Health & Nutrition
Sprouting for Birds
Benefits of sprouting
Germination and sprouting set off a biochemical reaction in seeds and grains. It is widely reported on the internet that this causes a significant improvement in the quality and quantity of many beneficial nutrients, along with a decrease in the amount of fat. However recent scientific studies indicate that the nutritional content doesn't actually change all that much, although sprouting may improve the digestibility of the seed/grain. In any case, our birds would have easy access to living, growing foods in the wild, and sprouting helps us approximate this part of their diet. Variety in the diet adds interest and enrichment to our birds' lives. Grocery-store sprouts aren't recommended for birds due to problems with bacteria and mold.
You can buy an inexpensive commercial sprouter if you like, but it's easy to make your own sprouter using simple materials. Basically, you need something that will let you rinse and drain the seeds easily without making a mess or having seeds go down the sink.
A mason (canning) jar with plastic canvas mesh in the lid works very well. The smaller jelly jar size is convenient for small batches. In the US mason jars can be found in large grocery stores, sold in multi-packs. Plastic canvas can be found in the needlework department of craft stores like Michaels. The standard size seems to be #7 (the size indicates the number of holes per inch), which is fine for bigger seeds. But for small seeds like millet it's best to use a finer mesh (#10). This equipment will not retain really tiny seeds like amaranth.
A strainer that fits comfortably inside a bowl also works well. Recently a 3-in-1 "berry bowl" that comes with its own strainer has become available, and it is very well suited for sprouting. The slots in the strainer are small enough to retain millet seeds, although for really tiny seeds you'd need to put something in the strainer (like a coffee filter) to keep the seeds in.
Grains and Seeds
You can sprout your bird's regular seed (including sunflower), and sprouting is actually an excellent way to test the quality of the seed. If less than half of it sprouts it's old and stale and should be discarded. Human-quality grains (usually found in the bulk food bins at the local natural-foods grocery) are excellent for sprouting. Things like wheat, kamut, spelt, barley, oats, rye, etc - anything that looks like a seed. Quinoa is a great addition, and raw rice can be added to the mix. Lentils, mung beans, garbanzos, and adzuki beans are good, but other beans are best avoided unless you're willing to cook them after they've sprouted, due to natural toxins in the beans that are eliminated by cooking but not by sprouting. Even the acceptable beans need to have the tails sprouted out to a length of 1/4" to 1/2" to neutralize toxins. Grains don't have this issue, and are considered to be at their nutritional peak when the root is just barely starting to stick out of the seed. For bigger birds you can include bigger items like pumpkin seeds and popcorn.
How to Sprout
The mason jar technique: at night, put the seeds/grains in the jar and put the lid on. Rinse them a few times by pouring in some cool water, swirling it around a little, and draining. Don't drain the water the last time; let the grains soak overnight. A few drops of apple cider vinegar can be added to the soaking water to discourage mold and bacteria. You need enough water that the seeds will still be covered with it after they've been soaking for several hours. You also need to allow space for air circulation in the jar, so the jar should not be more than about half full of seeds after they've soaked. There's no problem with having smaller amounts of seed in the jar.
In the morning, rinse and drain. It's recommended that you leave the jar tilted downward at an angle so it can continue draining, but simply laying the jar on its side may work for people in dry climates. In any case, there must be some open space above the seeds so air can flow in through the mesh. Rinse and drain again in the middle of the day (optional) and once again at night (not optional). Success is somewhat dependent on the climate in your house; some people will get better results from keeping the sprout jar in a dark place (like a cupboard) and others won't need to do this.
In the morning rinse it one last time and give it to the birds. Right before feeding you can add supplemental items if you want, such as chopped veggies or probiotics. Total prep time: about 36 hours. Total time actually spent working on it: about three minutes.
The bowl and strainer technique is the same as above, except that you put your sprouting seeds in the strainer, which is then put in the water-filled bowl. When you're ready to rinse you just lift out the strainer.
Storage and Safety
It's possible to store sprouts in the refrigerator for a few days, although making a new batch is so easy that this will be a better option for many people. You can't just put the sprouts in the fridge and ignore them because it takes some vigilance to avoid problems with bacteria and mold. The technique that is usually recommended is to continue rinsing them daily, drain them well, then store them in the refrigerator in a covered container with a paper towel in the bottom.
To avoid storage issues, you can start a new batch every night. You will have two jars (or bowls) going every night: the one that was just started, and the one that was started the previous night and will be served in the morning.
Vigilance is also needed both before and after serving the sprouts. Like any moist food, they provide a nice environment for mold and bacteria. So you have to make sure they haven't spoiled before you serve them - if they smell sour throw them away. Be sure to take them out of the cage before they go bad. The amount of time that they stay good will vary depending on the humidity and temperature in your house. It could be anywhere from a couple of hours to all day long, and the safe period will fluctuate from day to day and season to season.
The procedure described above will work in most situations, but some people have a lot of problems with the sprouts spoiling during the sprouting process. In those cases, more air circulation might be helpful; use the bowl and strainer approach instead of the mason jar. If all else fails, just soaking the seed overnight is usually safe and effective. The procedure is the same as above except that the process ends immediately after the overnight soak, and you drain, rinse, and serve at that point.