Pekin Robin : Care and behaviour


The Pekin robin, Leiothrix lutea, is a sparrow-size songbird also known as the Pekin or Chinese nightingale due to its lyrical song. Though it bears the same name, it bears no relation to our native Robin of the thrush family – the name robin originates with the yellow or orange breast feathers.
It belongs to the family called the Old-world babblers or Timaliidae. Its native habitat covers a broad area across Asia from China through Myanmar (Burma), Tibet, and Nepal, preferring temperate ranges with plenty of ground shrubs. The Chinese consider the Pekin robin, like a fish called the Asian arowana, to be very good luck when kept in the home. These are ancient traditions that will not be forgotten easily. Therefore it is not surprising that Hawaii, San Francisco and New York, the Asian cultural centers in the United States, were the largest ports of entry for the Pekin robin trade. At least they were until the birds were placed on the CITES II list, an action that prevents the importation of the Pekin robin into the Unites States’ pet trade.

To the embarrassment of U.S. Pekin robin trade, owners and breeders took the abundance of the animal for granted, and as a result, neglected to maintain a core breeding program, an all too common occurrence in the pet industry. Currently, few breeding pairs remain in North America and Europe, despite being an abundant and popular cage bird for many years. In the wild, the only North American population of note occurs in Hawaii, where a large Asian population created a demand for these birds beginning in the 1920s that resulted in the Pekin Robin’s release into the Hawaiian wild and the establishment of a non-endemic population.
During their importation boom in the continental United States, which began in the 1960s and continued through most of the 1980s, Pekin robins were a pet-industry phenomenon because people loved their song. Partially due to their immediate popularity, pet stores and importers sold them as average cage birds like the adaptable Zebra finch or canary, put them into cramped cages, and fed them seed-only diets. Very little thought was given to teaching proper care, and it’s likely that the sellers didn’t know how to care for the bird either. Half of the blame lies with the stores selling animals without instructing customers as to their proper care, Cheap pets, unfortunately, are also typically given cheap or half-hearted care by the average pet owner.. And as surprising as it sounds now, the Pekin Robin fell into the category of “disposable” pets for many years. Proper care ultimately came with experience, time, and the eventual motivation of scarcity.
Still today, those keeping Pekin robins often keep them in cramped cages. They are flighty and somewhat shy birds in the wild, especially during breeding season when the hormones take over and territory becomes an issue. To house a single bird in small cage stationed in a high-traffic area creates a stressful situation. In order to provide a healthy environment, these birds must be given proper space. Given the appropriate situation, Pekin robins become social birds that will aggregate and interact with their own kind in small groups. People generally use the label “cage-birds” for finches, canaries, and the Pekin robin because they perceive hopping from one perch to the next the extent of the bird’s activity. When the needs of a captive animal are met and exceeded they become more than just a furry or, in this instance,  winged tchotchke; they display individual personalities and behaviors that are revealed only to the patient and caring owner.


No matter the cost of an animal, we as pet owners should appreciate the presence of new life in our homes rather than basing the extent of our care on monetary cost. Too often we don’t learn how to really care for an organism until outside influences, like scarcity, force value upon it. As a result of all the non-planning that takes place while animals are an abundant commodity in the pet trade, hundreds of species have been brought into captivity without a plan to maintain the genetics of their wild heritage short of continued extraction from the wild. The Java Rice finch is an example of a species that has lost its way in captivity so that very little of the wild phenotype remains, but we are relatively powerless to correct the divergence. The inability to import new specimens, as with the Pekin robin, is only one possible scenario that proves why our pet trade should be based on a captive breeding program, whenever possible, without reliance upon the wild population for replenishment. At times, breeders must return to the wild stock to bolster the genetic makeup, but to take a dimmer view of the world in which we live, our population is expanding at alarming rates, destroying natural habitats and pushing much of our wildlife to the brink of extinction. Our zoos, aviaries, aquariums, and even our homes will soon be the final sanctuary for many of Earth’s beloved animals. Sometimes pet owners forget that, in a sense, they are wildlife curators as well and their efforts help preserve an animal’s legacy.
People that buy birds without prior care knowledge often have them die of malnutrition. Do not confuse this with a lack of food; it is lack of proper food and/or too much stress at a young age. In the unfortunate case of the Pekin robin, they were more difficult to care for than most cage-birds and didn’t sell for enough to warrant, to the average owner, the extra cost of proper care. It’s a sad tale that has repeated itself many times over the history of the pet industry. Much has changed, however, now that it is harder to import many species of animals and plants as a result of the CITES (the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species of Wild Fauna and Flora) agreement.

The Pekin robin’s natural range spans the Western Himalayan Mountains of Kashmir through Tibet and Nepal. It is also established in the pet trades of Hawaii, Gran Canaria, Tenerife, and the Canary Islands. It is currently listed as a CITES II animal in its native habitat, which makes it virtually impossible to import, but they are still caught for the cage trade in Asia – this certainly won’t help their status in the wild. This has already been a problem with various species of Asian turtles that are now at immediate risk of extinction.
Weighing in at about an ounce, the Pekin robin is an insect and frugivorous (fruit-eater) bird that also eats some seed. This dietary diversity makes them a little messier than you’d expect for their small stature. Their active nature is not unlike most fruit-eating birds. In the wild they would perch together at night but remain fairly solitary during the day, hiding among the underbrush. Based on this description, it is not hard to determine that they need large quarters with a few hiding places and if possible a source of dripping water with a drain. For their diet, keep a supply of fruit and insects on hand. Crickets, mealworms, wax worms, fly maggots are all expected menu items in any respectable diner that caters to the Pekin robin.
Without any generally observable phenotypic sexual dimorphic characteristics, sexual identities are determined through their song. Females don’t sing. Where the Pekin robin encounters trouble in captivity is that the males will sing even under duress. This doesn’t happen with many birds and often confuses owners who assume the bird would only sing when content. They then do not eliminate the stressors in their environment because Mr. Pekin robin is singing his little head off. He just seems so happy! Unfortunately stressors are slowly killing the poor bird. It almost sounds like a pilot for a veterinarian-based spin-off of the television show House.

Like many birds, the Pekin robin learns to sing by appropriating sounds from their environment made by their own kind. The learning process involves mimicry as well as instinctual, genetically fixed behaviors. They can also learn different vocalizations when singing to defend territory, mate or scold. Pekin robins learn to sing at a very young age, but if they are hand reared away from others of their kind, they may never learn to sing at all. Although it is just speculation, it would not be far-fetched to assume that a Pekin robin without song would have difficulty mating – calls and songs stimulate hormonal responses in the opposite sex. The male bird’s ability to communicate may be absolutely necessary to initiate successful reproduction.
On a related note, many breeders will foster Pekin robin eggs and chicks to other finch breeds that can be counted on as tenacious and reliable parents. This practice must, as we have discussed, affect future breeding patterns because these birds are not learning to become Pekin robins. We’re left to wonder how Romulus and Remus fared well enough to found the city of Rome, as legend has it, after being reared by wolves. Perhaps this wild, learned genotype is why Romulus couldn’t help but kill his brother.
Pekin robins typically lay three eggs and nest among groups of upright branches – in an outdoor flight, Cinquefoil, Cotoneaster, Spirea, and Wegelia are plant varieties that provide some of their preferred places for roosting in a captive situation. The female sits the eggs at night, exposing her feathers so that the nest is camouflaged. Pekins make dutiful parents when they are not excessively disturbed.


Simply by looking at their beaks, you can tell a lot about a bird’s dietary preferences. Darwin conducted one of the really elegant studies of the bird evolution during his visit to the Galapagos when he noticed that the finches all seemed to have certain similarities in body structure except for one widely varied characteristic – the shape and size of their bills. This led him to correctly describe the evolutionary process of the Galapagos finches as originating from a single species. This was an astute observation and an application of a clinical observation by one of the greatest naturalists of all time.
Pekin robins, like the Waxbills and Mesias, use their particular brand of beak to eat nectar, fruit and/or insects. Some will eat seed, but if you take a close look at their beaks you can see that they really aren’t well adapted to seed eating, nor are these birds adept at digesting seed. Seedeaters have short strongly set beaks while insect and fruit eaters have longer and more slender bills. If you’d like to do your own research, compare the beak of the Pekin robin to that of two Australian grass finches that are common in the pet trade, the Zebra and Gouldian finch.

Gouldian finch
Most softbills (not finches but many other small birds) require a side-plate of bugs. Even though we may not be partial to keeping any sort of bugs in our homes willingly, the added nutrition and activity that insect feeding inspires in your Pekin robin will be more than worth the effort. Insects are just a part of the overall balance in the softbill diet; however, because they eat such a variety of goods in the wild, managing the variety in their diet is just as important. As an example, offering a strict diet of mealworms fed with bran can disrupt the calcium to phosphorous ratio because of the high phosphorous content of the bran. Crickets should be fed a more balanced diet geared toward the animal they will feed so that they might impart that balance to the birds they are grown to feed. For this reason it is worth learning how to raise a few bugs yourself, but if you’re like most of us, you’ll just prefer to buy them at your local pet store. And that works as long as they are properly gut loaded.

Housing

Some subspecies of Pekin robins hail from mountainous regions and are tolerant of cool or cold weather. Other subspecies come from warmer climates and would require an acclimation period before tolerating any cold. Breeders need to be aware of the ability of their birds to withstand temperatures and should provide the proper environment.
To be an accomplished breeder of these birds, you will need a healthy amount of space. Few birds are as active as the Pekin robin; therefore, begin with something like a 6’ cube with a foyer to prevent escapes. Many different designs prove conducive to Robin breeding, but above all else, make sure that the wire warps are small enough to keep rodents out and that the footing of the aviary runs deep enough in the ground to keep those interlopers from trying a reverse prison break underneath the wire and into your enclosure.

This King's Small Flight Cage provides the minimum amount of space for a pair of Pekin Robins.
If you’re lucky enough to obtain a pair of Pekin robins as pets, you would do well to house your birds in a small aviary of at least 3’ x 5’ wide by 3’ x 5’ tall with plenty of furniture and perches on which to roost. The King’s Small Flight Cage (shown) should be the smallest variety considered. And if at all possible, do not keep only a single bird in a cage by itself. They are social birds and appear to enjoy the company of their own kind when they are not breeding. In short solitary confinement does not suit them well..

Behavior

The behavior of birds in a captive breeding situation is difficult to predict. Some pairs tolerate only themselves. Some allow other pairs in the same enclosure. If pairs become combative, often a third pair acts as an arbitrator, once again restoring marital bliss through the kingdom. Disputes all have to do with territory and the division thereof. Other softbills have a tendency to display aggression towards smaller birds; this aggression could merely disrupt nesting or, in a worst-case scenario, lead to the death of the weaker combatant. Until more is known about the Pekin robin’s behavior towards other species, they should be kept strictly within colonies of their own species and watched closely for aggression.

There are few breeding pairs of Pekin robins available. Per conversations with some breeders, we learned that Chinese families own many of the remaining stateside Pekin robins because they regard the birds as symbols of luck. The number of birds in familial situations is unknown, but however many there are, we hope that they are in good breeding situations to help replenish our breeding programs so that more people can enjoy the company of Pekin robins.  Currently it appears that the only source of wild breeding stock for US hobbyists comes from Hawaii. The one hope hobbyists have is that some of the breed groups, like the National Finch and Softbill Society, will begin to develop studbooks for each species of birds kept in captivity in order to help perpetuate these species for the future of finch keeping. In the long run, breeders and hobbyists alike need to be more cognizant of the needs for quality breeding programs.

Pekin robins now sell for upwards of a $1,000 per pair. As a point of comparison, Hyacinth macaws, Palm cockatoos, and Major Mitchell’s cockatoos, three large and rare species of parrot, sell for upwards of $15,000 each. As a result of a 1992 U.S. Fish and Wildlife restriction on parrot importation, every parrot being sold today comes from domestic breeding programs, and with the door closed so tightly, it is difficult to find breeding stock to further develop proper captive breeding programs. This sanction, though it means well to protect the many species of globally endangered parrots, will unfortunately cause the disappearance of stateside captive parrots altogether unless some quality breeding programs are established here in the U.S. The story goes on. The Queen of Bavaria conure, the Red-fronted macaw,  the Spyx macaw are a just a few examples of the parrots endangered in the wild whose replenishment may be hampered by the strict CITES I shipping restrictions because those with the desire and ability to help build captive breeding programs are unable to acquire the necessary specimens. Sometimes our zest for preservation runs counter to common sense.

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