By Arthur Douglas
By “softbill,” bird keepers mean any small bird that feeds primarily upon insects rather than seed. Many softbills also live largely on berries or other fruit. Some eat a certain amount of seed. Of course, many kinds of “hardbills” will live wholly or mainly on insects and fruit when they have the opportunity.
Seed-eating birds are relatively easy to feed. Insect-eaters have always been considered more difficult and troublesome. In temperate climates their natural food is scarce and hard to come by in wintertime and, therefore, a substitute for it must be found. Such a food is often called a successful “softfood” and to be successful needs to be readily acceptable to the birds, nutritionally adequate, free from injurious elements, accessible and reasonably convenient for the bird keeper.
A survey of the literature dealing with bird keeping at once reveals great diversity of opinion on what is the best way of feeding birds that are predominantly insectivorous in nature. At the same time it reveals the conservatism of some bird keepers in holding fast to archaic methods and recipes.
Bird keeping, including the maintenance of softbilled birds,
dates back at least to the time of the Roman Empire. The Roman writer, Varro, claimed that bird keeping in Rome was initiated by Marcus Laenius Strabo of Brindisi (1). There is reason to believe the art is much more ancient (2).
Varro describes large aviaries in which fieldfares and European Blackbirds were held in numbers and fattened on a paste of figs and meal (ficis et farre) until they were in demand for a banquet and could be sold at a good profit. Varro’s own splendid aviary was kept strictly for pleasure, and in it were nightingales and blackbirds, among others. We are not told how they were fed.
Pliny writes of a white nightingale bought at a fabulous price and given to Agrippina, the emperor’s consort, and also of nightingales, magpies, a starling and a thrush that had been taught to imitate human speech (3). He says nothing about their food.
In the sixteenth century, early ornithologists, including Gesner (4) and Aldrovandi (5) give some indication of how certain birds were fed, but at least one writer dedicated a whole book to the art of bird keeping, including the keeping of softbills. He is Cesare Mancini Romano (6). A rather bad piracy of his work in French is better known (7). Mancini tells us how to keep and feed nightingales, blackcap warblers, rock-thrushes, songthrushes, blackbirds, calandras and skylarks as well as something he calls a “birdling”– perhaps a pipit.
Mancini advocates two alternative methods of feeding.
The first method of feeding is of raw sheep’s heart, cleared of fat and tough strings and finely chopped and ground. Yolk of hard-boiled egg can be substituted occasionally when fresh heart is not available. By way of a purgative or medicine, softbills should be given “those worms found in pigeon-lofts and also in flour”–presumably mealworms.
The second method of feeding is on a dry “paste”, which Mancini says is “marvelous” for softbills. He gives rather confusing instructions for making it.
If Mancini’s instructions in the sixteenth century are obscure, Oliva, in the succeeding century makes up for it. He gives a whole page of instructions and provides a splendid whole-page engraving showing the work in progress (8). This is what he advocates:
Peel half a pound of almonds. Break and grind them up fine. Stir into them four ounces of butter and the yolks of four hard-boiled eggs. Work this mixture into two or three pounds of chickpea flour. Put all this into a pan over a charcoal fire and keep stirring it until it appears to be fairly cooked. In a separate small pan melt and boil together a pound of honey and three ounces of butter. Remove any scum. Have one person to dribble the hot honey gradually through a perforated ladle onto the other ingredients while another person stirs constantly until the honey is well incorporated, when the paste will become granular. This is for summer use.
For winter use, add a half-pennyworth of saffron.
When the paste has become granular and is yellow in color, work it through a colander with round holes the size of vetch-seeds. Spread the grains on a white cloth to dry. Store them in a tin can or box.
The dry paste will keep for up to six months. If it becomes too dry, add a little honey to soften it.
R. L. Wallace was still recommending a paste almost identical to this at the end of the last century (9). A cheap and degenerate descendant of the original was available commercially in Wallace’s day under the name of “German paste”. It sold at three pennies a pound or less and usually consisted of pea-flour cooked with a little fat, sweetened with treacle or molasses and sprinkled with maw (poppy-seed) and hemp-seed. Superior samples had a few dried ants’ eggs and were then sold as “insectile food” (10).
German paste came under severe criticism among the more progressive fanciers of the 1900s. The Rev, C. D. Farrar had German paste in mind when he wrote “If you intend to feed only on peameal, I have done with you.” (11)
Despite its bad reputation, German paste seems to have been a fairly adequate staple diet for skylarks (12).
An Anonymous writer of 1697 continues to recommend the raw heart and the paste for feeding nightingales, but says he himself gives to his nightingales ground almonds, cake (massepain), chopped cabbage, lettuce and chickweed, cooked mussels, beets, peas and beans, sugar and other items (13).
By 1738, Eleazar Albin is recommending a mixture of the heart and hard-boiled egg as food for small softbills (14). The anonymous author of The Bird-Fancier’s Necessary Companion and Sure Guide does likewise (15).
Raw meat and egg remained popular through much of the last century. In 1826, the Rev. William Floyer Cornish of Totness in England claimed that he had been successful in keeping whitethroats and other small softbills on “beef, veal, mutton or lamb, not over-dressed, cut very small and mixed with hard eggs, yellow as well as white, and a little chopped hempseed, on which they have thriven very well” (16).
Similarly, in 1832, a Mr. Cox exhibited a nightingale in full song to members of the Zoological Society in London. He had kept it for four years. In the Arcana of Science, Mr. Cox expressed the opinion that failure with nightingales “and other Silviadae (sic)” was often due to over-elaborate feeding. He used finely ground meat and hard-boiled egg and considered insects by no means necessary (17).
Hemp-seed was recommended as an item of softbill diet by some bird keepers at an early date. Our nightingale author of 1697 condemns it, blaming it for causing fits in nightingales and starlings. On the other hand, Robert Sweet recommends for British warblers a staple diet consisting of scalded and finely “bruised” hemp-seed mixed to a moist paste with soft bread. He considers insects, fresh or dry, to be essential extras and accepts meat and egg as a useful occasional change. He observes that limy grit is essential and that the birds will not long stay healthy without it (18).
A contributor to the English journal Cage Birds was still advocating the use of crushed hemp-seed and bread in 1960. He added grated cheese. He mentions wrens, thrushes, blackbirds, larks and meadow pipits, and seems to consider it a recommendation for his food that birds fed on it develop white feathers in their wings and tails (19).
Dr. Bechstein, like Robert Sweet, recommends the use of fresh and dried insects, and in his Chamber-Birds gives instructions for laying in a stock for winter feed. However, his birds were largely fed on a “universal food” consisting of milksop mixed with either coarse wheatmeal or barleymeal. Alternatively, grated carrot could be mixed with the bread in place of the milk. Nightingales were given ants’ eggs, elderberries and cooked beefheart (20).
Dr. Bechstein set the style for softbill feeding in nineteenth century Europe. His universal foods may appear to us to be excessively austere. It would seem that some bird keepers of the last century saw things in a different light. In 1873 Swaysland considered oatmeal or barleymeal damped with milk to be the ideal diet for starlings, thrushes and blackbirds. For “warblers” (which in his day included chats and other small thrushes) he was still with Mancini in the sixteenth century and with Sweet in the early nineteenth (21).
Sumner Birchley was still using and promoting the use of dampened barleymeal for thrushes and starlings in 1909 (22). The birds were occasionally given a small earthworm or a snail “as a tit-bit”.
Apparently, some softbills were kept on what must surely be the ultimate in prison diets — wheat bran dampened with water. Field-fares seem to have survived on it. Bechstein says blackbirds will not. In our own century, Konrad Lorenz was still recommending it for starlings (23).
Since egg yolk has been a favorite bird food from time immemorial, it must have required moral courage on the part of Dr. George W. Creswel’ to condemn it roundly in the years 1903 and soon after (24).
Dr. Arthur Butler, a Founder-Member of the Avicultural Society, vigorously took up the defense of egg, boiled and as dried egg yolk (25).
A bitter correspondence between the two doctors soon divided the members of the Avicultural Society and the Foreign Bird Club into hostile camps — “eggists” and “non-eggists”. The non-eggists had considerable influence. It was soon obvious that Dr. Creswell was far better informed than his rival.
Even non-eggists of this period often fed their softbills largely on “stale sponge cake” — stale because they bought it at a reduced price as a bakery shop leftover.
While the no-eggist contention was at its peak, protagonists of both sides sought support for their opinions from distant cultures, especially from the Orient where bird keeping was known to be an accomplished art.
They found that in India softbilled birds were fed on satoo — a paste made from gram (chickpea flour) and ghee (clarified butter). This was supplemented with grasshoppers, maggots and other insects (26).
In China the traditional softbill food was made from finely chopped mutton or other meat soaked in a little water for a few hours and then rolled in egg powder and soya flour. (To this day, soya flour mixed with dried insects is still the staple diet for Zosterops spp. Eds.)
Insects were only offered during the moulting season (27). Frank Finn claimed that, in his day, softbills were sent from China to India on a diet of small shelled millet and dried insects and that they arrived in very good condition (26).
In Japan softbills were fed on fishmeal made from a smoke-dried freshwater fish. This was mixed with varying amounts of equal parts of rice flour and rice bran. Chopped greenfood was provided (28).
Towards the end of the nineteenth century, expanding international trade made available to European bird keepers dried insects that could be used in making acceptable mixtures called “insectile” foods. These soon became the accepted norm as soft food for insectivorous birds.
They were expensive compared with the older-fashioned diets, but every. one agreed that they were more natural and, therefore, better (29). The Rev. C. D. Farrar wrote of his own rather typical insectile mixture, “On the mixture and a few mealworms daily any sort of bird will do well.” (30)
A typical insectile food would be made up of equal parts by weight of dried ants’ eggs, dried flies and meatmeal, with a quantity of biscuit meal equal in weight to the rest of the ingredients combined. Some bird keepers used dried and ground silkworm pupae. Others added dried egg yolk. Still others put in some powdered cuttlebone. The mixture was made crumbly rather than powdery by the addition of fat, honey, or both, and was usually moistened before
use with hot or cold water, milk, grated carrot, grated apple, chopped lettuce or mashed potato (31). Cheese, though an old-fashioned and unnatural item, retained its prestige as an additive to insectile mixtures. Its chief protagonist in England was P. F. W. Galloway (32).
Mealworms have been considered a suitable food for captive soft-bills at least since Mancini’s time in the sixteenth century. Like Mancini, many bird keepers have believed that they could easily be overdone and that an excess would lead to gout, fits, obesity and other disorders. At the same time, the benefit to the birds of adding a generous ration of live food to some of the traditional staple diets has led to the belief, which I have often heard expressed, that live food must contain some mysterious vital element necessary to the birds and lacking in dead soft food. It is only in recent times that the “richness” of mealworms has been seriously questioned and their nutritional limitations indicated (33).
In the last hundred years, mealworms, maggots and, to a lesser extent, cockroaches, have been the live foods that have been most relief upon by keepers of softbilled birds. Live ants’ eggs and wasp-grubs have been important in their season, as have miscellaneous insects taken in the field with a sweeping-net or by beating. In recent years, considerable progress has been made in culturing a variety of different insects in quantity (34) and in developing methods of harvesting honeybee larvae for bird food (35). House crickets and locusts are being raised commercially. Since many kinds of softbilled birds will refuse to feed anything but fresh live food to their nestlings, these developments are of great practical importance to the aviculturists.
The development of moth-traps having an ultraviolet light and an electric fan that draws in night-flying insects attracted to it has opened up unprecedented opportunities for gathering wild insects in quantity. I, myself, have sometimes taken a pint of Noctuid moths in one night and have sometimes had two or three gallons of moths on hand, frozen, ready for use as needed. I am indebted to Mr. Harry Halff of San Antonio for pointing out the value of this device.
Insectile mixtures are probably still the main standby for bird keepers who only maintain small collections. Those who have to cater for considerable numbers of softbills have been able to benefit from a development that has gone counter to the natural food tradition. This counter-movement has been made possible by progress in our understanding of the elements of avian nutrition. A name particularly associated with the application of these principles to the feeding of captive birds is that of Dr. H. L. Ratcliffe (36).
Dr. Ratcliffe and others have set out to devise a diet that will be readily acceptable to the birds, more than adequate nutritionally, free from objectionable elements and reasonably economical, available and convenient for the bird keeper. Instead of insects, these foods are compounded from ingredients known to have superior food value. considering the proportion, availability and quality of their proteins, carbohydrates, fats, vitamins and minerals, etc. They are rather readily modified according to local conditions. Local variations have given good results in Switzerland (37), Canada (38), Texas (39) and no doubt elsewhere.
The poultry industry has been revolutionized in recent decades and mass-produced standard foods having controlled nutrient values have been devised to suit precisely the needs of poultry at different ages and stages.
No comparable detailed investigation of the precise nutritional needs of softbills has been feasible. Nevertheless, various mass-produced “Mynah Foods” and “Mockingbird Foods” are on the market. It would seem to be rather risky to assume that every brand put up for sale at a commercially competitive price is suitable in itself for any except the least demanding of omnivorous softbills. However, the potential of these convenient and economical foods should not be underestimated. I have seen Red-billed Leiothrix, Blue-winged Sivas and an American Blue Jay kept in immaculate feather and apparently in perfect health on an exclusive diet of dry “gamebird-starter”. They compared very favorably with lots of specimens of the same species I have seen maintained on more conventional diets.
Perhaps some mass-produced bird foods are already ideal for any except the most specialized feeders among softbills. These birds will always be a separate problem. It is certain that practical and satisfactory diets for the majority of softbills are now easily compounded by any bird keeper, diets that are far superior to those on which birds have been kept with at least some degree of success in the past. The day of insectile mixtures is probably past, and live food nowadays may be regarded as an expensive item reserved for birds that are newly acquired and are unused to any other food, or for breeding birds that are feeding young.
III 1, Varro, Marcus Terentius 116-27 BC. Rerum Rusticarum, Book
2. Roberts, Sonia 1972. Bird-Keeping and Birdcages- A history, David + Charles, Newton Abbot 14.
3. Pliny the Elder. 23 or 24-79 AD. Historiae Naturalis, Book X.
4. Gesner, Conrad 1555. De Avibus.
5, Aldrovandi, Ulisse 1522-1605. Ornithologiae,
6, Mancini Romano, Cesare. Milan 1575 and 1645. Venice 1669. Ammaestramenti per allevare, pascere + curare gli uccelli.
7. Instructions pour elever, nourrir, instruir et penser toutes sortes de petits oyseaux de voliere. Paris 1647 and 1697.
8. Olina, Gio, Pietro 1684. Uccelliera, Rome,
9, Wallace, R.L. 1889. British Cage Birds, 189, London.
10. Frostick, John 1903. Bird Notes, Vol. 1, 124, Brighton.
11. Farrar, C.D. about 1920. Through a Birdroom Window, 33. London.
12. The Skylark, Nutshell Series No. 3. Cagebirds London 1909.
13. Traite du Rossignol 1697. 59. Paris.
14. Albin, Eleazar 1738. A Natural History of English Song Birds, 71. London.
15. The Bird Fancier’s Necessary Companion and Sure Guide. 1762. 14, London.
16. Bewick, Thomas. 1832. A History of British Birds, I, footnote p. XVI. Newcastle.
17. Goldsmith’s Natural History. Edited by Henry Innes, footnote, 139.
18. Sweet, Robert. 1823. The British Warblers, 2, London.
19. Wilkins, A.J. 1960. Cage Birds, 22. London,
20. Bechstein, Dr. J.M. 1890. The Natural History of Cage Birds, 10. London.
21. Swaysland, W. 1873. The Illustrated Book of Cage Birds, 299, London.
22. Birchley, Summer W. 1909. British Birds for Cages, Aviaries and Exhibition, II, 71, London.
23. Lorenz, Konrad Z. 1955. King Solomon’s Ring, 61, London.
24. Creswell, W. George 1904. Bird Notes, Brighton.
25, Aviculture Magazine I, New Series, 1903,
Butler, Dr. A.G. 1904, Aviculture Magazine II, New Series,
26. Finn, Frank 1901. The Cage Birds of Calcutta, The Ibis
27. Delacour, Jean 1928. Avicultural Magazine, Fourth Series VI, 29.
28. Taka-Tsurkasa, N. 1921. Avicultural Magazine, Third Series, XIII, 49
29. Frostick, John 1903. Bird-Notes I, 121.
30. Farrar, C.D. 1920. Through a Bird-Room Window, 35.
31. Fulljames, H.J. 1910. Insectivorour British Birds, Nutshell Series, nos 25 and 26, London.
32. Galloway, P.F.M. 1925. How to keep insectivorous Birds in Perfect Condition. Avicultural Magazine, Fourth Series, III, 46.
33. Roots, Clive 1966. Maggots and Mealworms, Avicultural Magazine, LXXIV, 186
34. Meadon, F. 1961. Live Food for Birds, Cage & Aviary Birds, London.
35. Ficken, R.W. and W.C. Dilger 1961. Insects and Food Mixtures for Insectivorous Birds. Avicultural Magazine, LXVII, 27.
36. Ratcliffe, Herbert L. 1966. Diets for Zoological Gardens, International Zoo Yearbook, VI, 4, London.
37. Wackernagel, Hans 1966. Feeding Wild Animals in Zoological Gardens, International Zoo Yearbook, VI, 23, London
38. Ivor, Hance Roy 1964. Personal Communication, Ontario.
39. Douglas, A. 1971. Soft-food of Outstanding Merit, Cage and Aviary Birds, 7.