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Calcium in Budgie's Lives

 

Don Burke lives in Sydney, Australia and is a qualified horticulturist and arborist.

He started breeding budgies in 1955 and specialises in rare varieties such as Clearwings, Blackeyed Whites and Yellows, Darkwings and Australian Goldenfaces.

He is patron of the Clearwing Budgerigar Society of Australia and is President of the Miniature Budgerigar Society of Australasia.

Calcium is one of the most critical of all dietary needs in budgies. It is poorly understood, and many breeders (me included) have often got it all wrong.  Getting calcium wrong is disastrous; just some of the problems that can be caused are:

Rickets, splayed legs, droopy wings, egg-binding in hens, fits and death.

So let’s go back to basics – wild budgies.  Budgies have never really been studied comprehensively in the wild.   Little is known of their diet.  Some bits and pieces from other parrot studies help a little though.  Seed-eating parrots are known to eat a very wide range of non-seed parts of plants:  they usually eat bits of over 100 species of shrubs, trees, etc.  It seems likely that budgies get calcium from new shoots on some plants or perhaps even from young bark etc.  It is possible that they get calcium from mineral deposits, but since limestone is rare amongst the acid soils and rocks of Australia, mineral sources of dietary calcium are not likely to be common.

My bush budgies are very erratic at eating calcium blocks or cuttlefish or shell grit, indicating a lack of behavioural adaptation in the wild to eating minerals.  Some of my bush budgies do consume calcium blocks etc, but in other aviaries they never eat any calcium minerals put out for them.  In these aviaries the hens do tend to “fade away” (that is, after a round or two of eggs, they die).

What Should Breeders Do?

Well, let’s look at the bad news first.   It is well established that all birds including budgies are not able to digest much of the calcium from minerals such as limestone, lime blocks or even from cuttlefish bone.   Most of these forms of calcium pass through the birds and you simply get poo full of calcium.  In addition, cuttlefish bone is full of bacteria which are not good for budgies’ health.  No studies exist on what damage the bacteria in cuttlefish do to budgies but rotting seafood is well known for causing stomach upsets (and sometimes death) in humans and other animals.

When budgies eat others’ poo, it’s thought that this inoculates the digestive systems of the poo eaters with beneficial probiotics from the pooing birds.  It could also be a source of semi-digested calcium. 

What Is the Best Source of Calcium?

Research has proven that liquid calcium products which also contain Vitamin D3 are by far the best source of available calcium for all birds including budgies.  Ideally, these supplements should be fed to hens in particular at least a month prior to commencing breeding each year. Calcium blocks are still a good backup, though.

What is so special about Hens?

All hens of all species of birds are totally different to all female mammals.  But they are identical to female dinosaurs.   Many dinosaurs and most birds have hollow bones.  Air from the lungs goes beyond the lungs into the air sacs and the hollow bones.  This makes the breathing far more efficient and the body lighter in weight.

But not all of their bones are hollow.   Longer bones like the leg bones are full of marrow just like ours ….   Well not quite.  Part of the marrow turns into calcium storage in the lead-up to egg laying.  A type of soft bony material forms in the marrow area and it is called medullary bone.  This is a calcium reservoir for use in egg shell manufacture.

So, much (but not all) of the eggs laid are coated with the calcium-based shell made by stripping calcium from the medullary bone in the hen’s skeleton.  The calcium does not go from food to egg shell, much of it goes from food to marrow in the bones and then to egg shells.

Thus, the hens must have their calcium reserves topped up some weeks prior to pairing up.  The hens must be randy too.  You must plug into the natural cycle and rhythm of your hens.  When a hen is ready to lay eggs, she is aggressive, sexually flirtatious; nest-hole fixated and is also fixated on chewing wood, etc.  At this stage she will start laying down calcium ready for egg laying.  Put up a hen too early, and her calcium reserves will fail.  Take care to select hens for breeding that are agro, are chewing the perches and trying to grab the nearest male.

Vitamin D3

This is the most important chemical for healthy birds.  Contrary to what you may read, birds’ feet and legs (and perhaps eye lids and beak area) produce large amounts of Vitamin D3.  They produce 30 times more Vitamin D3 precursor chemicals on featherless skin than on the skin underneath feathers.   Once UVB light hits those bare areas, lots of Vitamin D3 is manufactured.   Birds really only need about 30 minutes of direct sunlight per day to form all of the vitamin D3 that they need.  Sunlight that has passed through glass, clear plastic or clear fibreglass is useless for Vitamin D3 production.  Aviary or bird room lights that produce UVB light (eg Sylvania Reptistar tubes) make up for the missing sunlight.   These tubes however only emit UVB light for 6 months, so either tag the tubes with the installation date or write it in your diary so that you can replace them at 6 months. Note that at 6 months, the lights still put out light, but fail to put out UVB light.

Supplementation with dietary Vitamin D3 is very useful to help calcium absorption.  It is possible to over-dose with Vitamin D3 supplements, but if you use the products as per the label this is most unlikely to occur.   The dire warnings given by inexperienced breeders on forums and on Facebook are best ignored. 

Shortage of Vitamin D3 and Calcium

Shortage of Vitamin D3 and Calcium can cause:

1.  head twitching, poor co-ordination or even full-blown seizures.  Unusual behaviour, irritability and aggression can also be seen.

2.  Egg binding or deformed or rough shelled eggs. This can kill hens.

3.  Rickets is where the bird is stunted and has bent legs, feet or wings.

Broken bones are also very common as is the sudden death of babies (this can relate to phosphorus deficiency as well).

4.  Splayed legs or droopy wings in babies can be a mild form of rickets.  Chicks absorb a lot of their early calcium from their own egg shell while they are still in the shell.  If the shell is deficient in calcium the chick may be in trouble before birth.

5.  Both 3 & 4 above can also be caused by genetic factors which make everything much worse.  While some scientists just describe this vaguely as “genetic factors”, there is much known about it.   In high response varieties of meat chickens, (meat) pigs and thoroughbred race horses, bone and cartilage disorders are very common.  Varieties of animals such as some chickens, dogs, pigs, horses and show budgies that are selected for VERY RAPID GROWTH rates while young are particularly prone to Developmental Orthopaedic Disease (DOD).   The bones of very fast growing varieties distort and you get severe joint problems as well UNLESS you get the exact ratios of certain elements correct.  The precise ratios of calcium to phosphorus to copper are critical.  Sadly, no work has been done on the exact ratios for budgies. General calcium to phosphate ratio of 2:1 is considered ideal for most birds.  However, seed mixes are often as bad as 1:37 in terms of these chemicals.  In the wild, it is assumed that budgies balance this ratio very precisely by eating all sorts of plants etc.  Later on in life, budgies raised with bad ratios of these chemicals are very prone to arthritis (joint disease) from the same causes.   The faster a baby grows, the smaller the margin for error in the ratios of the key elements.  That is, wild or pet shop budgies rarely get these problems, but the much faster growing giant exhibition budgies get them very commonly.

6.  Severe calcium deficiency can cause paralysis and often death of previously healthy birds, especially adult females.  A rapid feeding of a liquid calcium & Vitamin D3 mix + UVB light exposure may help.

7.  General lack of reproductive success, eg failure to lay eggs or even failure to enter the nest box can also be caused by calcium or Vitamin D3 deficiencies.

Vitamin D3

Vitamin D3 used to be classified as a fat soluble vitamin.  It is now (much more correctly) classified as a steroid hormone.  As a hormone it drives much of the immune systems in all animals including humans and budgies.   It is also essential for calcium absorption in both humans and budgies.

With the construction of aviaries and bird rooms where budgies get no direct sunlight, catastrophes are just around the corner.  To repeat, budgies need sunlight that has not passed through any clear material, not even glass. The reason is that UVB light, the bit that helps form Vitamin D3 will not travel through glass, clear plastic etc. Natural sunlight or UVB light from Sylvania Reptistar tubes is by far the best way to produce Vitamin D3.  Dietary supplements, while useful, are nowhere near as good. Please note that Vitamin D3 naturally formed from sunlight (or from UVB lights) never causes Vitamin D3 poisoning.

The Bottom Line

For health and reproductive success with your budgies, you need:

1.  Daily exposure to either direct sunlight or UVB lights for at least 3 hours.  Each bird only needs about hour, but it may be in a shaded part of the cage or aviary for part of the day.

2.  A liquid calcium/Vitamin D3 mix such as D-3 Liquid Calcium about one day a week.

3.  Hens need a 2 or 3 days a week liquid calcium/Vitamin D3 mix in the weeks leading up to egg laying and through the breeding season.

4.  Supplementing the birds’ feeding with calcium blocks is fine, but use the iodine versions of the blocks.  Iodine seems to get hens to become sexually active.  The blocks aid in beak shaping which is a lifelong task for parrots.

5.  When using general Vitamin and Mineral supplements, use those with higher rates of Vitamin D3, such as Vetafarm’s Soluvite D Breeder.

In this article I am indebted to Dr. Michael David Stanford for his scholarly thesis for the Royal College of Veterinary Surgeons on Calcium Metabolism in Grey Parrots: the effect of husbandry (August 2005).

HORSES

At the risk of sounding silly, here follows information on wild horse nutrition by Dr John Kohnke- the leading horse nutritionist in the world:

“Observations of wild American Mustang horses to determine their grazing habits indicated that they roam over large areas of native pasture and naturally select a balanced diet by seeking out a number of plant species. When these species were scientifically analysed to determine their nutrient profile, including mineral and trace-mineral content, it was found that the horses selected plants which provided a balanced and adequate diet. This is in contrast to domesticated horses grazing on ‘improved’ high yield pastures containing 2-3 plant species which can deny a horse the natural selection of a wide range of pasture species to balance its diet.”

I am certain that wild budgies would behave in exactly the same way in balancing their diets. This is precisely the sort of research that we need to commission on budgies so that we can significantly improve their feeding in captivity. In the meantime, we need to offer as wide a range of (safe) foods as we can. Tree Lucerne, amaranth, endive, gum tree branches, lemon-scented tea tree branches, apple, beetroot, silverbeet, beans, peas, carrot, sweet corn, winter grass, summer grass, panic veldt grass, Guinea grass, chickweed, green seed heads of budgie seeds, barnyard grass (maybe plant some of Barry & Terese’s Greens & Grains seed mix), spinach, etc.

Acknowledgement

This article by Don Burke is supplied by the World Budgerigar Organisation (www.world-budgerigar.org), as part of their encouraged exchange of research information, and supplied to the WBO with kind permission by BRASEA, Australia.