Photo: © Shutterstock.com/aaltai. An exotic-looking specimen: the European bee-eater. There are 27 species of bee-eater listed in the family Meropidae, which are found in Europe, Africa, Asia and Australia. Other species include the northern carmine (Merops nubicus), purple-bearded (Meropogon forsteni) and the red-bearded (Nyctyornis amictus)
Following his popular article on breeding hoopoes last November, top German softbill keeper THOMAS WENDT goes (arguably) one better with an account of breeding the fabulous European bee-eater in an aviary environment. See future issues for Parts Two and Three
LIKE any birdkeeper, I have my favourite birds that I have been keeping and breeding for years. In addition, however, there are always new species that you aspire to keep and possibly breed from as well. With some species, there is no need to worry about housing and feeding because suitable aviaries and diet already exist. But with many others, you do need to think extensively about this, because they need different food or another kind of enclosure, or have completely different nesting requirements.
I used to wonder from time to time whether one day I would be able to keep the European bee-eater (Merops apiaster) – one of the most colourful birds of our continent. Reading through various literature, it quickly became clear that this species has many special requirements. I did a lot of reading and talked plenty of “shop” with my softbill keeper friends. Finally, the time came and in autumn 2010 the first bee-eaters moved into our aviaries.
I will omit a detailed plumage description and refer to the pictures. A few distinctive features should be pointed out. All in all, bee-eaters look rather exotic because of their colourful plumage. In adults, the central tail feathers are elongated. The long, slightly curved beak and pointed wings are characteristic hallmarks. Young birds are less intensely coloured and do not yet show the extended central tail feathers. Males and females are similar in colour and difficult to distinguish. I myself play it safe and rely on DNA analysis to determine the sex of my birds.
Bee-eaters’ feet are dark-coloured and very small, hence perfectly adapted for running inside narrow nest tunnels. The toes are fused at the base, with the middle and outer toes more conjoined than the middle and inner ones.
These are highly vociferous birds, though I don’t find it easy to transcribe their calls. When they are excited, vocalisations are emitted rapidly and strung together. You will usually hear a bee-eater before you see it! Even from a distance they usually draw attention to themselves through their characteristic calls.
Bee-eaters are warm-climate birds and are found across an immense range. They breed in southern and eastern Europe, eastwards into Central Asia, as well as in North Africa; there is also a disjunct breeding population in southern Africa. Increasingly, they are expanding their breeding areas, so that there are now breeding colonies being established in Central Europe.
In Germany, the best-known area for them is in our warmest region, at the Kaiserstuhl near Freiburg in Baden-Württemberg, though colonies are also known in other states, including Saxony and the Rhineland. Bee-eaters can be found in their breeding areas from May to September, before migrating long distances out of the season to spend the winter in southern Africa.
Bee-eaters tend to favour open, dry and sunny landscapes with scattered trees, copses and bushes. For their breeding tunnels, they require earth slopes, sandpits and other sheer surfaces. At the Kaiserstuhl they excavate tunnels in the cliffs formed of loess – sedimentary rock, originally silt.
Food in nature
In the wild, bee-eaters prey on honey bees, wasps, bumblebees, dragonflies, beetles and hoverflies. They target invertebrates, which are caught in flight. Insects with venom glands or stings (such as bees) are taken to a “waiting area”, then rubbed back and forth until the venom gland has emptied. Only then is the insect eaten or taken to the young. Non-venomous insects are often eaten directly in flight. On the perch, captured prey is regularly thrown into the air several times and then caught again, before being eaten.
Bee-eaters seldom drink, since they absorb the liquid they require from their prey. Nevertheless, they like to stay close to water, because insects usually occur in greater densities there.
Nests and young
Bee-eaters pair up in their winter quarters and while en route to their breeding areas. Upon arrival at the colony they are already mated. Earlier-returning pairs tend not to start excavating at once, whereas the latecomers get to work very promptly.
Breeding grounds are reoccupied from the beginning or the middle of May. Courtship behaviour includes vigorous wing beating when perched and food passing from the male to the female, as well as “song contests” between members of the pair and also between different pairs. Colonies are noisy places at this time, with lots of activity.
When the excavation of the nest cavities begins, pairs frequently bring in food. At peak times, more than 30 courtship feedings per hour have been observed. Then, a few days into digging, the first matings can be heard taking place inside the burrow. Mating continues regularly until the last egg has been laid. At this time, members of the pair will not tolerate any other cock bird on their favourite perch right in front of the burrow. Intruding females, on the other hand, are seldom chased away.
Breeding is usually in colonies. When single breeding pairs are observed, then they are resettling from an existing colony. In the steep or vertical nesting surfaces, bee-eaters dig tunnels about 1-1.5m long (3ft 3in to 5ft), though more than 2m (6ft 6in) has been recorded. The breeding chamber is located at the far end. The tunnel is round, with a diameter of 5cm (2in) or so, but with a “landing pad” at the entrance some 8-10cm (3-4in) broader. Burrows are often very close to one other.
Depending on what the soil is like, to dig the tunnel, plus the breeding chamber, may take as little as a week or as long as three. A new tunnel is usually excavated every year, though previous nests may be reused in some circumstances. In such cases, last year’s burrow will be made deeper or widened.
If you can see a bee-eater coming backwards out of the tunnel hole, the nesting chamber hasn’t been finished. As soon as it has, the birds have room to turn round and will come out head first. To excavate, members of the pair loosen the ground with their beaks and dig out the tunnel with their delicate-looking feet.
Five to seven eggs per clutch are the norm, with four or eight being more unusual. The eggs are shiny, pure white and quite rounded. A hen will lay every 24-48 hours, although you cannot assume that one will be added strictly every two days, since sometimes the next egg is already in the nest only a day later. Parents begin to incubate from the second or third egg. During the incubation period, waste matter consisting of indigestible food leftovers (e.g. chitin), faeces and other material will accumulate inside the chamber. Both partners incubate but the female has the larger share. Frequently, both partners will be in the chamber together.
Incubation lasts 20-22 days and the young hatch gradually, depending on when the clutch was laid. Nestlings have bare pink skin. They are now supplied with food by the parents for about 30 days. When they fledge, juveniles are immediately able to catch prey, but the parents will continue to feed them for another two or three weeks. Bee-eaters are single-brooded.
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