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Your Bird’s Health: Protein Requirements


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Written by Robert Petrie  (Kansas City, MO.)
Originally published in The NFSS Bulletin, Vol. 13 No. 2. March  – April 1996

Live food, egg food, soaked seeds, etc… we aviculturists continually are striving to offer the protein to our finches that they need. It seems I’ve counted an endless number of teeny-tiny mealworms to give to my birds. Non-bird people often stare in amazement that I pay for insects. Who knows how many different egg food recipes I have concocted. I still modify my recipe every now-and-then.

What is it all for? What exactly is protein? If you think of an animal’s body as a house, then most of the materials to build the house, siding, wall coverings, roof, doors and windows, etc… are protein molecules. Also the things that run the house, furnace, hot water heater, water pipes, and so on, are made of proteins. The tools to build the house, saws, hammers, cement truck and others, and the workers building the house are all proteins.

This is why a new growing body needs a higher amount of protein than a mature body. But even a mature body needs an occasional repair or remodeling. Protein can also be used for energy. Typically a body relies upon carbohydrates, the sugars and starches, for the energy to run on, just like the electricity surging through your house. If supplied with an excess, an animal’s body can use protein as an energy source.

Proteins are made of what is called “amino acids”. There are 20 different amino acids known (Eckerts, et. al. 1973). These amino acids form together, in seemingly endless chains, to form the protein. These chains can be put together in an almost infinite number of different orders allowing different types of proteins.

Some of these amino acids an animal’s body knows how to make. Others need to be in an animal’s diet for it to survive. Humans need to have 9 different amino acids in our food (Alberts, et. al. 1983). These needed amino acids are called “Essential Amino Acids”.

Most of us know of some foods that are high in protein. Protein content doesn’t say enough though. There is complete and incomplete protein. There is also crude and usable protein.

The protein content is determined in a laboratory. I’m not even going to pretend to know how it is determined. I do know that the measure they give is for crude protein. That is all the protein in the sampled material. But not all the protein is available to the animal eating the substance. For example, if you eat a piece of wood, the cell walls are made of protein but your body cannot use it, so it is of no value. We haven’t found a way to determine usable protein, so we must go by the crude protein content amount.

Meat and beans are good sources of protein. But meat is considered complete, and beans, incomplete. All that means, is that meat contains all the Essential Amino Acids. Beans lack at least 1 of the essentials. But if you eat beans and corn, both good sources of protein, you will have all your essential amino acids.

Well, why should you really concern yourself with this biology lesson? People constantly ask for my recipe for egg food. I constantly ask people for their recipe for egg food. No one knows everything and it helps to continuously compare recipes. It helps when considering someone’s egg food recipe to understand something about protein, so you can make good judgements on what to do.

We know that in the wild our finches eat seeds and insects. The protein content of seeds can vary anywhere from 12-20%. The protein content of mealworms is around 20%. When seeds begin to germinate, the point when the plant is just emerging from the seed coat and not when it looks like a little plant, they increase their amount of protein.

So all these insects, egg food and soaked seeds are to make sure our little ones get the protein they need. During the nonbreeding, nonmoulting periods, a finch’s diet would probably be somewhere in the neighborhood of 12-18% protein. These are only my guesses. During the breeding season the protein requirement probably increases to a little over 20%.

I have had the extreme good fortune to have all my finches raise their own babies, indoors on mealworms, soaked seeds and my egg food recipe. The list of species include Melbas, Lavenders, and Violet-eared Waxbills, all reported to need lots of live food. I am only telling you this because I feel I have struck on a good thing and I would like to share it with as many people as possible. So here is my egg food recipe and an evaluation of its ingredients.

Main Ingredients
3 hard boiled eggs with the egg shell
2 Tbsp of grated carrot
Sprinkle of dried spirulina
2 Tbsp of Nutritional Yeast
¼ cup of dry mix

Dry Mix Ingredients
½ oat bran (not meal)
¼ wheat bran
¼ corn meal

The egg of course is added for the protein, probably little over 20% The eggshell is for the calcium. Carrot is for the beta carotene.

The dry mix is used to coat the egg crumbles and make it dry out when left in the dishes. Making the egg dry out prevents any spoilage. The 3 dry mix ingredients are semi good sources of protein (Oat bran 17%, wheat bran 16%, and corn meal 9% [Nutrition Monitoring Division 1989]), but they lower the overall protein content of the egg food. By mixing all 3 dry ingredients, I have gotten all the essential amino acids. The carrot and eggshell also lower protein percentage. Spirulina and nutritional yeast boost the protein amount. Nutritional yeast is about 40% protein and dried spirulina is 57% (Nutrition Monitoring Division 1984).

My recipe is hopefully over 20% protein. I also feed chopped greens and cooked rice with the egg food, but this is for the non breeding birds.

A caution here on using the spirulina. Do not overuse. Too much of anything is not good. I’m sorry I can’t remember the source, but a study once done on protein needs of ducklings found that too much and their limbs were misproportioned. I used too much spirulina once and lost a clutch of Lavender chicks with tiny bodies and large heads.

Final note, with this egg food I must restrict some of my birds. These birds have a tendency to become obese. The species most frequently overweight are: Orange-cheeks, Red-ears, Violet-ears, and Red Heads.

Literature cited:
B. Alberts, D. Barry, J. Lewis, M. Raff, K. Roberts, and J. Watson. 1983. Molecular Biology of the Cell. Garland Publishing Inc., New York.
Eckert, Roger. 1978. Animal Physiology: Mechanisms and Adaptations. W.H. Freeman and Co., New York.
Nutrition Monitoring Division of the USDA. 1984. Composition of Foods: Vegetables and vegetables Products. US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.
Nutrition Monitoring Division of USDA. 1989. Composition of Foods: Cereal Grains and Pasta. US Government Printing Office, Washington DC.

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Last updated: January 24, 2006