The Ultimate Pet Softbill!
Of all the softbills available, mousebirds are the only ones that can rival a parrot in pet quality and can be kept in a cockatiel sized cage. When hand-raised, they are sweet and cuddly. These birds always have to know what is going on around them. Mousebirds are intelligent, curious, and playful. They are social animals, living in groups in the wild, and, in your home, they love to investigate your activities, even pestering you while you clean cages or try to read a book. The happiest place for a pet mousebird to be is on you. What personalities!
At the Davis Lund Aviaries, we have worked with five of the six species and currently have about 30 mousebirds of different species. Kateri Davis has written the only book on mousebirds in aviculture.
Mousebirds, or colies, are African birds that got their name because their hopping movements combined with their grey coloring is mouse-like. There are six species of mousebirds in a family (Coliidae) and order (Coliiformes) all by themselves. These unique birds are about the size of a cockatiel with long, stiff, pointed tails and small head crests that can be raised at will. Their plumage is very soft, and their feet quite large. Although some species have red or orange feet and red around the eyes, their feathering is mainly browns or bluish-greys so coloring is not their main attraction. These acrobatic birds have some unique characteristics including the “mousebird hang”
The Species In Aviculture
Unfortunately mousebird popularity was just starting to increase when African imports just about shut down due to the Asian Bird Flu Scare a few years ago, and now mousebirds may soon disappear from USA aviculture. Although now there are quite a few bird fanciers interested in them for pets, there are only a few breeders of mousebirds in the USA, and most of these are working with aged birds (birds at 7 – 8 years are old; 13.5 yrs old is maximum recorded age) and need new bloodlines. It is imperative that breeders track bloodlines and set up as many breeding pairs as possible to ensure that mousebirds will survive in aviculture. Other than the Speckled, mousebirds are only rarely seen in zoos.
The petite White-Backed Mousebird (Colius colius) was not in private USA aviculture until the late 1990’s when some small import shipments arrived. Luckily because of their larger clutch sizes and getting in the hands of some dedicated breeders, White Backs are now the most commonly available mousebird. Their coloring is quite attractive with smooth greyish bodies and a stripe of white on the back bordered with stripes of black.
The Speckled, or Bar-Breasted, species (Colius striatus ) was once the most commonly found mousebird in USA aviculture but now is quite rare. It is a fluffy feathered, brown bird with a wide, pointed, long, stiff tail, silvery cheeks (in most subspecies), spiky crest, orange legs, and small dark bars across its chest. They seem to have a “I just woke up” look and a clumsy way of moving that is endearing. They love to be scratched around the head and will fluff up like a parrot as they relax.
The Blue-Naped Mousebird (Urocolius macrourus) is the second in popularity to the White Back but still incredibly rare. It is more streamlined due to smoother feathering, has a slightly longer and skinnier crest, and a very narrow tail. It is the most colorful species with bluish-grey feathering, red around the eyes and beak, and a blue nape (back of neck).
The Red-Faced species (Urocolius indicus) is very similar to the Blue-Naped (same genera) except that it lacks the blue nape and the crest is not as pronounced. Both birds move more gracefully than the Speckleds but are just as loveable. Sadly, there are probably less than 15 individuals in the USA now.
The other two species of mousebirds will probably never be seen in USA aviculture in the future. A handful of individuals of the beautiful White-Headed species (Colius leucocephalus) were imported in the late 1990’s, and a couple of aviculturists, Davis Lund Aviaries was one, tried to get them established but to no avail. Except for a few breedings, none of us were successful, and the species has died out in the USA, even in zoological institutions.
The last species, the hefty Red-Backed Mousebird (Colius castanotus) has a small native range and has never been brought to the USA.
Housing pet mousebirds is simple. Give them the largest cage possible, at least 2’x2’x2′, and clean it frequently. Softbill droppings are very soft, and mousebirds make allot of them! Since mousebirds like to hang on the sides of their enclosures, especially when sleeping at night, rim the outside of the cage with paper or something to catch feces. Provide perches and hanging toys. The stiff tail of a mousebird tends to get ragged if in too small of a cage. Let your bird out everyday to exercise (safely, of course!) whether you clip his wings or not. Most enjoy bathing in water, dirt, or sand. In an aviary setting, they get along well with any non-aggressive birds from finches to turacos. There may be problems if the aviary is too small or overcrowded, so watch carefully when introducing them. Breeding pairs of mousebirds can be more aggressive than singles, especially if tightly confined.
Mousebirds are mainly frugivorous and should be fed a variety of fruits and vegetables, plus softbill/mynah pelleted food. Kaytee Exact Mynah pellets and 8-N-1 Mynah pellets are the two brands we use for our birds. These birds are usually little gluttons, and, besides their daily fruit mix, dry pellets should be available throughout the day. Mousebirds will also eat insects such as mealworms and waxworms. Although not chewers like parrots, mousebirds will bite off pieces of aviary plants to eat too. They love to eat!
Mousebirds can be easy to breed and present few problems. This makes them an excellent beginner’s softbill bird. A breeder cage should be large, at least 4’x4’x4′. Mousebirds can be very aggressive, even to their mates, if in too small of a cage so use good judgment. They will breed in mixed aviaries, but if there is more than one pair of mousebirds in an aviary then usually only the dominant, or alpha pair, will breed unless the aviary is very large. In the wild, mousebirds colony breed, and even more than one female may lay eggs in a nest. This is rarer in captivity, although at night other members of the mousebird flock are allowed to sleep in the nest with the breeding pair, probably for heat purposes.
Mousebirds use a wide variety of nests from making their own flimsy nest with grasses, mosses, feathers, and small twigs to utilizing platforms, nest boxes and open and closed baskets. They will arrange the nesting material in the nest themselves.
Mousebirds typically lay a clutch of 2 eggs, although they can lay as many as 4, especially the White-Backed species. Eggs are laid a day apart and incubated upon laying, which means the chicks hatch a day apart. Bouts of infertility are not unusual with mousebirds, in captivity or in the wild. Caution is advised when nest-checking. Checking should be as infrequent as possible and quick & quiet. Some birds will handle it well, but others will sit tight until the last moment, then explode from the nest, sometimes knocking chicks out or damaging eggs. Others may eat their eggs and chicks or abandon the nest entirely.
When the eggs hatch, nothing special needs to be done or given, except be sure that the feeding bowls are never empty. The chicks grow very rapidly and require large amounts of food. The parents will regurgitate food for the chicks. If the chick is to be parent-raised, then just let them do the work, and the chick can even mature and stay with the parents as a member of their flock (if the aviary is large enough). The chick will leave the nest during the day when it is 7-11 days old and will be totally weaned when it is 1.5-2 months old. If the parent-raised chick is to be removed from the parents, do so anytime after 2 months old.
Mousebirds As Pets
Hand-raising mousebirds is not difficult and is a must for making tame pet birds. It is easiest to let the parents raise the chick until it is 7-8 days old. This is the time period that it will be active and strong enough to jump out of the nest by itself. If you wait too long, the chick will be too old. Once the chick is pulled, place him in a small container, with a cloth draped over the top, inside a brooder. Paper towels make a good substrate as they are easy and cheap to use. Start the temperature at 90-95*F and the humidity at 40-45%RH and reduce by a degree or percentage per day until at room temperature. Within a day or two, the chick will be scampering out of the tub, but will like to sleep in it at night. As the chick grows, it will need to be moved to a cage with a heat lamp (even if in the house). After it is about 1.5 months old, the heat lamp is not needed.
Mousebirds eat allot! The hand-feeding formula we use is 50% Kaytee Exact Handfeeding mixed with 50% fruit Gerber Baby Food with some very small chunks of fruit. Mousebird chicks are difficult to get to accept the feeding syringe, and, for the first couple of feedings, the beak may need to be gently pried apart and food forced in slowly. Once the chick gets the idea, he will beg and call for you to feed him. Feeding should be done every 1-2 hours from 6am to 10pm. Like turacos, mousebirds do not have a crop but an expandable esophagus, so you may see a slight bulge on the right side of the neck after each feeding.
Mousebirds eat a lot, so what goes in must come out, and, boy, does it! The parent mousebirds normally stimulate the chick to defecate and then the parent eats the feces, even for a week or so after the chick has left the nest. As the new momma bird, you must do this job now! At every feeding time, gently touch a kleenex to the vent and be ready to catch the huge amount of feces that will come pouring out. It is amazing the amount these little guys can manufacture.
By 2.5 weeks old, more fruit pieces than formula is given, and the chick is eating some on his own. By the end of the week 3 or 4, the chick is usually fully weaned! Mousebird chicks should be kept separately so as to avoid aggressive feather-plucking and to kept each bird socialized to humans, if they are to be a pet bird. Adult plumage and coloration will not fully come in until the bird is about 3-4 months old in Speckleds and 5-8 months in Blue-Napes or Red-Faced. Birds can start breeding around 12 months of age.
Important Points To Be Aware Of:
1.) Mousebirds must be constantly handled if they are to be good pets. If purchasing a pet mousebird, make sure that the bird is hand-raised and well socialized. Pet birds are demanding of their owner’s time and want to be with their owner as much as possible.
2.) Mousebirds have different personalities, different likes, and dislikes. Treat each mousebird as an individual.
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Copyright 07/09 Kateri Davis