Babblers are a huge family which includes our most popular and well-known small softbill, the Pekin Robin. Besides the Pekin, babblers include mesias, yuhinas, and laughing thrushes to name just a few. Within many of the babbler species, there are numerous subspecies often making accurate visual sexing difficult at best.
Many babblers make excellent and easy to care for softbills for the beginning softbill hobbiest. None in the family make good cuddly pet birds though. Handraised babblers can be hand tame though, and even parentraised birds often get very trusting around their caretakers. Many babblers can be kept in mixed species community aviaries. Several babbler species are prized as songsters, especially in Asian cultures.
Obviously the first babbler that should be discussed is the famous Pekin Robin. Often called the Chinese or Japanese Nightingale and the Red-bill Leiothrix, this bird has even had its name Pekin frequently misspelled as Peking or Peeking. These little babblers have beautiful vocalizations and are easy to keep with other birds.
Prior to the mid 1990’s, most softbillers’ first bird was the ever delightful Pekin Robin as it was the least expensive and most widely available softbill of them all. They were imported by the hundreds and frequently seen in pet stores usually mixed with finches. Extremely hardy, they survived even the most inadequate care and diets. Unfortunately they proved very difficult to breed successfully. Now they are extremely rare and much sought after.
CITES & Its Effects
Several babblers including the Pekin Robin and the Silver-Eared Mesia were listed at the convention in June 1997. The last imports of these birds was in September 1997. Most aviculturists were not even aware of the problem until a couple of years had passed, and the scarcity of these “bread & butter” softbills was noticed. With the exception of the few birds domestically bred, that meant that all of the Pekins and Mesias were at least four years old and aging fast. Aviculturists tried to move quickly and breed domestic stock to ensure that we would have both species of softbills in our future aviaries, however only a small handful of breeders have been consistently successful. Finding new bloodlines is a huge problem.
The trouble in developing domestic stock of most babbler species is that they are not easy to breed, and few aviculturists put effort into figuring out their breeding needs until imports stopped. It is ironic that these beginner’s softbills are so easy to maintain but so difficult to breed! Some aviculturists have successes, but it will remain to be seen whether it will be “too little and too late” to save the species in the USA.
There are three basic requirements for breeding Pekins and Mesias, as well as most other babblers: large, planted aviary, privacy, & lots of livefood. Starting with a true pair is not easy to begin with because, although in most cases the male has darker and more vivid colors, the different subspecies have varied intensities of color making visual gender determinations guesswork. There are differences in the calls of the sexes, but that too can be confusing to someone who does not know both calls. It is recommended that birds be surgically or DNA sexed to ensure their gender.
Pairs need to be placed in a large, densely planted flight by themselves. They need to be feed the basic softbill fruit and vegetable mix with soaked and dry pellets or commercial insectivore mix and be supplied with lots of livefood during breeding. Having a fountain or waterfall system so they can hear running water may help entice them into breeding condition. They will build their own cup-shaped nest or use commercial nest baskets or half-fronted boxes. Grasses, mosses, and fine twigs are usually used in the nest construction. Nest checks should be minimized as much as possible.
Chicks are prone to yeast infections and bacterial issues that cause them to die in the nest. Fledging is a particularly critical time for babbler chicks, and they get chilled easily. Handraising chicks is challenging but can be done successfully. Nothing is as satisfying than seeing parents raise their own chicks successfully though.
Other Babbler Species
Although other babbler species have been imported and kept by aviculturists for years, no other spcies has achieved the popularity of the Pekin Robin yet. Other babblers have been imported including the Blue-Winged Siva, laughing thrushes, and several species of yuhinas or ixulus. Some of the babblers can be kept with other softbill and finch species while other like the jay-thrushes are more aggressive.
The yuhinas such as Yellow-naped/Chestnut Naped/Whiskered Yuhinas (Yuhina flavicollis) are very active and personable small birds with soft, fluffy crests that are kept raised most of the time. They spend most of the day acrobatically searching every nock and cranny of the aviary for any kind of small insect. Like Pekins, they cuddle and preen each other. They are very quiet birds with soft calls. They make excellent community aviary birds.
A small group of Taiwan Yuhinas were imported and became available around 2011, but members of the babbler family are only rarely imported at all. For years, there has been talk of trying to get feral Pekin Robins out of Hawaii but no luck as far as we know on that issue.
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Copyright 07/09 Kateri Davis