Finches, Firetails & Mannikins

Zebra Finch, near Telegraph Station, Alice Springs NT

These small, energetic, chatty and often colourful birds seem to agree with the old adage of “safety in numbers”.  As you walk through the bush you are likely to hear their high pitched calls to one another well before you see their tiny forms darting from bush to bush.   Australia has many species of these mainly seed-eating birds.  We are yet to see many of them but neveretheless count ourselves as fortunate to have seen some.  We look forward to adding more sightings as we travel.

Undoubtedly our most exciting ‘finch moments’ have been sightings of the rare and endangered Gouldian Finch in the wild.  We first saw them at the Mornington Wilderness Sanctuary, in the Kimberley region of WA, on a couple of mornings there, including the very rare red-faced variety.  We then saw some Gouldians again, further north in the Kimberley, at Parry Creek Farm near Wyndham.  We hope that the numbers of this beautiful and coloured species increase as a result of concerted efforts across the north of our country to save the species from extinction in the wild.  We have only a couple of blurry, grainy photos to show of these sightings, so you will need to use your imagination in viewing them.

Other highlights include seeing the Crimson Finch and the Long Tailed Finch.  Like the Gouldian Finch, these species are only found in the country’s north, but they are more adaptable in terms of feeding and habitat, and thus are not considered endangered.


One of the highlights of our our travels through the Kimberley region of Western Australia was our stay at the Mornington Wilderness Conservancy.  This large property is one of many owned by the Australian Wildlife Conservancy around our country, each targetted at the long term preservation of endangered species.  The Mornington property was purchased by the AWC to protect the Gouldian Finch and the Purple Crowned Fairy Wren, among other species.

Research into the plight of the Gouldian Finch provides an excellent example of the work AWC is doing at Mornington and beyond.  Northern Australia once featured enormous flocks of these vibrantly coloured little birds, with reports of flocks in the thousands.  But numbers have declined dramatically in recent decades.  The Gouldian has disappeared altogether from large areas and when it is seen, it is now in small groups only; a flock of ten would be cause for celebration.  The Kimberley remains the only part of the country where reasonable numbers are seen, but even there they are in worrying decline.  It is estimated that Australia-wide there are only 2500 breeding pairs in the wild.  Illegal trapping is partly to blame, with birds sold off as cage-pets.  But the AWC has found that habitat destruction, and the restrictive behaviours of the Gouldian Finch itself, have conspired to endanger the species.  The Gouldian Finch mainly eats grass seeds.  Early in the dry season this consists of seeds from the tall sorghum grasses of northern Australia, but for a 6 week period at the end of the dry season, only the seed of the Spinifex grass is available and this comprises the food source of the Gouldian Finch.  The Spinifex grass only sets seed in its third year.  Research by the AWC found that most of northern Australia was being heavily burnt at least every second year.  As a result, the spinifex grass was not reaching its third year in which it goes to seed, and thus the Gouldian Finch faced a six week period each season with little or no food. As a result, the finches would either die of starvation, choose not to breed, or breed and die of exhaustion trying to find food far from its nest.  And to compound the problem, unlike other finches which choose a variety of nesting sites, the Gouldian Finch only nests in hollows in Snappy Gum trees, and these nests must be protected from other species seeking to secure the same nesting sites.   So a common scenario is that a pair of Gouldian Finches finds a suitable nesting tree, fights to retain the nesting site, a fire passes through the area preventing the Spinifex from reaching a seed-bearing maturity, and the Gouldians fail to reproduce, at best trying again the following season, or at worst, dying in the attempt to find food.

But don’t despair, there is some light at the end of the tunnel!  The AWC has found that a carefully managed burning program, in which some areas are burnt at the beginning of the dry season (ie very cool, controlled burns), and in which different regions are burnt in successive years, greatly reduces the incidence of destructive, widespread, uncontrolled late dry-season fires that wipe out so much of the Spinifex grass and with it the hope that the Gouldian Finch will reproduce.  In recent years the AWC has managed the controlled cool burns across a huge area in the Kimberley, with the cooperation of many surrounding stations.  The burn program is conducted by dropping a series of ping-pong balls filled with an incendiary mixture from a helicopter, across a carefully chosen path.  They have found this program has protected the landscape from the effects of devastating fires and even better – the numbers of Gouldian Finch have improved in the region.  Research by AWC into the haemoglobin levels of Gouldian Finches in the region show that these birds are also much healthier late in the dry season than they were several years ago, implying that food supplies are better.  This greatly improves their chances of surviving and breeding.

This is one of many research programs being conducted by AWC into the Gouldian Finch, and other endangered species across Australia.