Pair of African Silverbills (Lonchura cantons). Photo: Thom Haslam

Article kindly provided by Glenn Johnson

My introduction to “Silverbills”

Back in the mid 1970’s, when I was about sixteen, I had a great uncle who kept a mixture of finches in four large box style aviaries. To my inexperienced eyes, he must have had the largest collection of birds outside a zoo. I had spent many hours glued to the front of these aviaries watching the kaleidoscope of colour buzzing around.

One of the aviaries contained possibly 30 to 50 pale fawn coloured small finches, which he informed me were African Silverbills (Lonchura cantons). His words to me were, “good little buggers them, mice with wings breed great”. So home I go, build an aviary and a couple weekends later I’m the proud owner of two pairs of Silverbills.

They did well and a few months later my aviary was rather full of Silverbills. The decision was made to thin them out. A quick trip to the Great Western Highway to Ace Colony’s bird shop, the closest and one of the few shops around Western Sydney back in them days. Went into the shop quiet proud of all these birds I had breed, however, came out rather disappointed. “Sorry son, too many Silverbills around and no one likes them, not colourful enough.”

I eventually did get rid of them and also, like many others of the time, got out of Silverbills. This experience was not only limited to Silverbills, many species that were considered dull in colourful suffered. I had the same problem with, believe it or not, Yellow Rumps. I had about three exceptional seasons with the Yellow Rumps back in the late seventies and was told, by many dealers, get rid of them and breed Chestnuts, they’re more colourful and easier to sell (wish I had them breeding like that now).

There are two species of Silverbills, the African and the Indian. The African species is considered the most common and is believed to be the only species still in Australian aviaries.

Silverbills are around 115mm in length and weigh 14 grams, as a comparison a Bengalese finch is 120mm and weigh 15 grams, the overall colouration of the male and female are identical, making sexing a little bit more difficult. A description of the colouring is difficult and can be best seen in pictures or descriptions given in more comprehensive books like Russel Kingston’s “Finches and Seed Eaters”.

Sexing can be a little difficult to determine and you need to check out a few points to make your decision. Cock’s have large bolder heads, and when holding two birds look down onto the top of the bird’s head and you can see the difference, the female’s are definitely smaller heads. Cocks have larger thicker beaks; females are smaller and more pointed. As with similar species check the underside of the mandible, males are wider with the females being more arrow like or pointed. Another successful method used, which I find particularly successful with Parrot Finches, is to separate them into show boxes or cabinets and the cock birds will begin to sing. If you put what you suspect to be a hen to these singing birds, they will nearly always begin to sit erect up on the perch and start to crow.

 African Silverbill ( Lonchura cantons  ) . Photo: Thom Haslam

African Silverbill (Lonchura cantons). Photo: Thom Haslam

Housing and Breeding

Silverbills are not fussy to house, they will adapt to all situations, aviaries and sizes. I know of many breeders who have very successfully bred them in cabinets.

I personally keep them in flight aviaries that are planted with various shrubs and grasses. I have two pairs housed as single pairs with other species. I also have a colony of four pairs, and in both arrangements they have breed successfully. They will readily except nesting boxes, cane baskets, wire nests, gourds as well as constructing their own nests either in tea-tree branches lining the shelter wall or in shrubs growing in the flights.

I have found my birds show a preference for nesting at mid height in the aviary as well as building towards the lower part of shrubs in the flight. They will use any type of grass for nesting; however, show a distinct liking for November grass. Coconut fibre and white feathers are provided, however some pairs do not line their nests and this is nothing to worry about. My birds nest basically all year round, however during excessive cold weather they will slow down.

Some form of identification is needed to pick young from adults, as they can be bred fast and colour quickly. A holding aviary is a must; otherwise nest interference from previous young can be a problem. Different coloured leg rings so as to identify which parent young are from is a good idea, this will help in future pairings as well as being able to guarantee sale of unrelated birds.

Fertility is good in young pairs however it drops off considerably in older birds. Silverbills can live to a ripe old age; however it is wise to replace them with younger stock at about four years of age. Otherwise you might be running a retirement village instead.

The courtship is similar to other waxbills. He holds a piece of grass, twists his tail, bobs up and down and sings at the same time. The hen will crouch over the perch and shake her tail. The usual clutch is around four to five eggs with both parents sharing the incubation duties. Both parents sleep in the nest at night as well as he babies.

Incubation takes around twelve days and the chicks fledge at another three weeks. Once the chicks fledge they can be safely removed at another three weeks.

In one of my uncle’s aviaries contained possibly 30 to 50 pale fawn coloured small finches, which he informed me were Silverbills. His words to me were, “good little buggers them, mice with wings breed great”. So home I go, build an aviary and a couple weekends later I’m the proud owner of two pairs of Silverbills.

Feeding

Silverbills have no special dietary requirements; they will do well on a good quality Finch mix. Shell grit, cuttlebone, goat lick is all provided and will be taken.

I supply a mixture of seeding grasses and give as much variety as possible depending on what is available. African velt, panic, barnyard summer grass, winter grasses are all favourites. When seeding grass is in short supply vegetables are supplied, endives, chicory, Bok Choy, corn on the cob, Lebanese cucumber are all eagerly taken.

Live food is supplied in the shape of mealworms and bush fly maggots, only because the Silverbills are in a mixed collection; however I find they rarely visit the live food dish.

Sprouted seed will be taken as well as any soft food mixed or cake mixes. I supply simple soft food mix to all my Finches. Plain, maderia cake (shop bought), Polenta (corn maize) and “Passwells Finch Soft food Mix”. These ingredients are all mixed together and fed in D cup containers the cake has enough moisture to make a good consistency.

Conclusion

This species has gone through a roller coaster ride of popularity. In the seventies it was common and inexpensive. Through the Eighties and early Nineties it became uncommon and hard to source, thus expensive. During the later part of the nineties up until now it has become a little bit easier to acquire and the price has dropped a little. It’s a shame that a species, so called dullness or price determines it’s availability. Silverbills aren’t alone in this situation however. They really are a good bird that mixes well, easy to cater for and are free breeding.

Fertility is good in young pairs however it drops off considerably in older birds. Silverbills can live to a ripe old age; however it is wise to replace them with younger stock at about four years of age. Otherwise you might be running a retirement village instead.

Pair of African Silverbills (Lonchura cantons). Photo: Thom Haslam