Everything (almost) you always wanted to know about mealworms but were afraid to ask…

Lately there were a few agents provocateurs who made not-too intelligent comments and queries in response to our post on the baiting of the migratory Hooded Pitta with mealworms, see HERE. These agents had no background knowledge on mealworms like its availability, culture, nutritional value vis-a-vis wild birds, use by aviculturists, etc. Hopefully this post will provide some basic answers on mealworms in general. And those wishing to culture mealworms can visit these 5 sites: 1; 2; 3, 4 and 5.

1. Mealworms are sold in many pet shops as high nutrition food for birds, chickens, reptiles, fish, etc. They are available fresh or dried.

2. Mealworms can easily be purchased online, even from amazon.com.uk.

Cultured mealworms (Photo credit: YC Wee)
Cultured mealworms (Photo credit: YC Wee)

3. Mealworms have been available in Singapore for decades. Aviculturist Lee Chiu San has been getting them from local suppliers for the last 50 plus years. “Once purchased the mealworms are raised and fattened by me for about two weeks before being fed to my birds,” wrote Chiu San.

4. Do mealworms breed in the soil if and when they “escape captivity” and damage the plants around? Again, according to Chiu San, “Mealworms require a relatively dry environment. Their water intake is low, and can be met in captivity by vegetable leaves and slices of fruit. Excessive damp causes them to perish quite quickly…”

Mealworm beetles (Photo credit: YC Wee)
Mealworm beetles (Photo credit: YC Wee)

5. According to The Royal Society for the Protection of Birds (RSPB), “Mealworms are a great natural food for birds and can be used to feed them throughout the year.” The society even provides guidelines on how to breed them – see HERE.

Mugimaki Flycatcher with a mealworm (Photo credit: Chan Wei Luen)
Mugimaki Flycatcher with a mealworm (Photo credit: Chan Wei Luen)

6. However, there are some who claim that mealworms are “incomplete” food for birds. Sure. But how many foods that birds source in the wild are complete foods? In the wild the foods that birds catch and eat vary in their nutrition contents. Eating a wide variety of different foods balances up the total nutrient uptake.

Hooded Pitta lured by mealworms (Photo credit: Adrian Tan)
Hooded Pitta lured by mealworms (Photo credit: Adrian Tan)

7. I would assume that excessive feeding of mealworms to wild birds might not be good for them. But casual feeding should cause no problems, as these birds will source other foods to supplement the mealworms they are fed with.

8. Aviculturists have been feeding mealworms to their birds for decades. But there are caveats.

Aviculturalists use mealworms because they are convenient to keep and easily available. But they are by no means ideal as bird food.

Shop-bought mealworms, which have generally been raised on oat bran, are full of starch. As it is, many aviary and cage birds already do not have enough liquid and roughage in their diet. Feeding lots of mealworms adds to the problem. The birds eat mealworms with gusto, but that does not mean this is good for them.

Freshly-imported fruit and insect eating birds usually have rather runny faeces. This is normal, the result of their eating soft-bodied caterpillars and other insects that have been feeding on leaves, fruit and grasses in nature. The vegetable matter in the guts of the prey are an important item in the diet of the birds.

Pet shops and home owners do not like runny droppings. By feeding the birds on mealworms the mess is reduced. But the birds are in a constant state of constipation. As a result, many do not attain their full lifespan in captivity.

If you feed mealworms to your pet birds, make sure that the mealworms have been fed for at least two or three days on apple cores or vegetable leaves such as cabbage. The worms will have some vegetable matter in their guts when they are eaten. This is beneficial for pet birds.

And for predominantly insectivorous birds, crickets and grasshoppers are better food, though these are more expensive and troublesome to manage.

Also remember that the exoskeletons of mealworms are harder than those of caterpillars. This makes them more difficult to digest.

A major danger of feeding mealworms, especially to baby birds, is that they fight back and can kill the birds – even when inside the crop.

Most adult birds batter their prey. The mealworms are usually truly dead before being swallowed. Baby birds just swallow when fed. The whole mealworms enter their crops, then try to chew their way out, with results that are often fatal for the fledgling.

Experienced bird keepers always cut mealworms into pieces and discard the heads before feeding baby birds.

Lee Chiu San & YC Wee
Singapore
26th December 2016

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