In praise of... African silverbills
Created on Tuesday, 14 August 2012 16:46
BILL NAYLOR explains the draw of a pleasant little African finch which was once confused with its Indian counterpart
Just wait till I start singing: African silverbills have a pleasant voice
IT IS no surprise that the African silverbill (Lonchura cantans) is a favourite bird for beginners. What it lacks in vivid coloration, it makes up for with its pleasant song, extrovert personality and a friendly nature. What’s more, it easily adapts to a cage, indoor flight, or outdoor aviary, mixing harmoniously with other birds.
Its popularity is due in part to its readiness to breed, and unlike many Lonchura finches, it is capable of rearing its youngsters without livefood.
The Indian silverbill (L. cantans) looks similar to the African silverbill, but it is darker in colour with a white rump. Nonetheless, they were formerly considered to be one species, the common silverbill (L. malabarica), which was found across the Indian subcontinent, without interruption, into central Africa.
Aviculturists have steadfastly recognised that the Indian and African silverbills are two species, and avicultural publications have reflected this, whereas many field guides and other ornithological literature have listed the birds as just one species.
Birdkeepers have long known that African and Indian silverbills will hybridise readily when a bona fide partner is missing, but their first choice when pairing is with birds from the same country. In the wild where the two species coexist they are not known to hybridise. Yet it was renowned aviculturist Jean Delacour in his capacity as an ornithologist at the American Museum of Natural History in 1943, who lumped the two species together following his revision of the family Estrildidae. Controversy reigned till 1985, when analysis of blood proteins confirmed that the Indian and African populations were distinct and should be regarded as separate species. The songs of the two species are also different.
Male and female African silverbills are virtually identical. The adult male produces a warbling song (warbling silverbill being its alternative name). This appears to be the only reliable sexing guide, although for those who have acute hearing, the male’s contact call is a single note, while the hen’s is a double note.
Normal finch seed and greenfood forms its basic diet. Grit and cuttlefish should always be available. Insects are appreciated, and aphids are taken in the wild, but as with most finch species that come from drier locations, greenfood is a favourite and preferred often to softfood. Although they will exist on a seed diet, this does not provide enough nutrients, and occasionally nutrient-boosters such as boiled egg are welcomed.
Although pairs can take time to bond, they invariably breed. The male courts the female by standing upright and tightening his plumage while holding a blade of grass in his beak and murmuring a warbling song. In the wild they often build in straw roofs of village huts. Away from human habitation, their untidy domed nests are often constructed in thorn bushes. They will also build in the nests of tawny eagles (Aquila rapax), griffon (Gyps fulvus) and Egyptian vultures (Neophron percnopterus). They are known to breed in weavers’ nests in the wild and in captivity. Several females will lay their white eggs in one nest, and in the wild more than 20 eggs have been found at one nesting site.
There is no territorial aggression towards colleagues of the same species when breeding and two pairs of silverbills in an aviary will often interchange nesting duties, rearing each other’s youngsters. After Bengalese, silverbills are the best finch foster parents. In captivity they prefer to build inside a nest-box. Both sexes pack the box with straw, coconut fibre and feathers. In the wild their nests (like those of sparrows) often contain miscellaneous items in the form of paper and plastic.
Incubation is shared by both parents and the three to six eggs are incubated for 11-12 days commencing after the third or fourth egg is laid. Although they traditionally nest in and around human habitation, they won’t hesitate to desert if their nests are inspected in the early stages of incubation. Once the dark-skinned, naked nestlings are hatched, silverbills are dedicated parents. After 20 days the youngsters fledge, leaving the nest shortly afterwards, and are fed by the parents for a further fortnight. The nests are often used after breeding as dormitories for family groups. It is not unusual for a pair to produce up to five broods in a season. There is no aggression by the parents towards juveniles, and they assume adult plumage around three months.
Silverbills have hybridised with the zebra, cherry and spice finches.
Hybrids between African and Indian silverbills have a pinkish rump. Three subspecies are recognised – Lonchura. c. cantans, L. c. inorta and L. c. orientalis. The latter has darker plumage than the other races.
There are fawn varieties of both Indian and African silverbills and chocolate cinnamon and albino mutations have apparently been established, but it is not clear whether these have been produced by outbreeding with Bengalese. Hopefully if mutations do become popular, the subtle plumage of the wild form of this pleasant little finch won’t become a rarity.
Bill Naylor has worked in zoos, bird parks and museums around the world.