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The Omei Shan Liocichla (Liocichla omeiensis)
Nigel Hewston
  Introduction

This paper briefly describes the bird, its habitat, range, status and husbandry, and summarises research and conservation to date originated through interest in this species in captivity.

This species provides an example of how the interest of amateurs can lead to significant advances in knowledge, and how this might be built on to develop more formal and professional research and conservation programmes using the network of regional zoo associations.

Description

The Omei Shan, Omei or Mount Omei Liocichla (Omei Shan means Mt. Omei) is a medium-sized (between Leiothrix and Garrulax) babbler Timaliinae, one of three species in its genus. It is largely olive green above and grey below with a pale belly, and with areas of bright yellow, orange and red on wings and tail. This species is unusual (but not unique) among babblers in its obvious sexual dichromatism, which is exhibited in the wing and tail plumage.

The flight feathers are mainly black with yellow leading edges in both sexes, but the bases are orange, which is brighter and more extensive in males. There are orange areas at the tip of the secondaries which are also brighter and larger in males, so that the form a patch on the folded wing, whereas in females they form a row of spots. Tail feathers are dark olive, barred black above (more strongly in males) and tipped with yellow, but males have the central four feathers tipped orange and the next four with some orange on the yellow tips. The under tail coverts are black edged with yellow, but broadly tipped orange in males.

The orange on the wings (and tail in males) is formed by hair-like (i.e. without barbules) extensions to the feathers, on the leading edge of wing feathers and the tip of tail feathers. Males in fresh plumage can be a vivid red-orange in these areas, but the nature and location of the bright areas in wings and tail can lead to wear and fading, while the under tail coverts retain their colour. This makes this the most reliable feature for sexing captive birds, though wing plumage might be the most useful field character. The eye is dark with a small black spot above; bill and feet are greyish horn. Juvenile plumage is similar, but duller, with all sexual characters present on fledging.

Voice

Males have a loud, whistling song of six or more notes, falling in pitch at the end. Males sing for most of the year except when moulting. Females have a loud one or two note whistle usually only heard from unpaired birds or those separated from their mate. There are quieter call and a churring call used in alarm and often before roosting.

Range and Status

This species is endemic to China and is known only from a few mountains, including Omei Shan and Erllang Shan, in Central Sichuan (Collar, Crosby and Statterfield 1994). It is found in the undergrowth of primary and secondary forest between 1,000 and 2,400m.

Robson (1989) records it as often seen around scraps and garbage near the toilets at Wannian Temple at 1,020m on Omei Shan.

IUCN lists this species as Vulnerable because of its small, fragmented range coupled with habitat destruction, trapping and assumed consequent decline in numbers. C. R. Robson (pers. comm. 1996) considers it likely that the range is larger than presently known and that the bird's adaptability to secondary habitats may reduce the threat from habitat loss.

The appearance of this species in trade in recent years is an obvious cause for concern, though there is no firm evidence at present to suggest that trapping occurs at a threatening level. Robson has not seen evidence of trapping on visits to Omei Shan but the source of traded birds is not known and neither is the bird's status or that of its habitat at site other than Omei Shan. The species was placed on CITES Appendix II in 1997.

Avicultural History

A. Broadbent (pers comm.) first saw this species in the U.K. in 1980. From the late 1980s it has appeared regularly in trade, usually in small numbers (ten birds of fewer per consignment and probably no more than 30 birds in most years, and in some years few or none). These birds have come into the U.K. from Belgium or Holland, and birds have presumably been traded from these to other European countries and perhaps from Europe or China to other regions. For a few months during 1988 the EC imposed a ban on importation of birds from China because of avian influenza, though Chinese birds (not necessarily of this species) seem still to have entered the EC via Indonesia. H. Bishop (pers. comm.) found only three birds at Belgian dealers on several visits over about six months in 1998. The species' recent CITES listing should lead to the collection of trade data.

The Omei Shan Liocichla was first bred in the U.K. by Richard Cockerill in 1993 (Cockerill 1993) and subsequently by Andrew Blyth in 1995 and the author in 1996. Breeding has continued in all three collections. No details are known of captive breeding in other countries.

A census of know keepers conducted in March 1998 recorded 21 males and 20 females in ten collections, with nine males and two females reared in 1997.

Research

As so little is known about this bird in the wild, observations by aviculturists have added significantly to knowledge of the species. Andrew Blyth first noted (pers. comm.) the sexual dichromatism in adults, and I was able to confirm this in juvenile birds. Breeding behaviour has only been observed in captivity, and notes on breeding and plumage have been passed to Craig Robson for a forthcoming book on babblers. A recording of song has also been passed to Craig for use in the field. Specimens have been passed to the Natural History Museum, which had no material at all for this species. There are now skins of adult and juvenile males in the collection as well as eggs, nestlings and nests.

Conservation

Contact was made with JNCC early in 1997 on behalf of the Zoo Federation's Passerine TAG with the aim of gaining CITES listing for the species. These efforts were overtaken by the Netherlands' successful proposal for CITES II listing. This does not ban trade but should bring it under licence and lead to the collection of data on trade, which may eventually be useful in assessing whether trade is threatening.

Efforts have been made to encourage captive breeding by making contact with keepers and prospective keepers through the Zoo Federation, Cage and Aviary Birds and individual contacts. This has led to a number of birds being sexed and paired. Captive-bred birds have been moved to zoos in the hope that the breedings in private collections can be repeated in zoos. This process is at an early stage but, if successful, the institutional support of zoos should give the species a more secure captive future in the long term than the efforts of a few individuals. A British Isles studbook is proposed which, once established, may be expanded to an EEP studbook covering Europe.

It is hoped that the profile of the species has been raised amongst those who might contribute to its future without stimulating further trade in wild-caught birds.

Avicultural Management

Housing

The species has bred in aviaries from c. 1 x 2m upwards, and in the company of birds ranging in size from yuhinas (Yuhina) and fulvettas (Alcippe) to turacos (Musophagidae) and Wonga Pigeons (Leucosarcia melanoleuca). Pairs are highly territorial towards conspecifics and should not be housed more than one pair per aviary, but aggression towards other species is rare. These birds can be egg predators, certainly of Painted Quail (Excalfactoria chinensis) and possibly of Red-billed Leiothrix (Leiothrix lutea ) (A. Blyth, pers. comm.), but birds in my aviaries have ignored eggs of turacos and Hill Partridge (Arborophila), and other passerines of a similar size have been able to nest successfully. There have been instances of aggression by males towards females, but this is rare and pairs can generally be housed together all year round.

The birds are hardy in the U.K. and while they may use an enclosed shelter if available, will winter outdoor successfully if provided with sheltered roosting sites such as evergreen trees or bushes.

Feeding

These birds thrive on diets normally provided for omnivorous softbill's and will take foods such as universal food, soaked Mynah pellets, diced fruits, soaked sultanas and sweet-corn. Live food such as mealworms is given daily, but not in quantity except when feeding chicks.

Breeding

The breeding season in the U.K. is usually from April to July, though birds may nest as early as February (R. Cockerill, pers. comm.) and late as September (H. Bishop, pers comm.). The nest is a deep cup built mainly by the female, though males often display to females while carrying nesting material, and invite females to inspect prospective nest sites. The birds readily build nests in conifers, evergreen bushes and bamboo, and have accepted wire or wicker baskets placed in trees or bushes.

Materials used include coconut fibre, grass, bamboo leaves and moss, the last in small quantities only. Hair seems to be ignored. Nests may be built almost entirely of coconut fibre in twiggy bushes, but in bamboo dry grass is usually necessary to anchor the base of the nest before it can be completed using fibre. Cockerill (1993) and I have both experienced coconut fibre nests, which have been built in conifers and then fallen out complete, leading to the loss of eggs. Nests in my aviaries have been built at heights from c. 0.5 - 1.2 metres, but a pair at Chester Zoo built a nest at c. 2.5m. Successful nests have been built in Loncera nitilda, Spiraea bumalda, Asparagus, Chamaecyparis lawsoniana and bamboo (unknown sp.).

Bamboo may be particularly attractive site, as one pair in an aviary with a L.nitida bush and bamboo used the bush successfully the first year while the bamboo was very small, struggled to build in the bamboo the following year but also nested in the bush and were eventually successful in both, and the third year ignored the bush completely as the bamboo was now large enough to provide good nest sites. Nests are not re-used, though subsequent nests may be built very close to previous sites.

Clutch size is 2-4 (two clutches of 2, nine of 3, three of 4 eggs) and both sexes incubate for c. 14 days. Chicks seem to be fed entirely on invertebrates at least until fledging at 13-14 days. Waxmoth Galleria mellonella larvae are a favourite food, and Brown Crickets Acheta domestica are also accepted, as are Mealworms Tenebrio molitor. These are fed as "mini" mealworms (15-18mm) for up to a week after hatching, then as "regular" mealworms (25-30mm). In both cases white, soft-skinned mealworms are selected whenever possible. Live food is provided at least four, and if possible six or more, times daily once chicks have hatched.

Young have been reared on just wax-worms and mini mealworms for the first few days, followed by regular mealworms only. Wild invertebrates caught in the aviaries must also contribute to the diet of the chicks. Wild invertebrates are also collected and released into tanks or buckets in the aviaries, particularly grasshoppers, mainly Meadow Grasshopper Chorthippus parallelus, also Common Field Grasshopper C.brunneus. These are often plentiful when second broods are being reared in July and August, and appear to produce more brightly-coloured fledglings than commercial live foods.

Chicks are fed by both parents at the nest and after fledging. One brood, which was observed frequently, was fed regularly to 42 days old, and one bird was fed at 52 days. First-round young have not been observed helping with incubation or feed of subsequent broods, in fact they tend to hijack parents en route to second nests with choice food items, and are often fed in this situation. Young birds are tolerated by their parents until around the end of the year, though it is safer to remove them at the latest when the adult males start to sing again in October/November following the moult.

Mortality

There are few pieces of data available. Post mortem findings for the deaths investigated indicate trauma, Yersinia (A. Blyth, pers. comm.), or are inconclusive, but mortality in adult birds is generally low.

Future Objectives

It is hoped to develop a studbook and captive breeding programme, initially in the British Isles. If successful this could be extended to Europe and possible to China or elsewhere as appropriate. There is considerable potential to develop research on captive birds if the species becomes established in zoos. Song and ethology would be good subjects for student projects, and the other Liocichlas, the Red-faced L.phoenicia and Steere's L.steerii, are both breeding in British Aviaries at present so comparative studies might be possible. The appearance of this species in captivity has provided a window of opportunity, which I hope will be exploited.

References

Cockerill, R. (1993). Breeding Omei Shan Liocichla. Beak and Claw 89:8-10.
Collar, N.J., Crosby, M.J. & Statterfield, A.J. (1994). Bird to Watch 2, Birdlife International, Cambridge.
Robson, C. (1989). Birdwatching areas: Omei Shan, Sichuan, China. Bull. Oriental Bird Club 9:16-21.

 
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