Vitamin E may be needed for bird health and longevity, but watch it with your breeding hens, warns GERRY PARKER 

THIS week I’m going to talk about some incidents that have caused problems for me and my mates over the past few years. Small things in themselves, and likely well known to old stagers, but worth recounting to jog the attention of lads like me who tend to drift along a bit.

The first is about additives. Most of you will have read about what fanciers add to their softfood, and the exasperation of the manufacturers about this “British disease” of tinkering with well-researched, ready-for-use products.

The easy way

For many years I had a pretty simple recipe for my softfood; one part cous cous, four parts commercial eggfood. Simple, uncomplicated. And the cous cous was just for easy moisture addition to get the classic crumbly, moist texture.

Roll on a few years and I’m breeding Norwich, and my mate over the road is breeding Fifes. He’s getting good numbers and he’s happily using similar eggfood to me. Then he gets a recipe for a well-known Norwich man’s “secret” softfood recipe. It’s a long recipe, typed out and laminated, and the end product itself looks very attractive. There are lots of things in it, and several commercial additives. I see this, think it looks good and, taking account of the original source, I start to use it too.

What happened next

After a couple of years, my mate’s hens begin to desert the nest after about eight to 10 days, and his breeding success plummets. And this carries on for a couple of years. We can’t think why his birds do this and mine don’t, given that we’re both using a similar regime. Then another mate mentions that he doses his cocks with vitamin E before the start of the season. I quite fancy the sound of this and Google it, which is when I discover that vitamin E given to hens in the breeding season will make them really high. Doh!

Needless to say, my mate’s breeding success improves dramatically once he’s quit using all that vitamin E. Now, you may ask why my birds didn’t do the same as his. One reason will be that I breed Norwich, which are bigger birds and maybe less affected, and another might be that I was probably putting less of the expensive additions in my mix because I’m mean! That still doesn’t completely explain why my feeders weren’t affected, and I’d be happy to hear any suggestions about that.

Serious chick loss

This story was brought back to my mind at the recent Carlisle bird sale when I spoke to a fancier who’d lost nearly 30 Lizard chicks, ending up with only four young birds to show for this year. Bells started to ring. Sure enough, his eggfood mix had added vitamin E through the breeding season, with hens getting as far as hatching chicks, but not feeding them and going straight back to nest.

My next tale revolves around my love of a bargain. I’d bought a larger-than- usual tub of a well-known calcium powder. It was on offer at the end of the season, so what was not to like? I used it for a couple of years and started to think “this tub will last for ever”, until I lost two Norwich hens and a feeder hen to egg binding in quick succession. A check of the tub showed it had passed its use-by date quite a long time earlier. So I bought a fresh (smaller) tub and the problem ceased.

I’ve touched on bird health so far, and now here’s a suggestion about human health. How many fanciers wear gloves when cleaning their cages, or washing drinkers and seed hoppers? I’m mildly asthmatic and noticed that I had problems after washing a bucket full of hoppers with my bare hands. I also suspect that continued exposure to bird droppings, especially in a suspension of soapy water, could sensitise fanciers to birds. Not a good thing, but avoidable.

Dodgy geezer in the garden

I did use gauntlet rubber gloves for a while, but they’re cumbersome and not a good look. I now use powder-free latex examination gloves. You can buy them in boxes of one hundred very cheaply on the internet. I also wear a mask when I’m in the birdroom. Quite what the neighbours make of a grown man strolling down the garden wearing mask and latex gloves at seven in the morning is something I’ve never discussed with them…

•Gerry Parker is the publicity officer of Trimdon CBS and the North East British Bird, Mule & Hybrid Club.