Colours of Wildlife: Common Waxbill

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Common Waxbills

Willem is a wildlife artist based in South Africa. He says "My aim is simply to express the beauty and wonder that is in Nature, and to heighten people's appreciation of plants, animals and the wilderness. Not everything I paint is African! Though I've never been there, I'm also fascinated by Asia and I've done paintings of Asian rhinos and birds as well. I may in future do some of European, Australian and American species too. I'm fascinated by wild things from all over the world! I mainly paint in watercolours. . . but actually many media including 'digital' paintings with the computer!"

Common Waxbills by Willem.

Here I have for you a couple of sweet tweeties! These are Common Waxbills, Estrilda astrild. Sadly, unless you're living in Africa, they're unlikely to be common where you are. But in Africa they occur practically everywhere south of the Sahara Desert. They inhabit a variety of habitats, but mostly where there are dense bushes, reeds or rank grass. They're quite skittish, and at any rate so constantly active and flitting about, that it's hard to catch a good glimpse of them. But if seen well, they're unmistakable. Their bright red bills, which look like sealing wax, give the entire waxbill family its name. The family is also sometimes called the Estrildids, after this species' Latin name.

Waxbills in general are a mainly African group, although there are many species in Asia and Australia as well. They stick mostly to warm regions, which is why they're not found in Europe. In Africa they are amazingly diverse, and what's more, many species are very colourful and/or have bold patterns. They also tend to be very small, the largest species, the Java Sparrow, indeed being about the size of a sparrow. Common waxbils are much smaller … at most, about 5"/12.5 cm in overall length, most of which is their long, graduated tails.

These waxbills are truly as sweet to each other as in my painting! Males and females pair up in summer. The pair bonds are lifelong, strengthened by mutual preening and snuggling up to each other; the male also performs cute displays, fluffing up his feathers while singing, bowing and bobbing to the female. A typical waxbill ritual is where he presents the female with nesting material – a feather or a stalk of grass, which he waves in front of her face. This symbolizes his willingness to help her build and tend the nest and raise the chicks.

Cock's Nests and Feeding Beads

The nests look like balls of grass stuck inside a tree or dense shrub. There are actually two entrances: the upper leads to a 'false' chamber which is sometimes called a cock's nest, even though the male doesn't actually live in it. Instead, this false chamber is likely a ploy to deceive predators. If they investigate the nest, finding the upper chamber empty, they might conclude that it's an abandoned nest, and leave.

The female lays a clutch of four to six eggs. The chicks hatch naked and blind. All waxbill chicks have complex patterns of spots inside their bills; they also have large round tubercles, bumps or 'beads' at the corners of their mouths. These shine brightly, and even in the dim interior of the nest provide clearly visible focus spots which show the parents where to put the food! The chicks of each waxbill species have a characteristic pattern of spots and 'beads'.

A fascinating case of impersonation happens to these waxbills. Another finch-like species, the Pintailed Whydah, parasitizes them. Whydahs lay their eggs in waxbill nests, each species parasitizing a particular species of waxbill. Unlike cuckoos, whydahs do not eject their waxbill hosts' eggs of chicks; instead, the baby whydahs grow up along with the baby waxbills. And the whydah chicks have spots and bumps inside their bills that look the same as those of their waxbill hosts! It is pretty much impossible to tell the whydah chicks from the waxbill chicks, until they leave the nests. Even then, into adulthood, whydah chicks pick up the calls and songs of their foster parents, and incorporate these into their own songs.

Outside of the breeding season, waxbills live in little flocks rather than in pairs. They are still very sociable, preening and snuggling up to each other. They also follow each other as they methodically move through the grass or reeds in search of food. They give soft, pinking contact calls as they move so as to stay in touch with each other. As their conical bills suggest, they eat many seeds, mostly picking them off grass seed-heads. Being so small and light, they can often perch on a thin grass stem while hardly causing it to bend down!

As their name suggests, common waxbills are indeed at present still common, not endangered at all. I hope you find this encouraging! There is indeed an extinction crisis happening all over the world, but still, a great many wonderful species such as this one, and many others I treat in this column, are still likely to remain with us for a while longer.

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