As we have seen over this ongoing explanatory series, bird keeping as a hobby is almost as diverse as the species that are actually kept. I use the same descriptive statement each month and that is because I really believe it, there really is ‘a species of captive bred bird available to suit the needs of almost every prospective keeper in almost all types of home’.
The relationship one can have with a singing canary is just as positive, interactive and enjoyable in its own way as that which is fostered together when keeping the large parrots.
Each species is wondrous and each has its own series of positives and of course limitations. Those that wish to start breeding small birds will do no better than starting off with a single pair of zebra finches or Bengalese finches. There, right in front of you the wonder of nature in all of its reproductive glory will be unveiled. An experience that is never forgotten.
As we progress through the hobby and our skills grow accordingly, the lure of the more exotic can become attractive. Whether this is due to rarity or increased colours, or just simply the challenge of breeding a harder to breed species we may never really know. For sure, many bird keepers will progress on from their roots in the more common species and try their hands at something a little more challenging from time to time.
Historically, of course, before the ban of the import of wild harvested birds into the EU, birds were, on the whole, very affordable. Arriving from all over the world in fairly high numbers and at a low price. This meant that keeping of certain groups of now rarely seen species was common. Sadly, due to the low price, breeding these birds almost led to a financial loss for potential breeders, so not much effort was put into building stocks long term. The ban put a full stop to this and overall, it has actually been a positive thing.
All of the birds that are now available to us are captive bred from many generations of stock. They are more robust and therefore easier to breed. They also carry a price tag far higher than was common pre-ban, thus leading to those that wish to keep and breed them, paying extra attention to their needs. Building up stocks to the levels that are being enjoyed now has taken well over a decade. We are now starting to see species that had almost vanished from the hobby return and prices fall accordingly to a level where the more experienced keeper can afford them.The species that I wish to cover in this issue is grouped within the ‘softbills’, those birds that thrive on a diet of plants, fruits and insects. The term softbill describes the diet, not the nature of the beak, which anyone that has received a bite from some of these birds will tell you is anything other than ‘soft’, serrated yes, soft no! The softbills cover a wide range of species from babblers and barbets to mynah birds and toucans.
There are songbirds and scavengers, nectar feeders and obligate insectivores. The group covers birds that measure less than an inch right up to those with wingspans measured in feet. Yes, it is a huge group covering some of the worlds most highly adapted and spectacular species.
The emerald starling Lamprotornis iris is indeed one of the softbills that seems to cover every aspect in the descriptive ‘softbill’, and some. They are incredibly highly coloured, true omnivores but with a need for fruits and insects on a regular basis and they are intelligent, learning and adapting quickly. This is a flocking species within the group that we know as true starlings hailing from the deep forests and scrublands of west Africa.
Flocks of 50-100 birds are documented in the wild, however 12-25 seems more common. In terms of wild data, not much is known regarding wild numbers or even the grouping nature of these species during the breeding season. Some reports seem to suggest that members of a flock may assist select pairs in the rearing of chicks, this is documented within a couple of cases in captivity but has not been seen in the wild as yet.
Many of the observations of their behaviour that are published have been gleaned from captive collections over the years. Emerald starlings did not start to arrive in commercial shipments in any numbers until the late 1970s. Then from time to time examples would arrive within mixed shipments of the more common purple glossy, royal and splendid starlings. It is however clear that this is one of the smallest in the family group, sitting alongside the equally attractive Amethyst starling and as such can be maintained well in modest aviaries and of course indoor flights.
The emerald starling is a sleek, slight bird of approx. 7-8” in length including the short tail. It is high flying, social, eager to forage and communicative. They exist by consuming a wide variety of fruits and insects but will take some sprouting seeds also, I feel that nectar, honey where available and bee pollen is also of great benefit.
They are commonly seen foraging in full sun in-which their rich plumage really comes into its own with a vibrant almost indescribable iridescence. This is a monomorphic species, as such DNA testing to ascertain sex is required, however, the hen has an adaptation that could possibly be seen in the breeding season in the form of a brood patch, an area of bare skin from which heat can be transferred to both egg and nestling quickly.
Being so alike I can only really describe the bird, rather than the differences in the sexes. The emerald starling is a real wonder of nature. It is slick, sleek, well tones and adorned in the most incredible shimmering shocking emerald green. This almost ethereal shimmering green covers much of the head apart from the ear covers which are deep amethyst.
The green travels down over the breast and around the rump and up over the back and tail.
The sides are once again brilliant amethyst, but electric blue flashes can be seen under the wing. The feet are very dark grey to black as well as the bill. The eye is black. Even nestlings, freshly feathered have a fairly electric rendition of the adult colours, which can be rare in other species.
Feeding is a rather simple affair, a range of proprietary low iron softbill diets can now be easily obtained in the form of a fluffy breadcrumb type mix and in pelleted form. A wealth of fresh fruits should be added to this alongside regular live foods. Thankfully live insects are plentiful in reptile and pet stores and for a low price. Certainly the 3 main species of crickets, fruit flies and the odd wax or silkworm would be gratefully accepted.
Escape proof feeding dishes can now also be obtained, thus reducing the sonic frustrations of loose crickets in the bird room. Figs are reported to be highly valued by the species and if available should be offered. A small amount of honey can be added into the diet. A good quality natural mineral and vitamin powder with Bee Pollen should also be supplied on the foods.
An indoor flight of 8’ long, 4’ wide and 6’ high would represent adequate space in which to maintain a pair for life. It would also be large enough to house any resulting young whilst they remain with the parents. Live planting is a boon and will not only provide stable perching, but it will also brighten up the flight. This is a bird that can become quite trusting of the carer and should be a joy to both watch and interact with.
Certainly, they really do come into their own when in flight and as they forage naturally. Good songsters they are not, but they do call before flight and during. They also chatter away for a large part of the day. Most starlings are able to utilise the gift of mimicry, I have read no reports of this in this species, but I do not see why a few sounds should not be picked up and repeated.
Bird lighting should be supplied for a full photo period each day. This can be adjusted to replicate some seasonality. This could be important to inspiring the changes required in the bird leading to courtship, display and copulation. In flights of the size suggested a pair of 46” 54w HO-T5 bird lamps and reflectors would suffice.
I also suggest that any keepers should seek to join the softbill association and also the more professional keepers’ groups on social media. From this base a wealth of information can be gathered and shared. They are also a good resource from which stock can be purchased or swapped during the life of the collection in order to keep bloodlines fresh. Certainly, and as we often say in science ‘more research is required’.
I would expect a CB bred pair to be able to be found to retail for slightly less than £400pr. I have seen odd young birds at sales sell for around £150.00 also.
Once more, this is a fantastic species to work with and one that can be found on wholesale lists from time to time. It is certainly one well worth offering to your more experienced bird keeping customers.