SPOTTING THE SIGNS

by: Ian Hinze

Usually from around late April onwards, bent tails in the birdroom are often an excellent indication that your waxbills and other estrildid finches are undergoing serious nesting activities. Indeed, a crooked tail may be the first you’ll know of your birds breeding!

There’s no mistaking that sickle-like appearance, caused by the restrictive inner dome-shaped confines of the nest – particularly if your birds are utilizing wicker-type nesting baskets as opposed to constructing their own – and which is somewhat enhanced in species such as the red-cheeked (Uraeginthus bengalus) and blue-headed (U. cyanocephala) cordon-bleus due to their possessing tails that are fairly long, narrow and graduated.

At the same time the faeces or excreta of the female tends to be larger and more viscous and the region of her vent might appear more swollen than usual. The male will carry a piece of nesting material by one end in his bill and frequently bob up and down and sing in an attempt to woo his mate. If you have already noticed these signs, place yourself at a distance from the cage where the birds feel comfortable about your presence and will go about their normal daily business. This might entail your having to keep out of sight but in a position where, unknown to your birds, you can watch their every activity. Birds that have become accustomed to your regular appearance in the birdroom will ignore you if you sit down at a reasonable distance and keep still and quiet.

Watch to see if the female spends most of her time out of sight and the male rummages about on the cage floor as if continually searching for something. If you haven’t already done so, it is now imperative that a varied abundance of foodstuff is made available. The basic provision of mixed millets and small canary seed should be augmented with soaked seed, eggfood, wild seeds, such as annual meadow grass and common knot-grass, and especially livefood.

Although eggfood is seldom touched by many imported waxbills it should be persevered with. I have successfully managed to get purple grenadiers, Dybowski’s twinspots, orange-cheek-cheeked waxbills, goldbreasts, black-rumped and rosy-rumped waxbills and blue-headed cordon-bleus to all partake of it. The eggfood must be given fresh and provided two or three times a day. My birds receive theirs first thing in the morning, again in the afternoon and, if necessary, during mid-evening time. The mixture should be nice and crumbly moist, never wet.

Greenfood, while also often being ignored by many species initially, is, nevertheless, an important addition to the diet and can be supplied via sprouts, broccoli and carrots pushed through a Moulinex-type hand-grater, which forces the food out into tiny, easily-managed wormlike particles. Done in this fashion I have found it particularly enjoyed by red-cheeked and blue-headed cordon-bleus as well as purple grenadiers.

At breeding time it is essential to provide extra calcium, particularly for the female. The female needs calcium to form her eggs and if this element is deficient in her diet her body will provide it from her own bones, making her susceptible to illness and egg-binding. To prevent this, provide grated cuttlefish, limestone and oystershell – and add liquid calcium to the drinking water. Cuttlefish alone is completely inadequate as its calcium content is extremely poor.

Fresh water, which is obviously required daily, is frequently overlooked in importance during breeding time and yet it is fundamental to the well-being of both parents and young. As well as drinking it, the parents take regular baths. Although the feathers are ruffled and preened afterwards they will still be relatively damp, the humidity from which is of undoubted benefit to the precious eggs.

Let us also not forget that water helps us provide our birds with essential vitamins and medication. Nestlings are particularly at risk from intestinal problems. The parents regurgitate food they have eaten back up and into the crops of their vulnerable offspring. If the food is bad in any way it will be passed on to the nestlings. The adults may have built up a resistance against potentially harmful stomach bugs, but not so the young. Therefore, it is wise to administer a probiotic with vitamins into the drinking water throughout the breeding period.

The majority of waxbills will not rear any young without livefood and this is a major reason why your birds are likely to rummage about in the bottom of the cage, looking behind food and dishes and in every nook and cranny. Good breeding results have been obtained by providing mini-mealworms (full-grown mealworms are too tough to digest). However, many birds won’t eat them. Soft-bodied livefood is the overwhelming choice of birds and waxworms and fruit fly larvae are often ideal, particularly the latter. Unfortunately, fruit fly larvae is difficult to obtain in any quantity and, therefore, it often means we have to go out into the garden or fields armed with a stick and bucket or large plastic bag.

I’ve received more than a few strange looks as I’ve gently bashed bushes and shrubs and collected any fallen insects in the carefully placed bucket below. Green aphids, in particular, are avidly consumed by all waxbills and finches, often to the exclusion of everything else. That’s why a good variety of insect life is so essential. Remember, though, the extreme importance of being sure that any plants you collect insects from have not been sprayed with insecticide as the toxins will be passed on to your birds with fatal consequences.

Purchasing captive-bred stock, if at all possible, is by far preferable to that of imported specimens. The reason for this is that, not only should the birds be more settled to cage life, but you can also see first-hand what the breeder feeds his charges on. Occasionally, you will find certain species have been reared on eggfood alone, in which case you are saved the cost of purchasing livefood from specialist suppliers and/or having to collect wild insects.

In actual fact it isn’t the nestlings that the require the livefood, but the adults! It has been proven that nestlings can be reared healthily on eggfood alone as it contains all the protein, calcium and vitamins they require. The wild-caught bird, unfortunately, has no experience of eating eggfood and thus it seeks out protein and other essential elements in the shape of an insect, which is easy for the young to digest and which it, itself, was reared on. This behavior is inherent because captive eggfood-reared birds will still consume insects if given the opportunity.

This is one of the great challenges in aviculture, to breed birds that can reproduce on eggfood. Once this is done regularly there will be no need to import any more wild stock and there will be so many more different species to choose from. In the interim it is wise to keep only one or two different species and to whole-hearted concentrate on these alone to achieve that goal. Spotting the breeding signs is an important step in knowing just when to change the diet. Once young fledglings are seen to consume a completely inanimate diet with relish the future of that particular species will be that more certain.

One particular species well worth concentrating on is the Goldbreast (Amandava subflava). Only 9-10 cm (3-3¾ in) in length, it is a lovely little bird full of character and just ripe for domestication. The sexes differ and so acquiring true pairs is simple. House them one pair per cage and they will gladly utilize a nesting basket. Insects are necessary at first, but I have managed to get successive generations to rear solely on eggfood. It is a species frequently in demand and so you are unlikely ever to be overcrowded. Pairs fetch anything from £20-28 ($28-$40.00), with captive-bred birds nearer the higher end. First breedings are sometimes a failure so don’t despair, it doesn’t take long for the parents to get it right and, when they do, allow for no more than three nests per year so as not to overtax the parents.

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