Crop Milk

Flamingo Feeding a Chick
Flamingos feed their chicks crop milk for roughly two months. Zoltán Vörös

Definition:

(noun) A semi-solid, crumbly excretion high in fat and protein that some birds feed to hatchlings.

Pronunciation:

KRAHP millk

About Crop Milk

Unlike mammalian milk, crop milk or bird milk does not have any calcium or carbohydrates. It is not generated by mammary glands, nor do young birds suckle to feed.

The exact composition of crop milk varies depending on the bird species and the parent bird's diet.

Generally, it is a gooey, crumbly substance similar in consistency and texture to the curds of cottage cheese, and contains a variety of substances, including...

  • Fat
  • Protein
  • Minerals
  • Antioxidants
  • Antibodies
  • Bacteria

Crop milk is only fed to young birds for a few days until they are able to digest other foods, and parent birds may gradually mix adult food in with the young birds' diet to wean them off crop milk. To feed on this unique milk, young birds will stick their bills into their parents' mouths to stimulate the production and release of the substance. In some species, such as both male and female birds can and do produce crop milk to care for their young, while in other species only one gender may produce this food, but it could be either the male or female parent.

Because the milk not only contains nutrition for the young birds but also has immune-building properties with the presence of antioxidants and antibodies from the parent birds, it is believed to play a significant role in the developing health of young birds.

Further detailed study of different types of crop milk and the birds that produce it is needed to determine the exact role it plays in the diet of young birds, and how more or less crop milk may affect their development and maturity.

Birds That Produce Crop Milk

All pigeons and doves feed their young crop milk.

For these species, the milk contains sloughed off, liquid-filled cells from the inside of the parents' crop. The crop changes from part of the parents' digestive system to milk production just prior to the eggs' hatching, a switch believed to be caused by hormonal changes. During that time, the parents may cease eating altogether so there is no seed in the crop, which very young birds would be unable to digest. After several days of feeding young pigeons milk, the hormone levels taper off and the crop ceases to produce as much milk. At this time, the young birds are better able to digest seeds, insects and other foods regurgitated by their parents.

Flamingos produce bird milk through glands along the digestive tract, and young flamingos eat this milk until they have developed the mature filter feeding apparatus in their bills to allow them to feed on solid food. It takes roughly two months for young flamingos to develop well enough to eat mature food, and until that time, they feed exclusively on crop milk.

Male emperor penguins will also generate a milk-like substance from the esophagus to feed young chicks after hatching, particularly if the fishing females are late returning from the ocean with food to regurgitate. This type of feeding generally only lasts a few days, and after the females have returned, they alternate hunting duties with the males and are able to feed chicks regurgitated fish instead of relying on crop milk.

Also Known As:

Pigeon's Milk, Pigeon Milk, Bird Milk

Photo – Flamingo Feeding Chick © Zoltán Vörös