Practice: putting ideas to the test

Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.

Burt Rutan

(and before you ask, I’d never heard of him either, but he’s worth looking up).

We saw in the last edition of Bird’s Eye View that bird keepers are forever trying out new ideas.  For most of us that means minor ‘tweaking’ of our existing methods rather than a major overhaul.  Nevertheless, even if you make only a small change it could have an effect on your birds and there is no guarantee it will be for the better.   You are effectively conducting an experiment.

Any scientist who carries out an experiment will set out the parameters of the test, measure the outcome, and form a conclusion based on the results.  The entire process would be carefully controlled. Variable factors that could skew the results are minimised.  Compare that with a typical bird keeper who tries something new, hopes for the best, and bases his assessment of the results on little more than ‘gut feeling’.  I’m as guilty as anyone.  Wouldn’t it be better if we conducted a proper test?

Let’s take a hypothetical example.  Imagine that one of your bird keeping friends tells you about a new supplement he’s discovered.  It is full of minerals, vitamins and some exotic natural ingredient extracted from fungi found only in the Amazon forest.  The sales brochure implies (but never guarantees) that it will give your birds better feather quality, deeper ground colour, greater vitality and higher fertility.  You try it, have a productive breeding season and a successful show season.  The logical conclusion is that the improvement is all down to the new product.  Or is it?

The chances are you made several other changes that may have subtly changed the outcome.  Perhaps you fitted new lamps in your bird house; perhaps you changed your eggfood, used a different mite treatment or tried a different disinfectant; perhaps you fed your birds spinach for the first time, or stopped feeding them spinach; perhaps you put your hens in an outside flight before the breeding season, or kept them indoors; perhaps you moved your best pairs to the other side of the bird room, or to the top row of cages; perhaps you selected a younger breeding team; perhaps you introduced a couple of out-crosses; perhaps, perhaps . . .

The improvement may indeed be down to the ‘wonder product’, but how do you know?  It could easily be thanks to one of the other changes you made, or a combination of several factors.  I repeat, how do you know?  That’s where testing comes in.

random-control-study-fss

It is a fundamental principle in the development of a new product or a new system that the manufacturer/developer should test its performance.  Can you imagine a new drug or a new cosmetic being launched without exhaustive testing?  The testing industry has well established protocols (1) for undertaking their tests to ensure the results are accurate and representative of real life conditions.  The average bird keeper operates on a very small scale and doesn’t have the resources to replicate those procedures, but that doesn’t mean testing is irrelevant.

Let me give you an example.  Years ago I was told by an old canary breeder that rose hip tea would improve the colour of my birds if given throughout the moult.  I don’t know why I was sceptical but I decided that a small experiment might be in order.  I selected three birds and daily brewed the tea and let it cool before filling their drinking vessels.  All the other birds received plain tap water.  By November I was able to assess the result of my experiment . . . there was no difference.

Critics will point out (quite rightly) that 3 birds was a small sample and that there were other weaknesses in my little experiment (2).  I am well aware of that.  As it happens, I was quite happy with the colour of my birds and felt that the trial, for all its limitations, had been fair. I never used rose hip tea again, but that decision was based on the results of my simple test, not on guesswork or ‘gut feeling’.

Rose hip tea is a natural product and has a long history as being safe for human consumption. Things get rather more complicated when we get involved in the opaque world of food supplements.  I have some sympathy for the manufacturers.  Scientific research is expensive, and obtaining a licence for a new pharmaceutical product requires major investment.  No wonder that many products intended for cage birds are based on active ingredients that don’t need a special licence, and hence are very similar to one another.  Manufacturers also have to keep clear of making claims for their products that would bring them under the scrutiny of the HSE (3).  I can give you an example: one well known organic product describes itself as a ‘gut conditioner’ rather than a ‘wormer’ because the latter would fall under different legislation.

Unfortunately, manufacturers have a financial interest in pushing their products even if there is no clinical justification for their use.  Supplements and high tech feeding regimes have their uses, but they will be of greatest benefit to birds on a very basic diet: an African Grey parrot that refuses to eat anything but sunflower seeds, or canaries fed plain canary seed, for example.  Breeders who offer their canaries a varied diet comprising a good seed mixture, eggfood, soaked seed, greenfood, mineral grit and clean water almost certainly cover the nutritional needs of their birds.  Why would they need anything more?

The answer, of course, is that we are all looking for an advantage; that special ‘extra’ that will transform our birds into winners.  Unfortunately this zeal has its down side.  I learned recently of two Lizard canary breeders who made major changes to their feeding regime.  I won’t go into details but both were dissatisfied with the results.  Was it a failure of the products or was it because of some other factor?  We don’t know because they used these products on all their birds, not just a test group.

Testing leads to failure, and failure leads to understanding.  Burt Rutan is a retired aerospace engineer, accustomed to testing products and systems to their limits.  He only learns what those limits are when things fail.  Bird keepers don’t need to go to such extremes.  Whenever we try something new it is with the intention of success, not failure, but surely it makes sense to experiment with a small sample first?  If things do go wrong, it’s a lot less painful.

Footnotes:

  1. Look up ’Scientific Control’ on Wikipedia for a summary of the procedures to minimise variables and avoid bias in the research methods.
  2. For example; the brew was not strong enough, or I had subconsciously selected three birds that had poor ground colour.
  3. The Health and Safety Executive (HSE) is responsible for the regulation of the sale, distribution, storage and use of chemicals

One thought on “Practice: putting ideas to the test

  1. So easy to be tempted by the latest fad whether it be food or supplement when there are always so many claims as to the voracity of the new products. Most times I have avoided temptation but I must admit that I have succumbed from time to time – and when I have, more often than not I have been disappointed and have reverted back to ‘my normal practice’.

    If something works well for you and you are satisfied with the results then beware the new product fads that are promoted by those who produce the items for profit.

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