A Mug’s Guide to all things Avian Edible!!

Over the past few years 'things' have certainly changed dramatically for the better in regards the availability of foods for our finches. Fortunately, gone are the days of a dry seed mix that abounded in 3-4 types of seeds and supplements limited to a couple of brands of egg and biscuit mix - usually heavy on biscuit and light on egg! The average finch keeper can now help themselves to a huge selection of supplements, additives, medicines, wormers and seed varieties. Companies such as Womboroo, Vetafarm, Avione, Mavlabs and Pretty Bird - to name but a few - have given the aviculturist a wealth of products designed to create the best 'lifestyle' for the bird species that we keep. One still needs to be aware of the differing dietary requirements of the birds they keep but the work being done by Debra MacDonald and others is making that easier. For example the dietary requirements of Lorikeets and Finches would differ considerably and we can now seek advise in creating an ‘ideal’ diet for either species rather than relying on a ‘blanket’ diet hoping we supply their nutrients in the correct levels!

A Range of Products!

Soaked/Sprouted Seed.

Coop cups & Other Feeders.

As an example the provision of countless brands of lorikeet food (both wet and dry) has made the difficult dietary requirements of Lorikeets, Lories and Swift parrots relatively stress free. Gone are 400 different products that we used to mix together to provide the bare basics for these species! Admittedly a lot of the products available are aimed at the 'hookbill' keepers but enough has filtered through to keep the finch keepers happy too! In cahoots with a couple of friends from the world of finches it has been possible to present as varied a diet as possible to assist our finches during periods of movement and breeding type stresses.
Having been a long time advocate of any work I could lay my hand on by renowned English Aviculturist Mike Fidler I was interested, to say the least, when I heard that he was moving to Australia and was set to produce his Herbal Seed and Softfood Mixes and make them available to the local market. Suffice it to say I was able to broker a deal with John Barrett of Birds R’ Us (who produces Mikes mixes) and obtained a quantity of these mixes to trial. As much has been written about the logic behind both products and their contents I shall leave that to far more knowledgeable people and stick to my own observations where appropriate!
However, it is great to see that some of the ‘hookbill’ keepers have ‘seen the light’ and more are including Mikes Softfood Mix into their parrots diet- couldn’t resist that one!

Veldt Oats. Milk Thistle. Pit-Pit Grass.

I would like to present a few thoughts to you on what we use with our finches in the hope that it can help someone out there in maintaining their finch stocks. But first a little background information. We are from a cold part of Australia and much of our obsession with supplements and food mixes stems from the winter hardships that our birds must endure. To this end I has an excellent conversation with Mike Fidler on the return trip from The Canberra AFA Conference in 2004 concerning the much debated austerity diet/period. I have always felt loath to limit our finches’ access to many of the oilier and rich softfood additives and livefoods during the long winter period lest they freeze to death!! Despite this personal bias I have often pondered the need for an austerity diet and have heard many arguments both for and against. I was soon put straight that my obsession with an austerity ‘diet’ should have been more focused on an austerity ‘period’ instead! Mike felt that the long winter and cold conditions imposed a natural austerity period upon the birds whereby they had a climatic separation from breeding to non-breeding conditions – sometimes lacking from more temperate conditions where birds can be bred for 12 months of the year. If you keep your birds in temperature and humidity controlled conditions then by limiting their access to certain food items combined with varying the photoperiod you possibly achieve the same results as Mother Nature does for us down here! Guess I might have been 50% right then!!
Many breeders from 'warmer climes' will probably find some of this material superfluous given their far more ‘temperate’ conditions. But, who knows, there still may be something of use!

During one of my trips through NSW I was astounded to see the variety of birdseed mixes that were available. Where I come from I had the fattest Rosellas in Tasmania given the amount of seed that I threw away that my finches would not eat. No Red pannicum and no Siberian millet were in any of the mixes that were commercially available here. After lusting over several mainland mixes we took the punt and ordered a pallet load of finch mix. The results speak for themselves. From emptying an ice-cream container of waste seed out of the hopper catchers we now have less than half a cup of seed!! This tells us that the birds MUST be finding the seed far more palatable. The Rosellas are not amused! Many local commercial mixes are fine for Zebra finches and marginal for the larger Australian finches but are severely lacking for the waxbills and allied smaller Estrildid finches. To test this ‘hypothesis’ I conducted an experiment by filling one half of a large hopper with Red pannicum and the other with finch mix. The aviary contained mostly Cordon bleus and Orange breast waxbills. The Red pannicum was depleted twice as often as the straight finch mix. But trying to get the local seed suppliers to alter their seed mixes were to prove impossible. Hence we now get a mix from NSW made up to suit the finches we keep and our suppliers are such that they even send down bags of harder to get seeds when they are available in NSW. This arrangement is of great benefit to our finches and a sad comment on the merchants down here. Well worth the freight. Our supplier is Pepper’s Seed & Bird Products at Quirindi.

Range of Goodies! Hopper & "Special' Seeds! Pepper's Finest Mix!

The mix that we prefer is roughly in these proportions:


Obviously not all of these seeds are available at the same time and we try to maintain a balance between these in the mix that we feed all year round. Our supplier is fantastic in catering to our wishes though, at times, I bet he wishes we would go back to keeping Zebra finches! The only seed we strive to maintain stocks of at all times is Red pannicum.
This is the 'normal' mix fed to our finches the year round. It would be great to be able to present a finch mix specially designed for a particular finch species but pressure of work and other matters determine otherwise, so what we have striven to do is create a mix that will be palatable to all finches with minimum waste.
If you keep any of the members of the Siskin family you will need to provide them with Niger seed all year round to maintain them in their best condition. There used to be only irradiated Niger seed available on the market but recently there have been small quantities of domestically produced Niger about. If you are fortunate enough to get hold of this local Niger you will notice the difference in the way your birds consume it. When I obtained some I placed 2 bowls in the aviary - 1 with irradiated seed and the other with the 'fresh' product. The birds literally emptied the fresh seed before they were even interested in the irradiated seed. And we call them 'dumb' animals!! Best to look at the extras we feed on the basis of the seasons - namely winter and the breeding season!

During the colder months down here it is fairly (!) important to ensure that you supply seeds that are richer in oil content to ensure your birds have sufficient reserves to see them through the winter. We put out separate bowls containing Hulled oats during the winter months. In a separate bowl is also fed a mixture of cracked Sunflower seeds, Rape, Maw (poppy) Phalaris and Cracked oats that are very popular with the Singers, Siskins and Greenfinches. Small quantities of cracked sunflower and oats are fed during the breeding season as well.

At the start of this we feed out a product called Greens n' Grains which consists of a huge variety of grass seeds and bird seeds cut when they are still not fully ripe. The gusto with which the more herbivorous finches attack this has to be seen to be believed! I saw this product at the Gunnedah Bird Sale and saw that most of the bigger finch breeders that I knew of only by name were purchasing large amounts of this product. I purchased a small 'party pack' of this product to test and soon put in an order for a pallet load!! Birds such as Diamond sparrows, Emblemas, Bloods, Plumheads, Song sparrows, Blue-face parrotfinches and Gouldian's live in this seed and many wait on the aviary bowls for you to put it out for them. My Red strawberries love it but I know of other breeders that have said the opposite. Dybowski twinspots and Orange-cheek waxbills also appear to relish this mix. The more insectivorous species such as Blue caps, Melbas and Pytilias appear to show little interest in these green seeds. Perhaps, to me at least, the most interesting aspect of this seed mix is how the grower came to recognize its potential importance. His farm is heavily populated by wild Zebra finches and, as he explained to us, he noticed that when the birdseed was ripe the Zebs headed not for it but rather to the patches of wild seed that he had been trying to eradicate!! He shook his head and told us how much he had spent trying to get rid of this wild grass and how that he now had acres of it growing for his Greens n' Grains - thankfully for us he took notice of the Zebs!!
With the recent arrival of Mikes Herbal Seed Mix we were able to combine the two products and, if empty bowls are any indicator, then they are a double smash hit with the finches. Now all I have to do is get the Pytilias and Blue-caps to eat them – wish me luck!

Throughout the year all the aviaries are supplied with soaked seed every second day and every day during the breeding season. Any uneaten seed is immediately trashed the following day or that evening. There is a huge debate that ensues whenever soaking seed regimes are discussed and the closer to the equator you get the more negative that people tend to become! Many of our northern colleagues cite examples of fungus and bacterial growth and choose not to use this seed for those reasons, which to me, seems a great pity based on the relish that most finches show for soaked/sprouted seed. But if I'd lost birds to fungal disease spread from this seed I would probably think differently! Suffice it to say that here it is one of our staples and, to date, we have not suffered any outbreaks of disease from it - but we are ever alert. Our climate does not tend to have the humidity that northern climates have so I guess that is one thing to be thankful for! Our mixes are served partly sprouted and partly soaked so as to provide for all finch tastes.
Given the finches relish for this mix we often use it as a vehicle for introducing the birds to new supplements. Firstly the new product is mixed with the soaked seed and then, when they accept it, it is fed in a coffee lid by itself to gauge their reaction. This was how we initially fed Mikes softfood mix but now we are flat out keeping the coffee lids full! As a word of warning, beware that adding anything to their soaked seed may cause some finches to avoid it for a few days so be prepared to ‘wait them out" – give them time, keep presenting it and they’ll come round just like ours did!

1. Place required amount of seed in small ice-cream bucket and fill container to top with water.
2. Add small amount of one of the many brands of chlorhexidine solutions available to the water.
3. Leave on top of fridge or somewhere warmer for about 24 hours -or basically until the seed has swelled with water.
4. At end of 24 hours wash through a sieve with clean water and place sieve onto a sponge to draw the water through. Make sure that you DON'T take all of the moisture from the seed.
5. Place somewhere warm (mine into the mealworm room at around 25 degrees Celsius) until seed is beginning to sprout or is at the stage that you wish to feed.
6. Place unused portion in fridge until required. Some may frown at this last step but that is 'what works for me'.
7. Before serving place a multi-vitamin powder over the seed.

The seed used is the finch mix previously mentioned with extra Red pannicum added. During the breeding season we also supply soaked Grey sunflower which is relished by the cup nesting finches and, perhaps surprisingly, by a wide variety of 'normal' finches. This soaking is also reputed to lower the oil content of the seed if you have any such worries. The Sunflower seed is soaked using the same technique as outlined above. The only variation to this feeding regime is the supply of pine nuts to the Himalayan greenfinches - given the cost of these seeds it is to these ONLY!! They appear to love them especially when feeding young.

1.Winter warmers -
I was given a recipe for a substance that was called "German Paste" by someone I once knew. His mother used to feed it to wild blue wrens when they were feeding young on her property. It varies from the 'original' German Paste much favoured by older canary breeders in the absence of hemp seeds from the recipe!! I feel sure he won't mind my sharing the recipe with you. You need:

· 1 container of dripping.
· 2 cups of brose meal (chick pea flour)
· 2 cups of rolled oats
· 2 tablespoons of honey

Melt the container of dripping in a saucepan on moderate heat and stir in your honey. When everything is liquid stir in your brose meal and rolled oats. Stir well and pour into desired containers - ice cube moulds make excellent and convenient sized portions. Make sure that you continue stirring until it begins to set then place it in the fridge - but don't put in fridge too early as all the oats will sink to the bottom. Can be stored in the freezer until needed. Probably not going to be a winner in warmer climes as it has a real tendency to run in hot weather. Cup nesters are quick to consume it with other finches learning from their example.

2. Egg and Biscuit -
There is almost an unlimited supply of different brands available but the one we use goes under the name of canary starter. This is fed all year round in the dry form in small coop cups and mixed with hard-boiled eggs during the breeding season. Eggs are simply hard-boiled, usually for 20 minutes, then mixed with canary starter until a crumbly consistency is reached. The mix is stored in the freezer and fed out when required. All leftovers are disposed of the next day - usually to the quail!

3. Supplements -
At the commencement of the breeding season all aviaries are given a course of water-soluble vitamins and vitamin B complexes for about 2 weeks. The solutions are replaced daily. Just to 'fire them up' for the (hopefully!) big event. In a number of large coop cups I place a mixture of a finch soft food, finch crumbles, dry canary starter and an insectivore mix which finches relish as they begin to contemplate breeding. Different aviaries show varying degrees of consumption of this mix - from relish too completely ignoring it. Experimentation with the ingredients of this mix will provide you with something that your birds will enjoy.
We have found that most finches eagerly seek the Passwells Finch Soft Food of all the pre-prepared foods we have come across.

In a separate coop cup a dry lorikeet mix is provided which the majority of birds will eat. Be careful of these mixes if you have Song sparrows, as they appear to be a prime site for 'dust bathing'! I was also using a product called Bevo from Belgium but, unfortunately, customs in their wisdom have banned it from entering Australia. It is supposedly very good for highly insectivorous finches.

About twice a month we add Apple Cider Vinegar (ACV) to the water as a cleansing agent and this product is very popular in the United States and Europe. The birds don't appear to relish the taste but it's good for them so what else would you expect!!
The recommended dose rate is 5-10mls per litre depending upon whom you listen to! We use the 10mls/litre rate. Yet another aside here, make sure you get the non-pasteurised ACV and the thicker the colour the better!!
The only other non-medicinal agent that enters the water is lime - usually mixed at the rate of a spoonful to a bucket of water. What sized spoon you ask? I'm afraid that will depend on the purity of your water but only a small amount of lime will dissolve in a bucket - trial and error! This has long been used as part of a preventative program for egg binding.

We have also commenced mixing a number of softfood mixes that we feed to the finches, which I feel sure we can share with you in a future edition of
Just Finches & Softbills.

4. Vegetables and Fruit -
A friend in Gunnedah showed me a vegetable called the Lebanese cucumber that he feeds to his birds on a regular basis. Knowing that everybody has their 'secret' tip for success I filed it away for future use - especially after I saw the price of these in Hobart! Not long after this I was fortunate enough to hear Mike Fidler address the local bird society and he began to extol the humble cucumber as a powerful aphrodisiac. Out to the produce stall and a number were purchased but they preferred the Lebanese variety - of course, being the dearest! If you scoff at this try a piece with your Parrotfinches and you will come back to a shrivelled piece of green skin, that is all that will be left! Remains to be seen if it improves their 'prowess' but I feel that Blue-faced parrotfinches require little prodding in that direction!
Apple and oranges are fed in some aviaries and, as a rule of thumb, if there are cup nesters in the aviary they will eat some apple and the other finches will follow as "monkey see, monkey do"! On this topic, if you can't get your birds to eat something you feel they should try putting a Canary (or Red-faced parrotfinch!) in with them to 'show the way". That is as long as you haven't got a beautiful planted aviary - at least as for a Canary!

I know of a number of breeders that feed large amounts of broccoli to their birds and have witnessed them feasting on this, especially when the broccoli is put through a blender. But I have always remembered the amount of 'additives' that are used to grow broccoli in northern Tasmania and wondered whether these might not affect the finches. Silverbeet is supplied when available and is fed suspended on the aviary wire to avoid the birds feeding on the ground. A good stand bye when no seeding grasses are available or during winter. To be brutally honest I only use green vegetables when seeding grasses are not available. Many breeders favour Endive but its supply in Tasmania is highly erratic – from $2 a tonne to unavailable in the same month– which does make it a tad difficult to ensure a regular supply of. Doug in Sydney assures me, as he is often wont to do, that it is always $2 a sugar bag full there – yeah, right Doug! However, that does lead to the statement that it is pointless commencing feeding a product to your birds if its supply cannot be maintained when there are young in the nest!

5. Green Food (grasses, chickweed, thistles…etc) -
Again the feeding of seeding grass heads can be a contentious issue depending upon where you live. Whilst recently in NSW I spoke to a number of breeders that had horror stories of feeding seeding grasses in the wet, humid weather that existed there last year. Fungal diseases where traced back to feeding green grasses and many a grass patch was 'turned in'. Again personal preference and common sense will dictate what and how you feed green grasses. I am aware that an increasing number of aviculturists are now relying more and more on the dried Greens n' Grains type products rather than feeding seeding grasses fresh.
However, in the more temperate zones there is a greater margin for error when feeding green grasses as long as you avoid obvious signs of rust. A staple is the Chickweed (Stellaria media), a prostrate spreading weed with little white flowers that contain a number of tiny brown/golden seed (sold as Gold of Pleasure I do believe!) that most finches relish. Most finch keepers will be familiar with this plant. Be careful when picking your chickweed because another nasty little weed enjoys lurking amongst it. This is poisonous milkweed which resembles the former but has small yellow flowers and a more robust stem and when snapped oozes a milky white sap which is a powerful neurotoxin and can be fatal if eaten. We used to call it 'wart killer' when kids.

A couple of staple grasses are the small Veldt oats and green panic (Ehrharta sp.), both of which originate from South Africa. The variety that we have here is, usually, less than 500cms in height but I have seen similar panic grass in Queensland that was way over my mere 183cms of height! Many finches consume the seeds then construct the outer part of their nests from the green stems. My birds also relish the small seeds from swamp grass (November grass, blown grass) if you can supply it fresh. Another favourite that grows throughout Australia is rye grass, Lolium perenne, - your typical lawn seed grass. If you can afford the dried seeds you will find them avidly consumed by most finches plus diamond sparrows, song sparrows and the like love the green stems to build their nests with.
Coupled with these are the green seeds from any of the 'normal' bird seed varieties, (pannicums, millets…etc) fed just as they start to turn brown and dry off. Over here when you see the wild Goldfinches eating the heads of the Phalaris (Phalaris sp. - wild-type grass related to canary seed) you give it to your own birds.

If you are keeping siskins or other Cardueline finches then you will probably be feeding them with the flowers and the seeds of the milk thistle. This plant comes in a variety of species and forms, most of which are palatable. You can tell that someone is using the milk thistle by the cloud of seed 'fluff' that erupts from their cages every time they open the door! As a rule of thumb, if the stem is 'hairy or covered in stiff bristles' then the finches are generally not interested in it. If you are feeling particularly brave you might like to cut some Scotch thistles and extract the large purple seeds from them as the Cardueline species are really fond of them - greater devotion and all that!
I also feed Sunflower seed heads scavenged from anywhere I can and have helped collect the small tree-like sunflower heads that are favoured by NSW breeders that grow along the side of the road. Perhaps a final warning on picking grass seed would be that 'if in doubt don't'! If you are picking it from the side of the road it is critical to ensure that it has not been sprayed by the council, or at least not by local canines! Most local councils will tell you where the spraying is to take place and it is better to make the call to the council than a call to the vet.

Red, Siberian & Niger. Fresh Water! Winter Grass

Hopefully that gives you some 'food for thought’ in regards to what some people are feeding their finches. An obvious omission is the feeding of live food but that would be a tome in its own right! Given that we are told that variety is the spice of life it must be important to ensure that the species under our care are presented with as diverse a diet as possible. Giving some thought to implementing a well-constructed dietary regime could well mean the difference between an average breeding season and an excellent one. Remember, next time you are visiting an aviculturist make sure you see how he feeds his birds as we can all learn from one another. So don't just sit there reading this and say "what a load of rubbish", get out there and get to work and flood Paul at Just Finches & Softbills with your thoughts!