A GUIDE TO KEEPING & BREEDING WAXBILLS
IN A BRITISH BIRDROOM

by: Ian Hinze

Waxbills belong to a family of birds known as the Estrildidae, commonly known as the estrildid finches, which numbers around 128 species in 27 genera. Besides the waxbills, the family includes the firefinches and mannikins of Africa; the grassfinches and firetails of Australia; and the munias, avadavats and parrot-finches of Asia. Species range in size from being a little smaller than a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus) to being more diminutive than the Goldcrest (Regulus regulus) and occur naturally only in the Old World (i.e. Africa and east through Arabia and India to southern China, southeastern Asia, Australasia and many of the Pacific islands).

As can be seen, waxbills are birds of tropical or subtropical regions and, therefore, before we even think about purchasing any we must prepare their accommodation differently to that for indigenous species. First and foremost a birdroom must be constructed and this can be made out of, for example, brick, concrete, or preservative-coated wood, or by merely converting a spare bedroom, garage or shed. The birdroom should be insulated against the cold and the interior be as light as possible; I painted the walls of one of my birdrooms eggshell blue and another light green. The birds thoroughly enjoyed them and so did I. I think an entirely white interior is far too clinical and lacks warmth of feeling.

If possible, natural daylight entering via windows in the roof is excellent, otherwise it could mean supplying electric lighting throughout most of the day, even in summer, as side windows don’t always provide enough. I also like my birdrooms to have regular air changes, particularly during hot weather spells, and have found it a good idea to have air vents at one end of the room and a good extractor fan at the other. The fan should be thermostatically controlled so that, over a certain temperature (mine is set to come on at 22ºC/70ºF.), fresh air will be sucked in and travel right across the room.

An outside aviary attachment, no matter how aesthetically pleasing it might appear in one’s garden, is completely unnecessary for the keeping of waxbills and can prove to be positively harmful. As is to be expected, the birds we are considering thrive at temperatures of 22ºC/70ºF and above and, while it is appealing to consider one’s birds flitting about an aviary on a warm summer’s day, the vagaries of the British weather mean that such days can quickly change to being ones of cold and damp. Cold and damp are the biggest enemies of tropical species!

At this point I feel I should mention that I have been an aviculturist for over 35 years and have been fortunate enough to travel almost the length and breadth of Britain, as well as abroad, to see first-hand how some of my contemporaries have housed their birds. In all this time I have seen nothing to change my opinion of foreign birdkeeping in my country which is that, compared to the likes of the Germans, we are extremely poor. I am now completely sick of reading how such a body keeps his birds in a shed with very little heating and in winter they even survive when the water in the drinkers is almost frozen. Well, bully for them!!

Every year the Foreign Bird Federation (F.B.F., a body that oversees foreign bird keeping in the U.K.) publishes a ‘Register of birds bred in the U.K. under controlled conditions’ which, while highlighting, it has to be said, some wonderful successes, it also draws attention, with few exceptions, to just how appalling our record of breeding waxbills really is. And while it is obvious that not everyone having success submits a breeding return, even taking these into account I doubt very much if the figures would change much for the better.

How long is it going to take before people realize that one has a greater chance of breeding waxbills in Britain if they house them in heated indoor accommodation? Even if someone were to say to me that they bred 10 blue-headed cordon-bleus in outside accommodation I would reply that they would probably have bred 30 had they housed them inside!

In the birdroom some form of heating is essential and my preference is for tubular heaters. These should be wired up to a thermostat and set to come on if the temperature falls below 15ºC/60ºF., and even 22ºC/70ºF. for some species. Waxbills also need at least 12-14 hours of daylight in winter, so it is essential to set up a dimmer unit so that this extra light can be achieved artificially by way of electric “natural light” fluorescents and tungsten light bulbs. I have a model which, in the morning, automatically switches on the bulbs first and then the fluorescents. The bulbs then go off leaving just the fluorescent lighting on. In the late evening, just before roosting time, the bulbs come on again, really bright, and the fluorescents go off. Then, in the space of half an hour, the bulbs start to dim down gradually, so as not to startle the birds, until they are all roosting comfortably and in the dark.

I also use a light sensor attached to the dimmer so that if during the day it should start to go overcast outside the fluorescents come on automatically to compensate. Should the day go bright again, the fluorescent lighting switches itself off.

If one is really serious about breeding waxbills, then it is essential to house one pair of birds to a cage. The standard minimum cage I would recommend is 4 feet long x 18 inches wide x 18 inches deep, anything larger is a veritable bonus. In North America, all-wire cages seem to be quite fashionable and much success with breeding estrildids has been achieved. However, some breedings have necessitated a light cloth being draped over the top and sides of some of these cages for extra privacy, which makes me feel that box-cages are better. If these are constructed out of wood they should be painted, preferably, with a light gloss paint, such as eggshell blue. A primer and an undercoat will be required before applying the gloss, otherwise it will just soak into the wood.

3 inch deep metal trays are to be preferred over wood or hardboard as these latter two tend to retain damp if water is spilled onto them, such as from the birds’ bath. Hinged front lids should cover the entrance for the trays to prevent birds escaping when the trays are removed, e.g. during cleaning. The trays need only to have old newspaper placed in them for ease of cleaning, although some breeders prefer sawdust.

Perches are usually made of dowling and the thickness is really dependent on the size of the feet of the birds one intends to keep. If dowling is to be used it should be of two thicknesses, so that the birds’ feet get ample exercise. The pieces of dowling should be placed at either end of the cage, so that the occupants have to fly rather than hop. Natural perching, however, is far more aesthetically pleasing. Perches will need to be checked regularly for any soiling and either be changed or cleaned should it occur. Dirty perches can cause serious foot problems.

All foodstuffs and water should be positioned near the center of the cage so that they cannot be fouled from the birds when perching. Even so, the utensils will still need to be checked daily. Many modern cages allow food pots to be inserted into drop-trap holes in the front of the cage.

There is no need to have separate drinking and bathing water as birds invariably drink from their baths. I only ever use one water receptacle and this is changed each day. Dishes should be washed in warm, soapy water and, at least once a week, I like to leave them soaking in a weak bleach solution for at least an hour. One can never have enough dishes at one’s disposal and a rota system usually comes into force, whereupon while some dishes are in use others are being cleaned.

As far as feeding goes waxbills are very easy to cater for, but the food has to be of quality. My basic seed mixture consists mainly of white and yellow millet, panicum, Japanese millet and canary seed. Millet on the spray is provided daily, too, and is relished by all the birds in my collection, as is eggfood. Soaked seed, while proving to be of use to some breeders, has now become superfluous to my birds. This is no doubt due to the large quantities of wild meadow-grass seeds I offer them, but these are best offered just prior to, and then throughout, the breeding season as they act as a stimulant.

Mineralised grit is completely unnecessary for waxbills and can be extremely dangerous. It is a complete fallacy that all birds need grit to grind down seeds in their gizzards as the majority of seed-eaters dehusk the seed before swallowing it. Once the seed passes down the oesophagus it enters a glandular stomach known as the proventriculus, which produces digestive juices. The food then begins to swell as it takes on moisture and digestive enzymes, before it goes into the gizzard to be broken down into smaller particles and then passed into the intestines for absorption.

Any grit swallowed can build up in the ventriculus and finches and estrildids, possessing a high metabolism, cannot pass the grit fast enough. It takes 4-5 hours for a waxbill to have its intestines emptied, but a build-up of grit prevents this and more essential food cannot be swallowed. The bird, in effect, starves to death!

I have experimented for over four years now and to assist my birds’ digestion I offer only crushed oystershell, limestone and cuttlefish bone. These items are absorbed without injury and are beneficial. If grit was necessary my birds would have shown signs of ill-health and wouldn’t breed. The fact that they have bred regularly each year and are extremely robust speaks for itself.

Livefood, especially during the breeding season, can be the most important item of dietary fair for Waxbills in particular. Soft, white-skinned mini-mealworms, waxworms, whiteworm and fruit-flies and their larvae are so easy to procure these days and, if one has a mind to, are also extremely easy to propagate.

Breeding one’s birds has got to be the aim of every serious birdkeeper, but the F. B. F.’s breeding register is testimony to the fact that the majority of birds fail. Box-cages are excellent in that they can be stacked one on top of the other, so a selected pair of birds can have interference-free breeding – or can they? Let us not forget that our just passing the cage can be enough to bring the sitting bird off the nest, so we need to be especially thoughtful when positioning a wicker nesting basket or half open-fronted nest-box. I like to position mine high up in a corner and surrounded by the leaves of a pot-plant.

Pot-plants are so underestimated in waxbill aviculture and yet they can make such a difference to one’s breeding success; and they also add to the aesthetics of the birdroom. Good garden centers always have small specimens of weeping fig (Ficus benjamina) and philodendrons (P. erubescens or P scandens) available. These should be placed in front of the nesting receptacle and, particularly for ground nesting species, such as quail-finches and Estrilda waxbills, turfs of grass can be positioned on the floor of the cage.

Now that the birdroom is set-up and stocked with plenty of food all we need do now is purchase our birds. Providing one adheres to the suggestions in this article, the novice is likely to find that he/she is able to breed quite a number of various species. However, I strongly recommend starting with the likes of red-cheeked and blue-headed cordon-bleus and goldbreasts. These are excellent birds to keep, are easily sexed and possess delightful coloring. What is also of importance, any young produced will always be in demand and are, therefore, easy to sell. This is something that cannot be ignored as unsold stock means overcrowded cages!

One a pair of birds have been introduced to their quarters they should be disturbed as little as possible. Some settle down immediately, others can take a few days. What is vital at this time is to provide a probiotic with electrolytes in the drinking water to combat any possible outbreak of infection, usually caused by Escherichia coli bacteria in the gut, brought on through stress.

Even though the birds may settle down, they may show no intention of breeding. This could be due to a number of factors, such as being the wrong time of year, incompatibility, and even age. One must exercise patience as it is not unusual for birds not to breed until at least the second year of being housed in their new quarters. Others may want to breed immediately.

All being well, the cock will solicit the hen through, usually, carrying a piece of nesting material, singing, dancing, flying to the nesting receptacle, in fact anything to get her attention. Although courtship routines may differ amongst individual species of Estrildid, they are unmistakable. If, however, one of the birds becomes over amorous to the extent that the other partner could suffer serious injury, such as by serious pecking, they must be separated immediately and an attempt tried at a later date. A change of partner may even be required.

Experienced aviculturists only should ever attempt to cut the flight feathers of a belligerent bird. This temporarily disables the bird without causing it any harm and allows its mate to share the cage without fear of being bullied. Unable to chase after its mate, the clipped bird often settles down and breeding can be successful. The flight feathers grow back to normal after the moult.

Coconut fibres and soft, fine dry grasses are the best nesting materials to offer to the birds, along with a few chicken feathers and 2-3 inch strands of sacking. In many species it is the cock that builds the entire nest, in others the hen takes an active part. Both will take turns in incubating the eggs and rearing the young.

Chicks are fed by regurgitation, i.e. the parents bird brings food back up from its crop and pumps it down into its offspring. Therefore, it is essential that the food being regurgitated is adequate for the chick’s need.

Hard seed is unsatisfactory so it is vital that soft insect matter is frequently available, eggfood and the ripe and half-ripe seeds of some of our native grasses and plants. If these seeds are unavailable, then soaked seed should be provided as a substitute.

Newcomers will often read articles referring to soaked seed, without any information as to what it actually is. Soaked seed is merely the, usually, staple seeds having been left to soak in water in order for them to germinate or sprout shoots (roots, actually). Seeds which have germinated provide our birds with tiny amounts of greenfood, although many species won’t touch it.

A method I have used successfully for years now is to place an amount of yellow and white millet and canary seed in a bowl and to cover it with tepid water. Place a lid on the bowl, this can be a plate or saucer, and leave it in a warm place, preferable at a temperature of 26-29ºC/80-85ºF. for 12 hours. At the end of this period empty the seed into a sieve and rinse thoroughly with cold water. Replace the damp seed in the bowl, cover it again, and put it back into the warm place for a further 12 hours.

When the time is up, remove the lid and allow the excess water to evaporate. Germination will already have started and the seed should be left uncovered for 24 hours – but make sure that it doesn’t dry out completely. It is now ready to be offered to your birds.

It is not necessary for the seed to have sprouted but it should have a nice, nutty aroma about it. If it has an unpleasant smell it must be discarded as it will have gone off. If all is well but you find that you have soaked too much seed, put the surplus in the refrigerator. The cooling effect stops the germination process without killing the seed.

Greenfood, while often ignored completely by many species is, nevertheless, an important addition to the diet. Sprouts and carrots, pushed through a hand-grater which forces the food out into tiny, easily managed particles, are particularly enjoyed by Uraeginthus species, i.e. Cordon-bleus and Purple Grenadiers.

There are various eggfoods on the market, but my greatest successes have occurred when using Cé-Dé, a Dutch product. Some birdkeepers carry on using eggfood even after the breeding season, but this should not be encouraged as the high protein content causes birds to increase in weight and they become prone to liver complaints. Once young birds are independent, that is being able to fend for themselves, cease feeding eggfood but continue augmenting the staple diet with livefood, wild seeds and greenfood.

Full nests of youngsters can mean livefood works out pretty expensive to buy, so there could well be recourse to breeding one’s own. Mealworms (their larvae, actually) can often play a valuable part in waxbill breeding and are available from specialist suppliers. To breed them, get some plastic trays, about 3-4 inches in depth, and place equal amounts of larvae into each tray and cover with an inch of chicken meal – not bran! Mealworms reared in bran will be deficient in calcium as it contains phytic acid. Phytic acid handicaps the absorption of calcium and, as mealworms are already low in this essential element, chicken meal, which is a balanced diet in itself, is far preferable.

Allow the mealworms to pupate and turn into beetles. These will lay eggs at the bottom of the trays and, after six weeks, the beetles should be discarded as their sexual life will have come to an end.

After about six weeks the eggs will hatch and once the larvae reach about 1 cm in length start to supply small amounts of sliced carrot every three days or so. Mealworm beetles and their larvae (but not pupae) require carrot for essential moisture. The tiny larvae will grow through a series of successive moults and it is the whitish-skinned mealworms, i.e. those that have just gone through a moult, that are the ones we should feed to our birds. If the carrot slices are lifted up one will find masses wriggling underneath. Preferably, these shouldn’t be much more than half an inch long.

Mealworms that possess hard, unmoulted skins should never be used as they can be indigestible and potentially dangerous to nestlings. In time one will be able to work out a rota system with the trays, where some will contain larvae at different stages of growth and others beetles and pupae.

Fruit-flies (Drosophila) and their larvae are the best type of early livefood for the nestlings of most waxbill species and are best reared in old ice-cream tubs. The tubs should be half-filled with tightly folded newspaper and on top of this one should place layer upon layer of chopped banana until it almost falls over the sides of the tubs (the skins have no value and can be discarded). Put the tubs of bananas in the birdroom, but out of reach of the birds, and don’t allow the temperature to fall below 18ºC/65ºF. Place a container of fruit-flies near the tubs and remove the lid.

Within two weeks the bananas will have become mushy and be swimming with larvae. These will eventually pupate up the sides of the tubs and it is at this point that fresh tubs of bananas should be placed alongside the old tubs to enable the hatched-out fruit-flies to lay their eggs. In a very short time one will be able to offer tubs full of flies and/or their larvae to the birds. The flies will be likely “hawked”, i.e. taken on the wing, while the larvae will be eagerly picked out of the mush.

Whiteworms (Enchytreae) are another excellent food source for breeding waxbills and can be propagated in large plastic ice-cream tubs or old washing-up bowls. Fill the containers with bulb fibre that has been mixed with water to a crumbly consistency and scoop out hollows in it with the aid of a large spoon. Into each hollow place a dollop of rather wet milk-sop (bread and milk) and a spoonful of whiteworm (available from specialist suppliers that occasionally advertise in this journal) and cover over with the bulb fibre.

Place the containers in a cool (not cold!) place and make sure that the bulb fibre is kept moist, such as by using a mist spray which can be purchased from a garden center. If after a week or so the milk-sop has largely disappeared, then add some more. Once one has enough whiteworm to make a second culture it is time to do so and feed the rest to the birds. Handfuls of bulb fibre and worms can be spread out in small receptacles and placed on the cage floor, allowing the occupants to take their fill. Supply only enough of the worms to last them during the day, and then up the amount once young hatch out. Although some birds may shy away from the whiteworm at first persevere as once they get used to them they take them avidly.

I have been culturing American wax-moth larvae (Achroia melonella) for around 14 years and my system has remained virtually the same in all that time. One is better off acquiring any waxworms from an aviculturist who regular breeds his own as those frequently offered for sale by specialist suppliers have become sterile during production.

Items required are plastic sweet jars, blotting paper, a pair of pointed scissors, closely woven metal gauze (such as is used in tea strainers) strong sellotape, corrugated paper, a small water container, e.g. an empty glycerine bottle (see below), 170 g Farley’s baby rice cereal, 1lb wheatgerm, 3/4lb liquid honey and 100 mls glycerine, Copydex or similar glue.

Method:

1) Cut a square 3.8 cm x 3.8 cm out of the sweet jar lid and cover the hole from the underside with a piece of glued-on metal gauze.

2) In a bowl, mix together the baby rice cereal and the wheatgerm and then add the liquid honey and glycerine. Continue mixing until the whole becomes crumbly moist – not wet! This is the waxworms’ rearing food (N.B. the Farley’s and glycerine are obtainable from chemists and the wheatgerm and honey from health shops).

3) Put some rearing food into a jar up to the half-way mark. Insert some rolled-up corrugated paper, about 12.7 cm in height when stood upright, into the center of the mixture and leave about 8.9 cm protruding. Place some waxworms on top of the rearing food and then screw on the lid of the jar. The larvae will begin burrowing immediately and start to feed. The excess rearing food can be put in a container and stored in the freezer for future use.

4) Put the jar into a dark warm place and maintain a steady heat of around 26ºC/80ºF. Heat is essential in order to have a healthy culture and induce it to breed and the darkness, too, is beneficial.

5) Eventually, it will be found that the larvae have crawled into the corrugated paper and started to pupate. That is, they spin a silky-like cocoon that eventually looks and feels like rice-paper. When this happens it is time to put fresh rearing food (such as the thawed-out food from the refrigerator) into a new jar. Remove the corrugated paper containing the pupae from the old jar and insert it into the rearing food of the new one.

IMPORTANT NOTE: If you do not supply corrugated paper or similar material to assist pupating the waxworms will amass at the top of the jar and possibly stop the flow of air into it.

6) Once the food in the old jar has been used up dispose of the waste but make sure that there are no unpupated larvae in it. Clean the jar thoroughly in warm, soapy water and then store for future use.

7) EMERGENCE OF MOTHS

On finding that you have moths in your new jar, you should cut a narrow horizontal slit just below the jar shoulder. The slit should measure approx. 2 cm long x 1.5 mm wide. Cut out a strip of blotting paper around 12.7 cm long and narrow enough to go through the slit in the jar. Using the sellotape, affix the water container to the side of the jar underneath the slit. Pour water into the container and push part of the blotting paper through the slit while leaving the lower part of it outside and hanging into the water reservoir. The capillary action of the water rising up the strip will enable the moths to drink.

IMPORTANT NOTE: It is only the moths that need to drink and not their larvae (the waxworms). When only waxworms are using the jar the slit should be sealed up to prevent escape.

8) While the moths are alive make sure that the water is kept topped up. Because of the heat, water is lost through evaporation. Although unnoticed by the naked eye, the females will have laid hundreds of eggs and within a few days the microscopic larvae will emerge. They are probably first noticed when only 1 mm in length and appear to move very quickly. By this stage the moths will be dead.

The larval growth is very rapid and within only four weeks one only has to lift out the corrugated paper and unroll it to find masses inside. They can be anything from the size of caterpillar-like grubs to creatures double the diameter of a mealworm and up to 3 cm in length. Unlike most marketed mealworms, they have the added advantage of having been fed on a good quality food which is passed on to the birds and have a skin as soft as any green caterpillar, making digestion of them very easy.

9) If you are fortunate enough to have hatched out a large amount of larvae and they are big enough to handle, put some fresh rearing food into a warm place for at least half an hour and then separate it in half. Take half the old rearing food containing larvae and add it to one-half of the fresh rearing food in a new jar. You will notice that the half containing larvae is warm. This is because, due to their activities, the larvae generate heat. Always check your thermometer as this “extra” warmth may necessitate having to turn the heating down.

Take the other half of the fresh rearing food and add that to the old rearing food which remains. You now have TWO cultures! Using this method, or by simply putting more than one roll of corrugated paper into each jar to put singly into new jars later, one can get at least six cultures going in only a few weeks.

IMPORTANT NOTE: Never allow your jars to become overcrowded with larvae as there is the possibility of “sweating” occurring, which can be disastrous for the cultures. If sweating does occur (it can be seen running down the inside of the jars) immediate action is called for. Check that your heating is not too high and also change the rearing food. The culture must not be allowed to get wet!

10) Once one has a culture started always allow a certain number of larvae to pupate, this way one will be continually rewarded. Aim for as large a moth as possible as the larvae, in turn, will be that much better. By selective breeding this is easily accomplished. Very small moths should be discarded.

Try also getting your cultures growing at different stages, whereby you won’t suddenly run out and so will be able to feed waxworms to your birds all year round. Waxworms, like all the livefood mentioned in this article, are ideal in helping to rear many different species of Estrildid, but especially those that require an all-insect diet whilst in the nest and during those nerve-racking early days as fledglings.

A free and easy livefood that everyone will have come across is the woodlouse (Oniscus asellus and Porcellio scaber), the only crustacean to live exclusively on land. These greyish, oval isopods can be found lurking under stones, rocks and pieces of wood. They have to live in damp places or their gills, which are in the form of thick-skinned appendages on the legs, cannot function. If woodlice are kept in a dry room they become desiccated and die within only six hours.

In captivity woodlice can live from 4-6 years. To keep and breed them, one will need merely a square, shallow ice-cream tub containing soil or compost to a depth of 1.5 cm. On top of the soil/compost place a lump of wood and around this place a few pieces of fruit and vegetables, such as apple and mushrooms, as well as some dead leaves. Collect a few woodlice and then release them into the container, whereupon they will eventually hide under the wood.

To prevent the woodlice from escaping, pierce some holes in the lid of the ice-cream tub with a darning needle and then place the lid onto the container. It is vital that the woodlice home is kept damp and this can be achieved by spraying the soil with a mist spray. Do not over water the container as this is as dangerous for the occupants as letting it go dry.

The woodlice will live on the fruit and vegetables and it won’t be long before they start to reproduce. The female carries her eggs, around 22-35, in a special brood pouch underneath her body. The eggs hatch out between 32-45 days and the youngsters are at first also cared for in the brood pouch. Once the young are independent their mother ceases to look after them. Usually two broods are produced per year.

Harvest the woodlice when they are young and soft, as these are ideal for nestlings. Larger woodlice may be taken by adult waxbills, but they may also be completely ignored. Don’t be loathe to experiment.

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