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Differentiating the Red Eye-striped Waxbills

Many keepers often get confused and wrongly identify the three red eye-striped species belonging to the genus Estrilda, i.e. the black-rumped waxbill, common waxbill and rosy-rumped waxbill. In this article I would like to provide the reader with some sound background information on these species and, at the same time, help make future identification quick and simple.

I have called many times for the ornithological names of birds to be used in preference to the avicultural ones, as the latter can cause a great deal of misunderstanding. It would be of immense help, for beginners especially, if bird dealers put this into practice! For example, the black-rumped waxbill, in aviculture, is known as the red-eared waxbill, the common waxbill is termed the St. Helena waxbill and the rosy-rumped waxbill is called the Sundevall’s waxbill (frequently misspelled Sundervall’s).

All three species are indigenous to Africa, which means they occur there naturally. The black-rumped (Estrilda troglodytes) is found in an almost straight line, just above the middle of the country, from Senegal and the Gambia on the west coast to falling just short of the east coast, reaching as far as western Ethiopia and western Kenya. Where the range of its territory ends, it could be said that the range of the rosy-rumped waxbill (E. rhodopyga) begins.

The rosy-rumped, which is also found in parts of Kenya, Ethiopia and southern Sudan, is a thoroughly tropical East African species but is found only as far north as northern Sudan and as far south as northern Malawi. It is absent from southern Somalia but may be found in a few northern parts.

The common waxbill (E. astrild) really does live up to its name and is found virtually all over tropical and southern Africa, south of the range of the black-rumped waxbill, although, in some far northern and eastern parts of its range, it may overlap both the black-rumped and rosy-rumped. It was only introduced to the tiny island of St. Helena, off the south-west coast of Africa. The exact date of the introduction is unknown, but it has been common on the island from at least 1870.

Of the three species under review, the rosy-rumped is the easiest to identify because it is the only one with a black beak. The others have bright, waxy red ones! The plumage is also a lot less bright, it has dull crimson on the wings and rump and its eye-stripe is also dull crimson, not red! If in doubt, just remember the beak color.

The avicultural name ‘Sundevall’ is derived from the surname of the person who is reported as being the first to describe it, Swedish ornithologist Carl Sundevall, in 1850.

The black-rumped and common waxbills are more difficult to distinguish for beginners because they both have red beaks and red eye-stripes – and it doesn’t help when, as often happens, articles published in bird journals that pertain to either of these species are accompanied with photographs of the wrong bird.

Side by side the two species show striking plumage differences, but it isn’t always possible to be able to view both at the same time. The common waxbill has very pronounced dark, wavy lines or cross-barring on its dark brown upperparts and flanks, a brown rump and no white edges to its dark brown tail. Some races are also noticeably larger than black-rumps, others are not. Seen from the front, the common waxbill also possesses a beautiful scarlet or rose red color down the center of its belly.

The black-rumped waxbill has a generally grayish or pinkish plumage and a rosy red patch in front of the vent which, in some individuals, may spread up from the lower belly to the lower breast and may even, occasionally, reach up as far as the upper breast, flanks and sides of the breast. The best guide for beginners that still aren’t sure, however, is to remember the black rump and black, white-edged tail (the white isn’t always noticeable if the tail is folded tightly).

In the wild the rosy-rumped inhabits dry grassland with clumps of bushes, acacia savanna, riparian scrub and cultivated areas, and is never far from surface water. The black-rumped is found in grassy savannas, scrub and grassy areas near water, open country with thorn scrub, marshes and, less frequently, cultivated areas.

Common waxbills prefer open country with long grass, marshes, reeds near water, cultivated areas, grassy clearings and paths in forest or woodland, gardens and, as long as there are seeding grasses and plenty of cover to retreat into, the vicinity of human dwellings and farms.

In captivity the species’ can be housed identically and I have found it wise never to let the birdroom temperature fall below 60 deg F. When temperatures reach 70-80 deg F., as one would expect from tropical birds, they become wonderfully active. I don’t like temperatures going much above this, however, and advise the installation of a thermostatically controlled extractor fan at one end of the room and air vents at the other. This allows fresh, outside air to be brought in, while the hot, stale air is taken out. A hot, stuffy atmosphere is a health hazard for one’s birds and encourages mites.

The claws of common waxbills, especially, grow quickly and it is imperative to be alert to this and to trim them down to no less than a sixteenth of an inch above the vein or ‘quick’. The best way to do this is to hold the bird’s foot up to the light or in front of a glowing light bulb, whereupon the vein can be clearly seen. It will appear as a dark line. This is where the blood stream finishes. Always use a sharp pair of scissors or nail clippers to perform the task.

It is always of special importance to trim claws prior to the breeding season. Claws that are left to grow long can result in their being caught in the cage wire. An unclipped claw can also become entangled in nesting material, with dire consequences for the bird or any eggs/chicks that are dragged out from the nest.

Feeding, like housing, is also identical. My own birds are provided with a mixture of yellow and white millets, panicum, Japanese millet and canary seed. British finch tonic mix is also supplied for variety, as is lettuce seed. Crushed cuttlefish bone, limestone and oystershell are given to assist in digestion and to provide calcium and minerals. I mix these together into a dog-type bowl containing crushed, baked eggshells and sterile compost. The birds love to rummage through it. Prior to and throughout the breeding season Cé-Dé eggfood and wild, native grass seeds, particularly meadow-grasses, are given in abundance and are considered as essential as any livefood.

I never offer my birds hard, mineralised grit which so many other bird keepers are quick to recommend. Such grit can get compacted in a bird’s crop and, though the bird may strive as hard as it can to swallow food, it starves to death. Unless the bird is a Galliforme (gamebird) or some other species which swallows its seed whole, i.e. without dehusking it, such grit is completely unnecessary. Waxbills, and a plethora of other seed-eaters, do dehusk their seed and so there is no need for them to have to grind it down.

Of the three species under discussion, I have found the common waxbill to be the least hardy and the black-rumped the easiest to breed. However, these findings include figures for the mortality rates undertaken from the first year of my research (1991), during which the birds had access to an outside flight when some summer days were as cold and damp as those one would normally associate with winter. Taking the mortality figures from year two, however, when the birds were housed indoors all year round and the temperature kept at a minimum of 60 deg F., there was very little difference between the species. Indeed, longevity increased considerably. Only the breeding results remained the same, whereupon the black-rumped still came out on top.

A major problem for beginners is trying to sex a true pair, as all Estrilda species are sexually indistinguishable if one relies solely on plumage coloration. Only song and display guarantee gender and to give an indication as to how large the disparity of the sexes can be, when I used to ring my birds out of 15 black-rumps I rung with plastic colored split-rings, 12 turned out to be cocks!

The entire genus contains species that are a delight to keep and their tit-like maneuverability will captivate one for hours at a time. Nevertheless, I strongly advise beginners to practice caution before making a purchase as none can be considered easy breeders.

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