The Mixed Finch Collection.

Part Four: The Waxbills

Over the past few outings we have looked at some of the various finches out there in Australia that we might like to combine into our mixed finch collection. Most of the Australians we have mentioned have been the Grassfinches whose care and feeding are usually pretty straight forward (did I really just write that!!) but we are now going to look at a group that is my personal favourite and they are the Waxbills.

Named from the ‘waxy’ appearance of their delicate beaks this group contains members that require that input of some form of live food into their diet to successfully rear their offspring. From a minimal outlay of live food for the Orange Breasts and Fires ("Ruddies") right through to the Pytilias and Melbas where live food and plenty of it is essential for rearing any youngsters.

Most of these guys hail from Africa where termites a plenty can be found and breeding many of these species without them is difficult but, fortunately for us down here, not impossible!!

Red-cheek Cordons.

Orange Breast Waxbills.

Senegals & Blue-caps.

Some are among the most beautiful birds going around and there is none that can compare with the Violet-eared waxbill for both colour and temperament but, alas, these are hanging on by a very thin thread in Australia. Also in this basket are the Dybowski and Peter’s twinspots, Senegal waxbills and the Purple grenadier waxbill and without new blood their long term survival must be tenuous also. Despite this gloomy outlook it is nice to be able to report that a few breeders have succeeded in breeding good numbers of the Peter’s twinspot this season and some South African breeders have imparted a few tricks of the trade with this species which must be working! Gives you hope we might be able to resurrect the others too!
However, here comes the rub! These finches cost the proverbial ‘arm and leg’ so very few of us would contemplate purchasing them let alone turfing them out into our mixed collection!! Just thought I’d let you know they exist before listing a few that we can all afford! I can dream too you know!
Just in case you think I’m insane to want Violet-ears in Tasmania I was talking to a South African ex-pat who maintained that humidity was the biggest killer of Violet-ears and that if they could be kept in a situation where it was around 25 degrees Celsius by 10 am they would be fine as long as there was little humidity. Food for thought!

Perhaps the commonest of the Waxbills would be the Orange Breasted waxbill. This guy is the smallest finch available to us and makes a great inclusion in any finch collection. Minimal live food requirements and a willingness to breed with a few pieces of Swamp grass and white feathers! Don’t let their small size fool you as these guys are well able to hold their own amongst the larger Grassfinches and mine are in with Weavers and Siskins – must say that they are addicted to the old Grenadier weaver nests and reline these and raise their young in them on a regular basis. However, do be aware that occasionally the Orange Breasts will not be content to wait until the nest is vacated and will take over a freshly constructed nest despite being around a tenth the size of the weavers!!! Fortunately both species breeding is usually out of synch with each other so not too many instances of the nasty OB’s picking on the poor weavers!!
They will breed in cooler weather rather than the summer months and this can lead to egg-binding problems if the weather changes suddenly whilst they are laying eggs.

The African Fire finch, Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu and the St. Helena waxbill are also species I would have great confidence in recommending for our mixed collection as they are usually free and willing breeders. Again they require the addition of live food but all can easily be bred on small mealworms and cultured maggots.

TIP: One of the main reasons why there is an imbalance in cock birds in these species is, in my humble opinion, the way we feed live food to these guys. Many just rip down to the pet shop, grab a tub of mealworms and feed them out – WRONG!! Mealworms are sold packaged in bran and this is because it is cheap (and nasty!!) and certainly for no nutritional reasons! What should you be doing instead? Taking your mealies home and sieving out all the bran and placing them into pollard (no pun!!) which, because it is closer to the wheat heart itself, is far better nutritionally for your birds when they consume the mealworm. Allow the mealworms time to ingest a quantity of this and then feed them to your birds!
A vet mate once told me that bran causes a build up of phytic acid which, when consumed by your finches, can cause a problem with calcium binding which in turn leads to egg-binding.

Since doing our mealies and maggots this way we have had minimal egg-binding and if we can do that down here it MUST work for you guys on the Big Island!! Cereal meal is another good live food medium if you can obtain it.


  Pin-tail Whydah - Parasitic upon St Helena Waxbills!  

If contemplating the St. Helena waxbill you’d better grab a heap of nesting material as they love swamp (November) grass in huge quantities. Each nest has a cock’s nest on top and the ‘real’ nest underneath which many reckon is a predator related habit - poor old male sitting there on top as snake bait!!
My ambition has always been to see one of the sitting birds actually vacate a nest when I arrive!! Never seen it to date because as soon as I approach their aviary the non-sitting bird will gently call its mate and let him/her know that "trouble" is on the way – damn inconsiderate I reckon! One day!

Baby Fire. Baby Orange Breast. Young Pytilia.

A lovely little bird which now comes in a variety of colours and mutations but it is hard to go past the sex-linked Cinnamon Saint I reckon where the grey is completely replaced by a beautiful fawn.

Fires (Ruddies) are another relative free breeder with minimal live food requirements. Ours is the Senegal species I am told but a scan through Clements "Finches & Sparrows" will show you what a diverse and stunning group the Fire finch family really is. They also come in a variety of mutations such as Cinnamon, Pied and Pink at present so there is some fun to be had breeding trough the genetics of this species.

The Cordon family contains the Red-cheeked and the Blue-capped with the former a readily available finch but far more live food dependant than the other waxbills we have mentioned.
However, the Blue-cap must be responsible for more people tearing their hair out than any other finch species! These will frequently throw young out when ever the mood takes them regardless of the amount and variety of live food fed. Most suggest that overfeeding meal worms is a major cause of infertility in this species. They can be reared on cultured maggots and pupae but there is a tendency for the young to scour - if you have noticed this happening try and replace your calf rearing powder with whey powder in your maggot mixture.
Very few finches can match the beauty of the male Blue-cap in full breeding condition but be prepared for a bumpy road before truly being able to say that you have "cracked" the breeding secrets of this finch!
You’ll probably have far better luck with these guys if you feed termites but it is possible with maggots and mealworms – persevere!

The other members of the waxbill family available here are the Pytilia family which were featured in more detail in the last issue of Aviary Life.

Suffice it to say that this group must be responsible for more nervous breakdowns amongst finch keepers than any other species!

The group consists of the Melba finch, Pytilia melba, the Aurora, P. phoenicoptera, and the Yellow-winged pytilia, P. hypogrammica.

The Orange-winged pytilia, P. afra, is not available in Australia.

The bird that is commonly referred to as the Red-headed pytilia is most probably a mixture of blood between the commoner Aurora finch and the Yellow-winged species. It is virtually unknown outside of Australia and in the recent Dutch book "Encyclopedia of Estrildid Finches" (2002) it is pictured on page 112 with the caption "possibly a hybrid"!
It is known in the wild from a few specimens and has been given the name of P. lopezi or P.hypogrammica lopezi by some. Given its rarity in the wild amid claims that the "red wing is dominant to the yellow wing" one might suggest that the introduction of normal Aurora blood might go some way to explaining this apparent anomaly!! That and the fact that the Red-headed pytilia hens now strongly resemble normal Aurora hens where once they were steel grey the same as Yellow-wing hens! Yes, you can breed Yellow-wings out of Red-wings but is every bird with one Yellow parent automatically a "split" for Yellow? How do you explain the occasional Yellow-wing pytilia cock bird from such crosses without a red head? Hopefully more can be explained in the near future – who said finch breeding was boring and there were no new challenges!!!

So there we go folks, a look at the members of the group that makes up the Waxbills.
They have something to offer every finch keeper from the free breeding and tiny Orange Breasted waxbill through to the stunning yet temperamental Pytilia family. If you do not wish to become a slave to your live food "department" then stick with the OB’s, Fires and Saints but if you are feeling on top of your game have a crack at the Blue-caps, Melbas and Pytilias.
However, I take no responsibility for your hair loss or "intemperate" outbursts should you select the latter option!!
Until next time get out there and research the Waxies – the most stunning finch group going around!



Orange Cheek Waxbill.


As Written for Australian Aviary Life 2006