The Finch Weekly

One of the things you learn when you start keeping birds is that some birds have a few different names.  Another is that there are names for groups of birds that aren’t ‘proper’ zoological terms but help to break up the massive group that are passerine species.  

An example of that is the waxbill, another is the softbill.  But what is a waxbill and what species do people generally mean when they talk about them?

What species are classed as waxbills?

The waxbills are a group of small finches that are in the Estrildid family of finches within the Passerina order.  Their name comes from the fact that many of them have a bright red beak and this is the colour of sealing wax once used on letters.  That’s the same reason that Waxwings have their name!

All of the waxbill species are Estrildid finches but not all Estrildid finches are waxbill.  Confusing right?  Here’s a few examples:

A Zebra finch (left) isn’t a waxbill but a Dybowski Twinspot (right) will often be classed as one

Some of the easiest ones to spot in the group actually have waxbill in their name.  The Common Waxbill (a.k.a St Helena Waxbill) is one of a family that actually has the name.  Cordon bleu finches are also known as waxbills, such as the Blue-capped Waxbill.

Waxbill basics

While there is quite a bit of variation within the group, generally the waxbills are 3-6.5 inches in size (7.6 to 16.5 cm) with a wide range of colours.  There’s reds, oranges, purples, blues, and loads of shades of browns in there.  

The Purple Grenadier lives up to it’s name!

Males are brighter in colour if there’s any difference in the sexes and some have breeding or ‘nuptial’ plumage such as the Strawberry Finch.  This means he changes colour completely for breeding season into the bright red bird that gives the species their common name.  Outside breeding season, he’s a little brown guy like the wife!

Where do they live?

Another factor that brings these species together is that they are mostly all from the Old World tropics are – in other words, Africa.  They are mostly found in tropical or sub-tropical wet scrubland areas as well as in open grassland and even the African savannah.

This is different from other Estrildid finches that aren’t waxbills, which are often found in Australia and Asia.  Both the Zebra finch and Owl finch are Australian, for example.  So too are the Star finch, Cherry finch and the Red-browed finch (a.k.a Sydney Waxbill) who are all from the same family (and yes, that’s what I mean about names!)

What do they eat?

Their diet has developed around the areas they live in and they are predominantly seed eaters.  This means eating seeds from the seed heads of grasses and other plants as well as foraging on the ground.  They are very nimble and will even hang upside down to get those tasty seeds.

A foreign finch mix will work for waxbills and there are specialist mixes for them

A lot of them also eat insects, a great source of protein for them.  Aphids are one example and anything suitable size that they find in their natural habitat.  This is why people often say you will need to get the hang of feeding live food to keep these kinds of birds.

What are they like to keep in captivity?

Because there are lots of different species of waxbill and quite a few are available in captivity, it is a hard question to answer.  Some like the Common Waxbill and Blue-capped waxbill are easy enough with the addition of a little live food requirements.  Others are a lot more complex and also tend to be a lot more expensive so you want some experience before starting with them.

One thing they all need is protection from the winter if you are in the northern hemisphere.  Here in the UK, that means heat and protection from the climate because they are small African birds and aren’t built for our winter.  If you live anywhere with a climate similar to their native area, this is less of an issue.

The specialists – Waxbill Finch Society

I’ve had the pleasure of keeping a few waxbill species over the year and even breeding my Blue-capped waxbills (very proud!) but my go-to place for all things to do with them is the Waxbill Finch Society.

The WFS has a great website packed with information about many types of estrildid finches, waxbills and more.  They also offer an annual membership for very reasonable prices with a quarterly newsletter.  It is one of the best places for information and to get to know other bird keepers.

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