The Red-cheeked Cordon Bleu.

This little piece of African delight is without doubt one of the most popular of the exotic finches available to us here in Australia – and with very good reason.
Their superb blue colouration offset by the bright red cheek patches in the male makes it a stand out in any collection of finches and they are simply known as the Cordon here in Australia.

The ‘blue waxbills’ are represented by the Cordon Bleu and the Blue-capped waxbill in Australia with the Blue-breasted species having long since disappeared. Of the two species the Cordon is the cheapest and most freely available with the Blue-cap much dearer and with a highly variable availability – also known as the ‘heart-break finch’ in many circles with very good reason!!!
However, overseas it appears that the Cordon is the rarer of the two species and highly sought after and concern was expressed by many recently about a ‘suggested’ trade in this species out of Australia – reasons for concern as many pointed to the fact that, currently, trade is all a one-way street with no finch imports in the foreseeable future. Plus, given the costing for import and its status overseas, it would seem unlikely that the Cordon will be high on the import list.
Add to that the volatile nature of the political situation in many African countries and you could see what Australia may be being eyed as a source for these and other exotic species. Maybe we should all ensure such ‘desirable’ species are well represented in all our aviaries lest there be even a modicum of truth to these export rumours?  My 2 cents worth!!
Mind you the beautiful Cordon deserves a place in any collection for its own beauty and temperament alone!

The Cordon is a relatively free-breeder as long as you factor in that they are members of the waxbill family and that cute pointy beak is designed with insects in mind! Sure a few breed them without live food but I would say they 98% do much better with the inclusion of some form of live food. They do much better on maggots/pupae than their cousin the Blue-cap and many pairs even prefer maggots to mealworms. Mind you they do have the highly annoying habit of decapitating all the mealworms in the bowl rather than just the ones they are about to eat!!
When nesting they are drawn to fine Swamp/November grasses to make the outer structure from and will line this with small feathers (mine seem to prefer white feathers although some state that black feathers are preferred.) and even the shorter Emu feathers. I once saw a Cordon nest in the Hunter Valley of NSW with the outer shell made entirely from short lengths of string that were provided for the cup nesters in the aviary – a brilliant little ball!!
We also tend to provide a variety of grasses for them to choose from as Swamp/November grass can be very brittle when dry and can tend to fall apart – especially with nests from young first-time breeder Cordons.
The actual nest resembles (with a little imagination!!) a small round bottle with a “neck” of longer grass and feathers or maybe a tennis ball with a fuse!!

Some will use wicker nesting baskets but most of the ones I have had over the years prefer to build their own nest in the Tea-tree. I have not had them nest in boxes but there will, no doubt, be a first time for this now that I have said it!

When young are in the nest the parents will hawk the live food bowls and leave you in no doubt as to the fact that they have young in the nest!!

Ours are fed mealworms (kept in pollard not bran) and maggots/pupae and do not appear to be as termite addicted as some insectivorous species.
To give you a little more insight into breeding Cordons I thought the following enquiry I was sent might be beneficial:

“Marcus, I have Cordon Bleus in my aviary and I think that they have young but wondered if there was any way I could be certain. I have read of your preference for nest inspection but feel that this is the wrong way to go. Do you have any other way of telling that I could try?”

“Well, it’s really very easy to detect whether they have youngsters or not for as soon as the chicks hatch the parents will hunt the live food bowl looking for insects to feed their brood.
Most pairs that I have had over the years exhibited this trait but there may be some that may not so we’ll call that Plan A shall we?
Plan B occurs a bit later on for as soon as the chicks reach fledging age the parents will begin an incessant “chatter” as soon as you go near their aviary. This may be to tell the chicks to hide because the big bad finch person is coming (laden with goodies for their sole benefit I hasten to add!!) to “kill” them or maybe it is to threaten us that if we go near their chicks they will “attack” us and muscle up to us with that ‘massive’ beak and tear……..ok, you get my drift!!  Whatever may be the case they will leave you in absolutely no doubt as to the fact that they have fledglings nearby almost ready to take their maiden flight.
Be remiss of me not to add a note of warning here of not to touch the nest once you hear this ‘warning’ as the chicks are primed ready to evacuate at the slightest moment…….the task of trying to get 4 or more baby Cordons back in the nest while keeping the first lot you shoved back in there from ‘reoffending’ is not for the faint of heart or intemperate of tongue!!!!  On a more serious note, throw in a cold night and you could/will end up with a few casualties.
I read in a study some years back that a similar scenario is seen in the Masked Plover where the parents will walk away from fresh eggs in the paddock but as they feel the embryo developing in the egg the aggression level increases with it from simple vocalisations up to full-blooded attacks when the chicks are “free-ranging” and the day the chicks actually hatch both parents will become homicidal maniacs!!!
Oh, and as a behaviourist, I add that Plover aggression is all show as a bird their size colliding with a person our size is a no-win contest for the Plover!!! However, just like humans, there are a lot of short-sighted Plovers out there so remember to duck – just in case!!!!!
Mind you I don’t think a Cordon ‘coming at you’ would elicit the same response as a Plover descending like a Ju87 ‘Stuka’ dive-bomber! As usual I digress slightly!!

So timing is your key I guess Stella. You need to keep your aviary records so that you know when they started sitting and when you can expect to hear the parents telling you they have chicks and if in that time you don’t then maybe you might reconsider nest inspection and throw out the clear eggs or dead babies!!
Nest inspection is much maligned (as you’ve (maybe!!) rightfully pointed out!!) but I’ll leave that alone suffice to give you some advice from “me ole mate in the Hunter Valley” who said to me many moons ago “Son if yer gunna check their nest then don’t let them see you doing it if you are worried about their reaction.” As it has turned out very wise words indeed but then he is “the main finch man” after all!!”

For the record too – scientists tell us that birds have a poorly developed sense of smell so we can rule that factor out for nest desertion maybe.
That is just a brief insight into a few traits that we have gleaned from them over the years and it might help someone with their own Cordons.

Normally between 4 and 7 eggs are laid and usually what hatches is reared to maturity but I stress that larger clutches can also depend on the availability of adequate levels of live food in their diet.
Ours are fed Elenbee Seeds ‘Clifton Finch Mix’ and ‘Clifton Tonic Mix’ plus green seeding grasses & green foods when available and a regular soaked/sprouted seed mix with the Lowes Veggie mix added.
Cucumber is provided and they relish this and, as with all my birds, clean water is a must and is changed daily!
This species is particularly eager to consume my African Waxbill seed mix (as can be found in issue
??? of ABK) and it contains many of the small seeds that their wild cousins feed on in their natural range. For the record it is composed of:
Guinea Grass – Panicum maximum
● Sabi Grass – Urochloa mosambicensis
● Signal Grass – Brachiaria decumbens
● Bambatsii Panic Grass - Panicum coloratum
● Purple Pigeon Grass – Setaria incrassata
● Red Panicum – Panicum milaceum
● Setaria Grass – Setaria viridis (Bristle grass)

Once upon a time I used to separate the sexes during the winter for fear of egg-binding but these days I keep them together since ‘inventing’ Polly’s Calcium Mix and have just fledged my largest nest in mid-winter. Consensus appears united that Cordons breed best from 1-4 years of age with clutch size and fertility declining after this.

Young Cordons are relatively easy to sex straight from the nest as the cocks are brighter and have a larger expanse of blue but this rapidly disappears as the fledglings mature and they are then not readily sexable again until the red cheek patches of the males begin to appear.
There does not appear to be a large discrepancy between the sexes but the heavy demand for hens is often as a result of breeding with young hens too early – usually as a result of replacing a lost adult hen with a very young hen which is then placed in with a mature cock bird that is ready to breed. The inevitable happens and the cock attempts to drive the hen to nest far, far too early and no amount of calcium mix will often prevent egg-binding. Allow the young hen to mature and many of your problems with ‘soft Cordon hens’ could be avoided.

For those that have a low opinion of the Cordon and call them soft I always remember an article I read when I was researching my Honours project that concerned a study on Cordons in the wild. It was a long time ago but I think the paper was by the late CJ Skead who wrote copious amounts of material on many African avian species.

The study area was a Banana plantation in Africa somewhere and it housed a population of 65 potential breeding pairs of Cordon Bleus. Sorry but it was so long ago that I have an inability to remember actual events but it turned out that of these pairs only 3 actually successfully fledged young in the study period! I did attempt to search out the box in the ceiling that housed all my scientific papers from that time only to find the native insect population had rendered them useless!!
Predation, weather, inexperience, infertility, loss of a pair member and a host of other reasons were responsible for this, to me at least, stunning figure!
Apologies for the vagaries of the reference to this work but it was the figures more than the title that has made it stick in my mind!
Also must admit this paper made me feel much better about my own somewhat ‘humble’ results with the species at the time and determined to do much better in the future. Guess I now know that to be successful with any finch species it is necessary to read as much as is possible on that bird and to try to be ‘innovative’ in creating diets and the likes for them.

A pied mutation of the Cordon is available in Australia but there appears to be a desire to seek out pure strains these days. Not a fan myself of adding white to an otherwise stunning bird I must admit. I am told that the pied Cordon is a dominant mutation by several breeders and a recent email suggested that it was a fairly rare mutation in North America.
I have also been told about Cordons where the male has yellowish cheek patches but have not seen these birds first hand although believe it is an established mutation in Europe.

Many will tell you that only one pair to an aviary is the rule but I have bred with 2 and 3 pairs to a flight and had little trouble after the initial squabbles none of which were life-threatening. In a large flight several pairs will breed together and my best breeding has been in just such a lose colony if you will!
I have successfully used Cordons to foster the rarer Blue-capped waxbill and they do so with ease. In fact mine even kept the young Blue-caps in the nest until they were much more developed than their own young normally would be. Once fledged I had no losses from these fostered birds.
If you are considering doing this I suggest that you supply large amounts of live food for a comparison between the crop contents of parent reared Blue-caps and Cordons will show you that the seed content is vastly reduced in the case of the Blue-cap. To partly compensate for this I fed the Cordons used for fostering a much greater and varied live food content than for normal pairs of Cordons – so far so good!!

Guess there leaves little to say but to suggest to those that have never kept the Cordon that they are missing out on one of the true ‘jewels in the crown’ of the exotic finches available to us.
It would be a very sad day if through our own negligence, pursuit of ‘rarer exotics’ or general avicultural lethargy that such a species should ever disappear from our aviaries. A step up into the world of insectivorous finches for some or an essential part of any finches keepers menagerie – whatever the reason for keeping them let’s all ensure that they remain with us forever!!
However, any discussion of the Cordon would be incomplete without a warning of the perils of ‘dabbling’ with the Blue Waxbills – remember the Blue-capped waxbill has probably broken more ‘finchaholics’ than any other species in the history of finch aviculture in this country!!!!!
More of that particular species at a later date!!