M ankind's fascination with plumage is ancient. The interest can range from child-like wonder to a greedy kind of self ornamentation. In times past, many bird species with the most impressive plumage were almost exterminated by our "fascination" and now have to be protected. Perhaps on a smaller scale, I feel that the same fate has befallen most whydah finches in aviculture today. Though they are not endangered species, is it any less significant when they are wasted' But I don't mean to be hypocritical ...
My own love of whydahs began in a pet shop. I saw a fully plumed male Pin-tail in a large flight. His tiny body size, his sharp colors and, most of all, those four kite-like tail plumes seized my attention. There was no leaving the shop without that bird. Thus began my interest in African finches.
Our home was graced hy this bird's exotic appearance. Visitors, who had never before had any interest in birds, would stop in front of the whydah cage and say, "Look at that bird's tail' What kind of bird is that?" Great fun.
But it soon became apparent that whydahs are not ve1y happy in cages, particularly the hens. Over the past several years, my whydah collection has grown and so have their accommodations.
If there is one important thing I've learned by keeping and observing four species of whydahs, it is that hard and fast mies-that may hold true in the wild-are not necessarily true in aviculture. Rigid thinking makes the outlook for breeding whydahs seem dismal. But given generous space and excellent care, the whydahs' desire to reproduce is not hindered. After watching eager males of four species, seeing receptivity in hens and many successful copulations (Paradise Whydahs), I am an optimist about whydahs. Only if we have already given up, are they doomed in American aviculture.
The photo accompanying this article shows the eager hovering display of a Queen or Shaft-tailed Whydah ( Vidua regia), now very rare in aviculture. In May of this year, the pictured pair came very close to breeding and participating in the nesting activities of a pair of Yellow-winged Pytilias (Pytilia hypogrammica). The whydahs
watched and followed the Pytilias intently through three changes of nest sites. The Queen Whydahs behaved as a pair, using vocal contact calls when necessary.
Finally, the Pytilias were satisfied with a nest and began to incubate in ernest. The whydahs were well tolerated by the Pytilias. Unfortunately, this pair of Yellow-wings, unfamiliar with the live foods of captivity, did not feed their two hatchlings and abandoned the nest. They left a third, infertile egg behind. Remarkably, the Queen Whydahs, who, like the other species had proven to he avid egg eaters, never attacked that last egg, though it was left visible and unattended.
The Queen hen was so stimulated that she ovulated. Unfortunately, the single egg, probably infertile, was damaged. This hen had ovulated last year, simply in response to the onset of spring weather. These activities of the Pytilias and Queen Whydahs occurred in a room measuring 13 x 14 feet. However, I have had other species of whydahs breed in a 3ft. cube cage. I would not recommend the cu he cage as a breeding set-up, hut the birds had other ideas and took me by surprise.
I cannot comment on Queen Whydahs in a flock, but the Fischer's ( vidua fiscberii, Paradise ( V paradisea) and Pin-tails ( V macroura), all form cohesive communities. I have witnessed no serious hostility and highly recommend allowing them to live as flocks year round. There is usually a dominant male, whom the hens and young males pay close attention to. One of my young male Paradise Whydahs imitates some of the display elements employed by the alpha cock. Many whydah species are reputed to perform in leks (a place where males assemble to perform in competitive displays) at the onset of their breeding seasons. Most likely, horror stories about whydahs' aggressiveness arise out of too little space or incompatibility with other species housed with the whydahs. Under captive conditions, if another male becomes a rival to the alpha cock, one of them should be removed. The male's behavior can inadvertently disturb and tire the rest of the flock, so it is important to offer
plenty of feeding, watering and resting locations.
I don't think there is anything unusual ahout the diet I provide to my hirds. A good seed mix with Lafeber's granules, soaked seed, Romaine lettuce dusted with Skipio's soya musca protein powder and a few mealworms. keeps my birds in excellent condition.
There are some points I have noticed about housing, however. My birds know the difference between Vita-Lites and the sunshine of the outdoors. I do recommend full spectrum lights, hut the birds clearly take their cues from outside. Sunlight, even filtered through glass. has a very positive effect on their behavior. Good ventilation is of primary importance. The sounds that drift in through open windows stimulate my birds. Rain, which my birds can see and hear through open (screened) windows, is a powerful stimulant.
So if you can't house your whydahs outdoors, at least try to emulate nature as closely as possible. I have found that my own enjoyment and feelings about keeping birds are multiplied a hundredfold by watching their happiness in a spacious, natural environment. Please consider giving your whydahs their own little paradise-a room or a genuine aviary-in which you will be privileged to observe their aerial courtship displays.
Personally, I think it is inappropriate at this time to maintain any kind of whydah for ornamental purposes, including exhibition, without any realistic hope of breeding. Please consider contributing to, or working with, the Weaver and Whydah Network of the Waxbill-Parrot Finch Society. If we don't pursue breeding whydahs, we will only view these birds on educational television, zoos or bird parks.
I know that this article raises more questions than it answers. There is too much to say about the whydahs to be contained in one article. I hope I've shown that the status of whydah finches in aviculture is precarious, but not hopeless. If there is enough interest, I hope to share more detailed information through this publication and the Waxbill-Panot Finch Society's publication, The Finch Breeder. Best of luck to all!
Baptista, Luis F. (1992, February/March). The Biology and Husbandry of Whydahs & Combassous. The AFA Watchbird, pp.40-45.
Friedmann, H. (1960). The Parasitic Weaver Birds. National Museum Bulletin 223.