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Product Review: Alternative Bird Foods – Yesterday and Today, Part II


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:


Product Review: Alternative Bird Foods – Yesterday and Today, Part I

Eggsnack Bird Food

The nutritional needs of some of our most colorful and interesting pet birds are not met by seed-based diets. Lories and lorikeets, for example, require a soupy mix of fruits and nectars. Many gorgeous softbills, such as the shama thrush (Copsychus malabaricus) and Peking robin (Leiothrix lutea) subsist largely upon insects, and require a high-protein diet if they are to thrive in captivity.

Dietary Specialists
Such birds were, in earlier times, considered to be “delicate” captives, and hence were largely ignored by aviculturists, or left to well-heeled experts.Providing them with a balanced diet required painstaking daily efforts, and usually involved gathering a variety of uncommon ingredients and a good deal of cooking.

I well remember preparing, twice daily, meals for the Bronx Zoo’s rare Tahitian lories (Vini peruviana).Breakfast was put together at 5:30 AM, and consisted of a blended shake containing fresh papaya, blueberries, nectar (apricot, pear, peach and guava), yogurt, vitamins and mineral powder.Their second meal was comprised of several types of commercial nectars (designed for hummingbirds and sunbirds), each containing several ingredients and mixed separately, as well as various tropical fruits and insects.

Commercial Diets for Picky Birds
In time we learned that many birds formerly thought to be difficult captives were actually quite hearty and long-lived, given the proper diet. Commercial, pre-mixed diets evolved, and now we are in the happy situation of being able to keep a wide variety of interesting species in our homes. Pretty Bird Species Specific Food for Lories and Goldenfeast NectarGold for Lories and Lorikeets serve well as basic diets for the specialized lories and lorikeets. Pretty Bird Softbill Select and Higgins Egg Food are of great value in maintaining toucans, barbets, tanagers, bulbuls and a host of others.

Many seed eating birds, especially the various finches, consume insects and fruit in the wild, and nearly all will benefit from a bit of Softbill Diet and Egg Food from time to time. When such birds are rearing chicks, these foods are vital.

Live, Canned and Collected Insects

Live crickets, mealworms, waxworms and other insects will be appreciated by nearly all softbills. A very useful innovation to appear recently has been the Canned Insects (marketed for reptile pets) by Exo-Terra and ZooMed.

ZooMed Bug NapperI urge you to give these a try for finches and other softbills. Zoo Med’s Bug Napper Insect Trap provides an easy (and interesting!) means of collecting wild insects – trust me, your birds will consider moths, beetles and the like a very special treat indeed.

Next week I’ll describe what was involved in feeding the Bronx Zoo’s huge collection of insectivorous birds before the advent of commercially-prepared diets.

Please see my article Providing Insects to Pet Birds…Useful Products Designed for Reptiles, on this blog, for more information on feeding softbills and other birds.

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