Which are the key features in a pair of exhibition zebbies that will capture the eye of judges? DAVE BROWN lists the most important and also points out some no-nos to steer clear of 

MOST pedigree livestock will be bred to conform to a breed standard and a written description of what the ideal specimen, be it cow, dog or bird, should look like. Some are extensive and list the length of a perfect tail, ear position and even weight. Other standards may include a pictorial guide or model that helps to formulate in the mind’s eye what the ideal actually looks like. 

Zebra finch breeders and exhibitors have arguably had less to go on over the years. There is no official pictorial guide or model and the standard is best described as brief in its description of the required type. Here it is: “TYPE: bold throughout and of ‘cobby’ type giving the birds a look of substance, wings evenly carried to root of tail.”

Concise is best

While light in words, it has been said that keeping the standard brief has allowed the birds to carry on a process of improvement and evolution with each generation. It has not been held back as it might have been if precisely measured dimensions were stated. The absence of a drawing or model means there is no danger of controversy if the drawing were to be changed in the future to allow for the breed’s progression.

As with all livestock, the best way to get an idea of what a good example needs to look like is to attend the top shows. Study the exhibits in depth to work out the desirable feature needed in a winner. 

If we are to break down the details in the standard then we can translate “cobby” into meaning a round bird, made up of clean, smooth lines that flow into each other without any suggestion of angularity. A bird with angles would be one that was square-chested or displayed an obvious dip in the neck between the head and shoulders. These examples needed to be avoided. In my own mind, I always envisage the shape of a bullfinch when I think of a cobby bird. 

Head qualities

Selection is key when trying to breed show-quality zebra finches and each potential member of a breeding team needs to display the right qualities to win its place. Whether breeder or judge, most will start their assessment with the bird’s head. This should show roundness when viewed from the side and have a good level of width when viewed from the front or back. 

A zebra finch is usually viewed from its side in the show cage, but a good judge will make a point of assessing the width of head, too. A wide head emphasises a bold appearance. Good birds also need a good amount of back skull: a bit of length behind the eye to the back line of the head. The beak can be key in creating the right impression of the head in terms of both size and shape. A compact, neat, conical beak will enhance the impression of a bold head and a round shape. Large beaks can make the head look flat, smaller and narrow. 

Beak and body

Birds with a traffic cone of a beak should be removed from a breeding team. Avoid any sharpness or under the beak and ensure the head blends neatly into the body. While the head needs to be bold and create the impression of size, it must be in proportion to the body. 

A zebra finch’s body should be full and round. The line from the back of the head to the base of the tail should be nearly straight, but allow for a slight convex that will help to ensure good wing carriage. Birds with dropped wings must be avoided.

A zebra finch wants to sit on the perch with its feet in the centre of its body to ensure a balanced bird. You don’t want to see daylight between the legs. The tail should be neat and short and ideally carried at the same angle as the back outline. Once the right type is achieved, a fancier can look to start improving the finer details of colour and markings.

• Dave Brown is a Zebra Finch Society panel judge.