Friday, June 6, 2008

Nutrition: More on John Yim's Method

I have previously mentioned that I learnt a great deal about shama care from John Yim when I first became interested in shamas more than 40 years ago. I was a frequent visitor to his home and would visit him from time to time for many years. Weekends and sometimes weekdays, would find me there. He and his wife, Jane, were generous and would invite me for dinner whenever I stayed late. John kept a variety of song birds whose basic diet was the dry food that he himself manufactured and that he made available through the bird-shops. The food is still sold in some shops in Johore and Singapore under the name Shama Song Food. I was amazed at the tip-top condition of his birds. I still am. I can remember one of his shamas belting out its song at top volume whilst being carried by me in a cage. John is now 83 years old and lives in Johore Bahru, Malaysia. I phoned him on whether I could reveal some of his secrets on bird-keeping and he generously agreed. Forty years ago, the only live food that was readily available for shamas was grass-hoppers (except during the monsoon season). Mealworms were available much later after John introduced them to Singapore on his return from a six months attachment to the London Zoo. Cockroaches could be caught and fed to the birds but they were regarded as unhygienic and were mainly used as bait to trap wild shamas and for feeding the wild-caught birds when converting them to dry food. Cockroaches were preferred to grass-hoppers for this purpose as the dry food adhered more easily to the cut pieces. In those early days, John would supplement the dry food by feeding 3 or 4 grass-hoppers a day to his shamas. Twice a week, they would receive minced raw lean beef. The quantity was about the size of a peanut divided into 3 portions for each bird. Once a week, each bird would also receive ¼ or less of a hard-boiled chicken egg yolk. Nowadays, John uses mashed quails eggs. The birds’ drinking water would also be supplemented with vitamin B from time to time and especially during the molt and when the birds were under stress such as after a song competition. I would often accompany John as he made his bird food. The main ingredient was peanuts. He would buy shelled peanuts in quantity and have them ground by a shop that sold spices. Care had to be taken that the speed of the grinding was not too fast, as the result would be peanut butter. John would wrap the ground peanuts in newspaper and press out all the excess oil. He would then add raw eggs before frying the peanuts. In the process he would add wheat-germ, Nestum with honey, and other ingredients. He kindly taught me how to make the dry food and for a time I made it for my birds according to his recipe. Making dry food in quantity requires much work and I stopped doing so after a while. When John relocated to Johore Bahru and his dry food became less available in Singapore, I had looked for an alternative. I have tried a number of brands, locally made brands as well as imported ones from America, Australia, Holland and the UK. I have not found any of them to be superior to the commercially available dry food in Singapore and Malaysia. Neither are any of the dry foods that I have tried to-date suitable as the sole food for shamas over extended periods. From my experience they need some “live” food to supplement the dry food.Over the years, there have been many suggestions to me as to what is the best dry food for shamas. There was a person who fed the commercially available pellets meant for chickens to his shamas. His argument was that it was scientifically formulated unlike the commercially available dry food for shamas that is usually developed over time by the trial and error method. He also noted that the shamas appeared to like the pellets as they tended to eat much more of the pellets than the available brands of shama dry food.

I was unconvinced by the arguments. The chicken is omnivorous and a food formulated for an omnivorous bird is unlikely to be suitable for an insectivorous bird. With regard to the argument that the chickens ate more of the pellets and this showed they liked them, my reading suggested that a likely reason for the chickens doing so was that the pellets did not contain sufficient protein for the requirements of the insectivorous birds and they therefore instinctively ate more to try to get the needed protein.

Another person who manufactured dry food for his 60 shamas, included dietary fiber for humans in the food. His argument was that dietary fiber was essential for humans and it should similarly be good for shamas. He also noted that his shamas tended to eat more of his dry food than the commercially available food. This suggested to him that it must be good for them.

Both the above persons observed that the excreta of their birds were much more from eating their food than from eating the commercially available food. They interpreted the fact that the birds ate a lot and excreted a lot as a sign that the food was suitable. A difficulty I had with the above arguments was that the excreta of shamas fed live food is completely different.

When shamas eat live food, the droppings are a layer of white with only a little black in the center. From reading, I learnt that the white was urea and the relatively large amount of it in the excreta was the result of a high protein diet whilst the small portion of black was the actual excreta. In contrast, the birds that ate pellets meant for chickens etc had a great lump of black in their droppings with very little white. It suggested to me that the reason there was so little excreta when the shamas ate live food was because it provided a much higher degree of nourishment than some of the available dry food. It also seemed to me that shamas that ate a great deal of food and consequently excreted more did so not because they especially liked the food but because it provided insufficient nourishment and their brain sent a message that needed to eat more so as to obtain the protein and other nourishment that their bodies needed. I noted that shamas that ate live food would from time to time regurgitate a pellet about the size of a large peanut. These pellets contained the undigested remains of insects. It seemed to me from this that it was unlikely that shamas required much roughage in their digestive system. Alternatively, any roughage should be regurgitated and not passed through their alimentary canal. Over a period, I observed the condition of the shamas that ate the different types of dry foods. Whenever I went to a shama gathering or came across shamas of people I knew, I would observe the condition of the bird. I would then take the cage down with the consent of the owner, look at the droppings and ask what was being fed to the bird. From my observations, I came to the conclusion that feed meant for chickens was definitely not a suitable long term food for shamas and neither was human dietary fiber. Chicken pellets are formulated for chickens and they are omnivorous. The diet of such a bird is logically less likely to be suitable for a bird like the shama that requires a high protein diet. By having to eat more to try to obtain the required protein, the birds eat more of the unsuitable food and this results in obesity just like humans who eat a lot of junk food. It is not surprising that they tend to suffer health problems. I concluded that the most suitable food for shamas are those that result in the excreta most closely resembling those of the shama when fed live food. This was confirmed by my observations. As regards the suitability of cat food or dog food for shamas, their high protein content of 28% to 30% should make them more suitable for shamas than chicken pellets. Unlike chicken pellets, these foods have been specially formulated for carnivorous animals. In this sense, the shama is carnivorous since it eats not only insects but also lizards, frogs and other vertebrate. As to whether cat and dog food should be fed to shamas, I leave it to others to try. My own view is that some commercially available shama food have been in the market for so many years that they have proven their suitability as a basic food and I would rather not experiment. Of the brands available, a vet in Singapore whom I respect told me that he had fed the Three Coins brand to his shamas during their molt and they had molted well. For myself, I have been using Chee Seng (also known as SynLin) and I find that it is suitable as a basic food when supplemented with live food. The birds’ droppings when eating these brands is somewhat similar to those when fed live food. There may be other suitable brands. I would think that there may be an advantage in mixing 2 or more brands of dry food since a deficiency in one food may be compensated in another. My experience has been that even when this is done, the resultant mix is still not completely suitable to be the only food. One of these days, there may be the same amount of research into softbill food as there is for dry food for dogs and parrots. Until then, for those who cannot feed only live food to their birds, I suggest that they use a brand that they trust and supplement the feeding with live food.

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