The Pin-tailed Whydah

Pin-tailed Whydah10,11,12,13,23,34,35,37,41,42
Vidua macroura
Hardiness:Hardy, long-lived
Reproduction:Extremely difficult
Singing ability:Weak
Compatibility:Pushy, mixes well with other pushy species
[Compatibility Chart]
Size:4.5-5" (female-like) (12-13 cm)
Approx. cost:$ (US) per pair

Other common names

Pintail Widowbird, King's Whydah, King of Six, Bird of Six, Pied Widowbird



Area of distribution

Sub-saharan Africa from Senegal & Sudan south to South Africa.



Restless; can be disruptive and somewhat aggressive, especially males in breeding plumage.

Physical descriptions

When in breeding plumage, the male appears as follows: pink to red bill; top of head from lores to nape black; sides of head, base of neck, breast, belly, rump, and undertail coverts white; back, and shoulders black; black wings with broad white band; four ribbon-like (long, narrow & pointed) black central tail feathers; dark blackish legs.

When out of breeding plumage, the male has body markings similar to the hen's, but has darker streaking. The hen is tawny colored with black stripes on her upperparts and two back stripes over her crown; the middle of her crown, rump, and uppertail coverts are reddish brown. Hens in breeding condition have bolder overall coloration and have blackish upper mandible which becomes more reddish-brown when not breeding.

Juveniles are similar in appearance to the hens, but with buffy feather edges, a duller tone, no white in the tail, and horn-colored bills.


Males develop nuptual (breeding) plumage during the breeding season. When in eclipse (non-breeding) plumage, males maintain the pink to red bill, have slightly larger bodies, and stronger streaks. Males sing and display.


Rapidly repeated 5-15 "tseet-tseet-tseet" notes.


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Pin-tailed Whydah male
Male in breeding plumage. Photo by Clive Reid.

Display dance

Display dance
Male displaying for a female. Photos by Bernard Dupont.

Male feeding
Male. Photo by Bernard Dupont.

Male eclipse plumage
Male in eclipse plumage. Photo by Allan Hopkins.

Display dance
Male displaying for female. Photo by Mike Comber.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah
Male. Photo by Alan Manson.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah
Male. Photo by Tom Benson.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah
Male. Photo by Ian White.

Male Pin-tailed Whydah
Male. Photo by Derek Keats.

Favorite foods

Half-ripe seed heads, greens, sliced cucumber with seeds, sprouted seed, insects.

Natural habitat

Open grasslands and savannahs with scattered bushes and trees, especially near water, forest clearings, along tropical rivers, gardens and cultivated areas.


Whydahs are avian brood parasites and require specific species of finches to raise their offspring. Whydahs do not build their own nests, but rather deposit their eggs in the nests of other species which act as hosts. The host species then raises the whydah chicks alongside their own. Pin-tailed Whydahs are capable of using a number of hosts, in contrast to the other whydah species which are more host-specific. Whydahs do not form monogamous pairs; rather, a male whydah will breed with numerous females, and a female whydah will go on to breed with numerous males in order to spread her eggs over multiple territories. During breeding season, males maintain a territory a little larger than a half-football field in size. Unlike some other species of whydah, the Pin-tailed Whydah does not mimic the song of its host species, perhaps because it is not as host-specific as some other whydahs. The male displays before a hen in a hovering, dancing flight while singing. A single female whydah is estimated to lay around 22 eggs in a breeding season.

The Pin-tailed Whydah has been reported to use the following hosts:
Host eggs are not removed nor destroyed by the whydah, nor are the host chicks ejected from the nest by the whydah chicks. The Pin-tailed Whydah's eggs are approximately 33% larger than the host's and have a slightly different texture. Although it is generally believed that baby whydahs have mouth marking patterns, begging calls, and begging postures which "exactly" mimic the host species' in order to avoid detection as well as to enable the chicks to effectively compete while begging, some differences are noted in the field. Pin-tailed Whydah hatchlings are more mauve-colored and covered with down (whereas common waxbill hatchlings are pinkish and nearly naked). Although the nestling gape patterns are similar overall, the palate of the common waxbill has a circle of six spots with a seventh spot centrally, and the whydah has a circle of only five spots. Fledgelings are larger, have pale cheek patches, and lack the red eye-stripe and red rump of their common waxbill nest mates.

Pin-tailed Whydahs tend to live in flocks off-season.

Special considerations

Because Pin-tailed whydahs (males in particular) can bully other finches in a mixed aviary, the aviary companions should be larger birds which can hold their ground, such as weavers, Java sparrows, and cut-throats. In the wild, male Pin-tailed Whydahs fearlessly assert their authority over much larger birds such as crows. Never house two male pin-tailed whydahs together during the breeding period. If transporting birds in nuptual plumage, do not place pairs in the same cage but rather transport the birds separately (each in its own enclosure).

Because males grow long tails when in breeding plumage, whydahs are not suitable to smaller enclosures. They may be prone to obesity and should be maintained on an austerity diet during the non-breeding season. Older birds may develop raised scales on the feet and legs, and may retain some of their nuptial plumage when not breeding.

Pin-tailed whydahs have reportedly hybridized with the village indigobird and variable indigobird.

Breeding season

Above the equator, males enter breeding plumage from about May to November; below the equator, breeding plumage occurs between October and June. Timing of breeding activity varies by region:
  • Southern Africa: October-March.
  • Cape region: September-January.
  • South Africa, Malawi, Mozambique, Zimbabwe: November-April
  • Uganda: March-May.
  • Kenya: November-January and March-July.
  • West Africa (Sierra Leon, Cameroon): September-November (during or after fall rainy season)
  • Congo Basin in Zaire: during the rainy season

Breeding tips

These birds are very difficult to breed in captivity. A very large, well-planted aviary with an already-established breeding group of an appropriate host species is required. The waxbill host species are themselves somewhat challenging to breed and do best when provided with live food.

The Aviary Set-up
The large, sunny aviary should be protected from vermin and drafts. Plantings should be dense, but open spaces should be available within the enclosure, with sturdy natural branches at either end. Dense shrubs, tall seeding grasses, and miniature bamboo are all good plant choices. Plants should be kept trimmed (some to waist-height) so that birds can fly overhead. For the whydah hen to successfully smuggle her eggs into the host nests, the nests should be well-shielded from view. Therefore, provide the host colony with suspended baskets of dried brush on the sheltered walls of the aviary, as well as soft dry grasses and soft white feathers for nesting material.

The Host Colony
At least 10 pairs of "naive" (not previously used for whydah parasitism) common waxbills should be selected. The waxbills should be separated by sex until the whydahs are in nuptual plumage and breeding is ready to commence.

The Whydahs
Viduine finches do not appear to breed before their second year of life. Birds aged 2-6 years tend to breed most successfully. Although they are polygamous in the wild, captive breeding is most successful when only a single pair of whydahs is housed per enclosure. The pair should both be in peak breeding condition, evidenced by changing into full nuptual coloration (hen with dark beak, cock with fully-elongated tail), before breeding can be expected.

Timing of the Introduction
Once the whydah pair is in nuptual plumage, release the whydah pair and half of the common waxbill pairs into the enclosure. About a week later, release the other half of the waxbill pairs. This staggered approach will give the whydah hen a larger window of opportunity in which to deposit her eggs.

Additional Recommendations
A copious and constant supply of live food should be made available for best results. Once the chicks are weaned (at 4 weeks of age), all juveniles should be removed from the breeding enclosure to prevent overcrowding and to prevent the male Pin-tailed Whydah from attacking the young.

Presumed Life Cycle

Clutch size:2-4
Incubation:Done by the host
Hatch date:After 11-12 days of incubation
Fledge date:At 20 days of age
Wean date:14 days after fledging

Related Article(s)

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