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Diets for Finches & Softbills Simple or Complicated

When we discuss feeding and diets, for many breeders there is first a very sharp dividing line between the diets used for maintenance and daily feeding, and the diets that must be used for feeding a breeding pair of birds. I have never subscribed to this belief, and every bird I have kept for several decades has received the same diet every day of the year, whether breeding or simply on a maintenance schedule. The birds will eat very little of the most nutritious foods and a greater quantity of seed when they are not breeding.

If you must feed different diets, make sure that the maintenance diet for any finches or softbills have all of the nutrients that a pair of birds needs, but in the limited quantities that they need. Particularly with respect to its content of complete protein, the maintenance diet will be completely inadequate for a pair of breeding birds, especially when they are feeding a nest of growing youngsters.

The breeding diet for most finches and softbills must be over 20% complete protein, and it must contain an abundance of the other required nutrients to be adequate for feeding a clutch of growing nestlings. Though some few species will manage quite well on a diet with a protein content less than 20%, as examples: the Society Finch; Zebra Finch; and budgies, most species require a content of over 20%, and from 25% to 30% complete protein is best for successful rearing of their offspring. The waxbills all need this higher protein content, as do most of the softbills.

Of course, protein is only one of the requirements for the hatching and growth of a nestful of babies to maturity. Every vitamin, mineral and fatty acid must also be included in the diet, or at some point before hatching, or during growth, the babies will die. Often in these cases, it is virtually impossible to determine which nutrient was lacking and thus caused the death before hatching or during the rapid growth of the nestlings.

Breeders who are having problems frequently send me lists of the items fed to their birds which seem unhealthy or are failing to breed, and almost invariably, these diets are extremely time-consuming and complicated, as well as expensive. A simple, complete diet is often far more effective in supplying the birds everything they need for breeding. And, of course, there are as many different successful diets for finches and softbills as there are breeders of birds!

Nutrients are widespread in foods, and any mix of both plant and animal products can provide a complete diet for your birds. By plant products, I mean anything from a plant source, such as seeds, seed meals, greens, and vegetables. By animal products, I mean anything that comes from the animal kingdom, including, meat, fish, eggs, milk, insects and worms. Animal sources are nearly all good sources of complete protein – the only exception I have found is gelatin, which is an animal product, but because of its processing is not complete protein.

If your diet contains fifty different items and mixes, all of them from the plant kingdom, it will still be inadequate for life. This is because there are several vital nutrients that are found only in animal products. Primary among these are vitamin B12 (cobalamin), vitamin A, and vitamin D3.

Vitamin B12 can be detected in some plant products, notably comfrey, but it is there as a contaminant, not needed by the plant, but absorbed in trace amounts through the roots that are exposed to either Streptomyces bacteria in the soil or to a class of soil microorganisms called actinomycetes. These microscopic life forms are the only living things on this earth that can make vitamin B12. All other animal life depends on these microorganisms for their lives and their continued existence, including us. Laboratories produce great quantities of vitamin B12 as a byproduct of the culture of Streptomyces bacteria that are bred to create the antibiotic, streptomycin.

Though the yellow and orange pigments in plant matter are carotene pigments, which a healthy body can transform into vitamin A, no plant product contains preformed vitamin A. Birds need a source of the preformed vitamin A in their diets in order to have an adequate supply in their diet. Diets that contain no animal products contain too little vitamin A to maintain birds in good health and certainly far too little for successful breeding.

With respect to vitamin D, the form of vitamin D found in plants is D2. Though most animals and humans can use D2 quite effectively, birds cannot use vitamin D2 to fulfill their need for this vitamin. They must have vitamin D3, which occurs only in foods from animal sources. Alternately, birds can form vitamin D2 on their skin when the skin is exposed to the ultraviolet rays of sunlight. Birds maintained indoors do not have this advantage. The technical name for vitamin D2 is cholecalciferol.

A complicated diet is not necessarily a good diet. Many years ago while I was keeping 2000 breeding birds, their care required a lot of time and effort. Consequently, the simplest complete diet requiring the least preparation was the best for my use. Cost was also a major factor, as 2000 birds, even finches, eat a heck of a lot in a day’s time. When you consider their consumption of food over a year’s time, it is breathtaking. These tiny bundles of energy even on a simple maintenance diet usually eat about half of their body weight in food every day.

As an example, say a finch weighs one ounce, so this bird eats one-half ounce of food every day. 2000 finches will then consume 1000 ounces of food each day on a maintenance diet. That translates to 62.5 pounds each day. Multiply that out, and these birds are eating over 22,812 pounds of food per year. Yikes! That’s over 11 TONS of food per year, just for a maintenance diet! Finches that are feeding a nest of young will probably consume twice their own body weight in food each day, so they’ll be eating four times that much. Feeding birds can become VERY expensive!

If you are feeding lots of vegetables and greens, you are multiplying the cost of your feeding program many times over. Why? Because most of these vegetable items are over 90% water. Greens that you can grow yourself are a cheap food, but if you have to buy them at a commercial outlet, you’ll pay at least three or four dollars per pound for them. At three dollars per pound, you are paying for a lot of water. This raises the actual cost for the food value of the item to over $25.00 per pound! For that price, you can get a 25 pound bag of shelled, chopped sunflower seed at any large feed store, and it will be 95% food value. Sunflower seeds have a very low water content, usually 5% or less.

Over a number of years, especially after a thorough study of nutrition, I was able to settle on just a few items that make up a complete, and relatively inexpensive diet for the birds. I have also been very gratified to find over the last few months that this limited diet, minus the hard seeds, is also complete for softbills. One of those items is chopped, shelled, sunflower seed.

The first thing many breeders would say is “I tried shelled sunflower seed for the finches, and they wouldn’t eat it.” Well, birds become as set in their ways as people do, but if they get hungry enough, they will try anything that is in their cage. By simply cleaning the cage and sprinkling sunflower chips over the floor of the cage, I have been able to get every finch to eat these sunflower pieces. Once they recognize that this is a good food, they will eat it daily and regularly.

When young birds fledge and leave the nest, every food item that you intend to feed them should be scattered around on the floor of the cage. As the fledglings grow and begin pecking around, they will sample everything in the cage to see if it is edible. If you have all of your normal diet items scattered on the floor of the cage, they will try all of these items, discover that it’s all food, and they will begin eating everything as they mature and become independent. When they become independent, they will be eating every item you feed on a regular basis. If your diet is complete, you will then have birds raised under your own conditions that are eating a complete diet that they will in turn feed to their own young when they begin breeding.

Birds don’t need feeding dishes. It’s people that need dishes. The birds are perfectly happy to eat their food off of the floor of the cage. The only purpose a feeding dish serves is to prevent the birds from scattering too much of the food around. As anyone who keeps finches will confirm, however, it doesn’t work, and they will still scatter seed and other food items everywhere.

Though many breeders are scared to death of egg spoiling, or feel that it is too “rich” to feed on a regular basis, I have used mashed, hard-boiled egg as my primary nestling food and as the primary source of basic nutrients for daily maintenance of non-breeding birds ever since I discovered that the main problem with egg foods was that people were adding so much trash food to the mix that it was less than 25% egg when they got it mixed. My own egg mix, after adding powdered vitamin-mineral supplement to it, is still over 90% egg. Every bird I have ever had loves this egg mix, and this includes all finches, doves, parakeets, cockatiels, and birds as demanding in their eating habits as lories, lorikeets, and waxwings.

When you feed an item such as egg, or one of the commercial pelleted foods, feed it free choice. By free choice, I mean that you should always give the birds all that they will consume during the day, and let their instincts tell them how much they need each day. Believe me, the bird’s instincts are a far better judge of what the bird needs nutritionally than any knowledge you or I could possibly have. Too many feel that they are so well informed that they can set out the exact portion of each food that the birds need each day, and have it perfect for every bird. That is a total impossibility. Nutrition is not that simple, and the nutrient requirements for every bird within a species will be different – this is one of nature’s safety nets to prevent the natural extinction of a species when food items become very limited, which actually happens with every drought, hurricane, flood and unexpected freeze.

By feeding each item free choice, you can let the bird’s instincts take over. Their instincts will be a far better guide for the bird’s health and breeding than any decision you can possibly make concerning their needs. Birds that have an item available constantly will never overeat of that item, while birds deprived of a nutritious food for a long time are quite likely to overeat. In the case of such items as salt and grit, overeating can cause death.

Last, use your common sense when you are working with your finches and softbills. As an example, one prominent book on the Gouldian Finch states emphatically that you must expect to lose 50% of your offspring during their first molt. That comment is an insult to a hardy, beautiful finch that I have kept at temperatures below freezing in perfect health, and shows the abysmal ignorance of nutrition that that author possesses. A 50% mortality rate indicates malnutrition on a grand scale. I have never experienced any loss of Gouldians in their first molt greater than the normal attrition experienced in the older birds.

Old wives tales such as this are a prominent part of the written history of aviculture. Don’t believe everything you read or hear just because someone was a writer, had a publisher, or was a good speaker. Everyone makes mistakes, either from lack of experience or from simply stupid blunders. I once neglected to give a newly set up cage of birds water, and didn’t discover the error for two full days. Very fortunately for me, the temperature was in the 50’s on the Fahrenheit thermometer during that period, and birds need far less water at lower temperatures, so no harm was done. On a hot summer day, I would have had a cage of dead birds.

As you handle either finches, softbills, or any other bird in captivity, you spend the time to learn all that you can about their native habitats, their breeding habits, mating rituals and nesting habits. All of this is important to your eventual success in keeping and breeding the species. If you would double or triple your chances of success, learn enough about the nutritional requirements of your birds so that you understand just how little you really know.