Polly Want a New Cracker?
With a little patience and ingenuity, getting pet birds to try new foods is not quite mission impossible.
When you were a child, did your mother force you—or at least try to force you—to eat certain foods that you simply hated? For me, it was green beans, and to this day, I cannot stand them. Every week, my mom would make them, and I would always figure out a way to get rid of them without actually putting any in my mouth.
Parrots and kids have a lot in common when it comes to eating; both often want to avoid any new food, and they have strong preferences about what they are willing to consume. Bird owners should never assume that what they are offering is actually being eaten, as parrots can be extremely picky. It is also important to keep in mind that just because the bird likes the food, doesn’t mean it is good for them or nutritionally complete.
“If you don’t know what a bird is eating, the diet can be out of balance,” says Thomas Roudybush, an avian nutritionist and president of Roudybush Inc.
Typically, large parrots that are given a seed mix will mostly pick out the sunflower seeds, since they have the most fat, and therefore flavor. It can be difficult when feeding a bird a mix that allows the bird to make choices, says Roudybush. Although it is best to offer pet birds a variety of foods in order to cover all of its nutritional needs, its main foods should not be high in fat and/or low in nutrition.
“The purpose of changing a bird’s diet can be twofold: either they are on a very poor one or you simply want to enhance their diet by having them eat a larger variety of foods,” says Mary Wyld of Wyld’s Wingdom, a bird product distributor.
But as many frustrated bird owners have discovered, the hard part is getting a bird to eat new items. “Simply plopping a new food in the bowl may not entice the bird to try it, [but] of course you do not want to starve your bird,” Wyld says. The risk of starvation is the greatest challenge, as some caged birds have been known to literally starve themselves to death to avoid eating an unfamiliar food.
However, Roudybush suggests there is evidence that given time, most birds will adapt to new foods. He and his team recently tested cockatiels to see if they might, in fact, choose to starve rather than eat something unfamiliar. In the experiment, cockatiels that were accustomed to eating an all-seed mix were switched completely to only pellets in one day. The researchers found that one group ate the new food right away, one group took about two days before it started eating, and the last group wouldn’t eat the pellets at all, so it was put back on seed. About 90 percent of the cockatiels fell into the first two groups, meaning that only 10 percent didn’t eat the new food. Note that this 10 percent, after gaining their weight back, were given pellets again with no mixing, and 90 percent of those birds ate the pellets right away or within the two days or so.
“It appears that repeated switching is a good way to change a bird’s diet,” Roudybush concluded.
Still, caution should be used especially when dealing with larger, and therefore, more intelligent parrot species, since this research was with cockatiels. I know of one Amazon parrot that starved to death when it was given a non-colored pellet food after having been accustomed to a colorful pellet diet. So what’s the best way to get a bird to eat a variety of food items?
“Mixing the new food with the first food of choice will get the bird used to seeing, smelling and touching the new food,” says Wyld. “Gradually reducing the old choice and increasing the new choices may do the trick, [and] offering freshly cooked or soaked warm foods can really entice the bird to try new food items.”
Keeping in mind the similarities between children and birds, Wyld also advises that pet owners make a game of introducing unfamiliar foods, by offering foraging devices and toys. “As the bird plays with the device or toy, they discover the food, and this behavior engages their natural instinct to forage,” she says.
“Share fresh greens and other vegetables that you are eating with your bird, and make sounds to show it’s yummy,” she adds. “Interacting with your bird this way can help get them to try new foods as now you are eating together. Remember, birds are flock animals, and you are part of the flock.”
This is an extremely important to keep in mind as birds in the wild learn what to eat by watching their parents and other birds in the group, so it makes sense to eat foods in front of a bird that you wish them to enjoy.
We cannot force our pet birds to eat what they should, just like you’ll never get me to eat green beans, but we can certainly help our pets to eat healthier by using their natural behaviors such as foraging, as well as their sense of curiosity to have them eat new food items. It can take a lot of patience depending on the bird’s personality and age, but it is well worth it to be sure they live a very long, healthy and happy life.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.