"Softbill" is a term loosely used to describe birds that feed on fruit, insects, nectar and some even meat ! This opposed to those birds that feed on grain or seeds. It is a huge family and takes in small birds like Robins and Wrens as well as quite large birds like Toucans and Kookaburras ! It does not include Raptors or Lorikeets, even though they eat meat and nectar.
It also does not mean, as some might think that their actual bill is softer in composition than other birds !! Many finch breeders in Australia will often keep few species of compatible softbills in with their finches. Others specialise in Softbills and will combine keeping doves with them. Australia has a number of different softbill species that birdkeepers can legally keep in their aviaries, provided the proper permit is arranged. Of course this only applies to native varieties.
Commonly kept in aviaries over there are many different species of Wrens, Robins and Chats. Honey Eaters are also popular. Bowerbirds, Glossy Starlings, Kingfishers, Swallows, the list seems endless. Each state has a permit system and they specify which species can be kept. A visit to one Softbill breeder in N.S.W. this year saw me gaining insight into just how many softbill species there are.
There are other softbill species kept which are not native and therefore do not require the permits native birds do. One popular species kept by a number of breeders is the Pekin Robin. This is not native to Australia, but rather comes from areas in the Himalayan mountains. It was available in NZ many years ago, before import bans were imposed but has since died out. It was one of the birds listed on the recent failed import schedule, by Auckland Zoo. Overseas in the U.S.A., U.K and Europe, South Africa, there are a multitude of softbill species available for aviculturists to keep and breed.
What sort of Aviaries do you Need ?
This will depend on what variety you want to keep. Most varieties of softbills are not as domesticated as other bird species, which have been kept by aviculturists far longer. The more natural environment we can provide the better, especially when trying for breeding success. If we plan on keeping birds from rainforest areas, then that sort of setting should try to be achieved in a small way in the aviary you house the birds in.
This natural situation you artificially manufacture for the birds, will also help in providing an environment conducive to attracting insects, a feeding source of many softbills. The larger the species, the larger the aviary needed. If a very large aviary is constructed, then a number of different species can be housed together. The aviary pictured in this article was setup like a mini rainforest, with vegetation forming an overhead tree canopy. It was about 30ft high, providing a tree canopy above for the birds, with a suspended walkway through the middle giving a great view of it all at three different levels and it seemed like you were in the rainforest, although much drier than it would be in the natural bush. It housed about 15-20 different varieties of softbills and doves. This is not saying smaller aviaries can't also be used, but its likely only one pair of birds be housed in each.
What do you feed them ?
This will depend on what species you keep as some may have specific dietary requirements. Many bird product companies, like Vetafarm, Pretty Bird and Womberoo manufacture specific food designed for softbills, including artificial nectar and livefood. This makes it much easier for the birdkeeper to properly provide a balanced diet for these birds. While this may form the basis of the birds diet, other extras, like fruit and vegetables, and livefood can also be given.
Here in New Zealand there are a good deal of softbill species, unfortunately the most interesting species are native and are fully protected, so cannot be kept by aviculturists. These would include, the three species of Honeyeaters we have here, the Bellbird, the Tui and the Stitch bird. The latter is considered endangered. These are all beautiful birds.
Silvereyes or Waxeyes as they are called, are also are similar to these species, but as they feed on insects and fruit as well, don't fit into the Honeyeater family. Many think they are native, but in actual fact they originally came from Australia, Tasmania to be exact. They colonised New Zealand and were recorded being here as early as 1856. They are very common all over the country and would be easy to keep and breed in captivity. In some Australian states, it is not uncommon to see them in with finches.
This species is certainly not endangered here and would be one softbill that aviculturists should be able to keep under a permit system.
The Yellowhead and Whitehead are two very attractive species and along with the Brown Creeper are the three species of Whistlers found in N.Z.
There are a 3 species of Robins, including the Black Robin from the Chatham Islands, which has had a huge amount of publicity over DOC's efforts to increase numbers.
There are 2 species of Wrens in NZ the Rock Wren, and the Rifleman. Both are considered common in their locality.
The one species of Flycatcher we have in abundance all over NZ is the Fantail. A beautiful small insect eating bird that is seen in all sorts of locations, from native bush to gardens around towns.
The introduced Mynah is in this group. Very common in the North Island but not seen in the South.
This is just a few of the species that fit into this Softbill category. If you wanted to go to the other end of the scale, the now established Australian species, the Spur Winged Plover and that Australian icon the Kookaburra, also fit into this group.
So what species of Softbills can be kept in New Zealand ?
Almost none !! Anything that is not native, or considered endangered. A few species kept by birdkeepers here are, the Blackbird, the Song Thrush, the Hedge Sparrow and possibly the Skylark. All introduced British species. I have heard of a few keeping a Mynah for a pet, as they can be taught to talk quite well and I am sure we have all come across those that have a pet Magpie. In many Zoos and Zoological Gardens around NZ you will see Tuis, Bellbirds, Saddlebacks and other natives. Many of them are kept in large planted aviaries, similar to their native environment. Some places that have these birds on display are involved with captive breeding programmes, but those more common species are held in aviaries, to give the public a closer look. These institutions have a special permit from the DOC. If they are involved in a breeding programme, there are pairs placed in much smaller enclosures, behind the scenes for breeding purposes. These of course are not on exhibit to the public, but are applying the principles of aviculture, as we do for breeding successfully. The big aviaries are just for show !!
When you read about most species of Softbill in New Zealand, the interesting thing is that what has often lead to a decline in numbers with some species, is introduced pests, such as Rats, Stoats, Ferrets or even Feral cats. And what is usually needed to save such birds from extinction ? Human intervention !! Often a captive management breeding programme, so that numbers of birds can be increased and reintroduced back to their native territory. Aviculturists have often played an important role in helping repopulate endangered wild birds, from aviary stock.
Wouldn't it make sense that such aviculturists be allowed to keep and breed species while they are not endangered, so that they can learn more about their management and breeding habits ? Why wait until some disaster strikes a wild population, or even a slow decrease in populations because of habitation changes and then there is great panic and huge expense to try and save a species ? This deemed suitable only by a government department such as DOC. And where have such skills in handrearing been learned and even improved on ? From aviculturists. Its a known fact that many experienced aviculturists have much to give, when it comes to teaching others about rearing species.
By allowing birdkeepers to keep a list of specified, permitted species, captive held populations of these birds would act as a backup, should any disease or pest severely affect wild native populations. A limited number of pairs could be taken from the wild initially or young could come from captive bred birds that are already in places like Zoos and public Bird Parks and then only captive bred birds, close rung, could be available to onsell to other birdkeepers. Before anyone gets excited about this prospect, its unlikely to ever happen, but its a nice concept and one that has worked in other countries. With the threat of Bird Flu and the unlikely prospect of NZ ever seeing birds imported into the country again, here would be an alternative for those interested in keeping and breeding our own softbill species.
Many would reason why would you want to keep such birds in an aviary ? This is not a new objection. There has always been and will always be, those opposed to seeing any birds kept in a captive situation and this mindset is almost impossible to change in these people, but for those that see birdkeeping as a pleasure, its a different story. Imagine walking out to your own aviary, anytime of the day or year sitting and enjoying these birds. Watching their behaviour and breeding habits close up.
We are talking about responsible aviculturists, of whom there is many. Whatever money would be involved in passing these birds onto other permit holders is not the important thing and for many the idea of keeping softbills may not appeal, others would simply not have the room, but for true birdlovers and those that would enjoy this different challenge, it would be a real pleasure to keep and breed some of these different species successfully.
Softbills won't be for everybody, the same as some like parrots and others like finches. They will certainly require larger planted aviaries and therefore we will need a bit of room. One thing we can be sure of is the fact that they will be hardy and will not require the warm enclosed aviaries other exotic species need. They will however require a totally different diet to what we are used to for conventional species, but when you talk to those that start to keep them, they will admit you can easily get hooked on these birds, they truly are, fascinating !!