Feeding Exhibition Budgerigars – By Dr Rob Marshall B.V.Sc., M.A.V.C.Sc. (Avian Health)

Based in Sydney Australia, Dr Rob Marshall has over 30 years experience treating dogs, cats and birds. He is a world renowned bird veterinarian and has a passionate interest in many bird species.His book, The Budgerigar is no doubt the most extensive book to be written on the subject of the Budgerigar since Gerald Binks’ published The Challenge. While the focus of The Challenge is more on the Exhibition Budgerigar, The Budgerigar, by Dr. Marshall, contains astonishing detail on Budgerigar health and disease and contains information essential for keeping Budgerigars, especially in the development of exhibition bloodlines.

There are countless successful feeding systems and the choice depends upon the time and resources available to the fancier; although the methodical and most fastidious fanciers invariably enjoy the greatest success. Fresh foods or specialised feeding systems enjoy the equal success. A regular time of feeding is especially important. A routine that closely resembles the wild bird activities is particularly beneficial for the health and well being of aviary budgerigars.

The aviary budgerigar still retains the gregarious flock patterns of its wild forebears, thriving on feeding activities that include the whole flock. Feeding in large trays, providing interesting seeding grasses and eucalypt baths in the early part of the day invigorate the whole flock into a frenzy of activity, not from hunger but from a deeper instinctual need. Psychologically the birds are much happier which in turn promotes a stronger physical well being.

Soaked seed techniques are potentially hazardous to the aviary budgerigar and are best replaced by specialized nutritional recipes. Trays of fresh bread soaked in nutritional additives are quickly accepted when they are provided as part of this community routine. Cleanliness and hygiene are paramount to the successful feeding system.

Clean Food and Water

In the wild, the budgerigar selects recently fallen seeds and the seeds at the top of the grass first, because these are the most nutritious. Fresh clean seed is also imperative for a successful breeding season and health in the aviary. This fact can never be overstated.

  • Fresh, clean food is the starting point for a healthy and successful breeding season.
  • The protection of the food from contamination during storage is the next important step.
  • Spoiled seed is the most common cause of poor breeding performance and recurrent illness in the budgerigar aviary.
  • It is impossible to cure illnesses and poor breeding results when “bad feed” is the underlying cause of such problems.
  • Food cleansers are used to keep the food in storage fresh and clean by protecting it from mould, yeast and other harmful agents.

Poor quality feed is feed which is old, dirty, poorly stored, fails to sprout, or feed with a high moisture content. There are four ways to ensure the feed is free of harmful bacteria, fungus or insecticides.

  • The smell test. The best food smells sweet and fresh.
  • The bite test. The best feed has low moisture, which is tested by a moisture meter at harvest time and in the feed bin. The toxin producing mould is very prolific in grains with moisture contents above 14%. The optimum moisture content of feed is between 10%-12% depending on the grain type. Alternatively, the older fanciers tested grain by the bite test. Dry grain is hard to bite through and splits cleanly. The bite test works well on the larger grains such as wheat, triticale, groats and sunflower.
  • The culture and sprout test. Culture testing for fungus and bacteria is the best test for grain. These tests can be done commercially or you can sprout test your grain at home. Sprout the grains separately on moistened cotton wool in a warm place and check for mould and a bad smell within 72 hours. The serious fancier today tests all feed before purchase.
  • Test feed to the birds. All new feed should be tested on a selection of birds. The observant fancier will notice obvious changes in the health of the flock soon after feeding a poor quality feed. It is best to scrape clean the floor and to remove all additives (grit, sand etc.) immediately prior to testing the new feed. Within 24 hours the droppings turn large dark green and runny, there may be green stains around dirty vents within 3 days, the birds become depressed and fluffed up and the noise level within the aviary drops noticeably, the down feathers disappear from the droppings and the eyes become dull. Within 3 weeks other diseases may appear which recur and appear fail to respond to the appropriate treatment.

Clean Water

The budgerigar has evolved in dry conditions of outbackAustralia. For this reason it is particularly susceptible to water related illnesses.

  • Clean water is critical for good health.
  • Without clean water, the battle against illness is already lost.
  • The water dish is the perfect place from which illnesses spreads. The sludge accumulating in the edges and corners of the drinkers is a particularly potent source of dangerous germs.
  • Feeding parents drinks copiously and unclean water exposes their babies to great danger.
  • Water cleansers are needed for budgerigar aviaries and are the best means of keeping the water clean and containers sludge-free.

Energy and Protein For The Budgerigar

Energy

The modern day budgerigar takes six weeks to fledge compared to four weeks for the wild bird. This means the modern day budgerigar is placed under an enormous physical burden and is one of the reasons of the many health problems experienced during the breeding season. In order to produce the best young birds, the fancier must provide the extra energy and protein in the diet.

A breeding budgerigar needs nine times the energy as a non-breeding bird, whilst young and ill birds need up to three times the energy of a non-breeding adult to remain healthy. More than anything else, a constant supply of energy is needed for good breeding results and continuing health in the aviary. The use of high quality food supplements are by far the best method for maximizing the energy and balance the protein for breeding budgerigars.

The popular process of feeding soaked seed to the aviary budgerigar provides the chicks with an instant source of energy, but carries serious potential dangers. The process of safe soaking is laborious but if you learn, use and practice safe soaked seed techniques then your birds can enjoy the benefits of and avoid the dangers of soaked seed. Seed used for soaking must always be culture tested or be protected with seed cleansers. At the end of soaking the seed must be cleaned and washed with a water cleanser. Groats and sunflower are the best seeds for soaking, because they are high in energy, lysine and methionine.

Protein

The correct protein balance refers to the essential amino acids in the seed mix. For the best growth rate and breeding results it is necessary to provide every essential amino acids in the correct balance. Lysine is the most difficult amino acid to balance and a well designed protein enhanced seed mix fed to the breeding birds advantages the entire flock.

The breeding wild budgerigar attacks the bark of eucalypts searching for lysine and balances the protein by selecting many seed and herb types. For the aviary budgerigar at least six different seeds types must be eaten to balance the protein. Protein additives are popular and necessary for the big bodied, heavy feathered modern day budgerigar.

Mineral and Trace Elements For The Budgerigar

The minerals and trace elements are the most neglected part of good nutrition for budgerigars.

Seeds are a very poor source of minerals and trace elements. Fanciers do not pay enough attention to the role and necessity of the minerals and trace elements for breeding and show performance, believing that the grit they use provides their flock with all the minerals and trace elements required for good health.

However, this is not so. The regular grits contain calcium but are deficient in iodine, iron and most trace elements. The wild budgerigar forages the dirt and river edges in search of minerals and trace elements.

Shell grit provides the budgerigar with a source of digestive stones and contains calcium, but is a poor source of mineral salts and trace elements. Cuttlefish Bone is a source of calcium, but is lacking in other minerals. Budgerigars love searching through the soil on the roots of grass clumps for minerals and trace elements. The soil contains minerals especially iron, magnesium and other field elements, for which the budgerigar craves when feeding of young. Soil, however, is a potent source of bacterial and fungal infections to budgerigars and must be avoided.

Minerals

Shell grit is not the best form of Calcium supplementation for laying birds. Laying hens need more than twice the calcium of the aviary bird and a concentrated mineral supplement is the best and safest method of providing the Calcium, which is largely unavailable in shell grit. Far too much shell grit is eaten to satisfy their calcium needs. Laying hens fall ill, vomit and may die from gizzard obstruction after engorging on the shell grit.

An abnormally high incidence of egg binding, cloacal prolapse, leg problems in the babies or poor eggshell quality points towards a low level of calcium in the diet or a poor absorption of calcium into the bird.

Wet grit creates a major health hazard to budgerigars, because the moisture in the grit promotes harmful bacterial growth and contamination. E.coli and related bacteria are commonly found in wet grits originating from the dead and decaying molluscs, which inhabit the grit shells. Some of the bacteria produced by these decaying marine animals are toxic. Wet and contaminated grit is a common cause of enteritis, wet nests and poor breeding performance in budgerigars.

Budgies search for minerals and trace elements when the levels in the body are depleted. Depletion of minerals occurs mostly when the hens are laying eggs and when the parents are heavily feeding young. The budgerigars become agitated, and chew on anything in search of minerals. Depleted birds over-engorging on grit or Cuttlefish bone causing vomiting and occasionally death from a blocked gizzard. Hen birds feather pick their young and cock birds kill fully feather chicks between five and six weeks of age.

Trace Elements

The most important trace elements for breeding budgerigars Iodine, Iron, Copper and Zinc.

A deficiency of any trace element will decrease breeding performance. Iodine is the most important trace element for breeding. Trace element supplementation is best given in the water or soft food mix during the breeding season.

Iodine activates the metabolism of budgerigars and is used to stimulate the aviary into breeding condition, to accelerate the moult of young birds and to “peak” the birds for the show. An audible whistling or squeak indicates iodine deficiency. Iodine deficiency tends to be a regional problem. Several reliable iodine supplements are available.

Vitamins for the Budgerigar

The modern day exhibition budgerigar is much larger and has a greater feather mass, grows more slowly and requires more energy and nutrients to develop. When the vitamins and minerals are not provided, the breeding birds tire easily becoming more susceptible to illnesses and the babies weaken. Although budgerigars can survive on grain and grit alone, they cannot reach the level of health required to withstand the pressures of breeding and eventually their breeding performance and health fails.

The vitamins lacking in the seed must at some stage be given to the birds in some form or other. Vitamins are a necessary part of budgerigar life and nowadays vitamins are given in the soft food mix or water. All of the B vitamins, especially Thiamine, accelerate the recovery of ill birds by reducing stress. The signs of a vitamin deficiency in the budgerigar are subtle. Often the vitamin deficiency relates to a bowel infection and can be confused with an illness.

Vitamin A is a particularly important vitamin for the budgerigar. Seeds are particularly low in vitamin A, vitamin A promotes appetite, digestion and also increases resistance to infection and to some parasites. The signs of a deficiency are subtle, but look carefully at the feather colour intensity, the cere colour and condition. The feathers are pale, rough and lack lustre, the cere roughened not smooth, and there may be an accumulation of a yellow dry scale on the sides of the mouth in budgerigars with a vitamin A deficiency. Look for signs of bumble foot and scaly face mite, which are both thought to be associated with vitamin A deficiency. The most obvious sign of a vitamin A deficiency is a feather stain above the cere. The staining of the feathers above the nostrils reflects a discharge from the nostrils. As with all of the other vitamin deficiencies birds with a vitamin A problem respond quickly to the supplementation of the vitamin in the water. Within three days the feathers colour up and shine again and the birds become erect and alert. Vitamin A supplements are helpful in stimulating the appetite of overcrowded young and breeding birds.

Vitamin D3 is produced by natural sunlight and has an intimate relationship with the calcium metabolism. Calcium is vital to fitness and vitality through its role in muscle and bone health. Vitamin D3 is incredibly important for egg laying, strong babies and vitality in the young birds and breeding flock but an excess of vitamin D causes kidney damage and retards growth. Vitamin D is naturally formed by the action of direct sunlight on the bird and breeding birds do better when the aviary is flooded with natural light. Egg binding and soft shell eggs are rarely encountered in sunlit aviaries. Bent keels, splayed legs and beaks abnormality are the most common signs of a vitamin D3 deficiency. It is almost impossible to reverse these abnormalities.

 

Vitamin E promotes natural health and vitality and functions as a biological anti-oxidant that may be important during the stress of overcrowding and during breeding when the formation of free radicals is increased. Vitamin E also has a positive effect on the immune function and any improvement in immune function must potentially benefit the breeding budgerigar and stressed young bird in the overcrowded aviary. Vitamin E deficiency may occur when rancid oils are fed excessively to the breeding pairs. All oil preparations must be refrigerated and tightly sealed. The signs of deficiency in budgerigars include twisting of the neck, stiff legs and leg weakness.

The B vitamins are energy vitamins used against stress and are all involved in the energy metabolism as cofactors in enzymatic reactions. They are extremely beneficial when the energy expenditure increase nine fold during the heavy feeding of the chicks. They aid in the continuing vitality of the feeding parents and maximise the growth of the chicks. Thiamine (vitamin B12) is an extremely important vitamin. Although seeds are a rich source of Thiamine, it is destroyed in budgerigars with enteritis. Thiamine supplements are given to accelerate the recovery of budgerigars during an enteritis outbreak. A cultured yeast by-product is an excellent source of Thiamine and B vitamins and is recommended for all breeding budgerigars on a daily basis.

Eucalypts have a special place in the life of the budgerigar. The wild budgerigar has evolved alongside the Eucalypt tree and over a million years has developed an intimate bond with the tree and its leaves. Wet eucalypt leaves excite and invigorate both the wild and aviary budgerigar into a frenzy of joy. They love to bath in the wet leaves and breeding hens destructively chew the bark searching for trace elements and lysine, the breeding protein. The eucalyptus oil from the leaves has medicinal properties that stimulate the immune system and promote a strong natural resistance to disease.

Rob Marshall In The UK

Rob will be at the Northdowns Budgerigar Society on 11th September 2013. Meetings are held at North Warnborough Village Hall, RG29 1EL and start at 7.45 p.m. For further information contact the Secretary – Tony Cash. Email tony@southern-heating.co.uk, Tel. 0751516637 or 01329231554. Everyone is welcome.

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About the Author: Dr Rob Marshall B.V.Sc., M.A.V.C.Sc. (Avian Health) is arguably the finest and most experienced veterinary surgeon in the world currently highly active in the field of avian diseases. His knowledge, supported by his extensive Curriculum Vitae, plus papers and books on avian health, is unequalled. His latest publication, "The Budgerigar Book", took 12 years to produce and is undoubtedly the most extensive volume concerning budgerigar health ever produced. Dr Marshall has his own veterinary practice in Carlingford, near Sydney, Australia.

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  1. Rizwan says:

    Very informative article for breeders and bigger also
    Thanx alot:).

  2. Judith van Schaften says:

    Dear mr. Marshall,
    While translating this interesting tekst, I wondered what you mean by ‘bent keels’. (part about vitamin D3) I could not find a proper translation, may be it is an Australian way of saying ‘spine’ or ‘sternum’?

    Best Regards, Judith.

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