Jeffrey Low

Friday, June 3, 2011


As I was quite busy with personal matters lately, I was unable to write much. I would like to thank all my good friends here for their kind concerns and their emails to me asking if I am well. I am still kicking...hehehe.  Thanks again. I think I may not be able to continue writing in this blog, at least for a while, partly due to personal commitments and partly because 2 of the fingers on my left hand are getting to be quite useless and it can be quite annoying trying to type. They will be operated on sometime this month and it could take a while before I can know if they will be good again.

Meanwhile, for friends that do not visit the forum, these are taken from my recent postings there.


I also heard that black feet shamas are more aggresive. Personally, I won't judge a shama by the color of its feet (but of course I am no sifu). Black feet can come from anywhere, malaysia, indonesia or even those wild singapore shamas seen in the olden days, some will have black feet too.

Medan shama or langkawi shama, how many are truly what they are claimed to be? Almost every other newbie shama owner will believe that what they have bought is a langkawi bird because bird shops and dealers, who seem to have endless supplies of 'langkawi shamas' told them so. How many of these shops really know what is a langkawi type shama? One can buy a thousand shamas from medan but not one will be true medan bird because all are taken from somewhere else in Indonesia and yet any shamas that came from Indonesia are sold by some shops as medan shamas. How many bird shop owners really know how to distinguish a medan type? I am not trying to run the shops or dealers down and I have no wish to to claim that I know better. I only wish to point out that there are very very few true langkawi shamas or true medan shamas left out there. That, I know is a fact.

I don't see any mention so far about old school Penang shamas from the 70's. They are among the best shamas as far as I know, whether black feet or pink feet. Tail length of 7 inches plus but with posture, display and character that few shamas these days can match.

One can say that locality has nothing to do with whether or not a shama is superior. I can agree with that but only as far as with populations of shamas that are found in a vast piece of land. Take for example the malayan peninsula. There will always be good birds and not so good birds from any given area, from north to south.

On the other hand, if there is a race of shama with black feet found in only certain areas and they are superior to shamas in other areas, I can also agree that black feet is an indication of a superior bird. However, in the mainland, no single race superior or otherwise can remain locality specific forever. If there ever was a superior race of shama with black feet, unless these are isolated in an island, they will interbreed with the other race at the overlapping boundaries where 2 races will meet and in time to come, the genes responsible for the black feet will spread and there will be black feet shamas in other localities of the mainland and so there will be not-so-good black feet shamas as well. Other genes from the neigbouring non black footed race will also spread into this locality and dilute the original desirable traits of the black footed race and in time to come also, the original black feet race will not be always as good as they use to be. How did the black feet gene come about, we don't know but the fact that they are not locality specific means that black feet alone cannot be used as an indication that the bird is superior.

If originally there are shamas in one of the langkawi islands or in Penang Island and the the environmental conditions in these islands resulted in shamas that had evolved to have very desirable traits, then these desirable traits will be very strongly bred into the birds in these islands. Assuming that there is no interference by man, such as introducing birds from the mainland and shamas from elsewhere are not strong enough to fly into these 2 islands, then birds from these localities will on the whole, be more superior than those from the mainland. 


White shit is actually the result of protein metabolism by the kidneys. Ant eggs, mealworms and any other live food or even lean beef are rich in protein and will produce white shit (urates) which is actually the waste from the dietary protein.

When white shit is associated with feather pulling or difficulty to molt, that will mean to say that a diet rich in protein is the cause of these problems. To me, feather pulling and jammed in molt are the result of hormonal disruptions. A bird that cannot drop form when it is time to do so will not go into molt because the testosterone is still high and the other hormones for molting cannot kick in. This I believe is due to environmental causes rather than a diet rich in protein. In the wild, the shama is triggered by environmental changes such as a change in weather, temperature, humidity and etc during certain time of the year to go into molt in preparation for the coming breeding season. Some captive environments may be working against the instincts of the bird causing disruptions to the normal hormonal cycle. Exposing the bird to too much confrontational situations, prolonged lightings late into the night, for examples, are unconducive and unnatural and can cause hormonal disruptions. On the opposite end, some indoor birds that are abruptly switched to the outdoor aviary may go into a molt even when it is not due yet because of a sudden change in temperature or humidity. There could be lots of other causes of hormonal disruptions in captivity that we have yet to understand.

Feather development and growth is very demanding on the body's store of protein. Feathers are mostly protein (keratin) and in order for the bird to molt well, there must be sufficient protein in store long before the molt commence so that the feathers can draw from it. Therefore the bird's regular day to day diet should always have sufficient protein and not be subjected to peaks and troughs of the availability of this vital nutrient.

The term 'Heatiness' to me is always vague when used in discussions and is often associated with a white shitting, no-form bird and yet we know that a bird that has no form can come into form by feeding a higher protein diet or by giving more live food. This is therefore quite contradictory. Heatiness is also sometimes associated with a puffed up bird passing white shit when the condition of puffing up could be due to any illness that the bird may be suffering from and when passing white shit is never known medically as a sign of avian illness.

The other term that we often use is 'high protein diet'. A high protein diet could be sufficient or excessive. Perhaps we should say 'diet sufficient in protein' instead. There could be some truth in thinking that excessively high protein in the diet could overwork the kidneys and may cause problems especially on a long term basis and in older birds. However, white shit by itself may not necessarily indicates that the bird is on an excessively high protein diet because it is known that all pure insectivorous birds in the wild will pass out droppings that consist of lots of urates due to their type of diet.


Whenever a newbie asked the question as to what is the best diet to feed his shama, it is often difficult to answer. Each individual bird will respond slightly differently on a given diet. One way (perhaps not the best), is to look at the shit and provide accordingly. Even with the correct dry food, it will take some time before the bird's digestive system get accustomed to it to produce the right proportion of digestive enzymes to utilise the diet and that is why once the newbie keeper got the dry food right, he should not change it unnecessarily or abruptly. Livefood can be increased if there is a need to increase the protein level and tailed down gradually when there is need to do so later. Other soft food to increase the protein level are egg yolks, ant eggs and lean beef. Be moderate in the quantity of each and in order to maximise the chance of providing for better balanced protein, it is always better to provide various types of supplemental protein food, each in small amounts than to use a single type in large amounts.


Greenish shit can be caused by many underlying medical conditions but this type of lime-green tinge is a clear indication of starvation. It is the result of the gastro intestinal tract being empty or having very little food to mix with the bile that is produced by the gall bladder. A starved bird will usually produce shit that has a lime-green tinge. There may be an increase in urine as well. Do not always think that green shit means that the bird is frightened. A frightened bird will produce 'stress shit' which is mainly just urine.


Besides dividing the shit into 3 parts, the feces, the urates and urine, the shit can also be divided into components based on the sources of the shit. This can be useful sometimes when we want to understand the shit a bit further, especially when the shit don't look right.

Other than dietary nutrients, there are also substantial quantity of of digestive enzymes, mucosal secretions and exfoliated cells that enter the lumen of the digestive tract and these are also subjected to digestion. They are referred to as the endogenous source.

The dietary component of the shit: This comes directly from the diet and they are the undigested fiber and unabsorbed minerals. Usually for the shama, it is brown or black. The waste from the dry food of the shamas will usually be reflected in this component of the shit in brownish color. Sometimes the first big blob of shit in the morning may have some very dark green part on it and that is usually quite ok. Fibers from indigestible parts of fish and froglets will usually show up in black in this component of the shit.

The endogenous component of the shit: This comes from epithelial cells shed from the intestinal wall, mucus, bile acids, residual enzymes and metabolites. The white urate is the metabolite of protein and forms part of this component of the shit. If the urate is always greenish or yellowish, there could be an underlying cause and the owner should be concerned. Occasionally, there may be some mucus and it is ok as long as it does not persist. Similarly, occasional foamy urates is ok only if this condition does not persist.


It is difficult to answer your question. First of all, my knowledge is too limited and therefore I am in no position to make comments regarding the suitability of any of the commercial brands available in the market. Secondly, I have been feeding my shamas with home made dry food for a long time now and therefore do not have sufficient experience with these commercial brands.

To answer your question partly, I can only comment on commercial dry food in general and not on any particular brand.

Generally speaking the brands that are widely acceptable are usually proven to be good enough, at least as a basic diet. I divide commercial dry food into 2 categories. One is formulated based on traditional recipes and the other scientifically formulated. Each has their own good points. Traditional recipes are proven over long period of time to be suitable, otherwise these recipes will not be around anymore. Scientifically formulated ones are usually marketed by big companies with highly qualified nutritionists behind their products.

One way of deciding which brand to go for is to base your choice on how your bird would respond to the dry food. No 2 birds are exactly the same and that includes their response to any given diet.

You may also want to take into consideration the total diet and not just the dry food alone when it comes to feeding your bird. At different stages of your bird's life, you may want to work out the right combinations of dry food and supplementary food to cater appropriately to its requirements. If you believe that this is the right approach, then you will have to work out the right combinations taking into consideration the yield from your dry food and adjust your supplementary food accordingly. In this sense, as long as it is a proven brand, it is good enough because how well it will work for you will also depend on how you supplement.

As to the volume of shit, there are 2 ways to look at it. Some experts believe that the lesser the quantity of output, the better is the quality of food. This can be true but not always so, as far as I am concerned. Birds in captivity will generally consume up to the amount that will provide for its energy needs and will stop once this is satisfied. Therefore, it is possible in theory to provide a high energy food in order for the bird to consume only a small quantity and have lesser output. It is fine if this small quantity is also adequate to supply the nutrients required. Otherwise, the bird will be nutritionally deficient. Hence, judging by the quantity of shit may not always be the best approach. Most importantly, the diet must be a well balanced one in order for the bird to derive nutrients adequately from the amount it is able to consume. This is of course easier said than done.

Regarding high fiber in the dry food, again there are 2 schools of thought. Manufacturers of some dry food will include some amount of fiber. One school of thought is that the amount of fiber present in these commercial dry food is because fiber is cheap and will lower the cost of production. The other school of thought is that the fiber present is to simulate the chitin component in the diet of an insectivore in the wild. The amount present is usually justified by what is considered to be the equivalent of the chitin componenent.


Although I do have some concerns regarding a high fiber diet for the shama, these concerns are NOT because of the amount of shit that is passed out by the shama that is fed on high fiber diet. I think there may be a misconception when a newbie thinks that the large volume of shit means that most of what is eaten is not digested and is being excreted. This is not true and I will attempt to explain it with my limited knowledge on fiber.

I would think that when a newbie compare the amount eaten to the amount shitted, he would probably come to this conclusion because the newbie did not take into account that fiber has very high water-holding capacities. Some dietary fiber like pectins, gums and some hemicelluloses are especially high in absorption of water and when these are passed out in the droppings, the bulk and volume would seem to be so much or even more than the dry food that is being consumed. The volume seems large because of the high water content so do not be alarmed by the volume of the shit if the volume is caused by the fiber in the diet. Whether substantially high fiber in the diet of the shama is good or not, may be controversial depending on how each of us look at it but its effect on the volume of shit is not a concern to me.


The dietary fiber that comes from the dry food originates from plant sources. Chitin is the fiber originating from the exoskeleton of insects. Fibers provide carbohydrates.

1)Dietary fiber from plant sources is mainly non-starch polysacharrides. They cannot be digested (hydrolized) using digestive enzymes. Dietary fiber can only be utilized by birds through a digestive process involving fermentation (using microbial enzymes) to obtain fatty acids (a source of energy).

Shama being an insectivorous species rely on digestive enzymes to digest its food. This form of digestive system is known as autoenzymatic digestion. Herbivorous birds like the ostrich or emu rely on another form of digestive system to ferment fibrous plant matters. This form of digestive system is known as alloenzymatic digestion. Herbivorous birds will usually have a large ceca in their digestive tract where fermentation will mostly take place. In between the faunivorous (which include insectivores) and herbivorous, there are the omnivorous which will have some alloenzymatic ability in their digestive system.

Dietary fibers in humans are known to have beneficial effects of preventing chronic illnesses. In non-herbivorous birds, dietary fibers are known to have anti-nutritive effects instead. The anti-nutritive effects come about due to soluble dietary fibers causing intestinal contents to be more viscous. Higher viscosity of the intestinal contents will interfere with interation of digestive enzymes and the digesta (food). It will also impair the absorption by hindering diffusion of nutrients.

2) Chitin (exoskeletons of insects): Chitin is a mucopolysaccharide. It is the main source of carbohydrates for wild insectivorous birds. Unlike dietary fiber from plant sources, chitin can be digested autoenzymatically. Whether it is pure insectivorous or omnivorous, birds that eat insects will need a certain types of digestive enzymes in order to hydrolyse chitin to obtain the carbohydrates. The digestive enzyme called chitinase will hydrolyse chitin into chitobiose which in turn will be hydrolysed by chitobiase to glucosamine from which the bird will derive carbohydrates. Different species of birds have different levels of chitinase activities in their digestive system, ranging from high to none. King penquins for example has the ability to digest 85% of the chitin it consume (the chitin comes from squid in this case). Pigeon on the other hand (a granivore) has no chitinase activity in its digestive tract. Chicken (omnivore) has low chitinase activities. Even within the group of insectivorous birds, different species has different ability to digest chitin. To add to the complexity, different insects have different chitin contents. Different stages of the life of an insect species will also determine the chitin content. The amount of chitin also affects the digestibility of protein.


I strongly suspect that the shama utilises very little or nothing from the chitin present in their diet as compared to some other species of insectivorous birds. This is only based on my own limited experiments and experience. When I feed only crickets and mealworms to shamas, they will regurgitate substantial amount of pellets. When I feed this same diet to certain other species of insectivorous birds, they do not seem to regurgitate pellets. This small scale experiments may not be conclusive but it does show that chitin will pass through the digestive tracts in some insectivorous birds while in others like the shama, most if not all of the chitin will be regurgitated. I think those insectivorous birds that will allow chitin to pass through, will probably have better ability to digest chitin then those that will regurgitate them. I cannot be sure that all that is regurgitated represents all the chitin consumed but nevertheless, the fact that shama regurgitate substantial quantity could have some indication of the lack of ability to fully digest all the chitin they consume.

From another observation, I noticed that shamas will always pick out white mealworms first when offered a choice of both white and non-white ones. Could this preference be due to their natural instinct to avoid chitinous prey due to the lack of chitinase activities of their digestive system? When my magpie robin was offered the same, there seems to be no preference between white and non-white worms. Perhaps, if more of us were to observe the same, then we may be able to have a better picture.

Lynyrd Skynyrd - Free Bird