Despite the spectacular appearance of the Crimson Finch it has never really become well established in aviculture.
This is partially due to the fact that they have never been easy to breed on a continuous basis and possibly also because of their penchant for aggressive behaviour.
Having said this, I know of at least one breeder in Holland who has successfully cage bred them for years and currently specialises in a yellow mutation of the white bellied sub species.
The wild Crimson occur both in New Guinea and Australia with their distribution in Australia occurring across the north above the Tropic of Capricorn.
They are usually associated with permanent water and can occur along creek beds, near lagoons and billabongs and sometimes by permanent artificial water supplies.
Although commonly found nesting in Pandanus Palm and Paper Bark trees they also seem to like nesting in and around human habitation when the two coincide.
Not a huge amount is known about their general ecology but the current STGF research projects, which include Crimsons in their scope are revealing more interesting facts.
Some time ago I was sent to record ring colours on a study group of Crimsons which were nesting in a stand of Pandanus Palm that fringed a partially dried up creek bed.
Purportedly my job was to record the number of males with rings, the number of females with rings, the number of juveniles with rings and the number of each which were un-rung. I think I was supposed to record the colour of ring on the right leg too with the purpose of monitoring potential dispersal and movement between groups. Measuring dispersal was possible because each geographical population had its own unique ring colour.
As you may gather by my tone,I am not very good at these meticulous detail kind of jobs!
As I sat against a tree trunk, binoculars to hand, the mind began to wander, slowly I realised I was looking at a bird which had an aggressive behaviour pattern and yet was a colony breeder. I could not ever recall seeing a Crimson nest that was not in close proximity to others.
Despite ongoing aggression displays there was never any serious contact. Thirty minutes study later I had sorted out which was the dominant pair. They had a nest and nestlings in the upper quartile of a Pandanus Palm and every time the male flew down to the ground to forage he deliberately landed by another male who simply up and moved about a meter away and then carried on foraging completely unconcerned. The female did exactly the same but displaced only females.
It soon became obvious that there was a very strict pecking order which was constantly reinforced by displacement and occasional aggression displays.
Despite this, apparent peace reigned, which seems a silly thing to say under the circumstances! Yet there was. The whole colony was breeding and judging by the number of juveniles around, were having a successful season.
The sub-dominants at the bottom of the pecking order seemed to be nesting either in the smaller less dense palms or at the fringe of the colony, whilst the more dominant pairs nested higher up and in the denser, bigger palms. Presumably this central, higher position meant that there was advantage to be gained, perhaps in receiving early warning of predator attack and also the prospect that a hungry predator would satiate its appetite by raiding the nests of the sub-dominants on the fringes of the colony. There was a constant stream of birds flying either down to the ground to forage or flying back up and each time one flew down it would usually land by and displace another who was obviously lower down the pecking order – fascinating!
It was to be a couple of years later whilst studying the White bellied Crimson -Neochmia phaeton evangelinae – in Cape York before I discovered something else which interested me. I was actually trying to get a photograph of adult white bellied Crimsons, but it was June when there is still heaps of water around, so flocks are dispersed and to make it worse, in Lakefield National Park, where I was, there is heavy vegetation around all the water courses. So, as you gather, I was having rather a hard time.
To photograph small finches you have to use a big, heavy lens. I use an 800 mm telephoto and you have to get within 7 metres of the bird to stop them looking like a small dot in the middle of the photograph.
An 800mm lens is really heavy which means you cannot hand hold it, so it has to go on a heavy tripod. Now a heavy lens and a heavy tripod and a heavy professional camera is HEAVY- far too heavy for anyone of my age and with my build to carry around on spec.
So………. not only do you have to find the birds in the first place, but you also have to study them carefully for as long as it takes until you can predict their movements enough to be able to set up your kit and maybe a hide.
Whilst doing all this I noticed two things which I had never noticed before. The first was that as far as I could see the breeding season had finished but the adults no longer seemed to be moving around in a colony. I only saw adults in single pairs. [ but this could also have been a behavioural difference between it and the western species ]
This may have been a coincidence because as I have mentioned before the vegetation was very dense so it was hard to see anything more than a small area at a time … and also the scrub was infested with Taipans, one of the the world’s most venomous and aggressive snake, so although I did a bit of ‘scrub bashing’ I wasn’t game for too much!
Walking along the creek bank wasn’t all that good an option either. Although the wet season flood waters had cleared the banks, the fact that it was still pretty early in the dry meant there was plenty of water and lily cover in the creeks and billabongs, which meant there were plenty of salt water crocs around too. Now I fear them a LOT more than Taipans – they actually think you are a tasty morsel and physically hunt you!
So again, I did a fair bit of bank walking but perhaps with not the same diligence as normal, it is hard to keep your concentration whilst the brain is simultaneously choosing trees to climb in the event of croc attack. I was looking into dense cover with one eye & watching the water surface with the other, so I probably wasn’t as good at ‘bird spotting’ as usual either!
What was a definitive observation was the juveniles and sub adults moved around in flocks, sometimes in excess of 50 individuals and even more interestingly all these flocks gathered together in the evening to roost in the same area of low lying scrub and dense reeds, which was approximately one and a half meters high. It was fascinating to see the flocks coming in wave after wave and congregating into one large roost. It was a bit of a revelation really as I would have expected them to roost in trees or the Pandanus Palms, not low down to the ground as they were doing.
And yes, this is where I got most of my photographs!
Earlier on, more in hope than expectation, I had set my camera up focused on some scrub growing on a sandbank in the middle of the creek. It looked a likely place where the crimsons might come down to drink during the day. Branches that went straight down into the water they could drink from, clear view of the sky all the way round to watch out for winged predators and no worries of land based predators swimming the flowing creek without being seen. Perfect.
After two hours of sitting I had killed the boredom by photographing a number of other species, all who seemed to agree with my prognosis that this was a good drinking spot. I even gave Elisabeth a go at the ‘trigger’ whilst I went for a leg stretch and another foray to see if they were drinking elsewhere. When I got back she excitedly showed me the pictures she had taken of a large flock of crimsons which had landed on a sandbar on the far side of the creek. Unfortunately too far away so the pictures were ‘peas in space’ but at least encouragement to sit it out longer.
Patience is occasionally rewarded and eventually a flock landed where they were supposed to – just four and a half hours late that’s all!
Now here is the interesting bit. Right in front of my proverbial nose, a couple of sub adult males had a rare old ding dong. It was a real fight ….. feet locked together rolling round and round on the sand followed by beaks locking and wrestling. Finally they fell into the water which made one decide enough was enough and flew off leaving the victor looking triumphant, but wet and bedraggled.
Before the battle I had noticed what I regard as the ‘usual’ aggression displays and displacement taking place, but this was the first time I had ever seen a proper fight.
Interestingly, one of the researchers had told me that in the build up to the breeding season the males were frequently involved in major fights. She was quite worried about it at one stage. However, unlike the deaths that occur in captivity no actual damage seems to be done.
So the intriguing question is : that unlike the Gouldian for example, the Crimson is definitely a colony bird, so why all the aggression? The pre breeding aggression can be explained as the battle for dominance to ensure they get the best breeding site and therefore the best chance of successfully producing young.
But why should partially moulted sub adults have such serious fights?
Is it practice for the real thing later on? Or is it to set up the ‘pecking order’ pre breeding season to conserve time and energy for breeding?
Another interesting observation: I have never seen a Crimson display aggression to another species in the wild.
Close observation of behaviour in the wild is very helpful when it comes to working out how to breed a species in captivity. It was the privilege of studying the birds in the wild which helped me work out exactly how to breed the Gouldian Finch. As you may gather, I was trying to repeat the exercise and work out exactly how to keep and breed Crimsons.
In captivity I have experimented with a number of different set ups. Some successful, some partially so and some definitely not.
In the first set up I lost females due to constant harassment from the males. Following the above observations I changed the captive set up. Originally, they were housed in individual pairs in 1.5 meter square indoor cages which had access via a 30cm square ‘bob hole’ to a 1.5 meter long x 1.5 meter high x .75 meter wide outdoor flights.
Although I had provided what I thought was sufficient cover for the female to escape into, it turned out into being a totally inadequate configuration.
After more experimenting I eventually worked out a set up which has worked very well for a number of years now.
As you can see in the accompanying photographs, the upper part of the small aviary.
[ HIGH 2MT X WIDE 1.5MT X LONG 3MT ] has a number of ‘STRESS PERCHES.’ In the breeding aviary set up there is a nesting basket filled with bracken and brush, although the one in the photo seems a bit low on brush [!] Most important of all is the 1 meter square stack of brush filled baskets, with the corrugated tin cover, placed on the floor.
The set up works because it artificially accommodates their wild behaviour. When they are nesting, the male comes off the nest at the end of his stint and gives the female and any last round juveniles still in the aviary, the ‘rounds of the kitchen’.
They don’t bother too much and just disappear into the baskets stacked on the floor.
They hang in there for a few minutes and then come out and carry on life as normal.
Now the male has reinforced his dominance, he is perfectly satisfied and coexists with the rest of the inhabitants very happily.
The same happens if a group are put together in an aviary. Sub dominants just go down into cover as soon as they are harassed by someone higher up the pecking order.
And better still, since those early hard lessons I have never lost a female.
Basically, in the wild they breed very successfully, they do not kill each other and they do not kill other species. So if there is a problem in captivity, it is our problem in that we have not identified exactly how to keep them.
Whilst I was conducting these experiments I was told that crimsons would kill any other species that had red in their colouration.
So, you have probably guessed what happened next! Yep, I put a number of different species with red in their plumage into an aviary with a colony of crimsons. I went through a rather busy time work wise, so was not able to watch what went on very well. However, the only bird I lost was a geriatric red siskin male. In fairness, it could have died from old age but it could also have been harassed to death because red siskin are heavily arboreal, or up birds as I call them, and it was maybe too unintelligent to go down to cover when harassed.