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An Overview of Less Commonly-Kept Cage and Aviary Birds – Part 1

One could spend a lifetime caring for a small number, or even a single species, of the most frequently encountered pet-trade birds, and never lack for new and interesting experiences. However, sometimes we long for something different – after all, keeping birds in captivity has long fascinated human-kind and many, from hummingbirds to ostriches, do amazingly well given the proper care.

I became aware of the possibilities open to serious aviculturists early on, while working for bird importers and later as a bird keeper at the Bronx Zoo. Many of the most interesting species that I encountered are now bred in captivity and available in the pet trade. Asia and Europe have always been hotbeds of species availability, but North American breeders have much to offer as well (many of our native species are popular pets overseas, but generally illegal to keep here in the USA).

Today I would like to introduce you to some birds that you may wish to consider when expanding your collection. All are well-established in the pet trade, and have been captive-bred for many generations. Please bear in mind that the care of most differs greatly from that required by more familiar pet-trade species. Future articles will cover other such birds, and captive care in more detail.

Be sure to research carefully before attempting to keep a new bird, and please write in with your questions and with your “wish list” – I and the Bird Room staff will do our best to help you to acquire the species in which you are interested.

Golden-fronted Leafbird, Chloropsis aurifrons
This gorgeous nectar-feeding specialist is one of my all-time favorites. Active and alert, it needs a bit of room to thrive, and cannot tolerate temperatures below 65 F or so. Golden-fronted leaf-bird

The back is colored dark green, fading to grass-green on the yellow-bordered breast, while the throat and wing-curve is blue. The face and crown are highlighted in black and gold, tinged with purple iridescence. Although slenderly built and but 8 inches in length, leafbirds can be quite aggressive towards other species – making up in agility and attitude what they lack in size. Golden-fronted leafbirds range from India and Myanmar south through Sumatra.

Leafbirds require a quality softbill diet, such as moistened Pretty Bird Softbill Select, as well as crickets and mealworms. Nectar and a fruit-based mix (Goldenfeast Nectar Gold and Tropical Fruit Pudding Blend), as well as diced banana, apple, papaya, orange and other fresh fruits, should be offered on a daily basis. They quite literally pick up and inspect nearly every bit of food offered, scattering a good deal in the process, and so need to be fed more heavily than similarly-sized birds (this hold true also for birds that consume a good deal of nectar). They drink copiously and bathe frequently. Image referenced from Wikipedia.

Pekin Robin, Leiothrix lutea
Pekin RobinThe somber gray-green back of this charming little bird is brilliantly offset by the orange breast. Shy and a mere 6 inches in length, pekin robins do best when kept in pairs or small groups, in a quiet cage or planted aviary.

These birds are favored pets in their native Southeast Asia, and are well-established in the USA as well. Those I cared for formed small flocks during much of the year and were not aggressive towards each other when paired (they were, however, in a large exhibit – breeding-season aggression may occur in smaller quarters).

Pekin robins will accept the foods listed as above for leafbirds, but do not require nectar. They should also be given a daily ration of small seeds, such as may be found in a high quality finch mix . Image referenced from Wikipedia.

Red-crested Cardinal, Paroaria coronata
With its dark gray back, bright scarlet head and crest Red-crested cardinals at feeder in Venezuelaand white breast, this small South American import makes a striking addition to any collection. In common with all cardinal-like birds, they need a large cage or aviary and are best housed in pairs. Most tend to be shy, but once settled in take readily to captivity and may even breed if given enough space and a stress-free environment.

A feeder I established at a field station in Venezuela drew several of these birds daily – they seemed curious about me, and would leave their food to inspect me from a safe distance. Captives retain this trait and never fail to notice all that goes on about them.

This and the closely related red-crowned, or Dominican cardinal, P. dominicana ( a popular pet in its native Brazil) will thrive on finch seed prod and fresh fruit, and should be offered 2-3 small insects daily as well.

Check back next week for the rest of this article.


  1. avatar

    It was good to this article about alternative cage birds as this is my special interest – I have written to you concerning shama thrushes, in case you remember. I tried the canned insects with my shamas, I think it is a great idea that bird owners should make use of. The shamas pick at the grasshoppers with enthusiasm, I just need to break them up a bit. Anole food – flies, is mixed in with their regular diet and disappears. However the silkworms seem a bit tough, but I have leopard gecko and in the spring I usually raise get a few birds to raise from neighbors who bring me fledgling robins, starlings, so the\y will be put to use. Have you kept shamas with other birds? I have spice finches, canaries, fire finches and others and hope to build an outdoor aviary for summer use when I retire soon. Thank you.

  2. avatar

    Hello, Frank Indiviglio here.

    Thanks for the update on the canned grasshoppers and anole food…I’m happy to hear that your birds accept it. Using canned silkworms when raising orphaned wild birds is a great idea…I’ll pass it along to others in future articles, thank you. You might try soaking the silkworms in water for a few minutes to soften them…this might make them more acceptable to the shama thrushes.

    Male shamas can be aggressive towards other species in an outdoor exhibit, especially during the breeding season. I have kept mated pairs with other birds, but in huge areas with lots of cover. Mostly the aggression consists of chasing others from the nest area, but each situation will be different. I suggest planting your aviary heavily, so as to provide numerous sight barriers, and also that you establish the finches in the exhibit before adding the shamas.

    Good luck and please keep me posted.

    Best regards, Frank Indiviglio.

  3. avatar

    Great article. I had the opportunity to have all these birds while leaving overseas n the leafbirds were one of my favorites. I would add the green cardinal as another great specie. If u have them available in the USA let me know, they are on my wish list

  4. avatar

    Hi marcus,

    Thanks for the kind words. Green Cardinals sometimes appear; please see this article, and Part I, to make sure we are talking about the same species. Best source I know of is Birds Express (You’ll need to keep an eye on list, or ask for an alert, if possible. You can also try Softbills for Sale..

    Good luck and pl keep me posted, Best, Frank

About Frank Indiviglio

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I believe that I was born with an intense interest in animals, as neither I nor any of my family can recall a time when I was not fascinated by creatures large and small. One might imagine this to be an unfortunate set of circumstances for a person born and raised in the Bronx, but, in actuality, quite the opposite was true. Most importantly, my family encouraged both my interest and the extensive menagerie that sprung from it. My mother and grandmother somehow found ways to cope with the skunks, flying squirrels, octopus, caimans and countless other odd creatures that routinely arrived un-announced at our front door. Assisting in hand-feeding hatchling praying mantises and in eradicating hoards of mosquitoes (I once thought I had discovered “fresh-water brine shrimp” and stocked my tanks with thousands of mosquito larvae!) became second nature to them. My mother went on to become a serious naturalist, and has helped thousands learn about wildlife in her 16 years as a volunteer at the Bronx Zoo. My grandfather actively conspired in my zoo-buildings efforts, regularly appearing with chipmunks, boa constrictors, turtles rescued from the Fulton Fish Market and, especially, unusual marine creatures. It was his passion for seahorses that led me to write a book about them years later. Thank you very much, for a complete biography of my experience click here.
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