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Nesting Associations of Red-Cheeked Cordon Blues (Uraeginthus bengalus) and African Vespid Wasps (Ropalidia cincta) may benefit Both Species: Notes from the Field

In an earlier article concerning the cordon blue (Introducing the Red-Cheeked Cordon Blue, Uraeginthus bengalus), I mentioned that this popular pet trade finch often nests close to wasp colonies in its native West Africa. It has long been known that certain birds derive protection from predators by nesting near colonies of ants, bees, wasps and other aggressive social insects. It has been shown that wasps eliminate nearly all parasitic botflies from nearby nests of oropendolas and yellow-rumped caciques, and wasp nests experimentally re-located (fun job!) to trees bearing the nests of rufous-naped wrens dramatically reduced predation by monkeys.

In the case of the cordon blue, pairs nesting near wasp colonies are usually more than twice as likely to successfully fledge chicks as are those in trees un-protected by wasps. An article in The Auk (Beir, P., 2006) has raised the possibility that certain wasps (Ropalidia cincta) may, in turn, derive benefits from living in proximity to nesting cordon blues.

Researchers working in Ghana noted that wasps establishing new colonies showed a strong preference for trees occupied by cordon blues. They discovered that the sting of the Ropalidia wasp is relatively ineffective against ants, which raid wasp nests, and smaller wasps, which parasitize the larvae. Cordon blues, on the other hand, relish small insects and may help the Ropalidia wasps by devouring ants and smaller wasp species. Further studies are under way.

I’m usually all for experimentation, but please do not be tempted to move any wasp nests into your cordon blue’s aviary!

An interesting article (Biotropica) on ant/bird nesting associations in Africa is posted at:

Introducing the Red-Cheeked Cordon Blue (Uraeginthus bengalus)

These beautiful little finches are among the most popular of the exotic seedeaters, both here and abroad. I highly recommend them to those who have a bit of finch-keeping experience and are looking to expand collections.

Natural History
Native to sub-Saharan Africa, cordon blues range from Senegal to Ethiopia, and south through eastern Africa to Zambia. They are usually associated with grassland habitats, but frequent farms and villages as well. They are members of the family Estrildidae, the waxbills.

Cordon blues top out at 4 ½ inches in length, and are clad in fawn brown and sky blue. The beak is red, with a black tip, and males have crimson cheek patches.

Warmth and Large Cages Required
Despite their small size, cordon blues need alot of space if they are to thrive, so provide them with one of our larger finch cages. Hailing from warm, dry climates, they are a bit more sensitive than most finches to cool, damp conditions, and do best at temperatures of 77 F or so.

Insects and Other Dietary Needs
Another thing to bear in mind is their need for a diet rich in insects – they will not do well on a seed-only diet. Small crickets, mealworms, waxworms and wild caught insects (consider using a ZooMed Bug Napper Insect Trap) are all relished. Small canned insects, such as Exo Terra silkworms, and ZooMed Anole Food (dried insects) are also worth trying. A quality finch seed should form the bulk of the diet, and sprouting grass and small amounts of carrot, broccoli and spinach should be provided 2-3 times weekly. Gravel, cuttlebone and a bath should always be available.

Breeding in Nature and Captivity
Cordon Blues will breed readily if provided with a roomy cage, and both sexes sing melodiously. An oven-shaped nest is constructed, and up to 5 eggs may be laid. Both sexes incubate the eggs for approximately 13 days, and the young fledge 17 days after hatching.

Interestingly, wild cordon blues often nest in trees occupied by wasp colonies. I’ll write more about this in the future, but it seems that finches nesting in such trees are twice as likely to be successful in fledging chicks as are birds nesting in trees without wasp colonies – probably because the wasps chase off egg and chick predators.

A number of other waxbills are popular in the pet trade…please write in with your observations and questions. Thanks, until next time, Frank.

Image referenced from Wikipedia Commons and first posted by Christiaan Kooyman.

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