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Introducing Estrildid Finches – the Waxbills, Munias, Nuns and Grass Finches

Among the130+ species of the family Estrildidae we find popular cage birds and highly endangered species.  Some, such as the gorgeously colored Gouldian Finch, are both – at once rare in the wild yet abundant in the pet trade.

 Gouldian FinchWaxbills and their relatives are often the first finches aviculturists obtain after having gained experience with the hardier zebra or society finches.  The black-headed munia and several others are well suited to this role – slightly more sensitive than Zebra Finches, yet robust enough to fare well when given proper care.

Natural History

Estrildid finches range throughout Africa, South and Southeast Asia and Australia and, with the exception of a few Australian species, favor warm climates.  They range in size from the 3.3 inch long Fernando Po Oliveback to the Java Sparrow or Rice Bird which, due to its stout build, appears larger than its 5.5 inches.


While certain Estrildid finches are among the most numerous birds in their habitats, others, such as the Gouldian and several of the parrot finches, are classified as either vulnerable or endangered by the IUCN.  The Black-lored Waxbill, known only from a tiny range in southern Democratic Republic of Congo, has not been seen since 1950, and may be extinct.

Keeping Waxbills

 Red cheek Cordon Bleu Finch Waxbills, nuns and munias are best housed in large indoor flight cages or, when the weather permits, outdoor aviaries. Warm temperatures are the rule, especially for breeding pairs (they leave the eggs unattended for longer periods than other finches), but healthy birds easily weather occasional exposure to temperatures in the low 50’s (F) if conditions are dry.

A covered nest should be included, even for non-breeders, as many Estrildids roost in nests outside of the breeding season.

Most species are gregarious in the wild, and do well in groups in captivity.  Mated pairs, however, are best kept alone.


Although primarily seed eaters that will thrive on a base diet of high quality finch food, Estrildids need a good bit of protein as well.  Egg food and softbill food should always be available.  Small live mealworms, waxworms, crickets and other insects are preferred however.  Canned insects and anole food (dried flies) are often well-accepted also.

Grit and cuttlebone should be available at all times.

Breeding Estrildid Finches

A number of species, especially the more popularly-kept munias and nuns, will breed readily in captivity if provided with ample room and quiet surroundings.  Tri-colored Nuns and other long-kept species are best suited for ones first attempts at breeding Estrildid finches.

All species studied thus far construct covered nests, and many roost in these even when not raising chicks.  Protein requirements soar during the breeding season – the provision of additional protein, especially in the form of live insects, is also useful in bringing finches into reproductive condition.

Further Reading

For specific information on individual Estrildid finches, please Introducing Nuns, Munias and Mannikins and The Common Waxbill.

I’ll cover the care of individual finch species in the future.


Gouldian Finch image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Kjacques

Bird Breeding – Why Do Good Parents Sometimes Attack Their Chicks?

Parrots that pair up well, mate, hatch eggs and feed their chicks are every bird-breeders dream.  However, some such birds present us with a frustrating situation – just as the chicks begin to grow feathers, one or both of the otherwise doting parents begin to pluck at their chicks’ feathers.  Bleeding and skin bruising follow, and, while the chicks usually recover, they are often left high-strung and nervous.  Chicks housed in outdoor aviaries may suffer from exposure and chilling as well.

The Scenario

Lovebird with newborn chicks
Chick-plucking is most commonly observed among peach-faced lovebirds, budgerigars and cockatiels (particularly lutino cockatiels).  Attacks on the plumage usually commence when the feathers first emerge from the skin, and may continue until the time they unfurl.  Oddly, the erring adults continue to feed their offspring throughout, and remain good parents once the plucking ceases.

Unfortunately, chick-plucking parents usually do not change, and subsequent offspring are usually attacked as well; there is also evidence that chicks born to “plucking parents” repeat the cycle when they mature and reproduce.

A Theory

The most likely explanation for this perplexing behavior is that it results from frustrated attempts by the parents to preen the emerging feathers.  Unable to perform this task properly on the thin, unfurled plumage, the anxious parents begin pulling at the feathers.  The fact that most attacks are confined to the chicks’ napes and upper wings – areas not reachable by the chicks and usually attended to by the parents, lends support to this theory.

Thwarting Attacks

 Whiteface-lutino Cockatiel Chick Bitter Apple Spray is often successful in deterring plumage attacks, but is best applied before plucking begins.  If the chick’s skin is broken, consult your veterinarian before applying Bitter Apple or similar products.

Further Reading

Captive breeding, while immensely rewarding, is not without its problems.  To read about other potential concerns, please see my article Spring’s Affect on Cage Birds.


Lovebird with newborn chicks image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Snowmanradio
Whitefaced lutino Cockatiel Chick image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Magnus Manske

Eclectus Parrots in the Wild and Captivity – Part 2

In Part I of this article we discussed eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus) behavior in the wild and captivity. Today I would like to focus on one of the more unusual facets Eclectus Parrot natural history – how a unique reproductive strategy has fostered a degree of sexual dimorphism (difference in appearance between the sexes) unknown among other parrots.

A Study in Contrasts – Sexual Dimorphism

Male and female eclectus parrots vary so much in appearance that they were believed to be different species by the first Female EclectusEuropeans to encounter them in Indonesia. Indeed, few bird species, and no other parrots, exhibit such extreme sexual dimorphism.

Female Eclectus Parrots are stoutly built and sport gorgeous red and vermillion feathers of several shades. Splashes of blue and lavender decorate the breast, and the bill is jet black.

In sharp contrast, males are streamlined in build and a brilliant emerald green in color. Shades of red, blue and yellow are distributed along the sides and wings. The bill of a mature male is decorated in red, orange and yellow.

The feathers of both sexes appear somewhat silky, and are often described as resembling fur, and they seem almost florescent in hue.

Why do the Sexes Differ So?

Juvenile Male EclectusVarious theories have been proposed to explain the Eclectus’ surprising sexual dimorphism. One relates the phenomenon to the differing life styles of the sexes. During the breeding season, females spend the majority of their days in and near the nesting hole. In their leaf-covered, dimly lit nesting areas, located high in the forest canopy, the deep reds and blues of their feathers blend in well with the shadows falling upon the bark, limbs and leaves.

Some ornithologists (bird biologists) believe that the female’s bright red color signals males that she is in possession of a rare and valuable resource – a secure nest site. It seems that a scarcity of suitable nesting holes has led Eclectus Parrots to evolve a breeding strategy unknown among their relatives. Several males may mate with a female who has been lucky enough to secure a nest site that is safe from pythons, monitor lizards and other predators.

Males forage widely and feed the females for much of the year. Their green plumage offers excellent camouflage among sunlit leaves.

Further Reading

For more on captive husbandry, please see our book on Eclectus Parrot Care.

For information on viewing Eclectus Parrots and other tropical birds in the wild, and to hear their calls, please see this link.


Juvenile Male Eclectus and Female Eclectus images referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by snowmanradio

Eclectus Parrots in the Wild and Captivity – Part 1

One day, while working in Bronx Zoo’s eclectus parrot (Eclectus roratus) exhibit, a visitor asked me what sort of food additives I used to keep the bird’s colors so brilliant and silky.  Another, upon viewing a pair of eclectus preening, inquired how I had managed to get the two different species of parrots to bond.

The many similar questions that I’ve fielded over the years are typical first impressions: such brilliant colors cannot possibly be natural, and male and female eclectus must each belong to a different species.

Beautiful and Outstanding Mimics

Eclectus roratusMany consider the eclectus to be the most beautiful of all parrots.  In fact, early in their avicultural history folks rarely tried to teach eclectus to speak…surely such a gorgeous bird could not also be a talented mimic.

However, the Eclectus rivals the AfricanGray and Amazon Parrots in both the scope of its vocabulary and the clarity of its voice.  Nearly all individuals learn to speak, with some uttering their first phrases prior to fledging!  What’s more, eclectus are equally proficient at singing songs and learning bird calls, whistles and other sounds.  A pair I worked with kept me entertained with by mimicking the calls of birds in neighboring exhibits and the clanging of metal pans that occurred as I  distributed food each day.

A Study in Contrasts – Sexual Dimorphism

Male and female Eclectus Parrots vary so much in appearance that they were believed to be different species by the first Europeans to encounter them in Indonesia.  Indeed, few bird species exhibit a greater degree of sexual dimorphism (difference in appearance between the sexes).

Range and Habitat

Eight to ten Eclectus subspecies have been described.  They range from the Cape York Peninsula in northeastern Australia through New Guinea, and also occur on the Solomons and many of Indonesia’s islands.  Introduced populations are established on Palau and the Goram Islands (Indonesia).

Eclectus Parrots favor lowland rain forest, but may utilize wooded savannahs as well.

A Unique Reproductive Strategy

Dramatic sexual dimorphism is not their only “un-parrot-like” trait.  Parrots are known for close pair bonds and sexual fidelity. However, female eclectus parrots mate with several males, all of whom feed her while she is on the nest and raising chicks, and males may mate with several females.

This strategy seems driven by a shortage of safe nest hollows (monitor lizards and scrub pythons are major predators in easily-accessible nests).  Males are forced to share those females that have managed to secure nests that are inaccessible to predators.

Also, females rarely leave the nest hole during the breeding season…the unusual mating strategy may ensure a steady supply of food should the “primary male” die or prove to be a bad provider.

Eclectus Parrots as Pets

Pet Eclectus Parrots are invariably described as “intuitive”, and do indeed seem to sense their owner’s moods very accurately.  They are also extremely “laid back” and usually fairly quiet.  Although they should be provided with a large cage or outdoor aviary, these qualities do suit them well apartments or small houses.  Beauty, great speaking abilities and a quiet, friendly demeanor…what more could one ask of a parrot!?

Further Reading

For more on captive husbandry, please see our book on Eclectus Parrot Care.

A fascinating account of an eclectus parrot field study is posted here.



Eclectus roratus image referenced from wikipedia and originally posted by Dougjj

Hand-Rearing Baby Birds – Are you Qualified?

Hand-raised birds of all types make wonderful pets, and the process itself seems appealing and attracts many bird owners. However, there are a number of misconceptions concerning the need for hand-raising birds, and also regarding the ease of doing so.

The Question of Bonding

Umbrella Cockatoo ChicksParent-reared birds can bond quite strongly to people and become wonderful companions, especially if taken under one’s care soon after they become independent. In many cases, such birds will be sturdier than hand-reared chicks, and will have been taught important foraging and social skills.

If a bird is to be pulled from the nest for hand-rearing, it is not essential that the new owner be involved. If taken soon after fledging, the chick will bond to people other than those who have raised it. The prospective owners may wish to visit the chick while it is being fed by the breeder (but such is not strictly necessary)…this is definitely preferable to an inexperienced person trying to raise a chick.

Misleading Beliefs

Healthy parrot and other chicks seem so perpetually hungry that one might be forgiven for assuming that hand-rearing is simply a matter of filling their gaping mouths with a supply of suitable food (please see photo of common cuckoo for an extreme example!). However, nothing could be further from the truth. The undertaking is complex and fraught with difficulties.

The Time Factor

Even if one possesses the necessary facilities and expertise, the time factor must be considered. Depending upon age and species, chicks will need numerous feedings throughout the day and, sometimes, the night.

I well remember waking up at 1AM and trekking to the Bronx Zoo to provide early morning feedings to palm cockatoos and other orphaned birds…interesting, but not for weeks on end!

Typical Difficulties Encountered

Following is just a brief listing of some possible problem areas:

Chicks that are abandoned or purposely taken from the nest for hand-rearing are often stressed. As a result, their immune systems will be weakened, leaving them open to health problems.

Food that remains in the crop can decay and cause fatal bacterial or fungal infections; determining that the chick’s crop is empty is not an easy matter.

The preparation, cooking, storage and delivery temperature of the food is critical. Details vary greatly with species, age and health.

The actual process of feeding the bird often leads to aspiration pneumonia, which arises when the chick inhales food into its lungs; such is difficult to avoid if one is not well-experienced.

Feeding utensils can easily damage tender mouths and crops, especially as regards particularly vigorous or lethargic chicks. Utensils that are not adequately sterilized are a common source of bacterial infection.

The temperature at which the chick must be kept varies with species, age and health, and is critical. This affects overall health and digestion. If too cool, even by a degree or two, a chick will not be able to move its food through the digestive tract adequately; fatal bacterial and fungal infections are then likely.

Making a Decision

My work with injured and abandoned chicks has left me with many fond and a few sad memories. Please consider your options carefully, and write in for specific advice. In all cases, you should work with an experienced aviculturist before attempting to raise a chick on your own.

Further Reading

For a look at some of the joys and difficulties inherent in raising rare birds, please see my article Hand rearing Palm Cockatoos.

Image referenced from Wikipedia and originally posted by Tropical Birdland.

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