NATURALLY for BIRDS by Mike Fidler.
Using both the wild and captive research, a range of supplements has been formulated to match the natural biorhythms of wild Australian seed eaters. When added to a traditional diet, the scientific trials showed significant results in improving general health and well-being of birds, as well as increasing fertility, breeding success, nestling and juvenile growth rates and survival, as well as a number of other health, survival and reproductive-related effects. This led to the decision to extend this nutritional work across a range of different species, which have very different nutritional requirements. Of course, this means we face the difficulty that more funding is required.
It is against this background that NATURALLY for BIRDS was formed with a view to raising funds for research by marketing the products that have resulted from the research to date.
At the moment this comprises three supplements:
PRIMA – which contains all the base essential nutrients required by birds and which has been rigorously tested by our scientists.
PROTEIN BOOST – which as the name suggests contains all the extra amino acids required by the more insectivorous birds and for nestlings during the breeding season.
MICRO-NUTRIENTS – which includes all the micro-nutrients our birds can help themselves to in the wild to enhance their fertility, colour, immune system boost, parasite inhibitors, and other health-related functions.
We have come a long way, and are delighted with our success in formulating the supplements, but of course we still have a lot of work to do.
Birds show incredible diversity in their form, ecology, physiology and life-style. For example, birds have different sizes and shapes of beak. This is because all birds eat a different diet; if they did not, they would all compete for the same food in the same habitat and only the biggest most aggressive species would survive.
Even in a small geographic area there are usually a number of different habitats, each with their own specific vegetation. Each type of vegetation provides different foods and different species have evolved to exploit them. Two extreme examples of this in finches are the Crossbills, which have developed a beak that can extract the seeds from pine cones, whereas at another extreme, the Goldfinch has a long narrow bill for extracting the seeds of thistles and dandelion. Parrots typically have powerful bills to crack nuts, while lorikeets and honey eaters have a specialised brush tongue to eat nectar and pollen.
Some birds eat seeds exclusively, some are frugivores, some are insectivores and many birds fall in between and are omnivorous, so understanding a species’ nutritional needs is an important step in helping us manage them more successfully.
As we move around the world, there are other extreme variations such as day lengths, seasonal temperatures and climates, each creating unique environments. The further latitudes from the equator have long hours of daylight in summer and very short days in winter. Scientists have shown that the biorhythms of birds from these further latitudes are affected by daylight length, as well as by food, while equatorial birds, which have 12 hours of daylight and 12 hours of night all year round, are controlled exclusively by food availability.
This is important, because aviculturists with birds from latitudes further from the equator should manage the biorhythms of their birds using two main factors: light and food. In contrast, aviculturists with birds from nearer the equator need to manage the biorhythms using food alone. For example, the Gouldian Finch breeds following the wet season, when food is at its most abundant. The timing of this is reasonably variable depending on which month the wet starts and finishes. In contrast, the Goldfinch is affected by both light and food and therefore is a late spring breeder. Some species, which are often desert or desert edge birds, are opportunistic breeders. That is, they have no season and breed only when there is plenty of food available, often following ephemeral rain. Examples include the Zebra and Painted Finches or the Budgerigar.
Ultimately, selection has driven species to adapt and survive within particular niches, such that each species has a different diet and lives largely in a different habitat, albeit some may come from the same geographic region.
For the aviculturist, the problem is that very little or no research has been done on the natural life cycle of the birds we keep in captivity, including the nutritional requirements of even the most popular cage birds.
There is very little research available on what our birds eat in the wild. Much of the nutritional information we have comes from research on commercial poultry diets, which focus on producing a commercial result for constantly lower costs, so sadly, often the information we have available was driven by price not quality.
And there again, even the poultry industry recognises the need to have different diets for hens, ducks and turkeys, whereas sometimes we tend to try and make one diet fit all.
Although it is quite helpful to know what a few species of bird can survive on, it is, of course, a long way from the information we require to optimally keep and breed the wide diversity of birds we have in captivity. We might know very little, but we do know that we don’t feed lorikeets the same as finches, and it is fair to say that few cage birds would be fed the same diet as poultry!
A literature search shows that for the last 50 years little has changed in how we feed our birds and this is despite some pretty dramatic advances in general nutritional research and the world of technology in general.
Meanwhile, under the leadership of award winning Dr Sarah Pryke (at The Australian National University), the Save The Gouldian Fund team of scientists was working on the ecology, behaviour, physiology and nutritional requirements of a range of finches. Part of this work was researching the wild diets of finches at different stages in their lifecycle (i.e. different times of the year).
Another complementary and large part of this research was being conducted on captive birds in a specially built state-of-the-art facility at Australian National University.
Sadly, due to Sarah’s ill health, this work came to a halt.
However, all is now in the process of resuscitation under the direction of the University of Queensland Veterinary Faculty and Macquarie University, who are currently advertising for an Honours Degree person to take on the project.