Bedding for Baby Birds

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Q: Have you ever heard of using popcorn as bedding for baby birds? Do you think that is a good idea? If not, what is a better alternative?

A: The use of foodstuffs as bedding for brooders is something that was experimented with by several top aviculturists more than 10 years ago. It was used in the hope that if chicks ingested it, they could pass it easily and not be harmed.

What was learned from these experiments was that the nutrients contained in the foodstuff bedding caused rapid bacterial and fungal growth as they became mixed with the moist droppings of the babies. This condition was deemed unhealthy by all who monitored the experiments. The reason we went searching for alternative bedding was because we all had chalked up some bad experiences with babies that impacted their crops with wood shavings.

Some breeders went to diapers, while others tried some of the baby bedding products that were just coming out on the market at the time. All had drawbacks in one way or another. Even today, most aviculturists make their choice by trying to pick the lesser of the evils, not because they believe there is any one product that solves all the inherent problems.

The use of popcorn is a bad idea for two reasons: The first is the fact that it is a food. Even though it doesn’t have the concentration of nutrients that are available in most other foods, it still has the propensity to grow fungus and bacteria at a faster rate than cloth, paper or wood products. The second reason that I would not recommend popcorn is because it does not pack down into a firm substrate. Any bedding that allows the babies’ legs to sink down into it can be detrimental to the proper development of the chicks’ legs. I still use wood shavings. As long as the shavings are paper thin and very small, they will pass through the chicks’ digestive tract with no problem. Shavings that fit this description are not easy to find. I find light, fluffy, paper-thin shavings at local mills. Those that make soft wood moldings have the best shavings. It’s so light in weight that you can literally blow a handful up into the air with little effort. The dust from some of the rare hardwoods (i.e., cherry wood) can be toxic, but chances are that you could not find them even if you tried. It’s also a good idea to stay away from cedar shavings. Some birds, especially Amazons, can have an allergic reaction to the odor. The determining factor as to whether or not cedar shavings cause a problem is a combination of the bird’s individual sensitivity, as well as how fresh and odorous the shavings are.

If you are worried about your babies swallowing their bedding, you can lay a piece of 1/2- by 1/2-inch metal hardware cloth on top of the shavings. This will allow the water from the droppings to seep through to the absorbent layer below, yet severely limit the chick’s ability to eat the shavings. Something that is never considered is that by the time a chick becomes old enough to begin swallowing its nesting material, it is also old enough to be comfortable lying on the wire-covered shavings.