Eating Like a Bird
Birds require varied, species-specific diets to be healthy, and retailers can help their bird-owning customers make the best possible food choices for their pets.
Among the most important things bird owners must do to keep their pets happy and healthy is feed their pets a variety of foods. Retailers can lay the foundation by offering an assortment of bird diets, but they should also be prepared to help steer customers in the right direction by arming them with the information they need to make wise decisions for their pet birds.
A high-quality pellet diet made specifically for the species owned, or for the bird group the bird belongs to, can make up the main part of a pet bird’s diet–up to 60 percent or so. When it comes to birds, one diet does not fit all, so deciding on what other types of food should be offered also depends on the species of bird being fed.
In the Wild
The best way to determine what else to feed a pet bird is to look at where the bird originally came from in the wild, since most avian species kept in captivity have not been “domesticated” for as long as our most popular furry pets. Many macaws ingest nuts regularly in their wild diet, for example, and therefore should be given nuts in captivity. Most of the finch species eat lots of seeds and grains in their native habitats, so giving a quality seed mix as part of their diet in captivity is important. This is also true of budgerigars, also known as parakeets, and cockatiels as well. It is difficult to know, however, all the types of food that a bird eats in the wild. That is why it’s important to feed a variety of food items to caged birds to try to cover all their nutritional needs.
Most species of birds eat greens and vegetables in the wild and for some, this can be a large part of their native diet. All caged birds need to be offered fresh, and preferably organic, greens and vegetables in good proportions every day. Most greens and vegetables are safe to feed birds, although giving them darker colored ones are better, as greens such as iceberg lettuce have little nutritional value. Sprouted seed from a caged-bird seed mix is great for birds and more nutritional than straight seed. If the bird owned is a species known for having certain vitamin or mineral deficiencies, then the owner must feed more of those vegetables that have the nutrients needed. For example, African species including the African grey parrot need to get more vitamin A in their diet, so owners should feed them more bright orange and red-colored vegetables, such as carrots, sweet potatoes and red peppers.
Cooked grains can be great for almost all caged birds, and there are many great mixes available on the market–the owner simply needs to add water and cook. Birds enjoy warm food, although owners must be careful as this can sometimes initiate a breeding response that includes all the hormonal challenges that go with it.
Fruit is good for pet birds but should not be given in large quantities for most species. Citrus should be limited, while berries are loaded with nutrients, and birds usually enjoy them thoroughly. Stick with organic fruit when possible if the fruit is not to be peeled. Point out to owners that some fruits, like blueberries, may change the color of the poop, and this is normal.
Almost all fruit is okay to feed birds except avocado. This is poisonous to them and should never be offered. Never offer birds any fruit seeds or pits either.
Birds can get some other types of “people” food on occasion, as long as the food is not salty, greasy (fatty) or sugary. In other words, stick with the healthy food items and avoid the junk food, especially chocolate, as it is also poisonous to birds.
Many birds enjoy whole-wheat dry toast, pasta and healthy cereals. Small amounts of meat can be included. Chicken breast and hard-boiled eggs, for example, can be excellent sources of protein and nutrients, especially for breeding birds. Birds should not be feed any dairy foods, including milk and cheese.
Owners should be informed that birds are a lot like kids when it comes to food. Any new food will be avoided, and just because the bird likes a certain food does not mean it is good for them to eat. They have taste buds like ours in a way and enjoy the junk food, but it should not be fed to them. After all, we can control exactly what they are being offered, but the problem is getting the birds to eat the right kinds of food.
Giving the food warm can be helpful in getting a bird to try something new. Pellets can be moistened a bit and then warmed up to help get the birds going in the right direction, if they are used to eating a seed-only diet. Advise bird owners to slowly start offering more and more of the “good” food and less of the not so great food that they are used to eating. But warn owners not to switch to a new diet quickly as a bird will starve to death before it eats any new, unfamiliar diet.
Getting a bird to eat new vegetables, fruits and other types of healthy “people” food may be difficult but not impossible. Be sure the food is cut into small pieces for smaller birds like finches. Parrots can use their hooked bills to chew off pieces and some are more willing to try a new food, like a piece of broccoli, if it is hung up in a chunk.
Putting the new food in a treat cup can sometimes help. Eating the food in front of the pet bird, especially if it’s a tame parrot, may also inspire it to try something new. Tell owners to try spreading a mix of nutritious food items over a large part of their bird’s main diet so their pet at least has to move the new food to get to their regular diet, which in turn has them tasting the new tidbits.
Remind bird owners to be patient and to be sure to offer the same food item over and over again until the bird is finally eating it. It took almost four months of offering cooked corn every day before my New Zealand parakeet finally started eating it.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.