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Are all bird foods created equal?

Wednesday, 31st December 2014

In the UK, the term ‘bird food’ covers all manners of seeds and feeds - whatever the quality! The term has become the generic catch-all category for anything that can be fed to birds. If it can be placed on a bird table, it’s to be considered a bird food.
Not at Haith’s, though. Haith’s consider their bird foods as ‘bird diets’ – a world apart from the pile it high, sell it cheap, tuppence a bag bird foods found in some stores. Is this difference worth paying more for? Haith’s seem to think so...

I’m coming round to the idea that the ‘bird food’ market has gone mad! Last week, I picked up a bag of bird food (I won’t mention the company, but it wasn’t Haith’s) containing large slices of dried banana. The mix was called a ‘hedgerow mix’. I don’t want to pick hairs but...am I the only person who’s never seen bananas growing in hedgerows? (I have of course seen plenty of banana skins in hedgerows!).
 
I cannot think of a single wild bird that would expect to see dried banana on the bird table, can you? I know that parrots and parrot-like birds (exotics) will eat them – but I can’t see a Dunnock giving dried banana a whirl.
 
It’s madness to include banana in a wild bird food (as far as I’m concerned) for two very good reasons: 1). The consumer is paying for something that probably won’t get eaten, and 2). There are dozens of more appropriate seeds, fruits and foods to include which will provide life-saving calories, extra protein, higher levels of calcium (Ca) and moisture.  
 
And that’s why I think the ‘bird food’ market has gone mad; it’s gone mad developing new ‘bird foods’ when it should be focusing on providing safer, more nutritional, cleaner, better researched bird diets – but that takes much more effort than throwing a few dried bananas into a mix and calling it a hedgerow mix.
 
Quality product research and scientific development of bird diets is a tough brawl and few bird food companies are willing to invest their funds in the direction of food safety and nutrition when the government do not (currently) penalise providers of poor quality and potentially unsafe diets. (When I say ‘unsafe’ I’m drawing your attention to seed mixes that contain far too much dust and waste husk as these may damage a bird’s respiratory system). Haith’s do re-invest profits into scientific development of bird foods – working with experts via Haith’s PRO (their professional avian nutrition programme) and they now create safer ‘bird diets’ as a result.  


 
So no two bird foods are the same, really. Even straight foods – like Sunflower Hearts and Peanuts can differ greatly between suppliers.
 
If you don’t deal direct with Haith’s, though, how do you know if the bird food you’re purchasing is clean and safe for birds? I can offer you two very simple ways of checking: 1). Ask the supplier to confirm their seeds have been cleaned, and 2). (my personal favourite) Run your own simple – but effective – test:
 
  • Sink your hand into the open bag of bird seed and sift the seed through your hands for a few moments and then notice how much dust is released into the air. The same amount of dust may well find its way into a bird’s air sack. If the dust is making you cough or sneeze, imagine what it could be doing to the birds!
 
  • Now remove your hand from the bag and take a closer look at your hand...is there a film of dust on it? Again, that film of dust is on each seed and as birds sift and sort through the bird food they’re exposed to the dust. Bear in mind also that someone’s paying a price for this dust (you!).
 
  • Finally, here’s a fun practical experiment: add some water to a see-through beaker and place a few tablespoons of seed in it, and then observe what happens...is a layer of dust floating on the surface? It’s impossible to eliminate dust completely, but common sense will tell you if the seed mix has been cleaned or not. (Keep in mind that some bird diets – softfoods for example – aren’t cleaned and polished, they are grinded into a ‘meal’ to aid consumption by smaller softbills).
 
  • If in any doubt, talk to your supplier. Demand to know if the seed has been cleaned!  


 
Professor John E. Cooper sums up Haith’s focus on safe bird diets: “The contribution of food provided by the public to the long-term survival and success of wild birds depends upon a number of factors, not just quantity and type of food. The quality of the seeds and other constituents that are being fed is also important.  In collaboration with Haith’s I have been carrying out laboratory testing of bird diets, with particular reference to physical features such as the presence of dust (which can be harmful to a bird’s respiratory system) and extraneous husk (which can damage delicate tissues and allow entry of pathogens). My findings to date suggest that the diets offered for sale by different companies in Britain vary in terms of cleanliness and consistency.
 
In my view, the important message is that, while year-round feeding of wild birds can be beneficial to a wide variety of species (both “garden” and “farmland”), if the practice is to contribute significantly to avian health, welfare and conservation it must involve the use of high quality seeds and other constituents. This could be an opportunity for farmers, naturalists, bird food manufacturers and members of the public to work together more closely.”
 
So there you have it, no two bird foods (or bird food companies) are created equal.
 
Thank goodness Haith’s is focusing more of its efforts on quality and science and leaving the bananas in the fruit bowl. Is this difference worth paying a little more for? I think so.
 
Have a wonderful New Year.
 
Best wishes
 
Simon 

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