Mon. Sep 26th, 2022


The name of this large and diverse group of birds derives not from the texture of their bills – which are not soft and may inflict a painful bite if the bird manages to grab hold of a finger – but from their nutritional needs, in that hard seed does not feature in their diet. Softbills are fed on softbill mix, as well as on fruit, invertebrates and, and in some cases, nectar. The housing need for softbills vary widely but the size of the birds gives valuable insight into their relative hardiness. Smaller individuals, such as sugarbirds, are not sufficiently hardy to live outdoors throughout the year in temperate areas and will require additional heating and lightning through the winter period. Softbills can be kept as part of a mixed collection but they may not always agree amongst themselves: much will depend on the species concerned.


Based on the dietary requirements of the different species, there are three recognised sub-divisions. There are the nectivores, which rely mainly on nectar to meet their nutritional needs; the frugivores, feeding largely on fruit; and the insectivores, which eat mainly invertebrates. These categories serve only as a general indication of feeding requirements; all softbills require a variety of foodstuffs in order to remain in good health and to breed successfully.

The size of these birds is significant in terms of their care. The smaller softbills are less hardy than larger members of this group and will always require heated winter accommodation in temperate areas. Additional lightning, to extend the feeding period to twelve hours, will be important in latitudes where shortened daylight hours occur throughout the winter.

A planted aviary is recommended and they must have a water container or small pool for bathing purposes, as well as separate water for drinking. Good hygiene is vital for nectivores in particular; sour nectar can rapidly cause serious intestinal upsets. Dirty drinkers are likely to give rise to the fungal infection known as candidiasis. An affected individual will often hold its bill ajar and a cheesy growth within, a characteristic of the infection is evident on closer inspection. Treatments include using a specific anti- fungal preparation but beware because an outbreak can spread rapidly from drinkers.


The requirements of hummingbirds may be too specialised for most bird-keepers, although some dedicated fanciers do keep and breed them successfully but there are a number of other attractive nectivores that are more straightforward to care for. The sunbirds, for example, are often considered to be the Old World hummingbirds’ equivalents. They share a number of characteristics, including iridescence on their plumage in many cases and long, narrow, pointed bills to probe into flowers for nectar. However, sunbirds cannot feed in flight while hovering, but must perch for this purpose. Sunbirds found in Asia have a reputation for being difficult to keep because they are more insectivorous in their feeding habits than some of their African relatives.

In most cases, sexing is relatively straightforward because cocks are usually more brightly coloured than hens. The difficulty stems from identifying the species or age of hens correctly; in most cases they are all very similar. It helps to refer to a specialist field guide with coloured photographs showing the prime distinguishing features of species.

MALACHITE SUNBIRDS (Nectarinia famosa)

The malachite sunbird is one of the most distinctive species, with the long tail feathers of the cock bird accounting for about half its total length of 15 cm. Like others of their type, these sunbirds feed on a diet of nectar and small insects such as young crickets; sometimes the birds will take a fine-grade insectivorous food and sponge cake soaked in nectar.

In aviary surroundings, the hen will build a large, suspended nest, often in a clump of bamboo, using a range of materials, including spiders’ webs and moss. A single egg will be laid inside the nest. Young fledgeling sunbirds are similar in size to their parents but they do have noticeably shorter bills.

Breed Box
Length                    15 cm
Incubation period   14 days
Fledging period      14 days
Clutch size             1 egg              

PURPLE SUGARBIRDS(Cyanerpes caeruleus)

The purple sugar bird originates from northern parts of South America. It feeds mainly on nectar, although diced fruit and a fine-grade softbill food should also be provided daily, along with livefood such as crickets. Sexing is very easy – males are purple in colour whereas hens are mainly green. Young birds resemble hens but odd purple feathers on the head enable young cocks to be identified before they have fully moulted. Pairs may build a nest within a nesting basket or small nest box.

Breed Box

  • Length                    10 cm
  • Incubation period   12 days
  • Fledging period      14 days
  • Clutch size              2 eggs

BLUE DACNIS (Dacnis cayana)

The blue dacnis is found over a wide area of Central and South America. It has similar habits to the purple sugarbird, although its bill is shorter.  Cocks are an attractive combination of blue and black while hens are green. As in the case of other small softbills, these birds are not hardy and they will require protection from the elements.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    13 cm
  • Incubation period   12 days
  • Fledging period      14 days
  • Clutch size              2 eggs


Not all softbills are colourful but their interesting habits and attractive song compensate for lack of vivid plumage. In here, most are relatively hardy, once properly acclimatized but this may take a couple of years and it is important to have contingency plans in the event of severe weather.

The birds can be shut inside, if necessary, although they do not need to be confined in cages. Softbills in general are very lively birds and they will need to be housed in spacious surroundings if their feather condition is not to deteriorate through inadequate flight exercise.

GREATER HILL MYNAH (Gracula religiosa)

The hill mynah is widely kept as a pet. Although unrivalled for the clarity of their speech, these members of the starling clan are messy by nature and so are usually accommodated in box type cages. It is important to start out with a young mynah as a pet. These are often advertised as ‘gapers’ because of their habit of begging for food.

There are different subspecies of different sizes. Breeding is not too difficult. Provide a large nest box lined with twigs. The hatching period is 15 days. At this stage, adult birds become more insectivorous than usual, with the chicks ultimately fledging at about a month old. It is not common for two clutches to be reared in succession. Early chicks should be removed when they are independent.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    30 cm
  • Incubation period   15 days
  • Fledging period      28 days
  • Clutch size              2-3 eggs

EMERALD STARLING (Lamprotornis iris)

Iridescence is a feature seen on the plumage of many starlings, particularly those of African origin. The emerald starling from West Africa is a typical example of this group; its predominantly green colour looks especially striking in bright sunlight, as do the reddish-purple areas of plumage. Visual sexing is not possible. The bird ranks as one of the smallest of the glossy starlings. Like other members of the group, it is a keen bather, which helps to keep its plumage looking sleek.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    20 cm
  • Incubation period   14 days
  • Fledging period      23 days
  • Clutch size              2-4 eggs

BLACK – HEADED SIBIAS (Heterophasia capistrata)

The black-headed sibia originates in the Himalayan area of Asia, which makes it relatively hardy once settled in its surroundings. These sibias will thrive in a planted aviary and can become quite tame, often to the point of feeding on mealworms from the hand. Visual sexing is not possible.

Conifers are a good choice of plant for sibias. They may even use pine needles to form the outer structure of their nests, lining the interior with softer materials. Pairs are best housed on their own for breeding purposes and should not be mixed with smaller companions who may be bullied, particularly when nesting is imminent.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    25 cm
  • Incubation period   14 days
  • Fledging period      14 days
  • Clutch size              4 eggs


Unlike the smaller softbills, members of this group, especially those which originate from the more temperate latitudes, are relatively hardy after they have been properly acclimatized in their surroundings. However, all species will still require a heated, well-lit shelter during the colder winter months. A number of species of large softbill may be at risk from frost-bite in some climates, if they are allowed to remain out in the flight. Most large softbills are aggressive by nature and should be accommodated in individual pairs rather than in large, mixed groups. Do not attempt to keep large softbill species in the company of smaller companions.

RED – BILLED TOUCAN (Ramphastos tucanus)

Originate from parts of Central and South America. First and foremost, it is vital to use only a low iron softbill food or preferably softbill pellets, to safeguard against the premature demise of the birds from iron-storage disease. Diced fruit should also figure prominently in their diet, along with livefood such as large crickets, mealworms or dead day old mice.

It is not uncommon for a male toucan to persecute the hen intently at the start of the breeding period if she is not immediately responsive. It may be advisable to remove the male to separate accommodation until the hen is showing obvious signs of nesting activity.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    50 cm
  • Incubation period   20 days
  • Fledging period      56 days
  • Clutch size              2-3 eggs

RED – BILLED HORNBILLS (Tockus erythrorhynchus)

Red-billed hornbills are originated in Africa. Its small size, in comparison with other hornbills, makes it makes it suitable for a garden aviary. Sexing is reasonably straight forward; the cocks have a swollen area, described as casque, on the top of their bill.

Although primarily insectivorous by nature, these birds eat a range of foods, including low-iron mynah pellets, diced fruit which they swallow whole and berries of various types.

The breeding habits of these birds involve the hen being walled up inside the nest by her mate for some of the time, to protect her from predators like snakes. Damp mud and clay should be provided for this purpose. The male feeds his mate through a slit in the mud wall, although towards the end of the nesting period, when the young require more food, the hen break outside to assist in feeding the brood.

For much of the remainder of the year, hornbills are very inactive, sitting with their heads hunched down on their shoulders. This is a normal posture and not a cause for concern. Although hardy, it is absolutely vital that hornbills are made to roost in a warm shelter when the temperature outside is set to fall below freezing, because these birds are prone to frost-bite, which will cause the loss of toes and can lead to difficulty in perching.

Breed Box 

  • Length                    45 cm
  • Incubation period   not applicable
  • Fledging period      70 days
  • Clutch size              4-6 eggs


The Ultimate Encyclopedia of Caged and Aviary Birds by David Alderton

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