Photo: © Male (left) rufous-bellied niltava. Note that the cock’s underparts are variably coloured between individuals, ranging from rich yellow to orange. 

The flycatchers of the Orient comprise some of the planet’s most desirable softbills. Once, the most familiar in aviculture was the rufous-bellied niltava: a species that abundantly deserves a revival among breeders, says BILL NAYLOR.

THE rufous-bellied niltava (Niltava sundara) is one of the most sought-after exotic softbills. The genus Niltava was once very crowded with some authors lumping about 20 species of blue flycatchers, including the avicultural favourite Tickell’s flycatcher (Cyornis tickelliae), also known as Tickell’s niltava, alongside the true niltavas. Sanity seems to have prevailed with agreement that the genus should now only consist of the six species of closely related niltavas.

In three niltava species, the males have rufous fronts, while in the others they are almost entirely blue. The more sombre females are a chestnut brown with a thin white collar and some iridescent blue feathers around the head, which resemble spots. A female’s blue feathers are not always visible unless her crown feathers are raised. As with all richly coloured birds whose colour depends on reflection of light, in their dimly lit haunts the male’s blue plumage is not reflected and, consequently, appears dark to black.

In the early 1900s small numbers of male lesser (or, imaginatively named, small) niltava (N. macgrigoriae) and the thrush-sized large (or greater) niltava (N. grandis), were imported into the UK until the import ban. In both species the males are almost entirely blue.

The lesser is now hard to trace in any collections, while a few specimens of the large niltava, though rare, remain in circulation. According to Dave Coles’s First Breedings in Captivity, the first and so far only UK breeding success of the large niltava occurred in 2005. Martin Vince gives a detailed account of successfully hand-rearing a large niltava nestling at Sedgwick County Zoo, USA, in a 1995 article in The Avicultural Magazine (Vol 101, No. 1).

However, the rufous-bellied is by far the best known of the niltavas, probably because it’s the most widely distributed. It occurs from the western Himalayas through northern India, Burma, Thailand and China. Despite a decrease in population, it is not a species of concern and fortunately inhabits an abundance of inaccessible locations. The first UK breeding of the rufous-bellied was by the well-known aviculturist Ken Norris in 1961.

Niltavas are not pugnacious and have lived in harmony with tanagers, finches, white-eyes, Pekin robins and hanging-parrots. There is no reported female aggression prior to or during the breeding season, which occasionally happens with other species of softbills. However, sometimes pairs can be quarrelsome during the winter months and some birdkeepers routinely separate pairs until spring.

Niltavas will live happily in a sheltered outside aviary which has adjoining indoor quarters and is provided with low heat in winter. A foliaged flight is essential to replicate their natural habitat. As typical flycatchers, they hawk flying insects not far from the ground. Moth traps and climbing plants such as ivy and Russian vine will encourage flying insects. Note that niltavas will also forage on the ground for their favourite foods: spiders and woodlice. In the wild they have been observed taking part in “drives” with other species of insect eaters, flushing out insects that they consume as they go. In captivity they readily eat mealworms, but waxmoths are their favourite.

The variety of insects that tropical softbills eat to acquire their nutrients can never be replicated in captivity and providing insectivorous species exclusively with an abundance of invertebrates, in the hope that this alone supplies sufficient nutrients, is a mistake. Commercially produced insects compared with their wild counterparts contain very little calcium and phosphorus, and dusting them with a good quality vitamin mineral powder is advisable. Berries and fruit form part of the diet in the wild and some captive niltavas will take fruit and berries.

The main diet for insectivorous birds should always be a good quality insectivorous mixture and, if possible, softbill pellets. Boiled egg and grated cheese will supply complete proteins.
A balanced diet is important because a number of captive small softbills, most notably the Pekin robin and also niltavas, can develop eye problems such as conjunctivitis. Despite treatment this can rapidly get worse and eventually cause blindness and death. This type of conjunctivitis is not an infection: it’s a symptom of vitamin deficiency because niltavas and other small insect-eating softbills have a high requirement for Vitamins A and E.

They compulsively bathe and do so several times a day drenching their plumage in the process. Water receptacles should be  shallow ideally with a few spindly twigs, because they have been known to drown in an inch of water, easily becoming water logged as enthusiasm gets the better of them.

Foot problems that niltavas are reputed to suffer from usually only occur in caged birds. Constant bathing means perches often remain damp and soiled, which can cause foot problems. I never had issues with aviary-housed niltavas.

Newly acquired birds can take a couple of years to settle down, during which time there are sometimes aborted attempts at nesting. Courtship commences with the male enthusiastically chasing the hen, who collects nesting material in her beak. When she responds to the male’s warbling song or his calls, mating usually follows.

Niltavas will use open-fronted nest-boxes and baskets. Nest locations can vary. These can be about head height in among foliage, high in the eves of indoor accommodation or as low as a couple of feet from the ground in dense cover. The untidy nest is constructed from grasses, rushes and plant tendrils, parts of which trail down when built in a basket or nest-box. The nest is completed with a neat cup of moss and grass.

Four faded orange eggs, similar in colour to those of the robin, are incubated for 13-14 days by the hen. In the wild it has been regularly reported that both sexes share incubation.

The young are fed on a wide variety of insects. In captivity a good supply must be provided without interruption or the pair will almost certainly desert. Dusted with vitamin and mineral compound, chopped mealworms, white mealworms and waxmoth larvae are ideal rearing food. Young niltavas have been hand-reared successfully on diced pinkies.

Nestlings start to fledge on about the tenth day and the juvenile plumage resembles that of a young robin with larger speckles. Males have more blue in the feathers and more significantly by their bright blue tails. Young birds commence feeding themselves with livefood at approximately three weeks. Later they will eat insectile mixtures and peck at other inanimate foods. They also start to copy adult behaviour, including bathing. Consequently, a criss-crossed mesh of sticks should be placed in water receptacles to prevent drowning.

Adult males don’t usually see young males as competitors until they assume adult plumage at the end of the year. By the following year, young birds should be housed separately from the adults.

Bill Naylor has enjoyed a 40-year career in ornithology and aviculture.

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