Friday, July 31, 2015

Uncle Shaftie and the societies

For over twenty years now, I've kept and occasionally bred estrildid finches. Beginning with a pair of orange-cheeked waxbills, I soon added other African species: lavender waxbills (which remain my favourite), rosy-rumped (Sundevall's) waxbills, red-cheeked cordon bleus, and bronze-winged mannikins have all graced my aviary. I've also kept a few Australian and Asian species, including spectacular Gouldian finches, far more pedestrian zebra finches, and both white-headed and black-headed munias.

For a long time, though, I resisted keeping society finches, also known as Bengalese finches. A domesticated form of the white-rumped munia, they share many characteristics of the munias and mannikins which comprise the genus Lonchura, but are highly variable in plumage, beyond a general tendency to pied brown-and-white patterns. They have frequently been used as foster parents, not just for other Lonchura finches, but for many other estrildids. I might have had more success raising waxbills if I had kept societies, but a decided preference—perhaps snobbery—for wild-type birds prevented me from doing so.

Over the years, though, I've come to a greater appreciation for the ecotone between the natural and the artificial; to a realisation, in fact, that the distinction between the two is in itself artificial. I now hawk over dogs (at one time anathema to me as a personal practice), I keep a backyard flock of bantam chickens, I hope soon to have a loft of pigeons, and two years ago I let Jessica talk me into keeping a small flock of society finches.

What a good decision that has been! At the time, my formerly diverse flock had dwindled to two male shaft-tailed finches and an ancient bronze-winged mannikin, the last survivor out of an original group of six or eight. The bronzewing and the shafttails didn't interact much, and I felt bad for the poor little bronzie—most estrildids are highly social, but none more than the Lonchura species, which tend to live in large single- or mixed-species flocks. Introducing the societies gave the apparently decrepit bronzewing a new lease on life; he took immediately to his new cage-mates, became much more active, and when he finally passed away (at the age of at least thirteen), I was grateful that he had spent his final months in a state of contented sociability.

Another unexpected benefit to keeping societies stems, ironically, from their domesticated status. Most if not all of my estrildids have been captive-bred, but being only a few generations removed from the wild, they have nevertheless retained a great deal of their natural reserve. The societies, on the other hand, after centuries of domestication, are quite tame, with the result that instead of behaving in the "less natural" way I might have anticipated, they actually display a greater range of natural behaviours, unafraid to simply be birds even under close observation.

This includes breeding behaviour, and our flock recently fledged its second set of youngsters in as many years. I say "flock" because I haven't the slightest clue which birds are actually the parents, partly because I'm not that careful an observer, partly because the finches are not banded for easy identification, and partly because the birds themselves behave as a unit, with all of them (including the lone surviving shafttail) typically sleeping together, crammed into the same wicker nest basket despite the presence of two others.

This usual sleeping arrangement changed, though, when eggs started to appear in one of the alternate baskets. One or two of the finches (presumably but not necessarily the parents) would incubate the eggs—and later brood the nestlings—day and night, while the rest of the flock went about their daily routine and, come nightfall, dogpiled into the communal basket. So I was concerned one evening when I noticed that, instead of a society or two, it was the shafttail occupying the basket with the fledglings. The next morning, though, I again heard the insistent chirping of the little beggars and saw one of the societies feeding them. This is when Jessica and I started calling the helpful Aussie "Uncle Shaftie".

Since then, he has continued to take an active interest in the welfare of his young non-relations. If Jessa or I approach the cage, he flies up to be near the fledglings, chirping at us in what I suppose could be construed as a menacing fashion. The other societies? Couldn't be arsed; our presence is not perceived as a threat. (If anyone willfully or otherwise misunderstands the difference between captive-bred and domestic, I submit this as evidence for a clear distinction.) A couple of days ago, when Jess opened the front of the cage for maintenance and one of the fledglings more or less accidentally flew out, Uncle Shaftie—whose normal reaction to the cage being opened is to fly to the back of the cage or to stay on the highest perch—darted down and out to follow the little prodigal around the living room, from the Norfolk Island pine to one or two of our decorative cages to the palm tree which stretches to the ceiling. (Jess says they looked especially good in the palm. See this recent post from 10,000 Birds, incidentally, for some nice pictures of wild estrildids.)

We haven't seen Uncle Shaftie feeding the young societies, but he's almost always close by when they are being fed. He continues to roost communally with the society flock—only the fledglings eschew the basket, possibly because they lack confidence in their ability to fly to it.

I wrote the above back in October, but never got around to finishing or posting it. I post it now as a tribute to Uncle Shaftie, who died peacefully last weekend—the day before "his" fourth clutch, a Bengalese singleton, fledged. Rest easy, mate.

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