(Uraeginthus Ianthinogaster)

By Stash Buckley and Carol Anne Calvin

This is, without doubt, one of the most desirable of all finches, and to my way of thinking, the most beautiful. Everything about this bird is exceptional: the rich chestnut and royal purple markings, the beautiful and variable song, and the strong showing of intelligence in a bird of such small stature. This especially evident in the young, whose strong curiosity and trust in their keeper is quite astonishing. Although burdened with the reputation of being difficult to breed, I have found this far from the truth. These birds are quite willing to go to nest and can even be persuaded to raise their own young. With the recent ban of African exports we are in real danger of losing these birds. It is hoped that this recounting of my experiences will tend to encourage the more timid to attempt to breed these beautiful birds.

First, the basics. I keep my birds in large indoor flights – 4 feet long, 3 feet high and 2 feet wide. These are placed as far apart from each other as possible for they will spend most of their time pasted on the screen, challenging their rivals, instead of managing their households. Into these I put living plants and tall tussocks of grass, preferably from floor to ceiling. Strategically located in these are the nesting sites, of which they seem to prefer the large, closed wicker type. For a bedding, I use the dried lawn clippings in which they seem to take extreme pleasure in looking for seed heads. One must take care to insure that the tussocks and clippings are from a pesticide-free source, as birds are extremely susceptible to these dangers. Perches are natural wood and various circumferences, placed to allow maximum flight space in which to exercise their graceful, undulating flight. in effect, you are trying to create a savannah in the suburbs.

I use Vita-Lites exclusively, lighting each flight with two 4-foot tubes placed directly over the cage in shop fixtures. I keep the temperature of the birdroom at 78 degrees and the humidity quite high. This seems to encourage breeding in all the species, not just the Grenadiers. Into this environment I introduce a sexed pair of Grenadiers, who generally do not get along at first, but after a few days begin to settle down and tolerate each other.

Then I begin the program. In the wild, these birds are termite-eaters, relying upon these foods to feed their young, which are quite abundant when the rains occur. This, in effect, is what you are trying to reproduce. Since live termites in a private home are an unacceptable risk, I substitute them with live, baby mealworms, newly molted, which all my birds seem to relish. These I begin to offer every four hours or so, plus misting the birds and the plants twice a day. This, I believe, is the magical trigger which fires the natural breeding instinct. One must take extreme care in misting, as not to soak the grass, as this will cause mold and fungus and more problems than you would care to deal with. You are simulating showers, not monsoons.

Relatively soon the hen’s beak begins to turn a leaden gray. This indicates that she is in prime breeding condition, which is quite apparent for, by this time, the pair will be sitting together and preening each other in a most amorous way. This could take from a few weeks to a few months. Patience is a virtue.

Although not great lettuce-eaters, I offer these birds Romaine as I do my other birds. This provides a great deal of calcium for the making of the eggs and also keeps them off your plants.

When the birds begin to bond, this is when I introduce the small strands of burlap which seems to be their preferred nest-building material. My cocks seem to do all the work, with the hen sitting on a nearby perch with restrained interest. With only one exception, all my clutches consisted of three eggs. They are quite surprisingly, very steady brooders, tolerating stereo and TV and other such annoyances from our apartment days.

In a birdroom you can expect your birds to sit quite faithfully until you decide what to do with the eggs. Your choices are obviously to foster them or to allow them to raise their own young. I have found Societies quite willing to foster, providing they have been properly conditioned. I have also found, contrary to popular opinion, that these birds will raise their own young; but this is a task one must not set out to accomplish if there is not someone there to monitor these birds at all times.

The key here, once again, is the constant supply of small, molted mealworms. By molted mealworms, I mean the white ones, not the ones with the yellowish hue or “kind of” turning hard, but the white ones. For you must always bear in mind that these are wild-caught birds and you are trying to simulate their natural food – termites.

Unlike most finch chicks, I have found that these birds do not call from the nest, but are rather quiet and restrained – perhaps a natural adaptive behavior to help conceal them from their enemies. When you do finally hear the chicks calling, you can be assured that they are quite developed.

Along with the eggfood that should be offered at all times, I begin to increase the dosage of mealworms. 1 have read where 7 to 10 mealworms a day are sufficient for most breeding birds. I have found this to be far from sufficient. I offer my birds up to the hundreds per day. As long as they eat them I offer them. These are birds feeding young, and I sincerely believe there will he no health problems to the birds since they are offered only for 3 few weeks while they are raising their young. These must, and I emphasize must, be made constantly available. I check on my birds at least every 2 hours, and if the dish is empty, I plop in 10 or 20. They are quite ravenous feeders and make many trips to the nest, both cock and hen feeding the young. I have never had young thrown out and I believe this is due to the constant food supply, since the bird mind does not interpret a drought or a famine.

Grenadier chicks leave the nest at about 26 days of age, being a uniform dirty chestnut wash in color, save for a small purplish splash at the rump. Once they leave, they never return. These birds seem to take an extremely long time in which to be weaned – up to 3 weeks or so. You must be very diligent in watching for signs of recycling, for if they choose to go to nest again, they will certainly kill their young. When the chicks begin to eat on their own, remove them at once. By placing the cages so they adjoin one another, one can encourage the parents to keep feeding, since family ties are still quite strong.

Soon the tails begin to lengthen and, after a few more weeks, the eye patches become apparent – purplish for the cocks and light whitish blue for the hens. However, the breast molt does not occur for at least another month after this.

These birds are high-protein eaters and the juveniles must be supplied with a constant supply of egg food. Although in a stable environment the adults are quite hardy, I have found the juveniles to be very delicate. One should observe them on a day-to-day basis, watching for signs of drowsiness and fluffiness and other obvious signs of distress. Also, when sexing becomes apparent from the eye markings, one must be very careful to watch for signs of aggression, for as the name Grenadier dictates, these birds are quite combative. One must separate the cocks to separate cages, and even the hens will become quite belligerent to their sisters, if they are so inclined.

As you are probably aware of by now, these are not birds for beginners, but if you systematically follow these guidelines, and match it with good practical bird-keeping “know how”, you will no doubt be surprised when you find yourself accomplishing what most people say can’t be done – wild Purple Grenadiers raising their own young.

At the risk of becoming redundant, to me these are the most beautiful of all finches and, with the hopes of perhaps soon working on my third generation birds, I have found them to be extremely rewarding. I wish you the best of success.

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