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Bird Articles

Written by Kara Black
Originally published in The NFSS Bulletin, Vol. 17 No. 2. March – April 2000

I guess I was under the impression that the only pet birds available were parrots. If you went to the bird shows in the Nashville area, you could easily see how I came to that conclusion. There were a sprinkling of canaries and budgies, a dusting of finches, and a full-blown infestation of larger squawking birds that frankly overwhelmed this former finch fanatic. Oh sure, I had had the obligatory cockatiel back in my college days, but had since moved on to finches in my early thirties, opting for a more quiet and less demanding exchange between pet and owner.

One day online I stumbled on an article on mousebirds. How simply delicious: here was a creature with all the charm, affection, and personality of my cockatiel, if not more, and none of the noise, a marketing coup if there ever was one. I rejoiced for every neglected cockatiel whose cage had been relegated to a dark closet or an outside location somewhere only to scream out of earshot of its owner.

Going through a divorce has a way of simplifying your life, and mine was no exception. I was eager to get back to the basics of avian husbandry. Breeding finches had evolved from a delight into a burden. I had become more concerned with producing babies rather than marveling at their creation. I was eager to return to the peaceful days in which hours were spent just watching my birds, much to the neglect of the rest of my life (and I wonder why my marriage didn’t work!). I was tickled to finally find someone willing to trade several Pekin Robins and a pair of Speckled Mousebirds for all my finches. Eagerly I awaited the arrival of my shipment.

I had once read that Mousebirds were, “superficially unremarkable in appearance”: how truly inappropriate. Named more for the way in which they creep and crawl rather than for the way they look, Mousebirds are visually similar to cockatiels but much drabber in colour. Sexually monomorphic, (the sexes do not differ in appearance), they are 11-14 inches with a long, stiff tail two thirds of their total length. There are several other species like the Red-faced, Red-backed, and Blue-naped Mousebirds, but I was obtaining the more common Speckled Mousebirds.

Mousebirds, or Colies, are considered prolific breeders, and I had high expectations. Either loving or fighting, I would sometimes catch the male feeding the hen, or the hen feverishly chasing the male, and when they were doing nothing, they kept out of sight. They preferred a cup-shaped nest located in a low-lying shrub. The male would hop methodically several times next to the hen, who would then allow him to mount her. Laying anywhere from 4 to 6 eggs, they began the 17 to 19 day incubation period with the first egg. Despite their aggressive courtship and subsequent mating, my mousebirds only laid two sets of two eggs, both of which were infertile.

When I placed them in the quarantine cage, they eagerly scrambled for the mashed fruit that I had prepared for them. How very exciting for me to see a bird actually hold their food and chew it, (much like my Uncle Arnie did after he had taken his dentures out for their nightly soaking). They absolutely loved bananas, and anything soft, or cooked, came in a strong second. According to Martin Vance in his must-have book, Softbills, they are considered frugivores that do well on a diet similar to the fruit based omnivores, but require a lower protein intake. He recommends a diet of 55% fruit, 30% softbill pellets, 10% hard boiled eggs, with 5% vegetables and greens. Due to their penchant for vegetation, Colies are considered pests in their native Africa, where they live in dry bushland up to the forest’s edge. None of the species are considered endangered, but farmers and gardeners do not look fondly upon them. I can certainly understand, as they made short order of my newly emerged fern fronds and totally emaciated a ficus tree by summer’s end.

After I moved to my new, “single again”, home, I made sure I had enough money to build my lifelong dream of an outside aviary. It was a triangular shaped cage, attached to one corner of my deck, that was made out of pressure treated 2 by 2’s and vinegar-treated galvanized wire. It measured 14’ on its longest side and was 9’ high. I had numerous plantings, real and otherwise, and several perching sites made from sticks placed between taut wires. One third of the cage butted up against my house with a 2’ roof overhang and a vinyl siding wall. I used a bug zapper during the summer months for an endless supply of insects. Ignored for the most part by the mousebirds, the assortment of moths was relished by the Pekin Robins. I made a small pond from the upside-down top of a plastic garbage can that I balanced on a large plastic plant lid. An old recirculating pump made a delightful bubbling noise that, when turned on, encouraged all except the mousebirds to take a bath. They never bathed in water and certainly didn’t drink it either, but I learned that the mousebirds were taking very extravagant dust baths in the coloured softbill pellets that I had mistakenly believed I was providing for nourishment purposes.

My mousers loved the aviary. When they were exceptionally happy, you could hear them making their cute little squeaks and “giggles”, certainly well below urban decibel guidelines. I never saw much of them though. Whenever I walked by the aviary they would scurry to the top corner of the cage. Their feet were more or less level with their shoulders and they remained motionless until I left. Most of their time was spent either lounging in the hanging basket, perching vertically between the wires, or scuttling rapidly about the ground. Remember in the movie Alien, when the embryo springs from one of the crewmember’s chest and scurries across the floor? For some reason, my Mousebirds seem to remind me of that image. At night they prefer to sleep in groups, and my pair were often found clinging torpid together in tete a tete fashion appearing much like a Rorschach inkblot test. In an effort to conserve energy, they allow their body temperatures to drop during the night. As a result, the next morning you could find them fluffed up in the first sun-kissed corners of the flight, much like the tumble-dried Pink Panther cartoon character I used to love as a child.

By November, the temps occasionally dropped into the thirties and I brought the mousers inside. They never seemed to mind the cold, but I soon became quite annoyed with their ruckus poop and banana slinging. I rushed to head off future wall scraping Saturdays by the timely placement of a bamboo print wallpaper, but the sight of my fruit-flung room overwhelmed me. One week of this and I was ready to place them in the witness protection program. I never said I had mastered the spiritual gift of patience.

As I continue to research into aviculture, I am further inspired by all of the unique species there are, and I am eager to see which will be the next inhabitant

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Last updated: February 18, 2006