The Rufous-backed manikin Or Now You See Me, Now You Don’t!!
By Marcus Pollard

No, don’t worry, my medication levels are fine and I’ve not had six too many Largers either!

The odd title reflects what many finch keepers in Australia call the "drab bird syndrome" which has seen many of the less colorful finch species approach the abyss of avicultural extinction and, sadly, for far too many of them to even hurtle over the edge never to be seen here again.

Grey singers, Silverbills, Bronze-wing manikins, Mexican Rose finches to name but a few but hopefully we can prevent the Rufous-back from joining them!

So, as you may have guessed from that somewhat unflattering introduction, the Rufous-backed manikin, Lonchura nigriceps, is a rather non-descript species lacking in red, blue or green – much favoured bird colours all!
Despite this I find them striking with their pure white front, black head and neck and brown back and wing covers. The wings and flanks of the body also contain small black and white flecked feathers which creates a very neat package! However, I am the guy who would rather have a Plum-head finch over any Gouldian finch so could be that I am just plain ‘genetically’ biased towards these "lesser lights"!
Now this ‘package’ hailing from Somalia, Kenya and south through Rwanda and Tanzania may only be around a diminutive 7-8cms from beaks tip to tails end but do not let appearances fool you for this can be one mean finch!
You know how most finches when handled appear terrified – well, these guys simply try to rip your finger nails off as they have no propensity or time for any such fear of humans!!

Sexing is relatively easy as the males tends to have a larger mandible and if you flip them over a check out the underside of the beak where the male tends to have a wider, more rounded curve to the mandible whereas the hen’s beak is far narrower and the curve more pointed.
The males beak overall is usually notably larger than that of the females
This method of sexing is oft muted for the entire Lonchura family but the Rufous-back is by far the easiest I’ve found to sex this way with reliability. Good luck applying this to the "new" Javan munias though!!
If you are still undecided then the next port of call is to check out the tail where the male has far more banding than the female – usually the males banding extends across the tail in an unbroken sequence.
Doug Hill also informs me that only the male sings like many of the Lonchura species.
Trust us, these guys are really not that difficult to sex even for the novice!
Failing this for a relatively meagre sum these days one can get the bird’s blood or feather sexed.

In the past it was simple possible to order half a dozen, leg band them with 6 different coloured rings and release them at the same time into a neutral flight – it appears the days of simply ordering 6 is now long over unfortunately!

When drawing comparisons between members of the Lonchura Family the Rufous-back adopts a different stance to most of the Nuns and Munias we have here. Whereas the later all stand fairly ‘vertically erect’ on the perch and look mildly nervous when observed closely the Rufous-back adopts a more horizontal pose – perhaps to make it easier to launch themselves towards any unwitting avian target of their choice!!

Now many of these others in the Lonchura family are kept as little colonies with this being especially true for the Nun group here in Australia but there are a few points worth considering when contemplating the same scenario with the Rufous-back.
If going down the colony route then you must introduce your birds into the aviary at the same time.
I don’t say this lightly as I am one that abhors the use of words such as "you will/must/have to" or "they will/won’t" in regards to anything finch-related – except worming of course which you MUST do – but we all know that now don’t we??!!
If deciding upon 3 pair of birds then these should all be liberated into the aviary at the same time. You may still lose the odd one but if you put 2 pair in today and the third pair in 2 days time then best to dig a small hole as the third pair will occupy it around 5 minutes after you release them! Why a small hole? Basically because all you’ll have left of the last two birds will only need a very small hole!!
When we didn’t know any better we once obtained 3 birds and placed them into a holding cage and then sourced another 2 birds which were placed into the same cage some 2 weeks later – hey, we were young and didn’t know any better! They lasted less than the time it took us to take the dirty water bowl out, wash it and return with clean water!! Lesson learned!!
Completely scalped!

Now you may feel that this information will arm you for "wrangling" this species – sit back down and keep reading, long way to go yet!!
Hard luck story number two may also save you some aggravation too!
Once obtained 3 pairs from a friend in Queensland which were quarantined together and released into a 3X1.2 metre flight complete with wicker baskets and Tea-tree nesting sites. Beautiful, did all the right things and the birds proceeded to produce 13 youngsters between them with all 3 pairs sitting on a new round of eggs or chicks! Too easy these Rufous-backs! Arrived home from work one evening to find a scene reminiscent of Custer’s Last Stand with massacred Rufous-backs everywhere with 2 cock birds the sole survivors – or should that be perpetrators!!
Why the brain snap who will ever know! However, it does suggest to one and all that if you do intend to house a small colony then you need a larger flight.

Stage two involved placing these 2 male survivors into a mixed 6x7m flight with 2 unrelated females that were luckily lurking in another flight.
All 4 released at the same time, no obvious problems and pair bonding was immediate. Nesting commenced – mind you they nested as far apart as they could get in such a relatively large aviary - and young produced by one pair. Great! Well, would have been if the other pair had not systematically slaughtered all four babies!
Now, this time, finally, both pairs bred at the same time and fledged young at the same time. No problems, all youngsters survived and no further attacks observed.
Working on an oft tried principle that the more of an aggressive species you have in a colony the less real trouble you have – the theory as explained to me is that the more in there the less an aggressive bird can fixate on a particular "opponent" to persecute to death! Basically, put bluntly by my Aussie mate, the more in there the less they remember who they were the most ‘pissed-off’ at – have seen this used with really aggressive species like the Madagascar weaver and the Cuban finch to great effect.

The current colony I maintain has around 20-30 individuals and it is rare to find any birds killed as a result of overt aggression – so far so good. Mind you many may not want that many birds but I’m sure you can extrapolate this information to the size of your own flock.
Thus saying ‘natural selection’ is swift if a bird appears off-colour as its colleagues usually hound them when they are less able to defend themselves – a typical bully-bird reaction I guess.
Again a last piece of advice would be that when wishing to introduce new blood to your colony you would need to start a new colony in a neutral aviary. I feel it would be premeditated murder to release your new blood lines directly into the pre-existing colony itself!!
Needless to say really to other experienced fincho’s out there but please do not place these guys in an aviary with other members of the Lonchura Family as this species does not need a load of useless and possibly sterile hybrids at this stage of its somewhat perilous status in our Australian aviaries.

OK, that should forewarn you about the potentially homicidal nature of these birds to their own species – not meant to put you off just giving you the facts as we’ve experienced them.
Now I’ll buck the oft recorded writings here and say that I’ve never had them interfere with other species of finches or attack them in any way. I’ve bred them in with Cordons, Orange-breast and many of the docile finch species without mishap.
Since establishing my own colony there has been no reduction in the breeding of other species in with them either.

However, many others have found the exact opposite and a mate not 10 minutes down the road disposed of his colony some years ago because of their aggression towards every and any thing that moved in the aviary – regardless of their size too I must add!!

Breeding & Nesting:
So, if you’re still reading on then this is the important bit!!
They will utilise any form of nesting receptacle you have in the aviary but many prefer to build their own complete structure in the aviary brush.
Many nests are completely constructed from Swamp/November/Blown grass with a liberal lining of feathers – especially fond of Emu feathers and have seen nests completely woven from these and nothing else!
Yes, unlike many of the Lonchura family these guys love feathers with which too line their nests – a great ‘innovation’ for nesting down here in Tasmania!
Some pairs will construct a nest in parts with an outer woven shell of green grass covering a finer inner structure of Swamp grass and feathers.

In recent discussions with this species a good friend concurred that having a wide variety of nesting arrangements is essential for numbers of this species housed together in a colony and he suggested that he used floor to ceiling branches of Tea-tree to achieve this. He also stated that they nested in a wide variety of distances from the floor and did not seem to have any preference to nest in higher areas.

If nesting in a box or wire cylinders they will still usually construct a woven nest unlike many box users.
Once the young have hatched the signs are obvious with a large pile/wall of droppings building up in the nest entrance. The young are also very vocal. Nest inspection appears to be tolerated and, anyway, like most of my finches they have to ‘get used to it’!
As younger hens tend to lay a few infertile clutches it is useful to toss such eggs and let them try again.
Around 3-5 chicks are the norm in my birds.

Another word of warning here is to NOT touch (yes, I did just write that!!) the nest when the chicks are older as they ‘abandon ship’ at the slightest provocation. Once out they tend to scatter to the four corners of the aviary and it is the epitome of futility to try and get them back into the nest. Also if they are breeding in winter then it is a death sentence if they leave the nest too early so breeders beware – in fact I would tend to discourage them from breeding during colder months because of this habit of the chicks scattering when they first fledge. Unlike many species the young tend not to congregate together after they leave the nest - a clump of young Painted firetails may be able to survive on the floor by huddling together but a single Rufous-back has no hope!

The young seem to co-exist quite happily together and do not appear to display any overt aggression towards each other.

Our birds are fed on Elenbee Seeds Clifton Finch Mix with added Red panicum much favoured by the Rufous-back and the other smaller Waxbills.
Soaked/sprouted seed is freely available as are mealworms and maggots although the Rufous-backs do not appear to depend upon live food as much as many of the Waxbill group.
When feeding young green food is relished and our birds are fed the three species of Ehrharta grasses – E.longiflora, E.calycina & E.erecta – along with Rye and Chickweed. When grass is unavailable they will nibble at Cos lettuce and Endive but, in common with the majority of finches, prefer the grasses.

All birds have access to my calcium mix comprising powdered Bird/Pigeon Vitamin Mix, Canundra shell and Oyster grit and fresh water.

So basically I trust I haven’t scared you off these little chaps as they are a welcome addition to any collection IF they behave themselves. As mentioned they appear harder on members of their own species than any other particular finch types – in my humble opinion for what it’s worth!!
Size of the other finch means nothing to these guys either and they will see off any Orange-breasted waxbill that approaches their nest with as much venom as reserved for the largest cock Chaffinch!!

It would appear that these guys are becoming highly sought after in Australia again at present as is always the way once any species starts to become harder to obtain. Let us hope that some breeders will not succumb to the lure of the dollar and keep building their colonies up so that they may swap blood around and ensure their long term survival in our aviaries for future finch keepers to fully enjoy.
Avian history has oft demonstrated that breaking up a colony for dollars alone can often result in the loss of some finch species.
Let’s strive together to ensure that this little African native remains with us for a long, long time yet!!