Who are you calling common?
The common or St Helena Waxbill was once taken for granted by the fancy.
Now, says JOHN COURTNEY-SMITH, it’s anything but common!
THE St Helena or common Waxbill (Estrilda astrild) used to be one of the most numerous among the Waxbill species imported for the cage-bird trade. Then, four years ago, came the ban on imports and the new blood they brought. So how are we doing with this the most wonderful of birds? There is a simple answer to that question – not very well.
Yes, captive breeding in the UK has increased since 2006, but here we breed only a fraction of the number bred on the Continent. Why? I’ll try to answer through my experience of keeping and breeding the common waxbill.
Waxbills have been available in the bird trade for a long time. In the old days, the most popular were the red-eared, St Helena, Sundervall’s, goldenbreasted, orange-cheeked and the two cordon bleus – red-cheeked and blue-capped.
Most waxbills appear to fl ourish without much specialist care. Is this where we’ve been going wrong? It used to be common to see a large indoor fl ight cage with a mix of waxbills providing colour and song to the living room or birdroom. Prices at their lowest in the 1990s were just £6 a pair. Now, as supplies dry up, these same birds are reaching £300 a pair.
Why didn’t we try harder to breed waxbills?
We were warned about the prospective import ban, but on the whole this message didn’t get through. Some dealers had 500 pairs in stock at any one time, so why should anyone waste money on the equipment needed to get chicks in the nest?
Prices at their lowest were just £6 a pair. Now these same birds are reaching £300 a pair!
The gaudy head and bill pattern set off against the subtly barred body give the St Helena waxbill its distinctive appearance
Identification, display and breeding
THE St Helena waxbill is a small bird about 11-13cm long (41/2-5in) with a wild weight of 7-10g (1/4-1/3 oz). Cage birds are a bit heavier. They are a grey-brown in the body with a red stripe over the eye and a wax-like red
beak. The most obvious thing that sets the St Helena apart from the red-eared is that it has faint horizontal stripes over the body.
They have a sweet little song – or collection of notes really – and the cock bird will be seen bobbing and jumping on the perch as a display to the female, usually with a piece of nesting material in his beak.
St Helena waxbills feed mostly on grass seeds, and in the wild can be seen in huge flocks harvesting food. They will take tiny livefood in the breeding season as the need for protein increases. Eggfood should be
offered when rearing. The birds will use finch wicker baskets as a nest site.
The St Helena can have as many as four clutches a year, with four to seven eggs as the norm. It is regularly parasitised by the pin-tailed whydah (Vidua macroura), which lays an egg in the waxbill’s nest. This whydah is another bird that was commonly available before the ban. I have kept these in small fl ocks of male birds – just wonderful! It really does upset me that we will not see these birds in large numbers again.
So when, in October 2005, the Prime Minister announced that imports of wild-caught birds had been banned in the EU, panic set in. How can we get better breeding results? My thoughts on this matter are just basic common sense. If you can, buy at least three pairs. (In most waxbills the sexes are alike, so it’s best to buy a few individuals to have a chance of getting both cocks and hens.)
It is important to use bird lighting. Though the waxbill sexes look the same to us, the birds can see Ultraviolet A (UVA – long wave) fl uorescence on the feathers that we cannot. So if birds choose a mate largely by sight, lack of UVA can inhibit mating behavior. Lamps that also provide UVB (medium wave) enable the bird to produce vitamin D3, which in turn allows the absorption of calcium, which could stop problems such as soft shell and metabolic bone disease. Glass filters out UV light, so even large windows are not the whole answer. Now that the monetary value of the birds has increased we are breeding a few more, but Continental breeders are doing far better. I believe that lighting has a lot to do with it. The most popular manufacturer of cages in Holland includes a compact bird-lamp as standard. Need I say more?
Provide the largest safe fl ight you have space for. My fl ight cage is 1.5m high x 1.2m wide x 45cm deep (5ft x 4ft x 18in) and, being a box cage, it provides a secure environment for the birds.
I give clean food and water with eggfood available when nesting and small waxworms or pinhead crickets when rearing. I use fi ltered water and clean seeds from a reputable dealer.
Seeding grass-stems should be made available in season. Millet sprays can be used and cuttlefi sh-bone and iodine blocks. I also use a vitamin supplement. I will not use mealworms because these indigestible tubes of chitin have biting mouthparts that will damage sensitive chicks. Some keepers pinch the head of a mealworm so it cannot bite. My feeling is why take a 50/50 risk of it killing a chick when a mealworm is mostly tough shell?
Waxbills do not cope well with worming, so if you don’t keep them outside it is better to keep doses to a minimum. As extra nesting materials, supply clean natural grass-stems, free from pesticides and fertilisers.
Chicks are on the perch in two weeks or so. Now comes the fun of getting them into adulthood. Again, bird lighting is the key. With full-spectrum lighting and enough vitamin D3, the chicks should be less prone to night fright and cage-bar damage. They should also settle into feeding periods and rest times. Spray the cage down daily to encourage preening, which is how vitamin D3 gets into the bird’s system.
Keep all these things in mind, and we should be able to produce good numbers of these lovely birds to secure their future in British aviculture.
John Courtney-Smith’s father owned a petshop, and John has a lifelong interest in birds (and reptiles).