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Finch Breeds: From Canaries to Zebra Finches

Find yourself a finch!

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    Canaries have undergone extensive breeding in captivity for at least 300 years, with many color varieties now being sold. istockphoto.com

  • Cordon bleu finches are considered waxbill finches. istockphoto.com

  • Zebra finches have been extensively bred in the U.S. for the pet trade and are the most common finch relinquished to animal shelters for this reason. istockphoto.com

Most of the domestically bred finches in the U.S. belong to one of three families: Estrildidae, Fringillidae, or Ploceidae.

Estrildidae, the most well-known family, includes waxbill finches, grass finches, and mannikin finches. The Fringillidae family includes canaries and the green singing finch; the Ploceidae family includes weavers and wydahs (not generally seen as pets in the U.S.). Some scientists recognize a fourth family of finches known as Passeridae.


This family includes 140 species distributed over Africa, southern Asian, the East Indies, and Australasia. They occupy open grasslands, reedy marshes, brushy borders of forest edges, and clearings. All are very small, the tallest of which is six inches long. For the most part, they are permanent residents who are ground feeders.

Waxbill finches include strawberry, orange-cheek, black-cheek, cordon bleus, violet-eared, lavender, red-eared and many others. Most are poor singers with mostly chirps, buzzes and chattering instead of melodies. 

Waxbills are the most colorful group of finches. They go about in flocks, sometimes numbering in the hundreds, and often consisting of three or four species intermingled. Many nest colonially.

These finches build large domed nests of globular, melon or bottle shapes which are loosely constructed with side entrances. Some build separate nests for roosting. Both sexes build the nest and males incubate the eggs to a limited degree. The chicks have bright patches of color in their mouths, thought to promote feeding by the parents.

Consider adopting a pair of zebra finches from your local animal shelter if you are ready for a pet bird.

Grass and parrot finches include gouldian and zebra finch species. Goudian finches (Australia) live in small flocks in open grassy country, often near water. The zebra finch (also Australian) has been extensively bred in the U.S. for the pet trade and is the most common finch sold in pet stores today. This fact also makes them the most common finch relinquished to animal shelters. 

Parrot finches, which are bright green with contrasting reds and blues, live along forest edges and in bamboo and are found in the Pacific Islands, Philippines, Papua, and northern Australia.

Munias and manikins include cut-throat, society, spice, bronze nuns, java sparrow and black-headed or tri-colored nun (also called chestnut munia) species. Most species are reddish-brown with patterns of black and white. They are grassland birds occupying savannah and marshes. Mannikins sometimes congregate in swarms in grain fields, making them a challenge for rice and grain farmers. Some roost communally and will use old nests with many jammed on top of one another.


The fringillidae family, considered "true finches," includes canaries and the green singing finch. With 207 species, the fringillidae family of finches generally nests in bushes or trees. Most lay three to five eggs and the young are frequently fed small insects.

Fringillids have stout conical bills, strong skulls, large jaw muscles, and powerful gizzards. Their beak has a special groove, which helps the bird crack open seeds.

The family is divided into two sub-groups: chaffinches (only three species) and cardueline finches, including the canary. The sex of many cardueline finches can be distinguished by color, the male having much bolder colors.

The most well-know species is the canary. This bird has undergone extensive breeding in captivity for at least 300 years, with many color varieties now being sold. Canaries do still exist in the wild on the Canary Islands, where centuries ago they were caught from the wild by the tens of thousands and exported world-wide.


The Ploceidae family includes 109 species. This finch family consists of weavers and whydahs, found mainly in Africa, though some occur in Europe and Asia. They are small seed eaters and most are very hardy. Bishops and widowbirds are also part of this family. Most species are not bred for the pet trade in the U.S.