The Subspecies Question (Part I)


Until now, this column has been very focused indeed. All four traditionally recognized finch families have representatives in sub-Saharan Africa (Lindholm, 1994). So far I have only discussed Ploceids; the family of Old World sparrows, weavers, and whydahs. That is a work in progress, and is intended to cover the entire family. However, at this point I digress to the family Estrildidae, by far the most popular of thefourin aviculture, in order to address a situation for which, most likely, decisions will need to be reached (and acted upon) in the near future.

In the days, so shortly past, when the American aviculture of African waxbills and relatives was largely a matter of "stamp-collecting," with no real goal of sustained propagation, the availability of more than one subspecies ofa given bird was generally seen as the opportunity to add yet another "Stamp" to the collection.

Bates' and Busenbark's (1963) Finches and Soft-billed Birds, which after thirty years remains, by and large, a very useful guide to finch aviculture, is, at the same time, a fascinating look back to the days before Newcastle's quarantine and domestic and foreign regulations, when birds arrived in this country in far greater variety and from many more places than they have oflate. Their treatment of subspecies is illustrative of the times: "Prices on both these subspecies are far higher than for the common Cutthroat, and color variations are slight. Therefore, in most instances, there will be little demand." "There are several very similar subspecies [of Red-billed Fire Finches]. .. Differences in most are very slight... Most of these differences are so slight that they would pass unnoticed in the eyes of aviculturists. One, however, from South Africa not only has larger spots but is also much hardier in shipping and acclimation." "The Abyssinian Cordon Bleu (subspecies schoanus) is infrequently imported and is therefore considerably rarer in a vi culture as well as more expensive. It shows more extensive blue on the abdomen and a paler shade of brown above." "There are several races of the St. Helena Waxbill spread over a large area in Africa ... but the nominate subspecies, astrild, is the most outstanding. This South African species [sic] is called the Greater St. Helena Wax bill... The race known aviculturally as lesser St. Helena Waxbill is the subspecies angolensis. It is far more frequently imported than the above but is less distinctive." "The seldom imported, rare South African Goldbreasted Waxbill is slightly larger by onefourth inch than the Senegal Goldbreasted Waxbill; but it is less colorful... Altogetherthis is a less attractive bird, but its rarity greatly enhances its demand."

Though warnings against the failure of American aviculture to establish African finches have been published for some time (Warmbrod, 1989), it appears that, for many species, serious attempts to create self sustaining populations really only began in earnest in 1992, with the passing of the Wild Bird Conservation Act (U.S. Department of the Interior, 1992). The effect of this legislation was the prohibition, after October 23, 1993, of the importation ofall birds listed in any of the three CITES appendices. In brief, because the Republic of Ghana, in 1976, requested Appendix III listing (which only requires documentation of any specimens leaving that country and implies nothing about conservation status) for all of its seed-eating birds, all of the most commonly imported African finches ended up on the prohibited list. This has so far not absolutely ended the arrival of African finches in the continental U.S. Despite the rather plain wording of the 1992 act, until the middle of 1994, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service appeared to have allowed at least some Appendix III species into the country if they did not come from the nation(s) which listed them. Since Ghana has not been a major export center for finches, this theoretically meant the West African finch trade could go on as before, but a "civil suit brought about by the Humane Society of the United States and Defenders of Wildlife resulted in a ruling by District judge Oberdorfer which now requires every imported Appendix Ill bird to be either accompanied by a permit or included on an approved list" (Vehrs, 1994). As the format for granting exemption permits has not yet, to my knowledge, been formulated, and no African finch has so far been placed on the Approved List (which is still very small), this means they are, after all, prohibited.

A few shipments from Tanzania continue to arrive, with species that do not occur in Ghana, but, as I've detailed previously (Lindholm, 1993a), due, this time, to airline policies following certain disastrous shipments, these are few and far between since 1991, and it is supposed that any future consignment may prove to be the last.

Several of the traditionally common West African finches still arrive from Puerto Rico, apparently not subject to restrictions of the Wild Bird Conservation Act, but are, instead, treated as if they were interstate shipments. I have been told, however, that despite the abundance of these birds on that island, at the present state of exploitation, these introduced populations may be soon reduced to commercial extinction - which would not sadden environmentalists.

West Africari finches were traditionally exported in enormous numbers from Senegal, as well as Mali, but as the mainstays of this trade are also found in Ghana, shipments from these countries (traditionally arriving here via Europe) cannot be expected in the future. On the other hand, we may perhaps see a few more consignments from Guinea or Sierra Leone, where enough interesting species not found in Ghana occur to make the occasional shipment worthwhile.

From the South African sub-realm, birds have, with few exceptions, reached the...