Few groups of birds present a greater challenge to even the most experienced aviculturists than sunbirds. Maintaining these iridescent old world nectivores in good health in captivity is difficult enough; successfully breeding them is a feat indeed. Before the import ban this lack of breeding success might have been perceived as not a significant problem. Show benches were well stocked with immaculate cock sunbirds, sunbirds could be found in zoo tropical houses and private collections around the country and more were imported on a regular basis.
Those days have passed. Sunbirds can still be found, but the majority would seem to be elderly cock birds (an unfortunate legacy of the wild-caught trade is the predominance of males in the founding population) living out their last few years and dying without contributing to the captive gene pool. The future of these fascinating birds in British aviculture may seem bleak.
Yet sunbirds are bred; the Avicultural Society’s list of first breedings reveals that chicks from no fewer than eleven species have been successfully raised to maturity in British aviaries. Interestingly, the majority of these first breedings were achieved by private individuals rather than zoo collections. Perhaps this is hardly surprising- few zookeepers have the luxury of time to devote to a single pair of birds afforded to many hobbyists. Only a handful of zoos now keep sunbirds, even fewer make any serious attempt to breed them. Private breeders, both in the UK and the rest of Europe, continue to achieve isolated successes in breeding sunbirds, something attested to by the fact that young birds are occasionally offered for sale. If sunbird populations are to have a future in the UK, then the onus may fall to hobbyists.
However, isolated breeding successes are not enough. Many, many species no longer present in our aviaries have been successfully bred in captivity, sometimes on multiple occasions. For the ongoing survival of a captive population it is essential that any offspring disposed of are passed on to other knowledgeable and committed individuals, and ultimately given the best chance of breeding themselves. Furthermore, it is vitally important that captive bloodlines (which may originate from only a few founders) are carefully managed so as to minimise inbreeding. It will be a tragedy if these captive-bred lines ultimately dwindle and disappear as a result of poor management.
This is the backdrop to the creation of this Special Interest Group. For the benefit of those not already familiar with these groups, it should be stressed that this is not a studbook in the conventional sense; any keepers that chose to participate will of course retain ownership and control of their own birds. The end result will simply be a database of sunbirds kept and bred in the UK, with notes on ancestry where possible. Such a resource should, in theory, give keepers of lone sunbirds the best possible chance of acquiring mates for them and ensure that inbreeding is kept to a minimum.
The continued presence of sunbirds in European collections is important, and not simply because these birds are beautiful and fascinating avicultural subjects. If sunbirds disappear from our aviaries then there is a risk that the knowledge and skill required to keep and breed this family of birds will disappear as well. The majority of sunbirds currently in the UK belong to species which are still fairly numerous in the wild. There are other species, however, which face a very real threat of extinction and captive breeding projects may yet be necessary to save them. Such projects would surely run far more smoothly if guidance could be sought from bird keepers with invaluable practical experience.