I have a deep love for the family of finches known as ‘the waxbills’ or otherwise known as Estrildid finches. The common name refers to the colour and apparent texture of the beak, in reality the appendage is not wax-like at all.
Much of this family of birds have been available to aviculture for many years and pre mid 2000s were available in a wealth of species at affordable prices, leading to the assumption of many that they were ideal beginner birds. Indeed, some of this family are indeed quite tolerant to minor mistakes such as the Orange Cheeked Waxbill Estrilda melpoda of which we have covered in a previous issue.
However, on the whole sustained captive breeding of the group was rare. With subsequent reduced supply and quickly increasing prices keepers of these species have been able to put much effort into their care and captive breeding, I am happy to say that across the board, this seems to be paying off. Indeed, one only has to look at the yearly breeding returns for the waxbill society to see the great strides of improvement over much of the genus.
I have been very encouraged over the past 2-3 years to see so much effort and with very positive results going into one of my all-time favourite species of caged bird. I must say that this is indeed one of those species that does far better when housed in large cages or flights installed inside of filtered, heated and properly illuminated bird rooms.
The species from which we will focus this time is the Violet Eared Waxbill Uraeginthus granatina. One of the largest species in the family of ‘blue’ waxbills. The blue waxbills include the Purple Grenadier Uraeginthus ianthinogaster , Red cheeked cordon bleu Uraeginthus bengalus, Blue capped Cordon Bleu Uraeginthus cyanocephalus and Blue breasted cordon bleu Uraeginthus Angolensis. This is a bird of striking appearance, inquisitive nature and quite mesmerising habits. The Violet eared waxbill has always commanded a higher price alongside the Purple grenadier than most other species, it has always been a little more troublesome to keep and harder to breed.
This species occurs over much of southern Africa including Botswana, Angola, Zimbabwe and parts of south Africa. They are not noted as being rare in the wild and are listed currently as a species of being of ‘least concern’ (IUCN). In the reverse, they have always been fleetingly available in aviculture, most probably because of their fragile nature. They seem to thrive in subtropical scrub, emergent wood and brush savannah. They are noted for travel and will occur in very dry areas away from the emergent forest as they search for food.
The violet eared waxbill is sexually dimorphic which allows us as keepers to quite easily pick good pairings. They do seem pair loyal if not pair bonded, but new mates will be accepted if tragedy strikes. The cock and hen are roughly of the same size at 5-5 ½” beak to tail tip, however there is a marked difference in colouration between the cock and hen. The male of the species in good health is a striking almost imposing bird that has the typical red ‘wax like’ beak from which the family derives the common name. The chin is steel black to brown which leads up to an electric blue cere over the nose. The flesh around the eye is brilliant scarlet.
The cheeks are the star of the show in brilliant violet as discs and are manipulated in display. Again, the importance of full-spectrum+UV lighting is noted here as this is usually indicative of UV fluorescing markers (brightly coloured feathers) that are visible to tetrachromats with activated vision in a different way to humans not being able to see into the UV wavelengths. Ensuring that the birds can see as natural intended will aid with good mate selection, display and eventual copulation. The body is chestnut brown in full colour and the wing covers green/grey. The rump is once again the brilliant electric blue that is found over the cere.
This blue leads into a long tail which is steel. The legs are grey to steel. The hen has a slightly muted form of the red beak, smaller scarlet eye circles, a very muted form of the violet ear discs and a quite tawny body. The blue cere is present but muted. However, many do seem to still sport the dazzling blue rump. Quite often the hen will be a little more sedate than the cock in activity but what she lacks in effort during the day she can easily make up for with her demands of the cock.
They do not have a prime out of colour phaze in the way of many weavers and whydahs but they do have seasonal variations of colour. Young birds also have marked plumage differences when young. In terms of song, the cock bird does have a very pleasing high pitched warbling trill when in display. This is coupled with the very usual ‘beep’ of the waxbills by both cock and hen. It is also not unheard of for hens of the blue waxbills to ‘sing’.
As a scrubland bird that consumes seeds, plants and plenty of live insects they also have a high mineral requirement. Yes, grit provision is important as this aids with the digestive processes, but we should also be providing the full-spectrum of earth minerals to our birds. Birds obtain minerals from the foods that they eat, also with them being suspended in all forms of water from standing to rain and mist and from incidental and purposeful geophagy. Geophagy is the term used to describe the consumption of earth. Soil and mineral particulates enter the mouth as birds collect foods from the floor but are also commonly carried by the wind. These particulates adhere to seeds and plants and indeed the bodies of insects. This is long term, low and slow provision.
The Violet eared waxbill however really does require a range of safe to feed commercial insects in the diet. These should be fed in moderation alongside the seed and plant diet all year. The quantity of livefoods provided should be increased by at least double over the month prior to the breeding season and be maintained for at least a month or two after the last chick has become independent. This will help further increase mineral deposits, adding essential proteins and useful fats. All of these are required in order to support both the parents and developing young long term. Indeed, it is the increase in insect matter in the diet that seems to inspire breeding.
The season of plenty if you will. There are now very good livefoods produced for birds and we no longer have to be mealworm dependent. We can now easily include mini mealworms (less chitin), flightless fruit flies, Calciworms, waxworms and indeed the younger instars of crickets if you have escape proof feeders quite safely. Indeed, the hatched out adult black soldier flies which emerge from Calciworms are an almost perfect food source and will allow the birds to hawk these slow-moving flies naturally. Try to balance your live food provision over the species, not favouring one over the other. This increases dietary variety. Live feeders can be easily treated with natural base mineral powders.
Fresh water should be provided and remain plentiful at multiple locations. This is a species that will also bathe given a chance and benefits greatly from fresh mist sprays. We must however ensure that the bird room is maintained at a stable temperature and that cold draughts do not impact the birds. Cold air over a wet bird of this species can prove fatal quickly. Yes, good filtered and stable air will serve the keepers of this species well.
Cage choice is important. This is a fairly big and quite active bird that needs room to move and access to seclusion. They can be cage bred in the usual box cage design. Cage sizes of 4 or even 5’ long by 3’ high and 2’ deep per pair is ideal, bigger cages are a boon if you have space. They can also be kept in banks of indoor flights and even be mixed with other non-related and non-threatening species. Diamond doves as an example should pose no issue.
In terms of usual health checks, this is a species that should sit tightly on the perch and remain visibly sleek at all times. Be aware of continued fluffing and laboured floor bouncing especially in the hen, act quickly to remove cold air and stressors. The vent should be clean and the eyes bright with the red ring clear and dry. This is an active proud bird and should appear as such.
This is a species that is now listed as one of the top 20 breeders by the UK waxbill society.
As you can see, they are being worked with well and are producing viable young. Subsequently, young are now starting to become available. They still hold a well-deserved higher price tag but I feel a retail price for UK Captive bred birds of £180-250pr is achievable and relatable to the species.
The violet eared waxbill is a species suited to the more experienced keeper who has time, funds, space and the dedication needed to see them do well. I strongly suggest that breeders do indeed join the waxbill society and the dedicated social media groups for the species in order to learn, deliver accurate breeding results and to aid in locating fresh bloodlines.
By John Courteney-Smith, bird and reptile manager at Arcadia Products