That’s the first reaction to this dreaded condition – but then you’ve got to think and act quickly, says RICHARD MILLER
THE breeding season is under way. All of those key pairs you spent weeks putting together have clicked. The chicks have hatched and matured, and there are some dazzlers among them.
And then, one day, when you open a nest-box or look into a breeding cage, you spot a few feathers lying around where the chicks are. You think nothing of it, but over the course of the next few days you see more and more young birds dropping flights, tail feathers and (in some cases) body feathers, either in the nest-box or after they have left their parents.
All of a sudden the well-known sinking feeling hits home and you realise that your birds have got French moult.
When you come into the hobby, French moult is one of those things that you hear people talking about, but you never pay much attention because it will probably never happen to your birds. Indeed, there are some people who are lucky enough to never experience the condition in their birds. Unfortunately, one year my father and I were not that lucky!
Round Two disaster
In 2003, we had some super birds in the breeding cages. The first round was a dream start with 120 youngsters ringed. But half-way through the second round, disaster struck when we realised our birds had French moult – and they had it badly! All the breeding pairs were producing youngsters that were at worst losing a significant number of body feathers, or at best losing all of their flights and tail feathers.
To say we were devastated was an understatement. The majority of birds affected had to be put down because it would have been inhumane to let them live in the condition they were in. We were extremely lucky to have a clear first round of breeding and half of a second round, which meant that our breeding programme for the forthcoming year had not been totally obliterated.
Like anyone else facing these circumstances, the first question that comes to you is – why me? The next question (and the most important) is – how has this happened? Unfortunately, French moult is one of those subjects that no one seems to have got to the bottom of. There is no simple answer and the situation is not helped by the fact that so many breeders experience completely different levels of the condition. Some people have it every year at the tail-end of the breeding season with one or two weaker chicks. Others it hits out of the blue and decimates the youngsters for that year. Still others have just one breeding pair or a small minority which produce birds with the dreaded moult.
Taking account of the variety of problems people face and the inconsistency in which this condition comes about from aviary to aviary, I can only comment on what my father and I have experienced.
Asking an expert
When French moult became so apparent in our birds, I took to the internet to try and research what was happening. It soon became apparent that very few people (if any!) claimed to be an expert in this area. The one person who seemed to make the most sense in the articles I read was none other than Gerald Binks.
I had never met Gerald before, but had obviously heard of him and regarded him as one of the greats of the fancy. So I rang him, and he spent an hour or so on the phone with me requesting every detail of our feeding regime and then talking through the changes that we should consider implementing immediately. Some of the suggested changes were as follows:
Given the severity of the condition that our birds were experiencing, all of the breeding pairs should be taken down and rested.
Mix our own seed based broadly on: 60 per cent plain canary, 30 per cent mixed millets and 10 per cent tonic seed. Codliver oil should be added to the seed mixture.
Change the softfood base mixture that we were using at the time to one that Gerald knew was tested because each batch was made in the factory before being sent out in order to ensure that the nutritional levels were consistent.
We introduced all of those measures and more as soon as possible.
When my father and I gave considerable thought as to how our birds had been struck down with the condition so suddenly and with such a widespread affect, we came to realise that only one thing had changed in the weeks leading up to the point when the moult started to show in our birds – the delivery of a new batch of softfood. We took a sample from the remaining stock that we had and sent it off to be tested.
To our dismay, there was some 20 per cent less protein in the softfood mixture than the nutritional information on the tub had led us to believe. All of the other key nutrients were as they should have been.
Our circumstances began to make sense. If our birds had been used to protein in their softfood mixture at 30 per cent and this was reduced to 10 per cent, with feather growth dependent on sufficient levels of protein, we realised that our youngsters had only been fed enough protein from their parents to grow their feathers initially, but not to sustain this during the full term of their infancy.
Should any fancier fall short of luck and experience French moult in their birds, I would advise them to follow the simple steps that we did and to have a very close look at their feeding regime. The alternative is to have a huge panic and conduct a large scale de-lousing of their birds, causing a great deal of stress and anxiety for the themselves and the birds – all because of their fear of a mite, which as far as I am aware has yet to be documented.
Testing a theory
I HAVE heard some breeders blame their experience of French moult on a form of mite. However, our first experience of French moult, plus two other isolated cases, do not support the claim that it is the presence of mite that causes this much-hated affliction.
In 2004, only one pair of our birds produced youngsters with the condition. The hen was so keen to breed that she had laid her next set of eggs before we had a chance to take the pair down. So we used this as an opportunity to test our theory that French moult is caused by a protein deficiency in the parents. As each chick hatched in the second round, they were moved to foster parents who we knew had produced young birds without any trace of French moult. Not one of those second-round youngsters had the condition.
Cumbria-based budgerigar breeder Richard Miller exhibits in partnership with his father, Michael.