rand avicultural society
conservation through aviculture

Pekin Robins & Silver Eared Mesias
by Gordon M Duncan©

The small, colourful, inexpensive and easily cared for Pekin Robin is probably the best known and most widely kept of softbills in aviculture. In their native countries single cocks of both the Pekin Robin and its more aristocratic cousin, the Silver Eared Mesia are widely kept as cage birds for their singing ability. This may be the reason for the scarcity of males in our importations.

These little birds are responsible for many a keeper of foreign finches purchasing their first softbill, and it is only a small step from there to a fully fledged collection of softbills.

Species and Origin
In the Genus Leiothrix there are only two species, the Pekin Robin (L. lutea), in six subspecies, and he Silver Eared Mesia (L. argentauris) which occurs in eight subspecies.

Both species are found in the Himalayas, Burma, Thailand, South & East China, Kampuchea, Vietnam and Laos. The Silver Eared Mesia is also found in Malaysia and Sumatra. They are active birds, moving about in medium to large flocks with other species of babblers. They seem to prefer the undergrowth, not being birds of the treetops. At breeding time they split up and establish territories as pairs.

Neither of these birds is aggressive. When not breeding they are totally inoffensive and can safely be housed even with birds as small as waxbills.

Even when breeding, they will only defend the immediate area surrounding their nest. They can often be kept, even with their own kind, without problems of aggression. If the aviary were too small for each pair to establish their own breeding territory, I would recommend one pair of Pekin Robins or Mesias per aviary.

Unfortunately they have a reputation for stealing eggs and small babies out of smaller birds’ nests. I, personally, have not experienced this problem, but it is probably as well not to house them with breeding waxbills, just in case. Certainly with birds their own size and larger, there is not a problem.


These birds are amongst the easiest of softbills to feed. When not breeding, a simple mixture of mixed diced fruit, grated carrot and Avi-Plus is adequate. Use ”Mynah and Softbill” as a maintenance diet and “Finch and Softbill” in the breeding season. The addition of five or six mealworms or maggots (very well cleaned) per bird per day completes your maintenance diet. The live food is not necessary but is a great help in taming the birds.

When the birds are breeding you must increase the live food to almost unlimited quantities. Mealworms, termites, well-cleaned maggots, silkworms, moths, crickets and fruit flies are all suitable. A little finely minced raw meat and hard-boiled egg can also be offered. All foods should be dusted with vitamin, mineral and calcium supplements to prevent deformities in the chicks.

Of course it goes without saying that clean drinking and bathing water must always be available.

Pekin Robins and Silver Eared Mesias are hardy birds. Once acclimatised, simple open fronted shelter and flight accommodation is adequate in the South African climate. A small aviary of 2m long by 1m wide and 2m high would adequately house a single breeding pair or a small non-breeding group. A much larger aviary (about 6m long by 2.4m wide by 2m high) would probably house two or three breeding pairs without serious problems.

As these birds are totally harmless to all plants, the aviary should always be planted. It looks better and also gives them interesting areas to explore. Plants have the added advantage of attracting insects that the birds will soon discover and eat.

Considering the tens of thousands of Pekin Robins and thousands of Mesias that have been imported over the years, and considering the ease with which these birds breed, it is a crying shame that we still need to import them at all! We should be totally self-sufficient with established aviary bred strains by now.

The biggest problem in breeding these birds is in obtaining true pairs. The visual differences between the sexes are subjective. Males are brighter, redder or more colourful than females. A bright, colourful female might look like a male! And a dull or young male like a female! Differences in shading in the various species add to the confusion. Without surgical sexing, the only way to distinguish is by the cock’s song. Have your pair surgically sexed and you will be sure.

As spring begins to approach, change to the higher protein diet. Also increase the live food proportion of your birds diet. Provide half open-fronted boxes (budgie size), wicker baskets, wire baskets and dense bunches of brushwood. Hang these at various levels in both the shelter and flight area. Conceal them in and behind the plants. Provide small twigs, coconut fibre, pine needles, fine grass, moss and small feathers for nest building.

You will soon notice that the cock is singing continuously and courting his hen. They will build a very neat little cup-shaped nest and lay 3 – 4 pale blue eggs, spotted with red. Both sexes will incubate and the chicks will hatch in 14 days. Live food, and LOTS of live food, is now essential. They will not feed anything but live food for the first week, and experience has shown that day ten seems to be the greatest danger time. Thereafter the normal diet will gradually be incorporated.

The chicks fledge at about two weeks, but are still fed for a considerable time by their parents. Watch for aggression by the cock once the chicks become independent, as the breeding pair will probably want to start a new nest.

Howard, R. and Moore, A. A complete Checklist of the Birds of the World; Macmillan, London, 1984
Vince, M. Softbills: Care, Breeding and Conservation, Hancock House, Surrey, 1996

If you wish to breed Pekin Robins and Silver Eared Mesias, invest in a good book, or buy a video such as Birdkeeping the South African Way or consider joining a bird club like the Rand Avicultural Society.

The members of the Rand Avicultural Society meet at the Honeydew Country club Tennis club section, No 1 Boundary Rd Honeydew, Johannesburg on the LAST TUESDAY OF EVERY MONTH, except December.

If you wish to find out more about the club then click back to RAS introduction page.


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