I would like to share my thoughts on Dr. Christine Sheppards article on avian diets printed in the NAS January Bulletin. I believe many people read Dr. Sheppards article and took it somewhat out of context. It is a very good possibility that some captive species would perish if these recommendations were taken literally. It’s essential to understand the context of the recommendations and then apply them to captive raised birds. Let me explain the reasoning behind my madness.

Captive birds in our facilities CAN NOT live on the same diet as wild counter parts. Dr. Sheppards findings center on wild birds that are very active searching for food all day long, picking the ground and flying form area to area, searching, searching, searching. The heavy activity burns up excessive protein and minerals, and the high protein content does not harm them in the long term. A wild birds diet and their protein and/or mineral consumption varies from day to day. For example, a bird might consume 35% protein one day and 6% the next. Availability of food varies with the day and season plus the birds have what I call a sixth sense that lets them know what they need to eat to maintain their bodies requirements.

The greatest difference between captive and wild birds diet is this availability of variety or lack of it. Captive
birds are fed a processed commercial pellet diet that supplies them with the exact same amount of protein
and minerals daily. They are solely at the mercy of their breeders feeding program. Because captive
breeders receive such a consistent and controlled diet, a much different diet program is required that the
wild counter part.

In human beings we see the same scenario. A professional football player requires a very different diet than an office executive. Each persons body requirements are different and must be controlled correctly for a long and healthy life. If a diet doesn’t match the lifestyle, it can cause overweight, heart and kidney problems and possibly death. There is absolutely no difference for these birds. Matter a fact, controlling diets in these birds is much more critical than with humans.The key words here are lifestyle and diet. It is very important that these two words work in conjunction for a healthy and prosperous life for both birds and humans.

Commercial Feed Formulas

In my personal experience, I fed a very popular commercial feed for five years until I started losing my breeding stock. Many birds died. After a very through investigation, the results showed the birds died from Gout and kidney failure caused from either too much protein and/or calcium in their diet. The birds received fresh water everyday and were never without it, so the problem wasn’t from lack of water. The cause was pinpointed to the commercial pelleted feed.

I sent the lab results to the feed manufacturer, and their response was interesting. They explained ALL commercial diet today are designed for large scale breeders who have a great number of birds in very large (10,000 sq. ft. or bigger) pens. The birds are very active and social. The feed also promotes offspring production. This is the feed manufacturer’s target market, not the small private breeder. This was hard for me to believe.

Big breeders replace adult birds each or every other year and are only looking for results for two years. They are not concerned in the long-term picture of the birds. The feed manufacturer admitted their breeder feed is not good for us, the small breeder, and that his feed should probably not be feed to our stock. They recommended a maintenance diet as a year around option. But this creates another problem of insufficient protein and other requirements during breeding season. Could they develop a breeder feed for the small private breeder? The answer: It wouldn’t be profitable enough.

I got the same reply from many feed manufacturers, but finally I found Vandon Bosh Feeds to specialize in special diets for birds and animals. With the help of their lab and staff of diet experts, a feed was developed that the doctor calls the Cadillac of feeds for the small breeder. Diet requirements for many captive birds were researched, including the Gray peacock pheasant and the Eared species from China which I specialize in.

The results confirmed what I had been told by the other feed manufacturer that calcium and protein levels in commercial feed today is not right for the private small breeder, and that feeding maintenance diets year round wasn’t a good option.

We must be more concerned about the feed we feed our birds. We need to check the calcium and protein content of feed plus how manufacturers obtain those levels. Now is the time to start making necessary changes to help birds propagate successfully and survive longer in captivity.

Calcium Content

The calcium content in the commercial diets was too high. As Dr. Sheppards article concurred, these birds, including the hens only require a 1% calcium level in their diet for a successfully laying season. Anything over that percentage can only be harmful to the birds because it can not be eliminated successfully from their digestive system. Instead the calcium concentrates in the birds kidneys and slowly kills the bird. The silent killer can take three to six years to be lethal. One of the signs of this kidney problem is: fine one day, dead the next. The 2 to 3.5% calcium content in todays commercial breeder feeds are designed for an active hen laying between 60 to 100 eggs per season. This percentage is especially too high for males who are often forgotten when a breeder feed is selected. A bird that lays 18-30 eggs per season requires a 1.5 % calcium diet. A bird that lays 2-10 eggs per season requires less than 1% calcium diet to be successful.

There are many types of calcium available. The two most common sources of calcium in diets are Calcium Carbonate and oyster shells. Calcium Carbonate is used in many production feeds and is 100% absorbed by the birds digestive system. This is why very little is needed in feed to be effective. Too much can kill birds very quickly. In oyster shells, the bird only absorbs 5% to 10% of the available calcium and in reality, oyster shells are used more for a grit than for the calcium content. Also, if oyster shell is mixed with the feed, it lowers the overall protein level of the feed considerably. In summary, ask you feed distributor about what type of calcium is used, the amount used and if it effects the protein level of your feed.

Protein Content

As for the protein level in the commercial feeds today, this becomes very complicated because many breeders think protein is protein. Nothing more nothing less. Well this is far from the truth. There are hundreds of different combinations of ingredients that mills use in bird diets to end up with any given protein level. The key to a successful diet of protein for a particular stock is the breakdown of individual ingredients in conjunction with the total protein content, not just the total protein level.

You need to be concerned about ingredients used to accomplish the feeds protein level. In the research on my Chinese stock I closely examined diet in the wild. I determined what they ate before, during and after the breeding season in China. I was concerned about what types of protein they ate, such as plant roots, bugs, leaves, etc. I was not really concerned about the total protein level at this point. Next I determined which ingredients were available in the U.S. for use in a manufactured feed. My birds ate plant roots, foliage, and bugs in the wild. Thus I added more alfalfa, fish and bone meal to their diet formula which simulate natural ingredients but yet keep the total protein level appropriate for captive stock. In many commercial diets, alfalfa meal accounts for about 5 to 25 pounds per ton of feed. In the Vandon Bosh feed, it was raised to 400 pounds of Alfalfa meal per ton to help simulate the plant roots in foliage that these birds require. Fishmeal was treated similarly, commercial feed uses about 25 pounds per ton. It was raised to 300 pounds per ton. These are natural ingredients for the birds, instead of corn filler and other man made ingredients. Corn helps manufactures obtain a wanted protein level and maintain a shelf life for the feed. In my experience it only puts fat on the bird and causes egg blowouts, infertility and even death over a period of time. Natural ingredients in process feeds promote hens to breed and lay naturally as they do in the wild. In turn fewer eggs are produced, and there is less stress on the hens. Many commercial feeds today, promote higher egg production than normal which adds additional stress and shortens breeding stock life span.

It’s Time to Review Feed Programs

In conclusion, we must be more concerned about the feed we feed our birds. We need to check the calcium and protein content of feed plus how manufacturers obtain those levels. Nows the time to start making necessary changes to help birds propagate successfully and survive longer in captivity. Dr. Sheppards article should be used as a reference tool to help determine a species diet in the wild, not to try to exactly duplicate her findings for that species in captivity. As always I’d urge you to champion galliforms in captivity and in the wild by being active at the state, national and international level. If anyone has any questions or comments, please feel free to contact me at (517) 871-9591. Ted Norris is an MBGBA Director and President of the World Pheasant Association-USA.

Reproduction of this article elsewhere in any form without prior consent from the UPA is strictly prohibited.© 1999 The United Peafowl Association. All rights reserved.