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Breeding the meadow pipit

Alan Lythe describes an enjoyable 2010 breeding season with these little beauties

Growing in popularity: meadow pipits are winning awards at specialist UK showsGrowing in popularity: meadow pipits are winning awards at specialist UK shows

Once I read a book by a respected naturalist, who described the meadow pipit (Anthus pratensis) as “a little brown job and a non-descript species”. I totally disagree with this, as the pair I used for breeding in 2010, in my eyes, are absolutely gorgeous.

The cock bird of my pair is a real character and a cracking specimen, with dark chocolate-coloured markings on his back contrasting with a lovely buffy-brownish colour on his chest, which shows off his dark streakings quite nicely. His primaries have grass-green edgings to them, which to me makes him very attractive indeed.

My hen is also a great character and is not too far behind the cock in beauty. However, that is, of course, simply my opinion and other fanciers have a right to disagree.

Perfect parents

This lovely pair proved to be fantastic parents. They built their first nest high up in a wicker basket – which looked ridiculous because their natural setting is nearly always on the ground! However, it obviously didn’t matter, since they produced four lovely youngsters, which hatched in early May.

Their second nest looked much more natural, as it was on the ground under bracken. The pictures I have provided (see the filmstrip below) are from the second nest, because it was so much easier to take photos on the ground, showing the eggs, chicks and hen incubating. This second round also gave me four chicks, which hatched out in June.

I introduced the members of the pair to their flights in early April and they showed no aggression towards each other at all. They found a depression under the bracken and, although I provided them with a great variety of nesting material, the hen built the nest solely of coconut fibre. Incubation lasted for about 12 days and the chicks were fed at the beginning by the hen, though the cock joined in a few days later. Feeding was continuous – what a fantastic pair they were.

I put manure and a fruit-fly culture in the aviary and the chicks fed solely on the flies and the insects off the manure until they were about four-days-old.

At that point, the parents moved on to mini-mealworms dusted with a good multivitamin powder. (I use this method with all my small softbills and find it works quite well.)

The chicks were removed at six days old and fitted with BBC size C rings, and hand-reared until they were 22-days-old. At this point I found that they were self-supporting, taking mealworms and insectile mixture.

In my opinion, the meadow pipit is reasonably easy to breed and well worth trying. At last season’s specialist shows, I noticed meadow pipits taking major honours in lovely decorated cages, beating the supposedly prettier, more colourful birds. I thought to myself: “Not bad for a ‘little brown job’.”

Simple to feed

Pipits are a hardy species of small softbill and are inexpensive and easy to cater for. What’s more, they always keep in good feather. Feeding is simple. I feed a quality insectile mixture with additives such as grated cheese, hard-boiled egg, grated boiled liver, broccoli and carrot, plus about five mealworms per day.

Mealworms are increased as the breeding season approaches, but the additives stay the same all year round.

You will be surprised how they get a taste for the snipped broccoli heads and sometimes they go for this before anything else. In my opinion, this species is probably the best small softbill for anybody starting off in this hobby.


A garden set-up

My garden is long, but narrow, and consequently with a battery of 1.8m x 1.8m x 1.8m flights (6ft cubed) up the garden with a 60cm (2ft) wide corridor safety porch, it doesn’t give me much garden width left! The partitions can be removed to make them 12ft, 18ft, 24ft or whatever length you want, but up to now I find the 6ft x 6ft will suffice with only one pair of birds per flight.
The longer I keep small softbills, the more I am convinced that smaller flights are just as suitable for these special birds as they are for hardbills. I have bred stonechats, grey wagtails, bearded reedlings, black redstarts, meadow pipits and others in these enclosures over the years. I have also bred three canary x bullfinches, and numerous greenfinch x chaffinch hybrids, as well as the supposedly easier hybrids – but that’s another story.
I personally find small softbills very rewarding and in my honest opinion as easy to keep as hardbills. Fanciers toying with the idea of keeping small softbills should give them a go, I know you will not be disappointed. There are still good, clever softbill fanciers out there who are more than willing to give you good quality advice, as they did with me many years ago.

Alan Lythe has kept birds for 50 years, and has won awards in various major specialist shows. Having previously kept mules and hybrids, he now specialises in British softbills.

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