Title - Birdseed: Easy Quality Checks

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Below: three different ways to check up on your seed.

There was a time when I became very interested in my birds' seed, so interested in fact, that I ran experiments on their preferences for over 18 months! I'm not going to go into the details of that madness on this present page, save to say that one really important lesson was learnt from all my hard work, namely that the budgies cared more about the quality of their seed than they did about what varieties it was composed of. I also became aware of just how easy it is to feed bad seed and not know you are doing it. Apparently, brand, reputation and price don't necessarily guarantee consistently acceptable quality.

In Britain there are no adequate controls on the quality of birdseed. Some of the seed sold is of appalling quality, and I term this "killer seed" for ominous reasons. Seed from some better sources, like the supplier I used before and during my experiments, may vary from batch to batch, ranging from excellent to unacceptable. It is down to the bird-keeper to check it out. The quality of the seed has the potential to make or break a bird's health, so whether you have one budgerigar or 500, it is worth checking every new batch. Your birds need clean, fresh seed. If you find anything that is not up to scratch, insist on a refund. And, as a precaution against the delay that could result if you landed a bad batch that needed replacement, always stock up in good time. Also, for your birds' safety, always adhere to the old rule of mixing old and new for a while each time you get a new batch. This is sound advice, and is particularly important if you are changing supplier. Seed should, of course, be stored covered, in a cool, dry place.

Cleanliness Check One: Pouring
This is very quick and easy, and the aim is to discover whether the grain has the sweet, mealy aroma that it should have, or whether it contains dark, dirty dust. Such dust harbours disease-causing organisms. (If you suffer from any kind of breathing difficulties, you may want to use a dust mask). You need at least 2 pounds, (1kg) of seed - preferably a sackful. Method: pour the seed from one container to another, and observe. If a dark, choking dust is released, the seed is unfit as a bird food. To confirm your observations, continue with the next check.

Cleanliness Check Two: Handling
The aim of this check is the same as for the first one. Again, you need at least 2 pounds, (1kg) of seed. You also need a timer or clock, and clean, dry hands. Method: push your hands through the grain continuously for a timed 5 minutes. At the end, look at your hands, and smell them. If they just have a bit of light-coloured, mealy dust on them, with a pleasant, mealy smell, then that's fine. If, on the other hand, there's a dark, unpleasant dust that has compacted under your nails, then the seed is unfit as a bird food. If the seed has proved to be clean, go ahead with the viability test below. It will probably sprout well, but there is a possibility that it might fail this final check. If the seed has failed both these cleanliness checks, you have good reason to reject it and insist on a refund. However, you may wish to continue with the next test out of curiosity, or to help you decide which seed merchant to change over to.

The Viability Test
Viable seed is seed that will sprout. This test is easy with practice, but the instructions are necessarily longer than for the others. - Don't let this put you off: just give it a try. The results might even lead to a reduction in your seed bill.

Budgie seed beginning to sprout
These photographs show sprouting budgie mixture. The millet has been separated from the canary seed. In the top photo, the seed is at an early stage of germination; the second picture is the same seed the next day. - (and the other way around, sorry!)The same seeds the next day, with sprouting more advanced

The aim of the test is to discover whether at least 70% of the seed will begin to sprout within a reasonable number of days, at room temperature. Only a tiny sample of ½ a teaspoonful is required. The 70% threshold is chosen because 50% viability would, I believe, be too low, whereas 90-100% would be unrealistic. To be practical, the boundary between pass and fail has to be somewhere in-between - although excellent samples of some millets will sprout almost 100% within 24 hours, given good conditions. (The times and methods suggested are suitable for canary seeds and millets, and not necessarily suitable for other seeds).

You Need:
Half a teaspoonful of the seed you want to check up on.

You Also Need:
1) at least one control sample of seed, as a measure to gauge the performance of the main sample against. I use a sample of the old batch, (which would have been tested when it was the new batch), but when doing the viability test for the first time, a bit of Trill from the supermarket is probably a more reliable control. Of course, if your main sample is Trill, the control will have to be something else. (Remove the artificial seeds from Trill before the test, or they'll just go soggy). If desired, you can run the test on numerous brands simultaneously, to discover which is the best!

2) a small, flat-bottomed dish - such as a straight-sided plant pot saucer or margarine tub - for each sample.

3) dry sand - bird sand, or gardener's sand.

4) covering material such as sheet glass to fully cover all the containers. If not available, use cling film pulled tight.

5) a clean mist sprayer (not essential)

6) paper or labels, and something to write with.

Setting Up The Test
1) For each sample, part fill a dish with sand, and shake level. Leave enough space so that the seeds won't touch the glass or cling film as they sprout and push up from the surface, because they may go mouldy if this happens.

2) (Optional) If testing a mixture, assessment of results will be easier if you separate the constituent varieties. To do this, put the seed in the middle of a plate, then push the different sorts of seed to different points at the rim.

3) Spread the samples evenly on the sand surface, one dish at a time, labelling carefully as you go so that each sample can be confidently identified.

4) Moisten evenly, preferably with a mist sprayer because this gives fine control. DO NOT MAKE THE SAND WET! It is very important that the sand is moist - evenly moist - but NOT wet, and that it stays that way.

5) Cover closely and label with the date and time.

6) Leave to sprout at room temperature. If it is winter, select a warmish spot.

NOTE: Temperature affects sprouting time, and this is one reason a control sample is essential. During a heat wave, sprouting will be a day ahead of normal timing. If your house is cold, allow an extra day.

7) After 24 hours, examine the samples closely without touching them, and take notes. You are looking for the first signs of sprouting. Sprouting begins with the emergence of a tiny, white root which later grows fine and long and pushes the seed up a bit from the sand. Check for dryness, and correct if found, then cover again and leave.

8) After 48 hours, examine again and take more notes.

9) After 72 hours, examine seriously, and take final notes. Use a magnifier if it helps. If there are mouldy patches, take care because there is a health risk from breathing in spores. If all results are very poor, postpone assessment for another day or two. Excellent results will be easy to recognize, and so will abysmal ones! Those in-between require patient counting. Include anything that's begun to sprout. Work out the percentage sprouted, at least roughly.

Decision Time: Is The Seed Good Enough?
Hopefully at least one sample will have sprouted well, giving you confidence in your sprouting technique and providing a gauge to help with the assessment of other samples. If 70% of the sample sprouted within 72 hours, and the seed proved clean in earlier tests, then you certainly have good, healthy seed. If the outcome was more borderline, or if none of your samples sprouted, the next move is to run the test again, perhaps putting the samples somewhere different in the house. You need to know that your technique is reliable before you start complaining to your supplier.

If, on rerun, your main sample still hasn't proved around 70% viable, and you've achieved a satisfactory level of sprouting with a control of a similar seed variety, then it's time to insist on a refund. Only time will tell whether this is a one-off problem with the supplier, an occasional problem, or a persistent one. A particular seed merchant may be wholly reliable for one species of birdseed, but no good for another. The seeds in budgerigar and millet mixtures are often of unequal quality.

Appendix: Does Viability Really Matter?
Some people believe that it doesn't matter whether birdseed will sprout or not. They point out that there's no evidence that non-viable seed is nutritionally inferior to viable seed. Personally I don't have access to scientific data that proves or disproves the theory that there's no nutritional difference, but what I am sure of is that this argument completely misses the point.

Seed starts out viable. If it is dead by the time the sack or packet reaches your home, then something untoward has happened to kill it. It may have been lying around for many years in poor storage conditions. My observations suggest that most seed with a low viability score is also very dirty - - as you may have observed for yourself if you have run the above tests on a range of samples and hit some bad ones. Sure, if the seed was dead because it had been cooked briefly in an oven, only a week before you bought it, then there would indeed have been no nutritional loss, - - but that will not have been the cause of death! Something much more messy will have happened to your low viability seed! I believe that the outcome of a viability test reflects the way the grain has been handled. If seed sprouts vigorously, then it must have been harvested, transported and stored correctly, in healthy conditions, and this is what the purchaser has a right to expect.

© Copyright Helen Day, first published April 2000.

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