Star finch (Neochmia ruficauda)

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Adult star finch
IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern LEAST
CONCERN

Top facts

  • The star finch is a distinctive small bird with a bright red face and conspicuous white spots on its throat and breast.
  • The star finch feeds mainly on the seeds of grasses and other plants, although it also eats some insects and spiders.
  • The star finch lives in small flocks which keep in contact with constant high-pitched calls.
  • Both the male and female star finch perform an elaborate courtship display.
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Star finch fact file

Star finch description

KingdomAnimalia
PhylumChordata
ClassAves
OrderPasseriformes
FamilyEstrildidae
GenusNeochmia (1)

The star finch (Neochmia ruficauda) is a small Australian finch with a striking pattern of colours across its body. It has a rounded head and slender, bright orange-red bill, as well as a prominent red face ‘mask’ and bright orange eyes that are ringed by dull red skin (2) (3) (4) (5). The star finch’s body is an olive-green colour which blends into an olive-grey breast and a pale belly. The moderately long, round-tipped tail is reddish-brown with white spots on the upper surface. These conspicuous white spots are also seen in greater numbers on the star finch’s throat, breast and flanks (2) (3) (4).

The female star finch resembles the male, but has slightly duller plumage and a smaller red facial mask (2) (5). Both sexes have yellowish-brown legs and feet (2) (3). Juvenile star finches only develop the red face mask and olive-green colouring when they are about five to eight months old (3), being plain brown with a black bill prior to this (2) (3) (4) (5).

Three subspecies of the star finch are currently recognised: Neochmia ruficauda ruficauda, Neochmia ruficauda clarescens and Neochmia ruficauda subclarescens. These three subspecies are very similar in appearance, but can be distinguished by a brighter olive-green base colour and yellowish tinge on the belly of N. r. subclarescens (4). The subspecies N. r. clarescens is more brownish-olive than N. r. ruficauda and has a more extensive red facial mask and a creamy-yellow belly (2).

The male star finch gives a short, high-pitched song in which a basic phrase is repeated over and over. The star finch’s song is not prominent, being audible only at short distances. This species also gives high-pitched calls which help to keep flocks together as they move around (2).

Also known as
red-faced finch, red-faced firetail, red-faced grassfinch, red-tailed finch, rufous-tailed finch, rufous-tailed grassfinch.
Synonyms
Amadina ruficauda.
Size
Length: 10.5 - 12 cm (2) (3)
Weight
9 - 15.6 g (2)
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Star finch biology

The star finch’s diet consists primarily of ripe or half-ripe seeds which it forages for in grass and shrubland. This is occasionally supplemented by insects and spiders (2) (3) (5). The star finch may either take seeds directly from the seed heads of grasses or other plants, or may forage for fallen seeds on the ground, particularly during the dry season when grasses have died back (2) (3) (4) (5). It has also been known to capture insects in flight (3).

This species has a complex and intriguing courtship display. The female star finch performs an elaborate flight display (2) (5), holding a long piece of grass in her bill as she flies around the male with a fluttering, butterfly-like flight. As part of courtship, the male will also take a strip of long grass in his bill, and approach the perched female with his tail angled towards her and his spotted feathers fluffed out. The male then bobs up and down while turning the body from side to side, and at the end of the bobbing movements he makes a deep bow, singing all the while (2). If successful, mating will ensue (2) and the pair will usually commit to a monogamous partnership (3) (5).

The breeding period of the star finch extends throughout the year, although eggs are usually recorded between February and May (3), or in some locations between February and October, or even as early as December (2). The star finch constructs a globular or bottle-shaped nest out of grass, and the nest may be located in a shrub or tree, or among grass, sedges or reeds. The female star finch usually lays a clutch of 3 to 6 eggs, or sometimes up to 7, which both sexes take turns to incubate for roughly 12 to 13 days (2) (3) (5).

The young star finches leave the nest after about 17 days, but are fed by the adult birds for a further 2 or 3 weeks before they become independent (2) (3). The adults are then likely to lay a second clutch of eggs, whether or not the first is successful. The star finch can start breeding in its first year after hatching, and individuals may live for up to four to six years in the wild (3).

The specific movements of the star finch are largely unknown, but it is believed to be sedentary, with only small amounts of local dispersal at the end of the breeding season (3) (4). The star finch often forages in flocks of around 10 to 20 birds (2) (5), constantly calling to stay in contact (2). However, outside of the breeding season it may form larger flocks of up to 500 individuals (5), sometimes in company with other finch species (2).

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Star finch range

The star finch is endemic to Australia, with its populations inhabiting areas stretching across Western Australia and the Northern Territory (2) (4). The subspecies N. r. clarescens also occurs in the Cape York Peninsula in Queensland (2) (4) (5).

N. r. ruficauda is found only in a tiny part of central Queensland, and also formerly occurred in northern New South Wales (2) (3), but this subspecies may possibly now be extinct (4).

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Star finch habitat

Being classed as a ‘grassfinch’ (a type of finch in the Estrildidae family) gives a clue to this species’ preferred habitats. The star finch primarily inhabits short, dense, moist grasslands or reeds that border freshwater bodies (2) (3) (4) (5), but it can also be found living in savannah-type sclerophyll woodland (4). This species has sometimes been recorded in towns and along roadsides (3) (4).

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Star finch status

The star finch is classified as Least Concern (LC) on the IUCN Red List (1).

IUCN Red List species status – Least Concern

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Star finch threats

It is estimated that fewer than 50 individuals of the subspecies N. r. ruficauda still exist in the wild, and this subspecies is perilously close to extinction, or may already be extinct (3) (4). At a species level, the star finch is not currently considered to be threatened with extinction. However, it is at risk from overgrazing and trampling of its habitat by livestock, which results in the loss of food and cover (2) (3) (4). Selective grazing of certain plants during the dry season may also reduce the availability of grasses that the star finch relies on during the wet season (2) (4).

Inappropriate fire regimes are also detrimental to the star finch and its habitat, affecting food availability and potentially increasing the spread of invasive weeds and encroachment by woody plants (2) (4) (5). Sea level rise as a result of climate change may present an increasing threat to the star finch in future, as it could cause inundation of some of the coastal habitats on which this species depends (4) (5).

With its attractive colouration, the star finch is popular as a cage bird, and trapping of this species has occurred in the past (3) (4) (5). However, the captive populations are not generally maintained for conservation purposes (5), and interbreeding is likely to have occurred between different subspecies (2). The introduction of the non-native red fox (Vulpes vulpes) and domestic cats has also been mildly detrimental to the star finch population (3).

The star finch is likely to have benefitted in parts of its range from irrigation of croplands (2), but its overall population is believed to be declining (2) (4).

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Star finch conservation

Surveys of the subspecies N. r. clarescens have been carried out to estimate its population size and trend (4). A National Recovery Plan is in place for this subspecies and outlines a number of conservation actions to protect it, such as reducing grazing (5).

Surveys for the rare subspecies N. r. ruficauda took place in the 1990s, but failed to locate any remaining individuals. This subspecies is listed as Endangered under the Environment Protection and Biodiversity Conservation Act, which provides a framework for the protection of Australian species. It is not known whether any captive star finches belong to this particular subspecies, and any remaining wild individuals need to be located before further action can be taken to protect them (3).

Other proposed conservation measures for the star finch include further population monitoring, together with the management of important areas of habitat by preventing overgrazing and maintaining natural fire regimes. Further surveys are also needed to determine whether the subspecies N. r. ruficauda is now extinct (4).

View information on this species at the UNEP World Conservation Monitoring Centre.
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Find out more

Find out more about the star finch and its conservation:

More information on conservation in Australia:

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Authentication

This information is awaiting authentication by a species expert, and will be updated as soon as possible. If you are able to help please contact:
arkive@wildscreen.org.uk

This species information was authored as part of the ARKive and Universities Scheme.
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Glossary

Endemic
A species or taxonomic group that is only found in one particular country or geographic area.
Incubate
To keep eggs warm so that development is possible.
Monogamous
Having only one mate during a breeding season, or throughout the breeding life of a pair.
Sclerophyll
A type of vegetation with hard, thick-skinned leaves; for example, eucalypts and acacias.
Subspecies
A population usually restricted to a geographical area that differs from other populations of the same species, but not to the extent of being classified as a separate species.
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References

  1. IUCN Red List (November, 2012)
    http://www.iucnredlist.org/
  2. Forshaw, J.M. and Shephard, M. (2012) Grassfinches in Australia. CSIRO Publishing, Collingwood, Australia.
  3. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2013) Neochmia ruficauda ruficauda. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=26027
  4. BirdLife International - Star finch (November, 2012)
    http://www.birdlife.org/datazone/speciesfactsheet.php?id=8676
  5. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities (2013) Neochmia ruficauda clarescens. In: Species Profile and Threats Database. Department of Sustainability, Environment, Water, Population and Communities, Canberra. Available at:
    http://www.environment.gov.au/cgi-bin/sprat/public/publicspecies.pl?taxon_id=67118
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Image credit

Adult star finch  
Adult star finch

© Pat Morris / www.ardea.com

Ardea wildlife pets environment
59 Tranquil Vale
London
SE3 0BS
United Kingdom
Tel: +44 (0) 208 318 1401
ardea@ardea.co.uk
http://www.ardea.com

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