite a striking finch indeed, however, in order to see this bird in its full beauty we must pay close attention to the diet.
Yes, this is a bird that will consume a vast variety of foods in the wild, many of which are plant based and contain full-spectrum carotenoids. It is within these complex compounds that the bird not only finds its ability to create within itself preformed Vitamin A, but also when mixed with ultraviolet from sunlight that it obtains its colour, this is common for almost all red birds. Birds that are not supplied with full-spectrum carotenoids or indeed ‘colour foods’ in captivity, in much the same way as we provide them to red factory canary’s will loose the red and at first fall back to an orange replacement. This will, in time revert to yellow and if very poorly cared for recced to a background tinge. This is also age related, with young birds resembling the hen with little to no colour. It is therefore vital that we feed carotenoid rich foods such are red berries to these birds or provide them with a premade colour enhancing food. This will allow you to see the bird in all of its natural glory, but will also help in mate selection, improving captive breeding results.
This is a bird that will display and breed over much of the year if you allow it to. If maintained outside, which they can be quite well, they will breed from spring to summer. The cock bird has a loud and very pleasing song. This is unlike that of a canary, it is not complex, but it has a sense of the exotic about it somehow being almost ‘piped’. Indeed, listening to a group of cock birds battle it out in song on a hot summer’s day is very pleasing and travels far. The cock will display for long periods. This is a species that likes to breed and does so well. Both song, dance including elaborate swishing of the tail feathers and raising of the head feathers appear in the display of the species.
The hen will select the cock and choose a nest. They will then start the process of repeating courtship, copulation and egg laying. The hen will lay up to six eggs, with three to four being most common. Incubation is around 14 days and fledging 16-18 days after this. The young can remain with the parents usually with no issues at all and will be fed until independent. The cock may even feed the hen whilst rearing. The birds should be given a choice of next pans, wooden breeding boxes and ideally ledges up high in the flight or tall bushes. They will construct a quite twiggy round affair inside.
This is a species that needs some space. They have a fairly wide wingspan and are wonderful in flight. Yes, they can be cage bred but I feel that they are best suited to indoor flights or sheltered outdoor aviaries. If maintained indoors they should be provided with suitable full-spectrum+UV-B lighting. This will not only allow the keeper to view the birds properly, but it will also allow the natural creation of vitamin D3, improving bone, feather and egg health, but it is also linked to the processes of obtaining colour. They can be kept in small groups, but I advise that you keep them as being species specific. They are well known to hybridise with most other large finches and serrins. Certainly canary/house finch mules are very attractive birds with interesting songs.
The species can be fed on a proprietary seed mix for larger finches. However, I strongly advise that this only makes up a smallish % of the total diet. Canary seeds and sprouted seeds should be added. Fresh fruits, seeding grasses and fruit tree flowers should be provided when possible. Elderberry blossom could be an easy find.
Fresh fruits including red and black/blue berries should be made available and even a small amount of suet pellets can be offered as we do for wild birds. It is also a very good idea to provide them with plenty of Livefoods through the year. Mini-mealworms, Calciworms and waxworms can be offered with little chance of escape. This is vital during the breeding and moulting periods. Proprietary colour food can also be included in order to help maximise reds. Water for bathing and drinking should be available at all times, as should quality grits and natural base mineral powders.
This is a fairly long-lived species that can become quite tame. They can be kept outside for much of the year if sheltered and will breed readily. They have a wonderful song and attractive colour. They are generally peaceable birds and remain appealing all year long. They could be kept with diamond doves with little problems.
I strongly recommend including this species into your yearly offerings in store. They will bring joy to many. You should be able to retail pairs all year long for less than £50.00pr. As I said at the beginning, the odd very affordable birds do come onto the market if you keep an eye out.
By John Courteney-Smith