Yellow-bellied Waxbill

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Francesco Veronesi

Is the Yellow-bellied Waxbill right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: Swee Waxbill (E. m. melanotis); Dufresne's Waxbill (E. m. melanotis); East African Swee Waxbill (E. m. quartinia); Abyssinian Yellow-bellied Waxbill (E. m. quartinia)

Scientific name: Estrilda melanotis

The basics:
The East African Swee Waxbill, also known as the Yellow-bellied Waxbill, has been lumped into a single species with the Swee Waxbill, also known as the Dufresne's Waxbill. No doubt this lump was made for sound scientific reasons, and the females really can't be told apart by most people, but the adult males of these two subspecies look very different. As it is currently categorized, the Yellow-bellied Waxbill is a large, diverse, and complex species indeed, since it represents a lumping together of three previous species. In addition to the Swee Waxbill and the three subspecies of the former Yellow-bellied Waxbill, the former Angolan Swee Waxbill (E. m. bocagei) has also been lumped into this group. That adds up to five subspecies. It may be that the species will eventually be split again. In an added twist, the species was formerly placed in the genus Coccopygia so you could also search that name when seeking information.

By any name or category, the wild Yellow-bellied Waxbill is a successful and diverse upland species (or group of species) that may be encountered in southeast and southern Africa without much searching. They are bold birds when feeding on seeding grasses or wild berries, and they sometimes will allow observers to get quite close.

Although correct identification of the females will be a challenge, you should be able to properly identify your males down to the subspecies level. The nominate adult male Swee Waxbill, E m. melanotis, is a truly eye-catching bird with a black face and throat, but he could not really be considered a “yellow-bellied” bird like his rival. And, while the East African Swee Waxbill, E. m. quartinia, proudly displays his vivid yellow belly, he completely lacks the black mask. The females of both species lack mask and vivid yellow belly.

All four versions of the adults have blazing red-orange rumps paired with black tails. The beaks also follow the red and black theme, with the upper mandible being black and the lower mandible being red. The Yellow-bellied Waxbill is truly a fine specimen in good light.

8 grams (0.3 oz.)

Average size:
10 centimeters (4 in.)

5 - 7 years

Behavior / temperament:
Like many other waxbills, the Yellow-bellied Waxbill is a pleasant, agreeable finch that gets along well with others. They are also lively and active, with a perky way of switching their tail, which draws the eye to their colorful red rump. However, this species hates to be pestered even by curious, harmless little birds like Society Finches, and it will give up on a nesting attempt very easily if you do not provide enough privacy, nesting material, and a variety of live insects. The name Swee Waxbill comes from the pleasant “swee swee” contact call.

Yellow-bellied Waxbills are active and fast-flying finches, so they need more room than might seem reasonable at first. They also require lots of planted greenery in the cage or flight to give them a feeling of security. One breeder suggests a minimum size of 4' long by 2' feet wide and 2' tall, with a minimum bar spacing of ½” wide. Make sure that you have a nice bushy bird-safe plant in front of the nest basket. They really like warmth, and if you have them in outdoor breedings quarters, you may need to arrange for a place to bring them indoors for the winter.

Yellow-bellied Waxbills do seem to enjoy nesting quite a bit higher than some other Estrilda species, so try supplying nestboxes and supportive materials at heights of six feet or more, instead of on or near the ground. They get along well with other birds and can thrive in a mixed species aviary, but they will be quick to abandon their nesting efforts if you allow busybody species like Zebra or Society Finches to interfere with them.

While they are considered a grass and grain eating bird in the wild, the Yellow-bellied Waxbill would naturally pick up some insect matter along the way, and they cannot be kept successfully for long if you are unwilling to supply live food. The backbone of the diet is a high quality small seed mix, fresh enough to sprout – and you should test it by sprouting regularly. These finches love the milky seeding heads of grasses, in addition to the sprouts, and they have also been seen picking at small berries. You should also supply a finely chopped salad that includes greens, apple, carrot, and broccoli, as well as eggfood and/or a high quality finch pellet that the birds will eat. As you approach the breeding season, offer plenty of tiny white-skinned mealworms, waxworms, and perhaps ant pupae or fly larvae to bring them into season. Don't run short on the live food, or the pair may stop feeding their youngsters. All finches should have access to a small amount of clean grit, as well as a clean cuttlebone.

Written by Elaine Radford

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