TO MIX, OR NOT TO MIX!!

When recently asked about the subject of mixed collections of aviary birds – that is mixes of parrots, finches, doves and quail – I had to think why I no longer kept such a mixed aviary myself? As a young keeper I had Cockatiels, Java sparrows, Zebra finches, King quail and Diamond doves in a large aviary and all bred quite successfully together with minimal interference to each other. However, the more ‘exotic’ species – well, to my meagre paper round wages of the time!! – I tried to introduce into the mixed aviary collection the more problems I encountered. Take the pair of Bourke parrots that liked nothing better than flying around every moonlit night scaring the daylights out of all the other inhabitants or maybe the Red-rump parrot that liked nothing better than sneaking up upon Zebra finches and flicking them over his shoulder!!!

Just in case you think I am ‘parrot bashing’, I also encountered problems with my Zebra finches building nests in the parrot boxes and logs while the hen Cockatiels were incubating inside the boxes. The Zebs would balance a nest at entry hole level and cover the poor hen below with sticks, grass and other sundry nest-type items!! The Cockatiel hens, I believe, would simply have starved to death as I never saw them try to fight their way out of the boxes – says something for the tenacity of the Zebra finch.
Maybe the curses I threw at the Star finches when I found nest after nest of chicks thrown on the ground UNTIL I watched the female Java sparrow flicking them out one by one!!
My experiences with doves and pigeons were not all that much more successful as most tended to be a trifle ‘skittish’ when approached and usually hurled themselves at the wire, the walls, your head without much thought for the poor finches that happened to stray into their flight path!! A selection of doves came and went until I discovered the Masked dove, which would have to be the most placid bird in aviculture! These birds allow you to just about pick them up and their only ‘vicious’ streak is confined to ‘bashing’ you with their wing when you lift the hen from the nest with your finger to count eggs and/or chicks – killers these birds!! Their only bad point is that, when first introduced to your collection, they will spook the inhabitants by their flight – maybe the pointy wings and ‘jerky flight’ reminds the others of hawks and falcons? Until they get used to their flight you can experience some problems but at least they fly so slow that the smaller birds have plenty of time to get out of their way!

Fig.1. Pied Cockatiel

Fig.2. Masked Doves

Fig.3. Rosa Bourkes.

As to quail, well, they were introduced to clean up the floors of spilled seed as the ‘good books’ I read said. However, they failed to mention that some species also like to try to outdo the Bourke parrots at "bashing their heads against the aviary roof on moonlit night competitions" too! As I became a little smarter I also was able to correlate some finchey nest desertions and broken appendages with moonlit nights and the anti-social antics of these birds. The King quail were great at doing their ‘job’ of floor sanitation officers and soon bred up to ‘seed purchasing’ levels. Funny how the ‘cute and clever’ trait of nailing every insect that dares to move on the floor becomes that ‘annoying’ trait when you feel that those insects should ‘belong’ to your insectivorous finches! One day you will see the quail remove the mealworm from the beak of your Cordon Bleu and their days will be numbered. Also beware that some quail will attack and kill baby finches – especially floor roosting types like Emblema’s – with little compunction. However, there are also those quail that gather up stray finches and sit on them of a night without any worries and keep them warm – just watch they don’t try to ‘fend-off’ their rightful parents when they arrive to feed them!!

I am starting to sound a little negative about the mixed collection so let’s investigate further some of the pros and cons of this venture.

Your Intent:
This may seem a strange point but I believe it is a very relevant one. If you wish to successfully propagate any bird species then you need to create the most conducive environment that you possible can and this may mean that you have to keep the desired species by itself rather than in a mixed collection. As an extreme example I feel that few keepers would try to breed Orange-cheek waxbills in a 3m X 1m cage with Cockatiels and Red-rumps – an extreme example but you get my point!

If, on the other hand, your aim is to create a viewing spectacle with a variety of species then you need to consider the possible adverse effects of allowing your collection to breed, as aggression from all species is heightened by the onset of the breeding season. I know of a number of bird keepers that have a mixed collection composed entirely of male birds - doves, parrots, you name it they’ve got it! One keeper has a male from every member of the Rosella (Platycercus) family in a magnificent aviary with quail and a few pigeons and aggression is virtually non-existent. No sexism intended here but there are usually more spare male birds knocking about than female ones!

Fig.4. Mixed Collection.

Fig.5. Finches Galore!!

Fig. Mixed Aviary.

Aviary Size:
This would have to be a key point to any discussion and often the critical factor when stocking your aviaries. I guess we have all seen the ‘lawn-locker type ‘ aviaries that every hardware store sells. Unfortunately, many people will try to cram Neophemas, Cockatiels, finches, quail and doves into a cage 3m X 1m and I feel sure we have all seen this from time to time. The smaller the aviary the greater is the chance of aggression from the inhabitants towards each other as their daily interactions are far more than would normally occur. But I believe all responsible bird keepers would not be guilty of this!

I have often marvelled at the size of a friends’ aviary in the Hunter Valley of NSW and believe that he has struck the best medium for the mixed collection that I have seen. Kevin Such could never be accused of doing anything by halves when it comes to aviary construction and his aviaries are a tad on the large size at 10m deep, 2m wide and 2.4m high but to watch the interaction of the different species he keeps is indeed interesting.

He has created a number of microenvironments within the cages so that there are plenty of places for parrots, doves, finches and quail to live without being forced to live in each other’s pockets. Simply placing a couple of feeding stations in the aviary goes a long way towards the elimination of fighting over favourite food items. Because of its size he can provide a variety of nest boxes and nesting sites and it is interesting to note how the birds tend to segregate themselves in such a flight. The parrots (various Neophema parrots and their mutations) tended to be near ground level and on the middle perches while the doves sat up close to the roof or, in the case of the Rose-crowned pigeons, sat quietly in the thicker bundles of tea-tree. He has had few severe bouts on intra-specific fighting. OK, so not all of us can afford the space to build such a monumental flight let alone 22 of them, so what can we learn from this aviary? Maybe, regardless of the size of the aviary we need to allow the birds space and room to breed where they can be by themselves. Place the tea-tree for your finches at one end of the cage and your nest boxes at the other thus effectively separating the two types of birds. Also a few cut-down pot-plants or wire shaped into saucers will give your doves a place to nest away from the other birds. Sure it seems logical, but how many times have you been asked "why don’t my canaries breed" when their nesting cup is placed right next to a Cockatiel nest box or in the tea-tree surrounded by 100 Zebra finches!! Often a little fore thought and discussion with other breeders will save a lot of aggravation!! But be prepared to constantly alter the ‘plan’ of your aviary as you strive for that elusive ‘perfect harmony’. Also be assured for every point I make several readers will cite the opposite!
For our next point I will mention that the largest parrots that Kevin has in his spacious aviaries are the small Neophemas and where his Rose-crown pigeons are kept he has thickened up his tea-tree to provide more cover. Why?

Bird Sizes:
Surely I should be more worried about the compatibility of different species rather then their physical appearance? Let me use an example. You have built a 3m long aviary and it is a beaut and into it goes a pair of Cockatiels and a pair of Zebra finches, both fairly passive species. However, what happens when your birds get some fright and the birds panic, who is going to come off worse in a mid air collision – easy to pick that one!! I have seen a number of finches killed and/or suffer broken wings in such collisions. Also large pigeons and doves can tend to become ‘ballistic projectiles’ when disturbed and, again, it is the smaller finch that will suffer.

I have been guilty of this myself when I first purchased a pair of Californian quail and introduced them into a mixed aviary, 5 m X 4m, with plenty of thick grass cover on the floor. Imagine my shock when I returned to see how they’d settled in on dusk to see them sitting ON the perch in the middle of 20 very worried looking finches. I know birds are not supposed to be able to show emotion but the looks of trepidation they were directing towards these monsters in their midst could only suggest that they were preying that the quail were not feeling amorous!! My fault for not engaging in some research beforehand, shame on me!
This size difference really does need to be factored into any species selection as you can guarantee the finch-sized birds will fare worst. Neophemas, Cockatiels and, to a lesser extent, the Red-rump tend to be fairly passive in mixed collections but their sheer physical presence can deter some finches from breeding. Many finches tend to be nervous at best and sharing your ‘world’ with a birds 20 times your size is not conducive to great breeding results – add to that a very small aviary and you are bound to have problems. I have also seen the Princess parrot in an aviary with finches and, although a very passive species, their flight was enough to scatter the finches such that it was only a matter of time before a terminal collision occurred.

Fig.7. Silver King Quail. Fig.8. Purple-crown Lorikeet. Fig.9. Red-front Scarlet.

The Right Species:
Here I shall endeavour to list a few species that, I believe, would be best suited for a mixed collection for the ‘average’ sized aviary that a newcomer to aviculture might construct.

PARROTS:
The Cockatiel, Nymphicus hollandicus, would have to be a great starting point, cheap, bubbly and with a friendly disposition. Hardy and a free-breeder, comes in a variety of colours for the budding young geneticist to experiment with and easy to hand-rear.

The Neophema family is well suited to aviary life because of their smaller size and relatively docile nature. The Scarlet-chested (N.splendida), Turquoisine (N.pulchella), Elegant (N.elegans), Bourke (N. bourkii) and Blue-wing (N. chrysostoma) would be among the commonest and all come in a variety of colours and shades. In case you are worried about crossbreeding the rule of thumb is not to keep Turks and Scarlets together or Elegants and Blue-wings together – just to confound this I recently saw a Turk X Elegant, so make up your own mind on Neophema mixing!
The Red-rumped grass parrot, (Psephotus haematonotus) is one that I have kept in mixed collections and, apart from that one devious individual that enjoyed tossing Zebra finches, I saw little aggression directed towards smaller birds – in case anyone was wondering, he never actually damaged a Zebra finches, he simply enjoyed tossing them!! I am aware that other keepers have found them aggressive but I never saw this side of them and actually had an old male that systematically fed every nesting Cockatiel hen in the aviary!!

A number of breeders have placed Hooded (Psephotus dissimilis) and Golden-shouldered parrots (P. chrysopterygius) in mixed collections but mainly with the Blood finch, Neochima phaeton, and I feel I would not trust them with any other small finches. I suspect the Blood finch could hold its own in a collection of Birds of Prey!

The Little (Glossopsitta pusilla), Purple-crowned (G. porphyrocephala) and Varied lorikeets (Psitteuteles versicolor), are occasionally seen in mixed collections and many breeders state that they are inoffensive towards other aviary inhabitants. Their only drawback is their toiletry habits and one would have to be wary of a build up of their dropping on the aviary floor or around feeding stations lest you end up with fungal or bacterial infections – especially in warmer climes. On the positive side is the other birds getting to know about the nutritious lorry wet/dry foods that are fed to the lorikeets.

There are a number of parrots like Regents (Polytelis anthopeplus), Princess (P. alexandrae) and Superbs (P.swainsonii) that I have seen with finches but their size is, to me, a huge drawback in the mixed aviary.

DOVES:
As
previously stated I am biased towards the Masked dove, Oena capensis, for its peaceful disposition and the fact that it will remain fairly docile even in a small aviary. These guys will nest just about anywhere and are harmless to any finches.

The Diamond dove, Geopelia cuneata, is another favourite of many breeders as they are easily obtained, cheap and come in a number of mutations if you are that way inclined. In a small aviary they are OK but, as the aviary size is increased, so is their propensity to become very agitated and flighty.
Although never having kept them, I am told that the Talpacoti or Ruddy Ground dove, Columbina talpacoti, is an excellent dove for the mixed collection. They appeared to rate in most people ‘top three’ doves based on their compatibility and readiness to breed. However, some suggested they some individuals could be aggressive to other, smaller dove species.
My experiments with Peaceful (Geopelia striata) and Bar-shouldered doves (G. humeralis) were not an unparalleled success and these species were quickly returned to from whence they came, as they tended to be a trifle too ‘skittish’!!

The Green-winged (Chalcophaps indica), Rose-crowned (Ptilinopus regina) and Purple-crowned fruit doves (P.superbus) are becoming more frequently seen in mixed collections but, never having personally kept them, I can offer little comment – except to state that their size would be a warning to me.

However, if your aviary was large enough and you supplied plenty of cover, then you might have better luck although, during a recent conversation with Kevin Such, he did tell me that he had moved his Purple-crowned and Rose-crowned pigeons into their own aviaries after they appeared skittish whenever ‘strangers’ were near their aviaries and he feared that their behaviour might be deleterious to the other inhabitants. Maybe we then need to factor in this extra element of the birds reaction to visitors related to aviary size when stocking our aviaries – the more research we do the more ‘variables’ we must consider!

QUAIL:
Perhaps the best-known aviary floor inhabitant worldwide is the King quail, Coturnix chinensis, which is a free-breeder and able to be kept with a single male to 2-3 hens. They come in three colours at present, the normal, cinnamon and silver and all are commonly seen in bird outlets these days. Males can tend to be aggressive to each other and some will even kill their own young. However, once you have found a ‘good’ male you will find him a doting dad and he should help rear umpteen chicks for you!
If you have a good supply of live food you might like to try the Buttonquails and the Painted (Turnix varia), Black-breasted (T. melanogaster) and Little (T.velox) are the commonest of these presently available. Unlike the King quail the button quail parents actually feed their chicks directly from their beaks (similar to Plovers) with all manner of live insects. Also the female is the bigger of the two and the male does all the incubation and child rearing duties – in fact it is very wise husbandry to remove the female once the male is sitting on eggs.

Other quail that are included in many mixed aviaries are the Brown (Coturnix ypsilophora), Stubble (C.pectoralis), Japanese (C.japonica) and the Californian (Lophortyx californicus). The only drawback with some of these types is their skittish nature and, as outlined earlier, their size – notice I didn’t mention Bob White quail (Colinus virginianus)!! Also with the latter two, there is a tendency for them to be incubator reared which seems to remove many of their maternal instincts and many will leave their chicks and eggs, which can be very frustrating to the beginner.

The inclusion of a corner of tussocks and grasses can make all of these guys feel right at home and give them somewhere to hide and rear their youngsters. However, if it is downright tameness you want then stick with the King quail and, with a bit of training, you will have them taking mealworms and grubs directly from your fingers!

FINCHES:
When starting our mixed collection it would be wise to start with the ‘Big Two’, namely the Zebra finch, Taeniopygia guttata, and the Bengalese mannikin or Society finch, Lonchura domestica. These birds are fairly indestructible, cheap, bomb proof and available in a range of affordable mutations. Nesting Zebras usually show little annoyance at having their chicks handled and are great for getting younger children involved in the hobby. However, be aware that these birds can and will show aggression towards other finches, especially at breeding time, and try to keep their numbers to a manageable level. As an example I once culled my Zebras down to 4 pair in a very large aviary as I was leaving the state for a number of months but upon my return three months later, there were 165 ‘new’ members to the colony!! They will also take over other bird’s nests with great delight to themselves but great frustration to their keeper!

The Java sparrow, Padda oryzivora, is another affordable, free breeding finch that is often seen in a mixed collection. They appear fine with the previous two species but will interfere with the nests of more timid species such as Stars, Double Bars and Plumheads. They will also hybridise with other members of the Munia and Mannikin families.

The Canary, Serinus canaria, is an ideal member for the mixed collection due to its general confiding nature and quiet disposition. Arguable a ‘domestic’ species it is a free breeder and appears to show little aggression except to each other during the breeding season – especially if there are two or more males! Despite their great nature they can still be dissuaded from breeding by nest robbing raids from the likes of Zebra finches. If you were contemplating having a planted aviary I would suspect you would find that what the parrots don’t eat the canaries would as regards your greenery!!

Other finches that often find their way into mixed aviaries are the likes of Stars (Neochima ruficauda), Chestnuts (Lonchura castaneothorax), Double Bars (Taeniopygia bichenovi), Longtails (Poephila acuticauda) and Emblemas (Emblema picta) to name but a few local Australians. From the collective experiences of myself and many other breeders we have found that these, and other finches, do far better if kept well away from Zebs, Bengalese and Javas.

Hopefully we have presented you with some food for thought as regards that mixed collection you were contemplating. With a little common sense, a great deal of research and a goodly amount of ‘gentle interrogation’ at your next Bird Society meeting you should be in a position to assess what birds are best for you and, more importantly even, for each other in your proposed aviary regardless of its dimensions. Try not to add birds to your collection simply based upon their availability but rather be patient and seek out your species based upon aspects like compatibility, size, ease of breeding and the results of your research! With this in mind you should end up with a harmonious selection of birds, that is until the breeding season when you may have to reassess your choices based upon the reactions of the inhabitants to each other at this important, yet stressful, time of year.

Fig.10. Baby "Red" Zebs. Fig.11. Pair of Hecks. Fig.12. Zebbies!

For this reason try to create a number of small micro-habitats within your aviary that best suits the different species you plan to keep so that they can naturally segregate themselves should they need to. A couple of feeding stations at different levels and a range of nest boxes and logs to choose from should be a good start.
From your selection of different aviary species you will then be in a position to decide which is the best for you, are parrots the way to go, maybe doves suit your nature best? Ok, so they might not breed as well in a mixed collection but I like the variety and at least they are easy to look after anyway!

Perhaps a mixed collection of just finches is the way to go - but that’s another story!!

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