Photo: Terry Gonsolvis. Terry keeps 13 different species of foreign softbill, including rufous-bellied niltava (Niltava sundara). This flycatcher shows marked sexual dimorphism


There’s nothing better than seeing that long-awaited pairing up or chicks being reared and leaving the nest-box, says Terry Gonsolvis. He discusses his extensive set-up and how he manages 13 different species of foreign softbill


DOCUMENTING the birds you keep is a way to record your personal experiences with them. Seeing a chick born is more than a tick on your checklist, even if it is a first breeding. It is an opportunity to enjoy your hobby to its fullest and to fulfil your ambition of breeding a certain species, acknowledging its growth, plumage, behaviour and then adulthood. Savour the moments, because it could happen to you only once in a lifetime.

We have read so many confiding articles in various bird magazines where someone has kept a particular, or rare, species and been successful breeding them, only to wake up one morning to find one of the parent birds dead and sometimes the young, as well. The consequences can be devastating. But let’s look on the bright side and get together to share our experiences with fellow breeders and readers.

I have been keeping and breeding various foreign seedeaters and softbills for more than 40 years, but now specialise mainly in foreign softbills. I have no fewer than 13 species, which include shamas, snowy-crowned robin-chats (Cossypha niveicapilla), red-whiskered bulbuls (Pycnonotus jocosus), ruby-throated bulbuls (P. disbar), black-headed bulbuls (P. atriceps), orange-bellied leafbird (Chloropsis hardwickii), Japanese robins (Larvivora akahige), rufous-bellied niltavas (Niltava sundara), streak-breasted scimitar babblers (Pomatorhinus ruficollis), whiskered yuhinas (Yuhina flavicollis), orange-headed thrushes (Geokichla citrina), red-winged laughingthrushes (Trochalopteron formosum), red-faced liocichlas (Liocichla phoenicea) and three species of zosterops (or white-eyes).

I have successfully bred shamas, red-winged laughingthrushes, whiskered yuhinas, five species of bulbuls, orange-headed thrushes, Japanese robins and zosterops.

My aviary is approximately 12m x 2.4m x 2.4m (40ft x 8ft x 8ft) divided into sections. All lead to or are attached to a converted garage, which is the tropical house measuring 3.6m x 3m x 2.7m (12ft x 10ft x 9ft). Internal flights measure 90cm (3ft) square. The birdroom is heated in the winter months and fluorescent lighting is an added commodity. Dimmers also play an important factor. There are a few species of plants that grow well in the tropical house. These include geraniums, lantana, passion flowers, oleanders and ornamental Christmas trees, which make great nesting sites.

Certain species of softbill need to be separated during the winter months, because they can become very aggressive to their own kind, often with drastic results. Niltavas, Japanese robins and certain species of thrushes fit into this category, but could differ in aviary size and environment. I start to convene the pairs in the first week of April (weather permitting) and a constant vigil should be kept in case conflict arises.

Nesting material consists of coconut husks, moss, dried grass and leaves. The diet, without exception, is a good-quality insectivorous mixture, grated carrot, minced morsels and soaked dog food. Mini and regular mealworms are offered, including extensive quantities of crickets and waxworms only in the breeding season. Fruit in the form of grapes, pears and bananas are also included, as is honey with added supplements for the zosterops.

I would like to mention, and I’m sure other birdkeepers would agree with me, that most keepers have a special species of bird in their aviaries. Well, I have one and that is the zosterops.

I have bred three different types of zosterops in the past few years, such as the African yellow white-eye (Zosterops senegalensis), Indian white-eye (Z. palpebrosus) and the kikuyu (Z. kikuyuensis).Given the right conditions and a well-planted aviary, they will readily nest. Both sexes take part constructing the nest using coconut fibres, dried grass and wool. Two to four pale blue eggs are laid and both sexes take turns to incubate, which lasts for about 12 days.

Chicks in my set-up were fed on tiny crickets, mini mealworms and insects caught in the aviary. Youngsters leave the nest between 12-14 days and are fed by the parents for another 10-12 days.
I have never had more than two clutches in a season from any given pair and I do not know why.

There are 85 known species belonging to the genus Zosterops and there is little variation across the whole family, except for the tiny white feathers around the eye. These birds pair for life, but sexing can have its problems. Try and keep several birds in an aviary with individual birds ringed with split rings. When a pair becomes evident, both birds should be removed and placed in a separate aviary. Follow this procedure with the other odd birds.

Zosterops become quite tame and approachable in the wild and that’s why they breed so successfully in towns and suburbs and local gardens.

  • Terry continues discussing his foreign softbill collection next week.


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