by Ray & Wendy Lowe
(photographs by Narelle Robinson)
There are already in existence many sources of information, articles and books about seed for birds listing all the types of seed and what they are used for. In writing this article it is our aim to provide you with some information based on our experience with seed over the many years we have been breeding finches. Whilst we know there are those who have differing ideas and opinions to ours, we thought it was worthwhile writing from our knowledge rather than restating that which has already been written many times over.
There are many seeds available in today’s market place both dried and green, however what are the optimum seeds for finches and how do you know what makes a good quality seed?
Primarily finches feed on grass seed, i.e.; canary seed, millets, panicums and herb seeds. The number of grass seeds available to our birds in Australia is plentiful however there are certainly those seeds, which have historically proven to be of greater benefit to our aviary kept finches.
Over time, finch keepers have tried and tested an innumerable range of food items additional to a seed diet. Many finch keepers swear by a particular range of food items that they supply to their birds. There are many arguments for and against providing a supplementary alternative food range to the all seed diet, however by establishing the ideal seed mix for the species of bird you are keeping and supplying a top quality product to your birds, a seed diet, which is what finches eat in the wild, is the fundamental basis for success in your aviculture pursuits.
We do supply our birds with shell grit at all times and do not consider that this is a “food” supplement but a necessary component of a seed based diet.
Our basic seed mix consists of four seeds; Canary, White French, Siberian Millet and Red Panicum.
All seed should be bought as fresh as possible up to one year old. The nutritional value of seed is directly proportional to its age, i.e. the older it is the less nutritional value it has. Particular attention needs to be paid to White French Millet. If this seed is older than one year it becomes unsuitable for finches as it hardens and most finches are unable to crack the husk. This makes the purchase of your white French critical. So how do you know how old the seed is that you are buying?
All imported seed is subject to gamma-radiation by quarantine when it enters Australia to render the seed infertile. This makes the seed less viable in supplying the optimum range of nutrients as the kernel itself has been stripped of its highest nutritional value. It is the kernel that the birds are most keen to eat. This is why we buy all our seed fresh directly off Australian farmers. We are fortunate that we have a farmer right next door to us that grows and harvests seed. Of course not everyone lives next to a seed farmer, so as an alternative you need to source a wholesaler or supplier who can guarantee the seed they are supplying is Australian grown and that they know the age of the seed. As an example our Siskins simply refuse to eat imported Niger seed. We provide them with Australian grown Niger Seed. We source this seed from interstate and we know exactly when it is grown and harvested.
Buying imported seed at a cheaper rate than the Australian grown seed is a false economy in many ways. The seed is guaranteed to be of lesser quality than the fresh, Australian grown, non radiated seed. Lack of support of our Australian seed growers will eventually lead to a time when only imported seed is available to choose from and only then will we really pay the price for our “cheap seed”.
So what mix of seed do we give our birds? Our basic mix is one part Canary, one part Siberian, one part Red Panicum and a half part of White French Millet. We particularly use the Red Panicum over the other available varieties as it is a softer seed and is much easier for the young birds to digest. This is our basic and austerity mix. Other seeds that we use in our aviaries include Niger, Phalaris, Couch, Lettuce, Clover, Signal Grass, Bambatsi, Purple Pigeon, Green Panic, Gatton Panic and Rye Grass. These seeds are fed in small quantities as a “treat” seed in breeding season.
Another aspect of seed feeding is sprouted seed, which is used mainly in the breeding season. To sprout seed, soak dry seed in tepid water with 10% household bleach for one and a half hours then rinse and drain. The seed needs to be kept moist until sprouts appear, usually in one to two days, depending on the type of seed. Once sprouted, rinse the seed thoroughly under fresh water then soak in water with 10% household bleach for ten to fifteen minutes, rinse then drain and feed out to the birds immediately otherwise refrigerate, or freeze for later use. It is important to ensure that the seed does not develop any mould and it should still smell sweet at the end of the process. Sprouted seed is thought to be around 200% more nutritional than dry seed. Sprouting is a good method of determining the quality of your dry seed. To test the viability of dry seed, place a spoonful of seed spread out on a wet paper towel and keep in a warm place, keeping the towel damp. The more seed that sprouts, the better the quality. If no seeds sprout, chuck it out and get some good stuff!
Our other main source of seed is green milk seed. There is no question that green milk seed is superior in nutritional value to dried seed, somewhere in the region of 400%. We again are fortunate that the farmer next door to us grows and harvests our own green milk seed, however you can also source naturally growing seed from various locations during different times of the year, or you can grow your own seed. Collecting seed from areas that are not under your control, such as the side of the road or native paddocks can be risky as you will not know if the seed has any contaminants such as weed spray, pollution or naturally occurring disease such as ergot or smut. Signs of ergot are a stickiness to the seed while smut infects the seed causing it to swell, forming a little round ball which often appears to be the same colour of the original seed. When squeezed a fungus is released that is blackish in colour, resembling soot. Both of these diseases are usually found after periods of rain and high humidity or at the end of the growing season. As we harvest and process our own green milk seed we thought readers may be interested in knowing what goes into producing a tub of frozen green milk seed.
We produce White French Millet, Siberian Millet and Red Panicum as green milk seed and then freeze it ready for feeding straight to the birds. These seeds are seasonal and planting is done from October to February. After this time of the year we cannot grow these seeds.
The crops of all three seeds are usually planted at the same time, ideally in October. The White French is the first to be ready to harvest, with all weather conditions being ideal, in around 6 to 8 weeks from planting. The Siberian is next at 3 weeks to a month later followed almost immediately by the Red Panicum.
The window of opportunity to harvest the seed at the right stage of maturing is only around 4 days. As in all farming processes the success of the crops is beholden to the weather and whole crops can be lost due to too much or not enough rain. The crops are stagger planted so that if a crop fails there is a back up. Generally a success rate of one out of four crops is usual for green milk seed.
As the crops are harvested in the hot part of the year a swift and efficient method of getting the seed from the paddock to the freezer is required. It’s all hands on a very busy deck on seed days. From the time Lester the farmer who grows the seed sets out on the harvester to it being put in the minus 20 degree freezer it takes 30 to 45 minutes. Freshness and quality is paramount. Any delays whilst harvesting are detrimental to the seed as the heat generated from the piles of seed can cause a composting effect.
White French is the most popular of the three seeds and is also the more reliable to harvest as it comes into head faster than the other two varieties. French White is usually harvested in late December or January. Red Panicum and Siberian take about a month longer to ripen ready for harvest, therefore the chance of more things going wrong is increased. As was the case this year when two days before the crop was due to harvest 4 inches of rain came down making it impossible for the seed to be harvested as the seed ripened past the milk stage before the ground dried enough to allow the header onto the paddock. When this happens and the seed is not damaged it is left to mature to a dry seed crop.
In summary we have know from experience that the quality of seed you supply your birds is reflected in the quality of your birds. We can’t stress enough the importance of buying the best seed available no matter what seed you choose to feed. You really do get what you pay for. If the health and success of your birds is as important to you as it is to us, you will go the extra mile to give them the best. As we said previously we are fortunate to live next to a seed farmer so we have the very best of the seed world at our doorstep, however if we need another seed that he doesn’t grow like the Niger then we go the extra lengths to get the very best we can from the Australian grown options. It is worth the effort and the extra dollars it costs. Our pursuit of the highest quality seed has lead us down the path of being a part of making premium seed available to other finch keepers and if by doing this we can help other breeders provide the best for their birds and assist in the promotion of high quality aviculture then we are very happy.
White French Millet Seed