Livefood for your Finches
The Humble Maggot

So you have been going well with your finches and have bred a number of Stars, Double Bars, Emblemas and Diamond Sparrows. You venture into the bird dealers and lo and behold there is a beautiful pair of Rufous-backed Mannikins and a pair of Melbas. You must have them and so off you go with them to introduce into your aviary - after their customary 40 days of quarantine of course! All is going well and both pairs go to nest, "A breeze this finch breeding" you foolishly think to yourself! A few weeks later you find a number of small black bodies dotted around the floor of your aviary. It is now that the serious fincho must consider adding some livefeed into the diet of their charges.

Now, if you are fortunate to live on the 'mainland' you will, probably, have access to the termite or whiteant which can make your job relatively easy. However, if you are not so lucky you may have to settle for the joyous task of culturing maggots or 'gentles', as they are known in more 'refined' circles. As a youth I can remember the elaborate sheep-head drums that we used to maintain in order to obtain a supply of maggots, well out of nasal range and hidden from the parents in the far reaches of their property. This method usually resulted in a feast or a famine - you had thousands of maggots or you had none!

Often these maggots would be large and very popular with weavers but of limited use to waxbills. These were in the 'old days' of maggot culture when a demented few threw caution and their sense of smell to the wind - this method of maggot culture was definitely NOT to be recommended after any sessions of alcoholic indulgences!!

I may have my history a little astray here so please forgive me but this is how "things" unfolded in Tasmania. Whilst working at the University I was asked to help culture flies for a number of tree frog species being studied. The flies were the 'little green mainland type' (please excuse the vivid description!!) and were cultured on liver in old humidy cribs left over from the pediatrics ward. The flies were plentiful but they were VERY sensitive to the cold and we frequently lost large batches during power failures or through human error. I believe another local finch breeder was experimenting with these flies too and found that he could not maintain a regular supply. He, apparently, experienced large peaks and troughs with these mainland flies.

Fig.1. Fly Box

Fig.2. Flies at work

Fig.3. Live Food

I then heard of a breeder that had two mobile fly boxes that contained the local 'small pesky black house fly' and heard a couple laughing over his attempts to breed these guys. As luck would have it I was approached by this 'fly pioneer' to 'baby sit' his two prized boxes while he was on holiday. The day for the collection of the boxes came round and he deposited these into my bird room. My god what a noise! The boxes were literally alive with angry black flies! The amount of maggots that were produced from this system was, to me at least, unbelievable. Following discussions with several finch breeders these flies found their way to all corners of Tasmania, and even further I believe.

To Roger Curren the Tasmanian finch fraternity owes a huge debt of thanks. It was about this time that I began to read some of the articles from Craig Smeelie about his fly breeding and we were able to fine tune our system.

The flies are maintained on a diet of sugar cubes and water and are given trays of pollard and calf-rearing powder to lay their eggs in. At present a couple of breeders are trialing a different powder as a food source but the jury is not yet in on their findings as yet! It has been noted by a number of breeders that some youngsters leave the nest with a bad case of the scours and this is being blamed on the cultured maggots. I have seen this in Blue-caps on one occasion. The good thing about the maggots cultured in this manner is that multi-vitamin powder and other supplements can be given to the flies just before they are fed to the birds. Our experiments with Whey powder have been encouraging and we are now using this instead of other milk powder products.

OK. So much for the wonders of fly culture but how do we get 'off the ground'? Above you can see the set up of my fly boxes. The box measures 47cms high (plus a shelf of around 10cms high), 70cms wide and 47cms deep. Two light globe fittings are placed about 25cms above the floor of the box. We have found that this height allows you to gain access to the contents easily and avoid burning yourself when changing the far light globes. The reason for two globes is that if one blows the other will keep the flies warm - a real consideration where we come from during those cold winter nights! When constructing your boxes make sure to put your shelf on the top of the fly box as warm air rises - this shelf is particularly important for on-growing your maggots.

The system for maintaining the flies is reasonably simple and only requires a minimal daily effort.

1. Place three large fast-food containers or plastic lunch boxes in the box
     containing maggot and pupae.

2. Place container of sugar cubes on floor of box.

3. Moisture - some people place wet sponges in coffee jar lids but we just prefer to spray the flies
    with a plant spray pack twice a day. A breeder in NSW has adapted the plastic cage water
    containers to supply moisture - the 'L-shaped' ones. He uses a bird cage waterer with a piece of
    sponge in the finger bowl section - this allow moisture to be available and stops the
    flies from drowning!

4. Once flies start to hatch 2-3 plastic lunch boxes are placed into the cage.
    These contain a sloppy mixture of pollard, coarser bran flakes, water and your milk powder. The
    proportions are usually 2 handfuls of coarse bran and pollard to a heaped desert spoon of whey
    powder. If you are lucky enough to  get hold of some whey powder you will need to be careful of
    your mix as the whey appears to generate more heat than other 'fly culture media' - so test before
    you go into full on production. Be careful not to make it too sloppy, as the flies will drown in it. If it
    does look too runny you can simply sprinkle a small amount of pollard over the top to give the flies a
    'runway' to land on - I call this the Oliver method!

5. In my system I stir the food in the lunch boxes at least once a day to aerate the mix and to prevent
    any eggs being desiccated. Twice a day is better!

6. Once the eggs have hatched you will notice your lunch box has become a seething mass of
     maggots and is now ready to be removed from the cage.

7. We place the lunch box into a larger plastic cake box (kitty litter trays are popular too I hear!) where
    they are fed a new mixture of pollard and milk powder. At this stage these cake boxes are placed
    into the shelf above the fly box and left until they reach the desired size. When this stage is reached
    remember NOT to slide the cake boxes right into the shelf as these little fellows love the dark and
    will leave the 'safety' of their cake box and roam ALL through your system! Best to leave a little light
    shining onto them.

8. Before feeding I sieve out the maggots as best as is possible and then place them into fresh, dry
    pollard to fully clean themselves out and the multi vitamin powder added. Also at this stage it is a
    good idea to let them start to turn into pupae as some species prefer to eat these rather than just
    the maggot.

9. The next day they are clean and ready to be fed to your birds. John Butler in Cessnock, NSW, has
    a novel way of separating the used bran from the maggots with an electric hairdryer - and does it
    work a treat!

10. When you start to feed them out don't forget that you should aim to put  new maggots and/or
      pupae back into your fly box EVERY DAY. If you neglect this chore you will find you will suffer
      periods of 'fly droughts'  usually just when you need them most!

Well, that is a simplified version of the fly culture method as practiced down here. Over the winter we use 60 watt globes and this is changed down to 25 watt globes in the summer months - guess this is where local knowledge comes into it as regards the wattage that you use. It is essential that you monitor the heat in your fly boxes as many flies die if the temperature remains above 28 degrees Celsius for any length of time. Remember the amount of flies that you get out of this system is proportional to the number of flies that you have buzzing around in the box. The only problem most of us encounter with the fly boxes is how to keep the flies IN every time you open the door - many things have been tried but few 'go the distance' - any thoughts out there?

Fig.4. John 'Brushing up' his maggots!

Fig.5. The end result - Bewdiful!

I guess it is no real alternative to termites for a lot of you but when you don't have access to them you try what you can. The risk of disease from internal parasites must be reduced by this 'closed system' approach to livefeed but care, and common sense, must be exercised when checking for fungal and bacterial pathogens. Oh, and for all you doubting Thomas's out there, my system was given the thumbs up by a parasitologist who declared it to be not at risk for the spreading of diseases - so there!

Do yourself a favour and get into maggots it's a great 'talking point' amongst non-finch people!! However, you may have to practice your innocent 'staring at the roof' stance when your neighbours start to complain about "How many little black house flies there are around this year". What, me? Never!!

Written by Marcus Pollard - Copyright remains with the author.