The Excellent, Exceptional, Elegant Estrildids

November 29, 2022

A review by Justin Peter

Estrildid Finches of the World, by G. Jelmer Huisman

self-published, 2021

396 pages, hardcover

ABA Sales–Buteo Books 15175

The title of this book might not immediately grab the attention of those who don’t delve much into taxonomy, but the cover image will. Indeed, the photograph of a Zebra Waxbill represents the indisputable visual appeal that many members of the family of estrildid finches hold. It is that beauty which has led to their sometime nickname “pet store finches”; and the ease with which several can be kept in captivity means that many among us have undoubtedly had our first acquaintance with them in pet stores before the thought of seeking them in the field ever arose. Many are so beautiful and seemingly inoffensive to a casual observer that it may seem impossible that such birds could even exist in the wild!

This recent work represents a beautiful translation to English from the original Dutch and includes an author’s preface, a foreword by three highly qualified authors with an interest in these birds, a taxonomy, and a summary of estrildids and their evolution. This is followed by the lavishly illustrated species accounts in two sections, representing the two subfamilies of estrildids. Two other sections, discussed below, are notable. The text details distribution, identification, recognizable forms, habitat, breeding habitats, and general behavior. Notes on name origins add bits of worldly education and entertainment throughout, and passages on more general estrildid biology are interspersed throughout many accounts, adding a pleasing element of surprise as one reads about individual species. The tone throughout is friendly and accessible.

It is apparent from the outset that author G. Jelmer Huisman truly loves the subject, not simply as an academic matter, but as a vital one. It is difficult to not share some of that affinity. Beyond their intrinsic visual interest and diversity, the estrildids are collectively interesting due to the degree with which they share traits and behavior across 34 genera and their core native regions of Africa, Asia, and Australasia; representative groups include waxbills, seedcrackers, nigritas, twinspots, munias, mannikins, and grassfinches. It is interesting to learn, among many other things, that the males of many species present a blade of grass or a feather to the female during courtship, culminating in copulation.

The species accounts also provide the most complete photographic representation of these birds in terms of sex differences, subspecies, and ages. Even the nestlings are well-represented. One of the peculiarities of estrildids is that the nestlings bear distinctive, species-specific patterns of swellings called papillae along the edges of the bill, plus markings on the palate, contrasting with surrounding tissues. These swellings and markings facilitate recognition and feeding by their parents. The diversity of these open gapes is amazing, and the accounts include open-gape images of nestlings for 111 species. Furthermore, a remarkable side-by-side photographic spread comparing the nestling faces of all available species appears in a separate section towards the rear of the book. It is such a challenge to photograph many of these in the wild, mainly as the nests are enclosed or inside a cavity. However, Huisman has drawn widely upon sources of captive birds to yield photographs that might otherwise be unavailable.

Remarkably, there are many estrildids for which basic information on breeding and other habits is unavailable and cannot be supplied. The species in question are too rare or difficult to observe because of their habits and/or the nature of the locations where they reside. For some, such as the gorgeous Crimson Seedcracker of West Africa, recordings of their vocalizations in Xeno-Canto don’t even exist. It is just such a reality that reinforces the dynamic nature of ornithology.

This beautiful book should appeal to many birders. To those particularly interested in evolution and taxonomy, Estrildid Finches of the World will sustain a sense of wonder for evolution. The book should further appeal to the traveler interested in those core regions where these birds are found and who would like to add value to their experience in the field. The book should also be a treat for those who simply love to look at birds, as it comprises an indisputable visual celebration of a family counting many striking birds in its ranks and will be a conversation starter as much as an appealing reference work.


Justin Peter is a Director of Birds Canada, a past President of the Toronto Ornithological Club, and owner of Quest Nature Tours, Canada’s longest-serving nature travel company. A lifelong world birder, Justin was previously the Senior Park Naturalist at Ontario’s world renowned Algonquin Park. He is @Birder_Justin on Instagram and Twitter.