By Nigel Hewston
First Published in The Avicultural Magazine Vol. 105 No. 1
Copyright © 1999 Avicultural Society, Published with Permission

The sibias of the genus Heterophasia are medium-sized crested babblers from south-east Asia which arc much more arboreal than many other babblers which appear in aviculture. The sibia which has become most familiar to European aviculturists in recent years is the BreedingBlack-headed SibiaBlack-headed Heterophasia desgodinsi. Those imported from China are of the nominate race and are sleek birds about 9in (22cm) long with grey upperparts, glossy blue-black head and short crest, white throat, pale grey breast, white belly, pinkish grey flanks, black wings with a white bar and a fairly long black and grey tail. The eyes, bill and legs are black. Males and females are identical in appearance but the male has a pleasant song of eight notes, falling in pitch rather mournfully at the end.

There has been some understandable confusion among aviculturists about names for sibias. When H. desgodinsi first appeared in British aviculture it was generally called the Black-capped Sibia by dealers to distinguish it from Heterophasia capistrataH. capistrata, the pinkish rufous sibia with a black head from the western Himalayas which had previously been widely kept as the Black-headed Sibia, though Howard and Moore (1984) refer to it as the Black-capped SibiaBlack-capped. To add to the confusion, a photograph of H. desgodinsi in Cage & Aviary Birds was captioned as the Grey Sibia Heterophasia gracilisH. gracilis. Howard and Moore and King and Dickinson (1975) use the name Black-headed Sibia for Heterophasia melanoleucaH. melanoleuca which they consider conspecific with H. desgodinsi , but C. R. Robson (pers. comm. 1998) in a forthcoming field guide to south-east Asian birds, sensibly splits H. melanoleuca, which he calls the Dark-backed Sibia, from H. desgodinsi (the Black-headed Sibia) and uses the name Rufous Sibia for H. capistrata. Incidentally, the bird known until now as the Rufous-backed Sibia Heterophasia annectans H. annectans, which has very recently appeared in captivity in Britain, is now thought to be not a sibia at all but a minla.

I obtained my first bird in November 1995. It had been hatched in 1993 by Peter Walker who published details of this first British captive breeding (Walker, 1994). This bird came as a male so I acquired another established bird which had not been heard to sing in about two years with its previous owner. These two agreed well but the following summer passed with no song or other breeding activity and I became convinced that I had two females. In February 1997 a dealer offered an established true pair, and though sceptical about dealers' true pairs, one bird was definitely singing so these two were installed in the flight next to the females. After about two weeks the obvious male became aggressive to the other bird so these two were separated and each housed with one of the females. Both immediately began to sing so I now had two pairs. They remained in adjacent flights, both pairs sharing with Red-crested Turacos Tauraco erythrolophus, Silver-beaked Tanagers Ramphocelus carbo and Omei Shan Liocichlas Liocichia omeiensis plus White-collared Yuhinas Yuhina diademata in the case of one pair and with Japanese Waxwings Bombycilla japonica in the case of the other and both pairs at various times with Palawan Peacock Pheasants Polyplectron emphanum, Necklaced Hill Partridge Necklaced Hill Partridge Arborophila torqueola or Wonga Pigeons Leucosarcia melanoleuca.

These are active and acrobatic birds which are obviously largely insectivorous and catch a lot of their food on the wing (they have a useful liking for wasps), but they readily take a variety of foods in captivity including Universal Food, soaked mynah pellets, chopped fruit (especially pear), soaked sultanas and mealworms. In the wild they, and other sibias, also take nectar and berries (C. R. Robson pers. comm. 1998), frequenting as they do forest edges where flowering and fruiting trees and shrubs are more numerous than in dense forest. They are hill birds, and though not occurring up into the coniferous zone like the Rufous Sibia, they are quite hardy and can be kept outdoors all year round. My aviaries have enclosed shelters with minimal heating and the sibias have usually used these for roosting in winter but have sometimes roosted outside with no apparent ill effects in the parts of the aviaries which are roofed and screened on three sides.

In June 1997 the pair which included the captive-bred female built a rather flimsy nest, mainly from coconut fibre, in the base of a large but very open willow basket in a fork in some dead juniper branches about 1.5m (5ft) above the ground. One egg, blue with indistinct red-brown blotches, was laid on July 5th. The female looked sick after laying and incubation did not commence until the 8th, apparently by the female only, and was very erratic, even after the male started to assist two days later. After a couple more days, incubation became much more consistent but was again carried out almost exclusively by the female (now looking much better) for the rest the incubation period. The egg hatched on July 24th, and the chick was fed by both parents on insects caught in the aviary plus waxworms which were taken by both parents and white-skinned mini, then regular mealworms which were taken only by the male. When the chick was nine days old grasshoppers were introduced. These were offered in an aquarium, and taken only by the female, probably because the waxworms ran out at this point. Grasshoppers are obviously not a natural food for these arboreal birds, and she was initially unsure how to deal with them and took a very long time to remove the legs etc., before taking them to the nest, in contrast to Omei Shan Liocichlas which deal with grasshoppers very quickly. Her efficiency with and enthusiasm for grasshoppers increased quickly and she continued to feed these to the chick while the male fed mealworms. Both parents took food items to the nest one or at most two at a time, and always turned them so that they lay along rather than across the bill before approaching the nest, also in contrast to liocichlas which carry beakfuls of insects puffin-style to the nest The chick fledged at 17 days, flying and perching well and apparently almost as large as its parents but with its tail about one-third grown. It had a pale yellow gape and less, and duller, white in the wing than the adults. A few days after fledging both parents were seen to feed the chick with sultanas. It was still being fed with insects and mynah pellets three weeks after fledging, by which time its tail was fully grown. In September the female once again looked sick and was found to have a distended abdomen, a condition which I now realised had been present throughout the breeding season but which I had noted as a change in her stance and plumage without identifying the cause. She did not respond to treatment and post mortem examination showed gut abnormalities probably caused by an earlier alimentary blockage or injury.

This pair showed little aggression to other birds in the aviary, which measured 4.25m x 4.85m (14ft x l6ft) with a 1.5m x 1.7m (5ft x 5ft 6in) shelter. The female of a pair of Silver-beaked Tanagers would have been killed if not removed, but only because she insisted on trying to build a nest close to the sibias' nest. A male Omei Shan Liocichla was also removed when it was seen inspecting the sibia chick very closely on the day of hatching. The male tanager, female liocichla and seven waxwings were ignored unless they were close to the nest. There were no turacos in the aviary during breeding.

The young bird over-wintered with its father and in the spring of 1998 they showed some interest in nest sites, but only seemed to visit the sites independently. In May they fought and the younger bird was removed to an adjacent flight. I had not heard the bird singing but suspected that it might be a male so was reluctant to put them together again. Subsequent observation failed to produce any definite indication of sex and I am now sure that this bird was a female.

The other pair got no further than carrying nesting material in 1997, but early in May 1998 became seriously interested in building a nest on the end of a large perch at the most exposed end of the aviary. After a few days it was apparent that they were determined to use this site so a wire basket was fixed up, screened from rain and predators with correx and minimal conifer cover. This was adopted immediately and incubation of a clutch of three eggs began ten days later. This pair, housed in a 7.3m x 3.6m (24ft x 12ft) aviary with a 2.4m x 1.2m (8ft x 4ft) shelter, were much more aggressive to other birds. A White-collared Yuhina was found dead the day after the nest site was put up, so its mate was quickly removed. A pair of Silver-beaked Tanagers and their newly fledged chick were next on the hit list and these were also removed. Some male liocichlas had already been taken out when the tanagers nested to reduce competition for livefood, leaving only a pair of Red-crested Turacos and a single Wonga Pigeon. The sibias confined the turacos to one end of the aviary (fortunately the end containing the turacos' nest and access to food and shelter) for the whole of their nesting period. The pigeon, surprisingly, was usually tolerated quite close to the nest.

After 14 days incubation by both parents one chick hatched in the morning and the second was hatching in the evening. The third chick was assumed to have hatched the next day. On the first day the parents were catching flies etc., but not taking white mini mealworms, but they were soon taking waxworms, white mini and regular mealworms and even brown-skinned mealworms when necessary.

Fledging was the most difficult period. The first chick fledged on June 10th at 15 days. It appeared to have returned to the nest at night, but when the other two fledged the next day they could not be persuaded to do likewise nor to roost anywhere else safe. Wherever one settled the parents would clear the area of turacos, and the turacos in escaping would disturb, or in one case attack, one of the others. The weather was also far from pleasant and the chicks were placed in a small cage in the shelter overnight. The next morning the parents were shut in the shelter and the chicks let out of the cage. After a week the pop-hole was opened but the first chick to venture out took flight when the pigeon flew, hit the wire and fell down concussed. It looked close to death but after a while in a box it was able to stand and was released back into the shelter (where the other sibias had been reconfined) and made a complete recovery. The next day the pop-hole was re-opened but only slightly so that the adult sibias could get out but the turacos and pigeon could not get in, and the young sibias were unlikely to get out.

This worked well and the next day the adults were adding material to the nest. This pair also used mainly coconut fibre, but also grass, moss and some finer material for lining. They relined the nest, so substantially that they really built a second nest on the first one. After a few days the young birds were also given access to the flight. On June 29th an egg was laid from the perch, and another laid in the nest four days later was incubated for two days before disappearing. To avoid disturbance by the young birds these were removed on July 11th, about a month after fledging, but another egg laid four days later also disappeared. A final clutch of two eggs laid on July 25th and 26th or 26th and 27th did produce a chick which hatched on August 10th and fledged on the 25th. This bird unfortunately died with a respiratory infection at the end of October.

The three first-round young continued to thrive and proved to be males. Two were singing by the end of July and the third early in August. The first started quietly but soon became an accomplished and vigorous singer, the second started with the first half of the song and gradually progressed to full song, while the third stuck with the first half. During this period these three were housed together (with no friction), in sight and sound of their parents, the other adult male and the 1997 female which may have stimulated them to sing so persistently at such an early age.

I assume that the behaviour of the second pair was more typical, with incubation shared, though Walker records that only the female of his pair incubated. Both my pairs chose relatively, in one case conspicuously, exposed nest sites when more secluded sites were available. Neil Owen (pers. comm. 1998) also bred H. desgodinsi in 1998 after removing two birds from a large well planted aviary because they had shown so little interest in breeding that he thought they were two females. On being moved into a relatively bare former parrot aviary the male began to sing immediately, and the pair had a nest in a few days and reared two broods.

I was able to exchange young birds with Neil Owen and have also passed on young and adult birds to another experienced Avicultural Society member who already has some unrelated birds. I have reluctantly decided not to continue with this species as it is too aggressive when breeding for my community aviaries. It is a good subject for establishment by keepers who have flights for individual pairs. H. capistrata bred in Britain from 1925 (Sheriff, 1925) through to the 1970s when it bred for Gordon Illsley, Chester Zoo and R. Franklin, and into the 1980s with Alan Griffiths, but seems unlikely to be with us much longer. If a few breeders take an interest in H. desgodinsi it may persist in our aviaries after the current trade boom in birds from China, which surely cannot be sustainable, has subsided.

References and Bibliography

  • Howard, R. & Moore, A. (1994). A Complete Checklist of the Birds of the World (Revised Edition). Papermac, London.
  • King, S.F & Dickinson, B.C. (1975). A Field Guide to the Birds of South-East Asia. Collins. London.
  • Sheriff, A. (1925). Avicultural Magazine, 1925:185.
  • Walker, P. (1994). Breeding the Black-capped Sibia. Foreign Birds, 60, 1:5-6.