Mouse birds for the New Millennium


T he word is slowly spreading; mousebirds make great aviary birds and, surprisingly, great household pets. Although still generally unknown, they are the upand-coming pet bird of the new millennium. They share many of the qualities of small pet parrots, but lack many of their vices, which helps explain their recent increase in popularity. Few softbill species make good household pets so mousebirds are definitely unusual in that respect, and many a bird lover's heart is instantly melted when these little creatures turn into puff balls of pleasure at the touch of a human's hand.

What is a Mousebird?

Mousebirds get their common name from their mainly brown and gray coloration and their habit of dashing quickly and secretly through the underbrush. Their small size, soft, furlike plumage, and long, skinny tails also add to the rodent image. Another common name for mousebirds is colies, but this name, coly, is most frequently seen in older references.

There are six species of mousebirds that combine to form a unique family, Coliidae, and a unique order, Coliiformes, in which they are the only members. All of the mousebird species are found in the central and southern parts of Africa which makes Coliiformes the only bird order strictly endemic to that continent. Dry scrub lands and savannas are their main home where they eat fruit, leaves, and flowers. While not invasive, they have proved to be adaptable, much to the dismay of some African farmers as they will feed on


crops and frequent village gardens. They are considered a pest bird by many Africans and destroyed as such. Luckily, so far none of the mousebird species are endangered or listed on CITES even though some of them have naturally small ranges.

Mousebirds are not closely related to any other bird species, although they share traits with parrots. Like parrots, they can hold a small object in their foot and raise it to their beaks to eat or nibble on. They are just not quite as strong or adept at it. Recent fossil evidence points to a possible distant relationship to the order, Piciformes, of woodpeckers, barbets, and toucans.

All of the mousebird species are closely related to each other and easily recognizable, as all of them share a common body shape and behavior patterns. They are about the size of a lovebird with brownish or grayish plumage, and a very long, stiff, pointed tail. They have a crest which can be raised or lowered at will and is usually erect. They have large feet which are pamprodactylous, meaning they can point all four toes forward, enabling them to be quite acrobatic even hanging upside down and twirling from one toe.

Mousebird Species

Three of the six species of mousebirds are available in the USA currently. Speckled Mousebirds are by far the most commonly found of the three, with the Blue-naped Mousebirds second in availability, and the Red-faced Mousebirds third, but very hard to find. The other three species, Whiteheaded Co!ius !eucocephalus, Whitebacked C. colius, and Red-backed C. castanotus, are very rare, if they exist


at all, in private aviculture, and only a few zoos have them in their collections. According to the ISIS report of September 1998, Red-backs are not to be found in any USA collections. This is unfortunate as all six species have been imported in the past although little focus has been placed upon them. Hopefully this will change in the upcoming years.

Speckled Mousebirds

Speckled Mousebirds Celius striatus, also known as Bar-breasted or Striated, are the most common mousebirds in USA private and zoological aviculture today. There are 17 subspecies, differing mainly in color of the legs, eyes, throat, and cheek patches or ear coverts. They have reddish brown body plumage with dark barrings and a very wide, long, stiff tail. Their feathering is soft and easily damaged. They have a soft chattering call and are the most vocal of the three species. Their fluffy appearance and shaggy crest gives them a "I just woke up" look.

Blue-naped Mousebirds

Blue-naped Mousebirds Urocolius macrourus are the most colorful species with a brilliant turquoise-colored nape, deep red, bare skin around the eyes and bill, and bluish-gray plumage. Their feathering is smoother, and their crests skinnier and higher than the Speckled species. Blue-napeds' tails are much skinnier than that of the Speckled but just as stiff and long. Their calls are melodic, usually consisting of a delightful one-note whistle.

Red-faced Mousebirds

Red-faced Mousebirds Urocolius indicus are closely related to the Bluenapeds and look similar. Their smooth plumage has a greenish cast to it, and their crests are shaggier and not as tall as crests of the Blue-Naped. They have more pronounced red around the face and bill but lack the blue nape. They also have a melodic call, usually with three notes to it.