My Thirty Odd years with
the Red or Hooded Siskin

(Carduelis cucullata)

By Don Coombe

Distribution: North-eastern Colombia, Northern Venezuela and Trinidad. Introduced into Cuba and Puerto Rico.

In 1964 I had my first interstate trip primarily to see other State's aviculturists and their collections. I remember this well as the Beatles were in Adelaide at the same time. Firstly, three of us went to South Australia and had a good look around and then back to Victoria. We met some really good people who were most helpful to us, one of whom was the late Fred Lewitzka, of South Australia. He was, at the time, curator of birds at the Adelaide Zoo.

Fred was the first person in Australia to breed the Orange Bellied parrot. I also think he was the first to breed the whitebellied scarlet, all in his own private collection. Also part of this collection were, Golden Shouldered parrots and Red Hooded Siskins. I had not seen these in the flesh before and I, and my friends, were rapt. I made up my mind I would have to have a pair of Siskins. Despite all the advice and warnings I received for their well being, care and feeding nothing could have prepared me for the heartache that followed.

The Siskin is as hard as nails once acclimatised to its new aviary and surroundings but their requirements must be met. For instance, if the seed and water have been a certain height off the floor or on the floor this must be duplicated because the bird will starve to death if it can't easily get at its food as it doesn't try real hard to seek it out. This behaviour, of course, is not hard and fast with all Siskins, but because it is too late after the bird is dead it is best to try very hard to copy its previous home.

Fred told me all this and much more about its food which was the basis of me starting with the Siskins. At the time he also told me how rare the Siskin was in Australia. Although my memory is starting to dim I think he said that about four other aviculturists in Adelaide has these birds, also a lady in Sydney and a couple of Victorian aviculturists. I guess even if one doubled the number because of unknowns, then the Siskin today can certainly be considered established. I have heard that there are more Siskins here in aviculture than any other part of the world.

It is very rare in its natural state and is fully protected. In fact in Australia, it is required to be registered on the Exotic Bird Registration scheme. That could be a mistake as a lot of Aviculture is driven by the almighty dollar, and this registration fee seems to have had the effect of reducing the Siskin's value and along with the registration scheme of $30 could have the effect of deterring would-be keepers of this bird from doing so.

Some of the aforementioned heartache is brought about by the bird's habit of not continuing to brood the young at night anytime from 3 days to 14 days old. This is my observation from my early days of keeping these birds. It does, of course, vary as to the type of aviary these birds are kept in and anyone who has heated aviaries has a much better chance of rearing the young. Leaving the young is one of the most common reasons of failure to rear. There are many other reasons and several aviculturists I know in Queensland say it is still common for the young to die and believe me it must be warmer there than here in Tasmania.

In early days I kept them in planted aviaries and still do today. I'm sure I could rear many more young by changing their habitat but that's the way I keep my few pairs and I get a few young every year by being observant, and trying hard. I have fostered them under canaries and also the Black-headed Siskin. The latter bird does a terrific job of foster parenting and although a much bigger bird with bigger eggs they have reared mine from hatching. However, they cannot be kept with Red-headed Siskin because they will certainly hybridise as I found out. I never found any imprinting from this fostering.

Another method is to take the young inside of a night and replace them in the nest the next morning, but this involves the watching of the hen up until nearly dark to make sure she is not going to sit that night, also to make sure the chicks have had a late sustaining feed for the night. I used to do this religiously in my early days of keeping these birds. Then the next morning I'd be up early and put a hot hard boiled egg in their nest to warm it up before replacing the chicks and the parents would always feed them. Believe me, I earned my early birds. One year I had eleven young off a couple of pair.

In the early days I had followed Fred's feeding schedule of niger, maw and crushed sunflower. He said always have plain canary available as at certain times of the year they change their diet so all this I did and then found that they took plain cake and maggots. Fred had access to white ants. We don't have these in numbers to sustain constant feeding, ours are true white ants. Fred's live food were in fact termites which are not found in Tasmania.

I accidentally trod on some garden snails and found that the Siskins fed off these a fair bit after they dried out. I told Fred and others and received all sorts of warnings about flukes on snails but it seemed to apply to water snails only.

I didn't find out whether the Siskins had eaten the meat or shell or both, anyway in fact, I must say that Siskins seem to live to a ripe old age in most cases. However, they are susceptible to air-sac mite and mosquito bites. I have had a couple of Siskins that their feet swelled up and toes fell off and I suspected mosquito damage. Strangely, that was years ago, it must have been a particularly bad season.

Back to feeding, I had the pleasure of meeting a big breeder of Siskins in a suburb of Perth, Western Australia who does not believe in feeding crushed sunflower but breeds a lot of young Siskins and starts a lot earlier than we in Tasmania. The season here can start in September and usually goes until March. Our first frosts can occur in March.

On the subject of heat we have aviculturists here in Tasmania who do really well with Siskins in an enclosed aviary. One aviary has a large flight with gravel floor, water bowls and perches, then a partition with a centre opening that gives birds access to the inside room with tea tree lined walls for nesting sites. In there is their seed and various live foods, such as small meal worms and bush fly maggots and a covered oil filled heater.

Not only the Siskins but other exotic birds do exceptionally well in this situation. There are shutters over the wire openings from the outside that are opened in the day and closed at night. The aviaries in Perth that I saw were part opened on the roof as are mine, but they have different night temperatures I am sure.

Another way I keep the young birds warm is a very clever device designed by a Northern Tasmanian aviculturist. It is a pipe 2025mm wide by about 2.4m high with a heavy base. On this is a vertical travelling and locking unit that has on it a ceramic socket to take a 150 watt porcelain globe. This unit can be placed near a Siskin's nest and the heat only globe can direct the heat centre about 450-600mm to the nest of young Siskins. This support is only needed through the night and by working it closer as the hen sits she gets used to its proximity and when she doesn't sit, providing you have observed she is not going to sit, it can be switched on late afternoon and turned off early in the morning. This unit has been a life saver of many young Siskins.

I would say if you are prepared for some heartache at first, until you get to know the best way to look after your Siskins at breeding time then they will at least stay healthy for you for a long time and should be fertile for up to eight years or so. As they get older they take on more colour or the hens do. There is a fair difference in the colour of cock birds from light orange to a beautiful, almost red, colour. Colour can vary a lot even though they all have access to the same food.

I run several pairs to an aviary although single pairs would perhaps do better in smaller aviaries.

For nesting material I use clean very fine teased and chopped sheep wool (I use scissors to do that), plus cotton wool and coconut fibre, hessian and hot pipe legging. All this nest building material must be pinned or pegged in a wire netting purse or any other method that holds it firm as the hen will only take small pieces at a time. Nests vary in height from the ground and can be in any situation, though they seem to prefer dead bracken fern and brush.

I think the cock bird finds the nest spot and the hen builds the nest with virtually no help but lots of attention. I have found that the hen Siskin will finish her nest then wait about 4 to 5 days before she lays. This used to play havoc in trying to get foster canaries and I would have to pull the canaries' nest apart several times to coincide with the Siskins. If I wanted to put the young Siskins in the canaries' nests after they had been part reared by their parents I planned 4 to 5 days in age in front of the canary because of the length of neck stretch for food. The Siskin's neck isn't as long.

When the hen Siskin is ready to lay she will usually lay 2 to 4 eggs. Fertility is approximately 50 to 80% and sometimes 100% from 4 eggs. Four young are really to big for the nest size but, of course, are very good to see. The hen nest feeds and broods alone until the young birds fledge, although some cock birds will help feed in the nest and some will only feed after fledging. In most cases I think the young survive because of the hen.

Once out of the nest young birds are a worry. In my aviaries if the weather turns bad, you will always find the young in the most vulnerable place for the night's roosting, always as high as they can get and always in the open and as they sit very still it's very hard to see them to move them to a better spot.

So, from all this you can see it is better to have them in a controlled situation unless you are prepared to really look after them. These birds are wonderful inmates to any aviary and if you are prepared for the challenge then they are most rewarding. The cock has a beautiful song and really rivals canaries with whom they will also cross, hence the origin of the Red Factor canary.

Many years ago I did cross a canary hen with a spare cock Siskin hoping any young hens would be a good foster parent for rearing Siskins. Strangely enough, I reared four young, all hens, and none proved any good at nesting.

Well, that's about all I can recall in my keeping Red Siskins but these days I still enjoy keeping and breeding from several pairs of this delightful bird.

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