Common Waxbill

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Is the Common Waxbill right for you?

Species group:

Other common names: St. Helena Waxbill

Scientific name: Estrilda astrild

The basics:
The Common Waxbill, very frequently referred to by aviculturists as the St. Helena Waxbill, is one of two popular, striking, and widespread finches that are frequently confused by pet owners. Unfortunately, another species, the Black-rumped Waxbill, has often been sold, described, and photographed under the name of Common Waxbill. There are a truly impressive number of wrongly labeled images published on the internet. Check the rump, check the scientific name, and check a good African birding book if you are in doubt about which species you're looking at. Don't give up and hybridize whatever birds you happen to have on hand. They are actually not that difficult to tell apart, once you're aware that two different species exist.

The 17 or so subspecies of this hugely successful waxbill can be found in a range of habitats throughout Africa south of the Sahara Desert – pretty much anywhere you have a lot of seeding grasses, be it somebody's backyard, reedy marsh, or open savannah. Escapees will also successfully colonize any reasonably warm area with suitable habitat and, in fact, despite the older name of St. Helena's Waxbill, they are not native to St. Helena, but were introduced to that island sometime in the 1800s.

In the wild, they host the Pintailed Whydah, a beautiful parasitic bird that cannot raise its own young, but instead lays its eggs in the nest of the Common Waxbill. The hatchlings of both species look much alike, and the Common Waxbill will cheerfully raise the young Pintails, never guessing that there's anything amiss. Therefore, if you ultimately wish to breed Pintailed Whydahs, you must first learn how to successfully breed its host, the Common Waxbill, in a mixed-species aviary – truly a rewarding and enduring challenge for any breeder.

The lookalike Common Waxbill and Black-rumped Waxbill species are both tiny, active, charming little finches with a brilliant red eye-line and beak. The Common Waxbill, E. astrild, has a brown rump and noticeable stippling on its flanks and wings. The Black-rumped Waxbill, E. troglodytes, has a black rump and black tail with white edging.

7 - 10 grams (0.25 - 0;35 oz.)

Average size:
11 - 13 centimeters (4.3 - 5.1 in.)

5 - 7 years

Behavior / temperament:
Common Waxbills are charming, easy-going birds with an adorable habit of twitching their tails. They do tend to desert or toss their youngsters if they feel that they are being bothered by curious or bullying birds or human visitors, so monitor what is happening in your aviary.

Common 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.

Note that Common Waxbills tend to nest near the ground, so you should provide supportive material like nest baskets in the appropriate locations. 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. Provide lots of nesting material and be prepared for an entertaining effort from the male, who may build an intricate structure with a so-called “cock nest” on top, where the eggs are never laid, but where the male may hang out and indulge his decorating skills. The purpose of the “cock nest” is to cause predators to go in the wrong direction first, giving the sitting female a chance to escape from the real nest when she's in danger.

While they are considered a grass and grain eating bird in the wild, the Common 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. 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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