Last time we took a look at some of the fine foods available to those who keep softbills and lories as pets (Please see Alternative Bird Foods – Yesterday and Today, Part I). I mentioned that these products have greatly simplified the captive husbandry of a number of species, and alluded to the difficulties involved in preparing certain diets from scratch.
Today I’d like to recount what it was like to be a bird keeper assigned to prepare food for the huge collection of insectivorous birds at New York City’s Bronx Zoo.
Birds and Bird Keepers Must Eat Early
I rose at 3:20 AM (despite the dreadful hour, I awoke hungry and so allowed time for feeding myself before even thinking about birds of any sort!), and arrived at the zoo by 5:15 AM or so. The walk from my car to the World of Birds took me along the Bronx River, and my arrival at the door was often delayed by the parade of creatures out and about at that time – perhaps a family of striped skunks, or any of the 265+ bird species recorded nearby.
Cooking and Mixing
The first order of business was cooking 80 pounds of horsemeat which, I must admit, smelled quite sweet and roused me to hunger once again. I also hard-boiled 60 dozen eggs, which were then ground (with the shells) and, along with vitamin and mineral supplements, mixed with the meat.
Diets for individual exhibits and birds were posted over the mixing table, on a board that measured about 18′ x 3′. Individual ingredients were then added to the pans, as per the needs of the various species – mealworms, newly molted mealworms, blueberries, mixed fruits, chopped vegetables and innumerable other ingredients all had a place.
Delivering the Food
We kept a great many mixed species exhibits, so food pan placement was of paramount importance. Some pans went to areas accessible only to tiny birds; others went in wire cages that functioned as traps, allowing the keepers to capture birds needing attention, while many were positioned so as to afford the public a good view of the feeding birds.
Without carful attention to such details, birds in large exhibits often become malnourished. Oddly enough, the most dominant individuals often fare the worst, as they select only favored treats, such as mealworms and crickets…leaving the others to consume the more nutritious basic diet.
An Array of Other Foods
Diets for specialized feeders – nectar for hummingbirds and sunbirds, nuts and fruits for cassowaries, fish for bald eagles, mash for flamingos, rodents and insects for burrowing owls, and so forth – came next…more about that in the future.
Please check out my other articles on bird nutrition:
Grit and Gizzards – how birds digest seeds
Feeding Insects to Pet Birds – useful products designed for reptiles
Iodine Deficiency (Avian Goiter, Thyroid Hyperplasia) in Parrots, and Other Cage Birds
Product Review: Vitakraft’s Sprout Pot – a Convenient Method of Supplying Your Birds with Valuable Nutrients
Sprouting Seeds at Home: A Useful Method of Providing Pet Birds with Nutritious Treats
Pet Birds and Plants, Part I & II – avoiding toxic species
Please write in with your questions and comments. Thanks, until next time, Frank Indiviglio.
An interesting perspective on feeding birds and other animals at Australia’s Taronga Park Zoo is posted at:
It is wonderful to run across these articles written in such a personal and knowledgable format. I dont know if you remember me as we worked together many years ago. I know I spent much of my time stressed out, young (fresh out of college)and hard to deal with. You gave me much patience and knowledge and I will always use what I learned. You helped me learn to observe the animal’s body language to understand it. I still have birds and would have snakes (if I diddnt have two little kids). I have from time to time run across your photo in national geographic mag and pointed it out to my friends and stated “I worked with that guy. He trained me with reptiles and taught me alot”. So I just wrote to say thanks for everything and its great to read these articles by you. Hilary
What a wonderful surprise to see your thoughtful note…thanks so much for the kind words.
It was my pleasure to work with you. The concern you showed for the animals under your care was among the deepest I’ve ever run across. I’m sure your birds (and children!) are quite fortunate. Thanks very much for reading my articles…please let me know if there are any topics you’d like to see addressed on the blog.
Best regards, Frank
Nice behind the scenes insight! Do you have any thoughts on cottage cheese and the egg food carried by your company as a protein source for finches and shama thrushes? My father swore by cottage cheese, and I think he even gave it to canaries. Thank you. Frank S
Frank Indiviglio here. Thanks for the interest in our blog.
Higgins Egg Food is ideally suited for finches and shama thrushes. The protein therein is provided by dried eggs and vegetable proteins, both of which are well-utilized by birds (if your father used cottage cheese for his collection, he likely added some hard boiled egg as well). The egg food is designed for canaries, so the pieces are well sized for shamas and most finches. The food can be used daily for most finches (the measuring cup is sized with a canary in mind), twice daily for shamas and other insectivorous species.
Cottage cheese is a fine protein source for most birds, and was long a standard among zookeepers and private aviculturists. You can use it 1-2x weekly for your collection, in very small bits. I have found that rolling it about in egg or insectivorous food food increases its palatability, as it is then less “sticky” and easier for the birds to manage. It spoils rapidly, so be sure to provide only as much as will be consumed immediately.
You might also try canned caterpillars and other canned insects, as well as Zoo Med Anole Food for finches and shamas. Although marketed for reptiles, these products are a wonderful means of providing dietary variety to pet birds…this is especially important for the highly insectivorous shama thrush.
Its nice to hear from someone who keeps shamas…although they are very popular with European and Asian aviculturists, they are not seen so often in US collections (although many zoos keep them). I have yet to run across a finer songster….please write in with your impressions and observations if you have a chance.
Thank you, best regards, Frank Indiviglio