Fieldfares

 

Keeping & Breeding Fieldfares

by Donald Turner

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This was my first season with these magnificent soft-bills.


 

Where I live in Suffolk, this large migratory thrush arrives in huge flocks in late autumn, to escape the harsh Scandinavian winters.  The orchards near my house are home to hundreds of these vocal and stunning looking birds.  Feeding from the fallen apples and pears, that the farmer leaves to rot, these shy birds rise from the ground en-masse as soon as you enter the field.   


I have been interested in keeping these birds (and their migrating partners, the Redwing) for a while and decided to try to find a pair for breeding.  This was my first and biggest challenge.  Asking around the bird-keeping network, and putting various wanted adds out on social media and The Cage & Aviary newspaper, was proving fruitless.  I am sure there were a few being kept in the UK, but nothing was offered, none were being shown and nobody seemed to know anybody who kept them.  It seemed this was a variety of bird had fallen off the radar of UK aviculture.


In September 2017, I advertised for breeders on the continent.  I put a ‘wanted’ add on a Dutch website, (in Dutch thanks to google translate) which gave a result.  A nice couple from Antwerp contacted me and I managed to buy a, current year bred, cock Fieldfare.  All I needed now was a hen.  After a long campaign of searching I gave up hope for the forthcoming season.  To my surprise, and quite out of the blue, I was contacted by another breeder in Belgium who could sell me a current year hen.  Thanks to a good friend who collected my hen from Zwolle in February, I had a nice pair of young Fieldfares ready for the forthcoming season.


 

Housing


 

I put the birds together immediately in a 10x6x6 flight.  They had 3 solid walls and a half covered roof.   It was lightly planted and has an automatic watering system for daily fresh water.  This made plenty of mud on the natural earth floor.  Various half open nest boxes (8”x 8”) and baskets were supplied.  Some in the open and some under cover of large conifer branches. 


 

Diet

 

Like all my large soft-bills this pair received a dry diet of Remline pellets, cat/dog pellets and a few halibut pellets from the local tackle shop. Apples and Pears were supplied during the winter months. At the beginning of April they started to get a few mealworms, however they showed little interest in them.


 

Nesting

 

At the start of the season, I watched the couple every-day and observed no activity to make me think they would nest.  Although they seemed to have bonded as a pair, no carrying of material or fussing over a particular nest site was noted.  At the end of April, I went off to work for a couple of days (I often work away from home and thanks to my wife I can keep these birds at all).  On my return I was amazed to see a huge nest, built with a lot of mud and hay.  It was very large, crude and very scruffy.  They picked a site closest to the aviary door with no cover whatsoever.  The box had a small roof but the sides were open.   They laid a clutch of 6 eggs and started to sit when the clutch was completed.  My first observation was that the hen did not sit as tight as my other birds.  Whereas my blackbirds and thrushes would sit very tight, I would almost have to lift them to ring the chicks, the hen jumped off the nest as soon as I came near the flight for daily feeding.  She spent a lot of time off of the nest and the cock bird seemed to scorn her with constant chattering.  I was convinced that she had lost interest, or just immature and this round would fail. 


 

To my delight mid-May found four chicks hatch, albeit three days late.  The parents were fed mealworms and earthworms for raising the chicks.  The mealworms were hardly taken and it was obvious that earthworms were the preferred rearing diet. They were BBC M size rung at five days (now only three chicks) which were found to be a little tight. The birds were fat and healthy.  The daily regime of feeding mealworms and earthworms continued.  After two weeks it was time for the chicks to jump. The hen had already built another nest in a different nest box (again in an exposed position). 


 

At this time of fledging, it became obvious that something was not right.  One chick died (and left in the nest) and the remaining two seemed to be weak and not in full-heath.  The parents appeared to be acting as normal but they just seemed very slow in their development.  A further chick died just after leaving the nest and we got one survivor (this bird never seemed strong and later died at 6 weeks old).


 

I contacted both breeders in Belgium to see if they could give some advice on what had gone wrong.  I found out that both breeders hand-rear their Fieldfares, from 10 days old, due to the amount of live-food they consume during rearing and wanting more clutches.  The most experienced breeder suggested that the chicks suffered due to the parents being more interested in the new clutch and they just simply lost interested in them.  This made sense as the second clutch had been started before the first had fledged.


 

I felt frustrated by the loss and determined to try to get the next clutch raised by their parents.


 

The second attempt.  


 

By now, I found a couple of breeders in the UK who had experience of these birds.  They helped with their advice.  One raised their clutches on mealworms and pinkies and the other on mealworms and plenty of earthworms.


 

I felt this time I would double the amount of earthworms.  After some searching I found a couple of places where I could buy earthworms at very competitive trade prices.  This now made the ability to feed 3 handfuls of earthworms a day, viable.  


 

At 12 days, the second clutch hatched (sooner than the first round, but the hen seemed to sit tighter) and four chicks were alive and well. I rung the birds at four days as this breed seems to grow very fast.  The parents raised this lot faultlessly and fed the young on earthworms, maggots and mealworms.  The maggots I cleaned, added a couple of drops of cod liver oil and dusted with vitamins and calcium powder.  All four fledged at 14 days and seemed very healthy.  To my surprise within a week, mum went down on another clutch and again raised successfully another four youngsters (first four removed at two weeks from fledging). Due to the usual summer mealworm shortage the last clutch was raised on earthworms and maggots only.   


 

Conclusion


My first season with these birds was a real education, sometimes heart-breaking, but overall a great success.  These are the most beautiful of the thrush family and a joy to keep.  They are very placid when not breeding.  When a nest is present then the cock bird is more agitated and raises the alarm call at anything that comes near the aviary.  Feeding is the critical aspect, making sure that you get a good supply of earthworms at a reasonable price is, in my experience so far, the key to success.  Some people colony breed these birds or certainly keep them with other softbills and finches.  For me, I always prefer my birds to be kept on their own as it cuts out at least one variable when trying to work out best practice with breeding your stock. 


 

I will add, that I am far from an expert, but happy to discuss my experiences with anybody who wants to give these birds a go. 


Email. dturner63@me.com