“Softbill” is a generic, non-scientific term for any family of birds that eats a soft diet. This includes birds that eat meat, insects, fruit, nectar, leaves and flowers, or any combination. Some birds may fit the description but are not usually considered softbills, like birds of prey, and lories or lorikeets. It’s easy to see how the term “softbill” can quickly become confusing, as the definition is somewhat arbitrary.
However, once the terminology is sorted out, looking at softbills can open up a new world of fabulous birds for your home, though some are better suited than others. Small-to-medium sized softbills are often the best choice for the home or aviary. Tiny softbills- like hummingbirds- may be very difficult to care for, and large softbills- like toucans or hornbills- can be very demanding for space and money, not to mention cleaning supplies.
Softbills have very different needs than the more common canaries, finches or parrots. Before committing to adding any softbill to your home, please thoroughly research what your species requires. Many species need home-made diets that take time to prepare, or are messy when eaten or when squirted out the other end. Softbills are often more expensive than more popular companion birds. However, most people can find at least one species that could suit their lifestyle.
Many softbills can suffer from something called “iron storage disease”, where the body stocks up too much iron from their food. Please take care to ensure you are offering your softbill the correct diet. Parrot pellets or finch seed is inappropriate for almost all softbill species. Some companies offer a special pelleted food for softbills, but they still should not be offered as a complete diet.
Here’s a brief look at a few popular softbill groups:
Aracaris and Toucanets
These are small members of the toucan family, and generally make better house pets and aviary birds then most toucans. Both aracaris and toucanets have a number of species (and colours!) to choose from. They are active birds but cannot climb, so should be offered a large aviary with room to flap and jump from perch to perch. When hand-raised these birds can be very companionable, however, their mostly fruit diet does cause quite a mess! Both also relish insects and other protein sources. They are generally not compatible with other species, as they may bully (or eat!) smaller birds and raid nests for eggs.
Mynahs and Starlings
These intelligent, often brilliantly coloured, birds can make great pets or aviary subjects. They are generally insectivorous, but very much like fruit and vegetables too. If hand-raised, mynahs may be excellent mimickers, and starlings are not far behind. Generally, mynahs are a little plainer and with a slightly calmer disposition (though this is relative- these birds are very active!). Many tropical starlings are simply breathtaking, though many are too skittish to make affectionate pets. Both may bully smaller or shyer birds in the aviary.
Mousebirds are native to Africa. They are about 12 inches long, but most of that length is their long, stiff tail. Mousebirds are mostly grey-brown, though the six species vary a little. All species have a crest of feathers, rather like a cockatiel. Hand-raised mousebirds can be affectionate pets, though they are still best kept in pairs. They are generally non-aggressive and can usually be trusted with a group of finches, as long as there is plenty of room, though they may becomes ill if they eat the finches’ food. Mousebirds eat mostly fruits and vegetables, but will enjoy the occasional insect snack.
Pekin Robins and other finch-like softbills
They may look like finches, but these small softbills can’t be expected to eat seed! Many “finch-like” softbills have brightly coloured plumage and/or intricate courtship songs. While they make fabulous aviary birds for those willing to put up with their creepy-crawly diet (most are insectivorous with a side of fruit or nectar). However, some species, like the very popular Pekin Robin, may be egg-stealers or bullies in mixed flights, so take care when mixing them.
Softbills are wonderful, and beautiful, birds. If you are looking for something a little different, and don’t mind a bit of work, be sure take a second look at this diverse group.