Yellow-breasted Hunting Cissa

Family – Corvidae   Sub-family – Corvinae    Tribe – Corvina

By Roland and Ilana Cristo

“Cissa are perhaps the most beautiful of the whole family” (Delacour) Of all the birds in the Corvid family, Cissas are perhaps the most sought after in aviculture.

There are three species of Cissas with 12 sub-species. The Green Magpie (Cissa Chinensis), also known as the Long-tailed Hunting Cissa in aviculture, comes from the Malay Peninsula up into Annam (Vietnam) and as far north as China. Four (4) sub-species are on the mainland with one (1) sub-species C.c. minor coming from the islands of Sumatra to Burma. We have the mainland sub-species Cissa c. Klossi, and Cissa c. Minor, the island sub-species, which is smaller than the mainland birds.

The Short-tailed Hunting Cissa (Cissa Thalassina) comes from two islands, Java and Borneo. We have a female of the Javan sub-species Cissa t. Thalassina. The Short-tailed has quite a musical song much like a songbird’s. The other species we keep don’t seem to.

Three sub-species of the Yellow-breasted Magpie (Cissa Hypoleuca) come from Annam (Vietnam), Laos and Thailand. There are two isolated sub-species in China. The Yellow-breasted have a longer crest and display it far more often than the other species. The species we keep are the nominate Cissa h. Hypoleuca.

Cissas are a little larger than the American Blue Jay (13″-14″). They are a beautiful light green color with chestnut red colored wings, a black mask and red – orange beak and feet. The green color seems to fade to a light blue color in captivity if the birds are exposed to too much sunlight and perhaps not given enough caratenoids in the diet. The males seem to turn more bluish than the females. The young we have raised all had bluish or turquoise feathers. Interestingly, Lynn Hall, Fruit Dove breeder and expert, informed me of seeing birds that were recently caught and entirely blue at bird markets in Singapore. They do seem to spend most of their time in the aviary shelter or in the shade of the plants in the aviary.

The word “hunting” does describe the method the pair uses to capture their prey. Then the prey (usually a feeder mouse) is spotted in the grass; the pair of cissas will stalk it together, (like a brace of dogs), on either side of the aviary until it is cornered. At that point the male will usually make the kill.

Breeding of the Yellow–breasted Hunting Cissa

We received the pair on breeder loan from Gene Fetter. They were together at his aviaries but had never been able to breed them. He believed that it was because he wasn’t able to provide them with what they needed in aviary size. They were inside for about 3 months and were moved to a sheltered cage that was outside to get them acclimated to the climate. We live at 1200’ elevation and it can get to below freezing at night (15 degrees in 1999).

They were fed “soft food” daily along with 4 pieces of canned dog food and 2 pieces of beef heart. The soft food consisted of Science Diet, Canine Maintenance (small bites); Kaytee Mynah pellets; green Purina Nutra-blend Pigeon pellets, and Mazuri Small Bird Breeder pellets softened with water. This was mixed with defrosted frozen mixed vegetables every other day. Dry food was kept in their cage constantly. The dry mix consisted of Science Diet, Canine Maintenance (small bites); Kaytee Mynah pellets; green Purina Nutra-blend Pigeon pellets and Calf Manna. The female laid an egg on the floor of the cage.

They were moved to an outside aviary, dimensions 3’ x 16’, planted with podicarpus. A basket nest was placed high in the sheltered area above the door. The basket nest was a decorative plant pot cover lined with rush1 inside. More rush was placed in the aviary, which she added herself to complete the nest. In our experience, the hen seems to build a nest that is sturdy and neat as compared to other jays and magpies.

The female began to make her nest immediately after being placed in the aviary. The same food mixture was fed. We also fed weanling to half grown mice once a day.

After a few days she started to lay. The first clutch of 3 eggs was infertile. They were removed at 15 days. To our surprise, she immediately laid again. Our other pairs have never laid so soon after an unsuccessful nest. Mealworms were also added to their diet. They seemed to eat both the mealworms and mice with relish. At the onset of the first egg of the second clutch, mice2 were added on a daily basis. The mice were live and placed in a porcelain mixing bowl partially sunk in the ground. The sides of the bowl are smooth so the mice couldn’t jump or climb out.

In four (4) days time she laid 4 eggs. The male kept vigil guard. She set tight unless someone went into the aviary to drop mice in their feeding bowl. The male sounded an alarm or became aggressive and she left the nest temporarily always going to the ground. (The Long-tailed Cissa always went to a high perch). About two (2) days prior to the eggs hatching, the male became even bolder and more aggressive hitting me on the head as I fed mice in the mornings.

Yellow-breasted Magpie babies – 2 days oldIn about 18 days the first egg hatched showing a completely naked, sightless and helpless chick. The next day, 2 chicks hatched, one in the morning and one in the late afternoon. The fourth chick hatched the next day. The parents fed the chicks mealworms and mice for the first 3-4 days after hatching. After 3-4 days the parents stopped feeding mealworms. After 5-6 days, the numbers of mice given the parents were increased to 3-4 per feeding and served 2-3 times per day. It appeared that all parts of the mice were either fed or eaten by the parents. Remnants of the mice could not be found.

Yellow-breasted Magpie babies – 11 days oldThe babies had pinfeathers at approximately 11 days. Their eyes opened at 12 days. At approximately 12-14 days old, the parents were given 15-20 mice per day and served 4 times per day. The parents stopped eating soft food, dog food and beef heart for a while. It was quite hazardous serving the pair. The female would leave the nest calling and complaining and the male would scold and dive at the person entering the aviary. The offering of food meant nothing to him. He even drew blood from my ear.

The babies grew quickly and the food offered increased also. At 20 days one of the babies started to perch on the edge of the nest. The rest perched shortly after, about 2-3 days. One baby left the nest at this time also.

Yellow-breasted Magpie babies – 25 days oldAt about 25 days the chicks were standing on the perches away from the nest. They would be found on the ground and were able to hop and scramble up the perches to the highest perching “branch” and nest. During this entire time they were always fed soft food, canned dog food and beef heart. At about 24 days old the soft food mix, canned dog food and beef heart started to disappear. I never actually saw the chicks eat the food but the amount was increased and it always seemed as though less was left. They also started to eat the dry mix as more of that disappeared also.

The amount of mice served was decreased and the amount of canned dog food, beef heart and soft food was increased. At 29 days the chicks were increasing their activity and would fly to the “outside” perches and hop along the branches and perches. They started to call and scold like the parents and fully display their crest feathers. At 31 days their landings were much more accurate. Soft food consumption increased along with canned dog food and beef heart. What I didn’t mention before was that occasionally powdered calcium was sprinkled on their soft food and beef heart.

They are still not the same color as the parents but they haven’t gone through their first adult molt yet. They appear to be a blue-gray color instead of the lime and light olive green of the parents. Their beaks are also grayish in color and their feet are a fleshy pink color instead of the adult orange color.

Yellow-breasted Magpie fledglings (note parent flying above)Corvids (crows, magpies, jays) comprise a family of more than 100 species. They are distributed world wide except in the Polar Region.

My fascination with corvids began when at the age of 12, I helped my brother hand raise 20+ native magpies and some crows.

I have found this family of birds to be extremely intelligent. “Of all birds, Corvids have the largest cerebral hemispheres, relative to their body size. Under operant conditioning methods, crows have been found to be superior in intelligence to all other avian species tested” (Plasse, Angell)

Through the years, I have found that the corvid family is far more intelligent than any of the birds I have worked with, including any psittacine I’ve worked with.

Ilana’s fascination with corvids began in 1964 when she hand raised an Eastern Blue Jay. It proved to be an intelligent, mischievous clown. It kept itself busy and amused by causing chaos and teasing all the other birds in the house. It was very bold and always stole objects from pockets and various places in the house to hide them somewhere else. This is a natural behavior but none the less frustrating and comical.

References and Additional Information

Plasse, Chelle; 1992 AFA Proceedings, Corvids.
Angell, T.; 1978 Ravens, Crows, Magpies, and Jays. University of Washington Press.
Delacour, J.; 1936 Aviculture Volume 1, Stephen Austin and Sons, LTD., Hertford.
Woolham, Frank; The Handbook of Aviculture, Blandford Press.
Madge, Steve and Burn, Hilary; Crows and Jay, 1994, Houghton Mifflin Company.

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