Wednesday, July 9, 2008

Feeding, Molt and Sub-species

First published December 2007
Hi Arjan,

May I first congratulate you and your wife on your beautiful birds and garden. It is obvious that a great deal of love and effort went into their care. It’s wonderful to be able to have the birds flying free. This is something we in Singapore can only dream about as we live in a city and even for those with gardens, there is the danger to the birds from cats and sometimes crows.

The threat of the bird flu has also affected the import of birds into Singapore. Indonesia recorded 2 human deaths from bird flu just last week. There is a ban on the import of poultry and birds to Singapore from neighboring countries. This is a pity as there has recently been an increase in interest in keeping shamas.

Feeding and Molt

If you cannot provide a variety of insects during the winter why not provide fish, minced meat, hard-boiled egg and frozen ants eggs. I mentioned to my friend Axel once that immature guppies are a very good food and he told me with a laugh “These are ornamental fish, do you know how much they cost?” Perhaps – but this fish breeds readily and rapidly and if the lowest quality in terms of beauty is procured the cost may be manageable. When feeding guppies to the shama, the fish should be placed in a cup or tray with the water just covering their backs. This makes it easy for the birds to get them. Surprisingly, the guppies also do better with less water.

You probably know this but others may find it helpful - if ants’ eggs are obtained and frozen before the winter, there will be a ready supply of fresh food to supplement the insects. I separate the fresh ants’ eggs into small packets and place them in the freezer as soon as I get them. I then remove 1 packet at a time and apportion it amongst my birds.

I know that too much beef is not good for the birds because of the high phosphorous or potassium content, but a little minced beef or chicken, about the size of a small shama egg, fed to the birds once or twice a week, seems to be good for them. The first warden of the Jurong Bird Park, Singapore whom I know very well used to feed minced beef and hard boiled eggs to his shamas and I have never seen healthier birds. His shamas might get a little minced beef once or twice a week and a very small piece of hard boiled egg yolk also once or twice a week, on those days when beef was not fed.

Looking at Beauty’s tails in the photo, my first impression was that he had not completed his molt and his long (primary) tails are still growing. I say this because the photos show that his primary tails are only about an inch longer than the secondary black tails. This is unusual if the tails are fully grown. He has very long white tail feathers and secondary black tails. Accordingly, I would expect the primary tails to be longer than the secondary black tails by at least 3 inches. In fact, the appearance of the primary tails suggests that they stopped growing prematurely. I am not sure of the cause since the nutrition must be good as there is a shine on his feathers and I do not see stress lines on his tails which could indicate that there is something wrong with the feeding. My guess is that Beauty’s tails should have the potential to grow to at least 10”.

You might want to try the following suggestions to see if it will increase his tail length. First and foremost, since the feathers are largely made up of protein, a good high quality protein food should be consistently and daily provided. The food should be supplemented with vitamins and minerals to aid feather growth. The vitamins that I have found to be most important during the molt are B Complex and E. The B Complex is necessary for protein digestion and the E also aids the molt. In instances where there has been a deficiency of vitamin B, I have found that the bird eats less and this has an adverse effect on tail length. The vitamin E in oil form is preferable as it gives a sheen to the feathers.

On the question of whether the cold weather could have an adverse effect on the molt my answer must of course be that this is a possibility. However, there may be a more likely cause. As you know, the shama needs to consume much more food during the molt. I find that if I leave the light on for them they will continue eating until quite some time after nightfall. In the tropics, the birds may eat for 10 to 11 hours a day. If this length of daylight is not already available to your birds during the molt, you may wish to try lighting their aviary. You can experiment with the period of "daylight" the bird needs by leaving the light on so long as the bird is feeding and active. When the bird goes to his usual place to roost, the light may be switched off.


Arjan, the principle on which I feed my birds is that a little of everything will not do them harm. I understand that in Europe and in America the earthworm is considered to be toxic to some extent. I accept this but also feel that it is a natural food in the wild – at least for birds in this region. My friend Lauden used to assist in trapping shamas for many years in his younger days and he has seen parents in the wild choose the earthworm over insects when feeding their young. For myself, my birds are offered the live earthworm only occasionally – probably not more than a worm every fortnight.

Sub-species of Shama

It is almost impossible to tell with any certainty the indigenous region of a white-rumped shama merely from its looks. In general, the birds from Medan, Indonesia, have larger physiques than any other place in Asia but even amongst the Medan birds, slimmer birds with longer tails may be found that resemble the birds in neighboring countries. Judging purely from Beauty’s physic and feathers, I would guess that he was from Medan. He has the typical look of a Medan bird with feathers on the “thick” side. The shamas in Malaysia are smaller than those in Medan. Like the Medan shamas, they have generally short tails. The best looking and longest tailed shamas seem to come from the region along the Thai/Malaysia border stretching to the province of Acheh in Indonesia. I prefer the shamas from this region to that of any other place.

Hope the above has been of some help.

Warm regards,


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