The waxbills are one of the most popular groups of seed eaters. A number of species are characterized by their dull reddish beaks, which resemble sealing wax in appearance, and this feature gave rise to the common name for these birds. The estrildids as a family occur exclusively in the Old World, from Africa to Australasia. Many species congregate in large flocks, frequenting grassland or open scrubland. They feed close to the ground, although some are very specialized in their feeding habits, and are unknown in aviculture. Within a flock, waxbills form recognizable pairs, whose members reinforce their bond by mutual preening.
Although they will take various seeds, thc majority of species depend mainly on smaller millets as a basic diet. Foreign finch mixtures are available; alternatively, the seeds can be fed separately. In the wild, estrildids frequently feed on green seeds which are significantly softer than those which feature in seed mixtures. As a result, particularly with recently-imported birds, it is useful to crush seeds with a rolling-pin, so that the birds can pick up crushed pieces from the debris which can be eaten whole, rather than dehusking the seeds. Seeding grasses such as canary seed grass, cut while the seed heads are still green, should be given at every' opportunity. Soaked millet sprays are also taken readily by these birds. Most livefoods are too large for the smaller waxbills especially, but hatchling crickets or moulting mealworms can be provided. Many successful breeders rely on whiteworm (Enchytraeus) cultures. These tiny worms are usually sold for tropical fish and amphibians. Colonies can be established very easily in a used margarine tub. Separate the worms into groups, and bury them at the bottom of the tub, under a piece of bread soaked in milk; then cover the bread with damp sphagnum peat. Kept in a temperature about 21 °C (70°F), the culture will take about a month to mature. Then the worms can be harvested. Sequential cultures will ensure a regular supply is available, especially during the breeding season, when large quantities will be required.
Estrildids have been kept and bred successfully in cages on occasion. However, the likelihood of successfully rearing chicks will be much greater if, for the warmer months, the birds are kept in a planted aviary where they can forage for livefood. These birds need heated winter quarters in areas where the temperature is liable to fall below zero. They will also need some additional lighting. When kept under correct conditions, these small birds have a surprisingly long lifespan. For example, cordon bleus may live well into their teens, and gold-breasted waxbills have lived for in excess of 20 years. As a general rule, firefinches tend to be among the shorter-lived species. About 70 per cent of the overall population die each year, according to research carried out in Senegal. The age of adult birds will be unknown; it is best to buy immature birds.
Most pairs prefer to use nesting baskets, but nesting boxes can also be taken over. On a few occasions, the birds may even build their own nest without artificial support, in a suitable bush in the aviary. Many estrildids construct relatively bulky nests, with a separate, conspicuous "cock" nesting chamber on the top. This is built as a decoy for potential predators, and remains empty throughout the breeding period. The cock bird frequently uses nesting material to attract a potential mate. Once the nest is completed, a clutch of about five eggs is then incubated by both adult birds for approximately 12 days. The resulting chicks should fledge by three weeks of age. Where it is impossible to sex a species by sight, several birds of the same species should be purchased. Many estrildids can be kept in mixed groups, but not in the company of larger finches, even of the same family. When the adult birds nest again, it is often more satisfactory to remove the earlier youngsters from the aviary.
The Negro Finches are a very rare genus in aviculture, probably because they spend much of their time high in the forest canopy, rarely descending to ground level, These estrildids are found in central West Africa and are usually associated with areas where oil palm trees grow. They have been observed feeding on the palm tree fruits. A few pairs of these rather dull birds have reached Europe over the past few years, but very little is known about their breeding behavior.
All five species in this genus occur in Africa and rank among the most striking of the waxbills. They feed primarily on the ground, rather than by clinging on to grass heads and removing the seeds. They also take a relatively high proportion of insect matter in their diet throughout the year, and in winter must be kept in a temperature above 7°C (45°F), once acclimatized. Cordon Bleus will breed quite readily. They prefer white feathers for lining the nest cavity and, in true waxbill style, both parents incubate the eggs and assist in rearing the chicks. The youngsters are usually independent about 14 days after fledgling. The Blue-breasted Waxbill (U. angolensis) is similar in appearance to the Red-cheeked Cordon Bleus, but lacks their cheek patches. Where their distribution in the wild overlaps with the Red-cheeks they do not seem to hybridize.
The members of this genus have a fairly localized distribution. The exception is the Grey-headed Oliveback (N. capistrata) which occurs across a wide belt of west and central Africa. Olive-backs are extremely rare in aviculture and little is known about their habits. One report suggests that they may take over the disused nests of weavers, which they then adapt and line for their own eggs. Olive-backs were seen in Belgium during 1985, and a- few of these birds were later sold at a high price in Britain, possibly being the first living specimens seen in the country. If at all possible, obtain a group, rather than just a pair.
Bluebills have become more widely available during recent years, but even now are not common. They naturally occur in forested areas, and should be provided with adequate seclusion (plants or shading) in aviaries. In the past, bluebills have proved difficult to establish, but one British importer experienced success when he mixed their seed with natural yogurt. This contains Lactobacillus, which will populate the intestinal tract and help to guard against digestive disturbances. Bluebills will often take other soft food readily and their natural diet includes a high proportion of insects. They have been bred successfully, lining their nest with soft feathers. In cold climates, heat and additional light will be necessary during the winter.
These species are named seedcrackers because of their relatively large bills. Some individual birds have larger beaks than others which may be related to differences in their feeding habits. The three species are almost identical in appearance. They appear to have similar habits to bluebills and do well when kept under similar conditions. Their claws may need to be cut back regularly as they can become overgrown.
These four species of Crimson-wings are scarce avicultural subjects, and are believed to be related to both the Twin-spots and Bluebills, needing similar care. The Red-faced Crimson-wing (C. reichenovii) has been bred successfully. The nest is built rapidly, mainly by the cock bird. Spiders seem to be a favored rearing food, but other livefood is usually taken and should be provided regularly.
The Quail Finches are highly specialized waxbills. They spend most of their time on the aviary floor, frequenting grassy areas in the wild and only flying up when danger is near at hand. These finches should not be kept alongside other ground-dwelling birds such as Chinese Painted Quails, if breeding is to be encouraged. Pairs are best housed individually. They will nest on the floor if adequate seclusion is available. Their calls are louder than those of other waxbills, and may help to keep the birds in touch when they are hidden in grass.
Of the three members of this genus, only the Golden-breasted Waxbill (Amandava subflava) originates in Africa. The Green Avadavat (A. formosa) and the Red Avadavat or Tiger Finch (A. amandava) are both Asiatic. Another unusual characteristic of the Red Avadavat is its high frequency of acquired melanism, with many birds developing blackish plumage, although their bills remain red. This could be linked to a deficiency of Vitamin D3, tending to predominate in birds kept inside and fed largely on seed, with little insect matter or greenfood in their diet. Under more favorable conditions, normal coloration will re-merge at the next moult. The Green Avadavat is similar in habits to its red cousin, but less frequently available. Golden-breasted Waxbills are colorful birds, which can be sexed easily and will usually breed readily. Pairs should be kept separate, but can be safely associated with other unrelated species of a similar size.
Five species are included in this genus, and all can be sexed visually. The best known is probably the Melba Finch (P. melba), but the Pytilias generally are really birds for the specialist. They are usually aggressive, and pairs are best accommodated individually. Although apparently not as dependent on livefood as some other estrildids, the likelihood of breeding them successfully will be increased if a supply of insects is provided. In the case of birds that are reluctant to take soft food or an insectile mixture, place livefood in the feeding pot where the birds may be persuaded to take the loose food as well as the insects.
The two species of Ant-pecker are unusual members of this family, at first sight being more reminiscent of warblers than waxbills. Their bills are relatively thin, while their tongue is brush-like, suggesting that they feed on nectar, but in reality, as far as is known, they are insectivorous in their feeding habits. They have been very occasionally available to aviculturists, and their management requires a daily supply of insects.
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Hamilton & District Budgerigar Society Inc.