Valuable therapeutic plants materials for your birds.
Gary Fitt, Brisbane.
When I was young and just getting into birds (around ten years old) I vividly remember visiting an old bird breeder a few streets away. It was a fascinating place and Norm had cages and aviaries everywhere with many different birds, but canaries were his speciality. He had the system for cabinet breeding well worked out and put down about 50 pairs each year. I visited regularly and noted that one of the plants he used with his canaries was Russian Comfrey – a dark green tough leafed perennial plant that he grew in his garden. Many canary breeders used Russian Comfrey back then and many of the old bird books talk about feeding it to finches. Norm would break off a few leaves and give a small section of leaf to each pair, which they devoured readily.
At that time I didn’t adopt Russian Comfrey and I don’t believe I actually saw it anywhere else until the last few years as a few breeders, including me, have resumed its use because of the health benefits that it and many other herbaceous plants can bring.
So what is Russian Comfrey?
Comfrey (Symphytum officinale) is a perennial herb in the family Boraginaceae and is native to Europe. It is a rapidly growing and robust plant which grows from a tuberous root system reaching about 1 m high with large, lance-shaped hairy leaves and hairy stems. It can easily be propagated in fertile, well- drained soil with plenty of moisture and not too much direct sun.
“Russian Comfrey” is a natural hybrid of Symphytum officinale (Common Comfrey) and Symphytum asperum (rough Comfrey) and is the plant usually used for birds. Common Comfrey has a white to pink flower, whereas Russian Comfrey has a mauve to purple flower.
Comfrey is an interesting and historically important plant. It has been used by man for its health benefits since Roman times and has been part of traditional medicinal plants in Europe since then. The plant is particularly rich in several secondary compounds, particularly pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs), which are toxic at high concentrations but therapeutic in small doses. It also contains a compound called allantoin which stimulates cell growth and repair while suppressing inflammation.This was one of the original uses in helping to repair broken bones, hence its other common names of knitbone and boneset.The genus name, Symphytum, is Greek for “to join”. It is widely used in herbal medicines, particularly as a skin balm and was commonly used in Comfrey teas with many claimed benefits for human health when used carefully. The plant is also very high in nitrogen and is valuable in composting for gardens.
Benefits of Russian Comfrey.
As mentioned the plant is a good source pf PAs, but is also rich in Vitamin A, Vitamin C, and a range of carotenoids and is high in protein – about 20% dry weight. As the table below shows it is also rich in iron, potassium and calcium. As a natural source of many beneficial compounds Russian Comfrey leaves in small amounts do seem to be valuable for birds. We need to remember that the diets we provide for our birds in aviaries are nowhere near as diverse as they can gather in the wild where small amounts of many plants are consumed by finches. A diet study of Diamond firetails in South Australia showed that the birds consumed seeds, leaves and other parts from 80 different plants, only 44 of which could be identified. Many of these were consumed in only small quantities and must have brought some value for them.
Protein and Mineral Analysis of Russian Comfrey (DM = dry matter)
Why the decline in use for birds?
Russian Comfrey was never widely used as a green food with finches, but it virtually disappeared from use in the early 1980s when the use of comfrey was recognized as a substantial health hazard causing hepatic toxicity (damage to the liver in humans and with carcinogenic potential in rodents due to the pyrrolizidine alkaloids. This led the US Food and Drug Administration to ban the use of comfrey extracts for human consumption in 2001. The concentration of the pyrrolizidine alkaloids (PAs) is much higher in roots, seeds and flowers than in the leaves and some just overdid the herbal teas. Also important to note that Russian Comfrey has much lower levels of PAs than Common Comfrey and is therefore probably safer for birds to consume.
Unfortunately this controversial ban for human consumption seems to have led to the plant being labelled as toxic for birds and there are some current bird books which claim it should not be fed to cagebirds. This is despite it being used for decades by those old canary breeders who fed the leaves in moderation with no ill effects. I do not believe birds would consume Russian Comfrey leaves if it did them harm. The feeding pattern that some of our finches show with it, where they have it continuously
available but consume just small amounts regularly suggests it has value to them and we have never observed a problem.
How do we use Russian Comfrey?
Cheryl Mares and I have Russian Comfrey growing in several pots from which we can harvest leaves and also have it growing in two aviaries. The plants die back during winter and don’t like the hot summer weather. They need a little shade and plenty of water at that time, and they grow beautifully during spring to autumn. For the plants growing in the aviaries there is a definite seasonality about its consumption by the finches with most consumed during autumn and spring, but not all species eat it.
No birds touch the youngest leaves, but the mid age and older leaves are eaten and it is these we harvest from the potted plants and add the chopped comfrey leaves occasionally (not more than once a week) to our chopped greens. On occasions I also place a whole potted Russian Comfrey plant in the aviaries, particularly for Song Sparrows and Siskins – they demolish the plants in a few days.
As I mentioned not all birds eat it. For example in our experience Yellowrumps, Masks and Stars didn’t touch it, whereas Pictorellas, Doublebars, Yellow Siskins, Golden Song Sparrows do. But even these take it in different ways. The Pictorellas eat a little each day and eat small holes in the leaves, the Doublebars nibbled the edges, the Siskins ate considerable amounts and the Song Sparrows demolished all the plant as the images show.
So we have found no problems with finches consuming Russian Comfrey and its rich suite of secondary compounds and other nutrients would provide benefits for the birds. You might consider trying Russian Comfrey as a minor green food component which provides a rich source of beneficial compounds.
To some extent Russian Comfrey is one of those beneficial herbaceous plants that we seek to replace in the Naturally for Birds supplement – MICRO-NUTRIENTS. It contains 15 different herbal components and a diversity of so-called plant secondary compounds, which have nutritional, therapeutic and/or medicinal benefits for cagebirds.
MICRONUTRIENTS also contains the superfood, Spirulina, and numerous vitamins and minerals. Spirulina is an amazing salt water alga, which contains rich vegetable protein (55-70%), high levels of calcium and several vitamins, particularly Vitamin B12 at 3-4 times higher than animal liver. Vitamin B12 is particularly lacking in a vegetarian diet.
Spirulina also contains a wide range of minerals, and a diversity of carotenoid pigments which aid colour intensity, fertility and have other protective functions. For humans Spirulina is rightly called a superfood, and it is just as beneficial for birds. Field and aviary observations show that many finches will feed on algae around the edges of water bodies – they do so for a reason.
For cagebirds the herbs and Spirulina provide highly beneficial phytonutrients that generate several health and wellbeing benefits:
micro-nutrient requirements that enhance fertility
strong enhancement of the immune system
anti-microbial effects against coccidia, bacterial infections, fungal pathogens
anti-oxidant properties to protect tissues from damage by free radicals
important pigments for feather colour intensity
So, Russian Comfrey can add some interest and benefit for your birds and MICRO-NUTRIENTS goes all the way with a great diversity of plant derived beneficial compounds.