Bird Watcher's General Store

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True Grit

Dear Bird Folks,

I’ve always heard that grit is an important part of a bird’s diet. I’ve seen bird seed for sale that has grit listed as an ingredient. Is it a good idea to put some grit out for the birds or should I buy the seed with the grit already added to it.

– Anna, Wareham, Ma


Here’s a little secret Anna,

The companies that manufacture bird seed will do just about anything to get you to buy their product. Okay, maybe that’s not much of a secret. Anyone with a TV, a credit card and insomnia knows about the junk that is peddled on late night infomercials. Well, in some cases, bird seed companies aren’t much better. I’ve seen everything from special cherry flavoring, to calcium, to vitamins added to bird seed, but adding grit is my favorite. It’s a special company that can get people to pay two dollars a pound for good old sand. I really have to tip my hat to them and that’s saying something, because I don’t wear a hat.

Now don’t get me wrong, with the exception of the special cherry flavoring, birds need all of the above ingredients. But we are talking about wild birds here, not a lonely bird trapped in a cage in someone’s living room. Under normal conditions wild birds obtain all the vitamins and minerals they need through their diet. Heck some birds may even be able to obtain their own cherry flavoring, if they have a little extra cash and are lucky enough to live near a convenience store that sells snow cones. But let’s get back to the grit.

Since it’s important for birds to keep their weight down in order to fly, they must give up a few things that us mammals hate to lose. And what is it that us mammals hate to lose? Hair would be a good guess, but we are talking about teeth here. Without teeth, birds, in many cases, must swallow their food whole. Swallowing food whole in itself is not that unusual. Many creatures swallow their food whole, including fish, snakes, frogs and my nephew. But unlike snakes and my nephew, birds can’t lie around waiting for their food to digest. Their flying ability would be compromised if they were weighed down with heavy meals. They must convert their food to energy quickly. For example turkeys can swallow and process whole walnuts in just a few hours. Smaller birds digest their food in a matter of minutes. Bird’s food is not only digested faster than most mammals, but it is processed more completely. They give off very little waste. With the exception of Canada Geese, most bird droppings are small compared to the amount of food they eat. (In defense of the geese, you should try eating a five pounds of green grass and see what comes out of you.)

A typical bird’s stomach has two parts. The first part has all of those lovely acidic juices that are good at breaking down fleshy foods, like yummy worms and chubby mice. The second section is the part that everybody knows, the gizzard. The gizzard has powerful muscles that crush and grind hard foods like nuts, acorns and day old bagels. Even though the gizzard is powerful, it can’t grind up hard nuts without help. The help the gizzard needs in this case is grit. When us humans have trouble with our digestion, we reach for Rolaids. When birds have trouble they reach for grit, it’s cheaper.

Right now you are thinking: “If grit is so important why wouldn’t it be a good idea to buy it mixed in with bird seed?” Because you live in Wareham Anna. Wareham is one of the grittiest towns in the East, literally. Because of Wareham’s geological make-up, there is sand on top of sand. Offering grit is not a bad idea, it just isn’t necessary. Why pay for something you don’t need? Remember you are being charged per pound for your seed. You don’t need to pay for shovels full of added dirt.

Of course things may be different for people who aren’t lucky enough to live in gritty ol’ Wareham. Anyone who lives in an area that is covered with deep snow and ice for much of the winter has a different situation than you have. But still adding sand to the seed is not the answer. If you add extra sand in your seed the birds may not take it and will probably just think you’re a slob. Just toss some sand on a cleared-off spot and the birds will find it on their own.

The only thing that should be in the bag of bird seed you buy, Anna, is bird seed. With few exceptions birds can fill all of their other needs on their own. They don’t need us to be adding vitamins, minerals or anything else, including cherry flavoring. Root beer flavoring maybe, but cherry flavoring is just silly.