SOME lesser known ASPECTS OF NUTRITION.
Amongst other things, the University of NSW are working on the nutrition of
the Gouldian. This is being conducted both in the University laboratories and at
the Research Station funded by Save The Gouldian Fund.
Although the research still has a long way to go, a lot of basic information
is being revealed which we could usefully use without waiting for the ultimate
The problem all we aviculturists face is that practically all the nutritional
research that has been done on any kind of avian species has been done on
poultry. A little bit on parrots and non until now on finches.
This has left us to fend for ourselves and develop diets by trial and error.
Inevitably therefore, a large amount of ‘quack’ technology and misinformation
has developed, reminiscent of the medical remedies of the Middle Ages. Anyone
fancy a good leaching to get rid of the vapours or to be tied to a chair while
someone extracts a tooth with a pair of pliers and no anaesthetic?!!!!! I
believe that the sophisticated tooth pullers used to have a band playing so that
other potential clients wouldn’t be put off by the screams!
Don’t misunderstand me; nutrition is a very complex subject and even in the
most studied area of human nutrition, there is still a lot we do not know as you
can tell by the number of times we have been told not to eat XXXX only to be
told a few years later that it is very good for you and stops you getting cancer
or heart attacks or something.
Despite this complexity and conflicting information flow, there is base
information we could use to at least compose our diets around some real hard
I have deliberately avoided the clichÈs of the ‘components ‘ of diet
including what a carbohydrate is and what it does, etc. Given that most finches
are seed eaters anyway, whether we know anything about carbohydrates is
academic, they are going to get plenty of it anyway.
Many people think of protein in the singular, however there are in fact
over 400 different proteins. These 400 plus proteins are made up out of only
20 amino acids. Particularly when it comes to birds, no one knows how many
of these amino acids need to be supplied in the diet, but we do know that
somewhere between 8 and twelve are probably derived from diet, whilst the
rest are synthesised within the body.
What this means to us is that we should ensure that we supply a diet
containing every amino acids as no one actually knows yet which of the 8-12
amino acids should be in a finch or softbill diet.
The easiest way of doing this is to feed a top quality complete soft
food that contains all 20 amino acids. This is easy to do in Europe and USA
where there is huge choice and the nutritional qualities are clearly
displayed on the packaging. I found it hard to do in Australia as the soft
food manufacturers just put the crude protein percentage on their packaging,
which as you can see from the above means nothing. A 15% or 20% crude
protein soft food could still create a diet deficiency if it contained only
a handful of amino acids, crude protein % is totally useless information.
A severe amino acid deficiency obviously leads to death or severely
diminished immune system, small progeny and nestling deaths can be another
indication. Surprisingly, obesity is very often caused by a deficiency in
one or more amino acid; the birds develop a craving and binge eat to try and
make up the deficiency.
Generally poor breeding results is often a diet problem, this
particularly applies to birds we consider more difficult to breed. Often it
is just that we are feeding them the same diet as the rest of our finches
which is inappropriate for that particular species. I was credited with the
first breeding of a few parrot finch species in the UK which was purely
because I had studied them in the wild and tried to reproduce their wild
diet. Once we found how to feed them, most were not too difficult to breed.
Of course, what makes it difficult is that any of the above symptoms may
have nothing at all to do with diet or at least with amino acids!! But my
belief is that success in aviculture is very much about identifying the
risks and then eliminating them. According to my theory at least, if we
could identify 100% of the risks and eliminate them, then we would be 100%
So in the absence of a huge choice of commercial soft foods what can we
do to ensure that at least this aspect of nutrition is adequately covered?
At the Gouldian Research Station we use a soft food purchased off Birds
R Us which we actually formulated ourselves. This contains all the amino
acids, carotenoids,etc, etc, which could be missing from a standard diet and
equally important, resists the development of bacteria and fungus.
In the absence of this product, there is a lot you can do with natural
diets and/or baby foods.
A hard boiled egg, complete with albumen and shell and crushed up with
one of the baby cereal supplements would supply all of the amino acids. The
only downside over a commercial soft food is that hard boiled egg goes off
very quickly. It is usually considered that any of it not eaten after 2
hours should be removed. The risk in this that has always worried me are the
bits that can get thrown on to the floor and may be picked up later,
particularly by curious juveniles, this can be overcome by having a wire
netting base to the feeding station where the waste can fall through and
prevent access by the birds.
For those finches which will eat live food, termites, bush fly maggots,
mealworms, etc, are also an alternative but may not provide some of the
amino acids which could be plant based. Therefore it is a good idea to
provide fresh green food as described below.
Or caroteins as they are more commonly known as, are perhaps the least
understood in aviculture but are one of the most important. Many
aviculturists think that there is only one carotein and that it’s only
function is to put the colour into feathers. And of course they were called
caroteins because the first one discovered was found in carrot!
There are forty carotenoids and although some most certainly do have a
role to play in feather colour of some birds, this is the least of their
The main role of carotenoids is to ‘switch on’ the hormone and endocrine
system which usually occurs at the end of the austerity period. It is the
hormone flow which stimulates the gonads and ovaries to grow and start
producing and hence have a large role to play in ensuring good breeding
results. Difficulty in getting birds to breed can very often be traced to a
deficiency of carotenoids.
Depending on the species, carotenoids do have an important role to play
in feather colour, but perhaps not in the way that you may think. In nature,
they are very difficult to come by and also ‘expensive’ to synthesise in the
body. In order to breed at all, both males and females need to have gained
sufficient carotenoids to get themselves into breeding condition and to
fulfil the other body functions that they are associated with. Only the
‘spare’ carotenoid is used in feather colour, which is why most females are
duller than males. Being duller means they require less carotenoids.
So a very colourful male has found enough carotenoid to get his body
into peak condition and can afford to invest some into colour, proving that
he is a very good forager and is therefore a mate of choice for the hens who
want to make sure that their nestlings are well fed and will have a good
chance of survival.
Interestingly enough, there is growing evidence that the females have
the ability to choose the sex of their eggs. Experiments with Blue Tits [ S.
Grifith ] have proven that females paired to colourful males produce more
male progeny, whilst females paired to dull coloured males produce more
females. The reason for this is that the respective females find this the
best strategy for disseminating their genes. The ‘dull’ pair produce more
females as the female progeny have a better chance of pairing with the
colourful males which gives the parent female the better chance of
disseminating her genes. The dull males have more difficulty in finding
partners and holding breeding territory and of course they will be poorer
Once again the Research Centre has overcome the carotenoid deficiency
problem by using a carotenoid rich soft food which is much easier than
chasing round after different ingredients, however ‘natural’ foods may be
used to overcome the problem.
Spirulina is a rich source of a number of things including some
carotenoids. Spirulina is a farmed algae which is harvested and dried and is
available at most Health Food shops. It can be added to any type of soft
Certain carotenoids like luteins are available in varying quantities in
many seeds and is particularly rich in corn on the cob. Sprouted seed is
another good source as are fresh near ripe seeds.
Some green foods are a good source of carotenoids particularly many of
the wild weeds like dandelion and chickweed, not lettuce of any kind which
is fairly devoid of most nutrients. We grow punnets of clover which is a
particularly rich nutritionally and feed it when it is about 2-4 Cms high.
After this most greenfood gets fibrous and loses nutritional value.
Xanthophylls, the caroteins often associated with red feather colour,
can be obtained by buying commercially available colour foods. These are
generally meant for red siskins and canaries but is a useful supplement for
all birds in small doses. Xanthophylls are also available in any red
vegetables like red peppers, but you have to devise a way of making them
palatable to finches. Last but not least, grated carrot is also a good
source of xanthophyll!
Lipids are probably the hardest component of diet to write about in a
cohesive and simple way. They seem to have a ‘finger in every pie’ in the
body. They constitute between 25% and 45% of total body energy, they are
important in reproduction, in the immune system, in body cell walls. They
have highly specialised functions in nerve tissues and especially the retina
of the eye, they have a striking effect on growth, etc, etc. If you really
want to know more about them look up fatty acids or Omega 3, 6 and 9 on the
Rather than rabbit on, just take it from me they are VERY important !
They are derived from many sources including oil seeds like nyger, rape,
linseed and lettuce seeds. Spirulina is a good source of DHA whilst animal
products and probably insects provide other fatty acids like omega 6.
To ensure you are feeding a full complement of lipids it is a good idea
to feed the above seeds sprouted and again fresh green food, egg either in a
commercial soft food or hard boiled and insects or meat meal. If you use
fish meal be careful as too much can cause death.
This is the shortest section I have written on the subject of diet,
which worries me a bit as it might seem to not give lipids enough emphasis.
In truth, I honestly don’t know how to write about them as it is such a
complex area, just please believe me when I say they are possibly THE most
important component of a birds diet.
Although once again, we don’t know how much of each fatty acids they
need, just that they probably need them all !
In the wild there is a natural food cycle. There is a time of plenty
when seed is freshly grown and near ripe. At this stage it is highly
nutritious and is deemed to have high nutritional reward for low effort,
insects are also plentiful at the same time, and it is this time the birds
choose to breed.
Later, the seed ripens and falls off the panicle [seed head ] onto the
ground. At this stage there is still plenty of seed but it is beginning to
lose nutritional value and is harder to get as it is hidden amongst the
grass tussocks. Some pairs will continue breeding, but most pairs pass into
the MAINTENANCE phase.
When the seed falls on the ground not only does it become harder to find
but also there is huge competition for this new bounty. Small mammals,
harvester ants and a variety of other fauna all compete to collect this
freshly fallen harvest.
Time goes by and there is less seed, more energy is consumed in finding
it and worst still, the longer the seed lies on the ground the more it
oxidises and loses nutritional value. The wide spectrum of foods disappear
and slowly the birds sink toward the AUSTERITY period when food becomes
extremely scarce and of poor quality.
This AUSTERITY period is actually an essential part of the life cycle. It
gets rid of the surplus fat – fat birds are either infertile or do not breed
at all – and also most important, it switches off the hormone flow. The
gonads and ovaries stop producing and shrivel to a vestige of their former
size. All this is an important part of getting all the birds into the same
condition at the same time. and giving the body organs a rest.
The austerity period should last for 4 to 6 weeks dependent on how fat
the birds were in the first place.
At the end of this period, start feeding your normal enriched breeding
diet. Both males and females will quickly come into breeding condition and
more importantly, [ synchronously ] at the same time. This prevents many of
the problems associated with male aggression in some species and ensures
time is not wasted because one or another of the partners of the pair is not
in breeding condition.
It also usually means higher fertility leading to bigger clutches.
GOULDIAN RESEARCH STATION FEEDING REGIME:
Although we stress that as yet there is no definitive information on
finch nutrition, we do try and follow best practice in so far as we know it,
using what hard information there is currently available on nutrition, what
we know of the birds life cycles and observations of feeding habits in the
During the austerity period we feed a non calcium grit in the form of
washed river sand. Europeans and Americans will be able to buy a standard
grit which of course is better, or at least easier! The seed mix provided is
50/50 siberian millet and rye seed.
Other than water, of course, that’s it. No greens, no vitamins or
minerals, no soft food.
Birds which have been kept in cabinets [ cages ] are given 6 weeks
austerity as they are usually fatter than their aviary counterparts. The
latter are given 4 weeks.
We mainly keep males separated from females during non breeding times to
prevent males driving females into premature breeding condition and to stop
pair bonds developing. Three weeks before they are paired up, we start
feeding our breeding diet. The seed mix consists of a base of Golden Cob
Premium Finch Mix
To which is added Birds R Us Waxbill Mix at a ratio of 2 parts Golden
Cob to 1 part Waxbill Mix.
Basically the above provides a wide variety of seeds which have higher
nutritional values. As a guide line, the wider the choice of seeds you
provide the better as different seeds will have different nutritional values
and will contain a wider variety of micro nutrients.
We provide a wide spectrum mineral/calcium grit and the sprouted seed we
described in issue xxxx of Just Finches and Softbills magazine.
The only other food we give to Gouldians is a soft food we obtain from
Birds R Us. But more on soft foods in another future article!! Got to leave
something to write about!