Quite possibly one of the most ridiculously cute animals on the planet.

Small, attractive, noisy, highly social Australian grass finches very popular in aviculture worldwide. Zebras are tough and hardy little birds, originating in arid areas and able to tolerate extremes of climate that would kill many other species. Their diet is mostly small grass seeds, with some fresh grass, and for spoilt aviary birds occasional corriander and poppy seeds. They require very little drinking water, but given a large drinking container they will bathe daily, sitting uo to their necks in water and flapping their wings vigorously, spraying water over everything within a meter radius. They are also good flock birds and prolific breeders, producing clutches of 4 to 6 eggs on a terrifyingly regular basis.

About 10cm (3 inches) long including a short, blunt tail, Zebra Finches get their name from the black and white striping down the tail. The belly is pale fawn, the back and wings darker grey. Their worryingly delicate legs and short, blunt beak are bright orange. The males have distinctive reddish orange patches on their cheeks about a centimeter across, as well as fine black and grey banding across the chest and chestnut flanks with small white spots. The females are less colourful, with face, chest and flanks a soft grey. Eyes are bright red with a large black pupil.

The most endearing feature of these birds is their voice. Described rather conservatively in most aviculture books as "a harsh, nasal tiah" or "short, nasal, repetitive tet, they sound in practise exactly the same as so many small squeaky children's toys. The call is distinctly nasal, but the consonantal sounds are all very soft, and rather than tiah could be described more as eah. This squeaking is heard every few seconds, non-stop, for as long as the birds are awake and active. It's quite an addictive noise, particularly combined with the finches' high-energy endless mindless bouncing around. One of my friends, who took some of our baby finches a year ago, has now started eahing in normal conversation. The birds also have a song consisting of a high nasal chattering, lasting in phrases 1 to 5 seconds long. It is usually sung by the males when they're feeling particularly macho and territorial, and want to show the world what a big strong manly finch they are, usually when they've just had sex.

Which is a lot of the time.

Mating pairs build large and elaborate nests when given the materials, usually grass and feathers, but small woven tube nests are often provided by breeders. Baby finches are as repulsive as most infant non-seabirds, but fledgeling finches are the most adorable form of life yet seen by this universe. Even smaller than the adults, uniformly pale grey, with black legs, black beaks and big black eyes, the sight of these absurd little animals lurching around and crashing into things is almost painfully cute to watch.

There is a great element of the absurd to any bird this small and dumb. It's a great wonder that these birds haven't won the universe's big Darwin Award a long time ago. Thankfully they haven't. They make rural Australia, and my aviaries, much more interesting places.

Information from my finches and the Reader's Digest Complete Book of Australian Birds

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