Above: Don’s first clutch from the single-factor blue blackbirds: four chicks in total, three blues and one surviving satinette. Photo: Don Turner

 

DON TURNER continues his account of how he switched from hardbills to softbills, with a focus on how to keep costs down

 

IN CONTRAST to my experience with finches, the robustness and longevity of the large softbills is an advantage. I would never buy a four-year-old finch but the large softbills are still good for many more seasons. I have only been keeping these birds for two years but my mortality rate, for adult birds, is 0.5 per cent.

Feeding this group is also easier than expected. When not breeding they are on a basic diet of softbill pellets, layers pellets (chicken food), apples, pears and a few dried mealworms as a treat. This is fed in trays and cleaned daily, with very little waste.

The aviaries that were once barren and covered in seed husks are now full of shrubs and plants and looking much more attractive in the garden. I do not have to wear a face mask to clean or feed them, and I enjoy having fewer but larger subjects.

And, of course, they come with their own challenges. The first surprise I had was the vast amounts of livefood they consume when they are raising young. I am sure some breeders would have worked out how to keep this to a minimum – but with me, if I have a nest full of chicks, the parents can have as much live food as they want.

I had to sort out quite quickly how to find a good supply chain of mealworms and earthworms. I also feed cleaned maggots (not to the blackbirds) from the fishing-tackle shop, which is less of a challenge as they are easily accessible. There are frozen alternatives that I believe some breeders use and are happy with, but I found that my birds were not interested in them, probably because I should have got them accustomed to them during the winter.

Yes, livefood is expensive, but you don’t have to mix it up every day and it’s very easy to feed your youngsters. No more faffing around with scrambled egg, broccoli, soaked seed, egg biscuit and frozen peas. A couple of pots of earthworms and mealworms per flight, per day, and you’re done!

I will not publish how much money I spent on live food during the last season (because my wife may be reading this), but a rough estimation is that each pair of birds probably got through the value of one or two youngsters during the season. So, although it seemed like a lot of money, it was not that difficult to recoup my costs once it was time to sell surplus birds.

The acquisition of livefood, to ensure a good, constant supply of what your birds need, is the critical part of keeping this category of bird. I found it a massive challenge to be able to obtain good supplies at a reasonable cost. 

You also need to watch your hidden costs. It is easy to fool yourself and think that you are getting a bargain, only to find you have driven halfway across the country and wasted a day of your life (and half a tank of fuel) to save £2 per kilo on 10kg of mealworms. Also, it seems that the supply of mealworms is erratic, so having a back-up is essential. Last season it was extremely hot and the availability and price of mealworms became an issue. I finished my last clutches of earthworms and maggots that were covered in a little cod-liver oil and dusted with vitamin powder – the birds did not seem to mind. For next season I now have supply lines sorted out and hopefully fewer issues. I will also explore frozen food again.

The last part of Don Turner’s series appeared in the April 3 issue.

Don Turner is a member of the British Softbill Society and the Eastern Federation of British Bird Fanciers. He first kept British birds at the age of 13.

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