I hear the tinkling call of visiting African firefinches more often than I see them. They forage on the ground and in low vegetation, venturing out into open ground when undisturbed.

In our garden, we see African firefinches visiting in pairs. Their striking red colouration and the decorative white spots on the flanks, which are more pronounced and numerous in the male, are always a delight to see.

Male African firefinch, South Africa

A male African firefinch, with white spots clearly visible, approaching one of the garden birdbaths

There are a total of 11 species of firefinches all of which occur in Africa. The genus name Lagonosticta derives from the Greek words lagōn meaning ‘flank’ and stiktos meaning ‘spotted’. Of these 11 species, only 4 are found in the southern African region with one of these, the brown firefinch, occurring in northern Botswana. The three firefinches that occur in South Africa are found mostly in areas in the eastern part of the country – they are the African firefinch, Jameson’s firefinch and the red-billed firefinch.

The African firefinch, Lagonosticta rubricata (rubricata means red), occurs as far north in Africa as Senegal in the west and Eritrea in the east and is found in many African countries south of the Sahara. It is not found in arid regions as it favours moister and well vegetated habitats including forest margins and thickets, and it is often found near rivers and streams and seen in gardens and rural villages.

Click on this link to the xeno-canto  website to see a distribution map and to hear recordings of the tinkling and trilling calls of the African firefinch.

African firefinch foraging on the ground

An African firefinch looking for food on an open patch of ground in our garden

Like other firefinches, the African firefinch forages mostly on the ground for seeds and insects. The African firefinch is known to peck energetically with closed bill to break up hard ground when looking for food.

Its alternative English name is bluebilled firefinch on account of its slate-blue coloured bill (although the Jameson’s firefinch also has a blue-black bill).  

African firefinch with caterpillar prey, South Africa

An African firefinch in our garden with a caterpillar, proving that they don’t only eat seeds

African firefinches are monogamous solitary nesters. The male builds the ball-shaped nest with a side entrance. Most nests are in dense vegetation and are about 0.5 to 2 meters (1.5 to 6.5 feet) from the ground. Once the nest is built, both sexes maintain the soft lining of nest, which is made up from grass inflorescences and feathers.

Pair of African firefinches at birdbath in a suburban garden, South Africa

A pair of African firefinches at one of the garden birdbaths. The female on the left is paler or pinker in colour than the male. Typically the female has fewer white spots than the male

When breeding the female lays 3–5 eggs in a clutch. The eggs are incubated by both adults during the day and by the female at night. Nestlings are fed in the nest for about the first two weeks by both parents who regurgitate food for the chicks. After leaving the nest the youngsters continue to be fed by both parents for about ten days while they learn to forage for themselves.   

The African firefinch is the only known host species of the dusky indigobird (also known as the black widowfinch), which is a brood parasite. Although they occur in this region, I have not noticed any dusky indigobirds in our garden.

Female African firefinch at birdbath, South Africa

A female African firefinch about to drink at a birdbath in the garden

Sadly, firefinches are utilised in the international captive bird trade. Mortality rates in the wild bird trade are notoriously high at all stages in the process – at the pre-export stage, during transportation, and after importation into the country of destination. Being African, firefinches are adapted to warm climates and have high mortality rates in destination countries with a colder climate. For general information on the welfare of both wild-caught and captive-bred caged birds see this article from PETA.

Male African firefinch at birdbath, South Africa

A male African firefinch at a birdbath in the garden

Firefinches are tiny birds. They are approximately 11–12 cm (3–4.5 inches) in length and weigh about 10 g (0.35 ounces). In comparison a house sparrow on average is larger, being 14-15 cm (5.5–6 inches) in length and weighing over twice as much as an African firefinch, being 25-26 g (0.8–0.9 ounces) in weight.

Despite their tiny size, the tinkling call of the African firefinches and their busy foraging when they come out into the open make them a dynamic presence in the garden.

Sources: Chittenden, Hugh, Davies, Greg & Weiersbye, Ingrid. 2016. Roberts Bird Guide: Illustrating nearly 1,000 Species in Southern Africa (2nd edition). Cape Town: Jacana; PETA. [n.d.] Captured or Captive Bred Birds. https://www.peta.org/issues/animal-companion-issues/animal-companion-factsheets/captured-captive-bred-birds/; Roberts VII Multimedia PC Edition.  1997-2016 Southern African Birding. For details go to http://www.sabirding.co.za/roberts7/portal.html

Posted  by Carol