Catering to Avian Appetites

In order to feed pet birds properly, owners need to be as particular about how they feed their avian charges as they are about what they feed them.



When considering how to feed our pet birds properly, we usually focus on the nutritional needs of the species of bird we are feeding, as well as other factors such as activity level and age—all of which are important. However, a more holistic approach to feeding birds requires pet owners to also consider other concerns, such as how often and in what ways they feed their pets, and how often they wash the food dishes. In order to keep pet birds healthy, pet owners will need to stay on top of an array of proper feeding practices.

Among the first things to consider when feeding pet birds is what their diet should comprise. Pellets are often an important dietary component for most caged birds, and depending on the species, other foods may include other premade mixes, seeds, nuts, grains, fruits and vegetables. Fresh water must also be a part of every bird’s diet.

Other important considerations include how the food is offered, how often the food needs to be changed and how often the dishes need to be cleaned. A bird will not stay healthy and, in fact, can become ill if the food is not fresh and the dishes are not cleaned properly and often.

Birds can be very picky about what they eat. They want food that is fresh and not dusty or dirty. Feeding high-quality pellets and seeds should prevent the dust issue, and offering wet foods such as fresh vegetables and fruits is extremely important. Anytime a pet is offered wet food such as cooked mixes, greens and so on, the moist food should be offered for only an hour or so in the morning, followed by a fresh batch late in the day. These two times of the day are when birds feed the most.

If the pet bird is used to eating wet foods—and all pet birds should be, as these foods should make up at least a third of their diet—then the wet food can be offered in its own dish that can be cleaned well between feedings. However, if the bird is still unaccustomed to eating fresh foods like veggies and fruits, then often it’s best to spread them every morning over the dry food, such as the pellet diets or seeds that many pet bird species are used to eating. This way the bird must move the fresh items to get to the dry food every day and gets used to seeing them. Eventually, the bird will start eating these foods as part of its diet.

Note that any fresh food fed to smaller birds like finches, parakeets and cockatiels needs to be chopped up into small pieces, especially for soft-bills like finch species. It needs to be easy for the birds to eat. Wet food must also be cleaned well before it is given to birds. If you would not eat it, then it is not good enough to be given to pet birds.

If wet foods have to be placed on dry food, the dishes will require more frequent cleaning than when fresh food is offered in its own dishes. Wet food also can be put inside foraging toys or clipped to the bars of the cage to encourage the bird to eat the new items. Owners need to wash any toys and clips, plus the bars around the clips, that any wet food is placed in every day. 

Most birds eat only the top layer of their dry food, especially smaller species such as finches, parakeets and cockatiels. Because of this, pet owners may need more than one dish, particularly if they are use small dishes or have more than one bird. It is also important for retailers to keep this in mind in the store, where there may be many birds in one cage. Generally it’s best to have at least one medium-sized dish (with a decent amount of surface area) for every two to three birds in a cage, so the more aggressive eaters will not prevent the shy birds from eating. This is not as important with water as smaller species do not drink as much; one dish of water can work well for every four to six birds. 

Dry foods such as pellets and seeds don’t have to be changed out completely every day. Instead, pet owners can change out the top layer once or twice before changing out all the dry food. Any new food added to the top should be mixed in with the older food. If wet food is put on top, then the top layer of pellets/seeds should be changed after removing the wet food. Any dry food should be kept in well-sealed containers to help keep it fresh and bug free.

Note that some birds like to bathe in their water dish, so a good-sized dish that allows them to do so can be used, but this can make it difficult to keep the water clean. Some bird owners will provide a separate bird bath and then use smaller dishes for drinking water. Also some parrots like to make “soup” and put food items in their water, which can foul the water fairly quickly. It’s important that water dishes and bird baths be kept clean and that fresh water is available at all times.

If the birds being kept are especially messy, it is a good idea to use a water bottle designed for pet birds instead of a water dish. Birds will need to be trained to use the bottles, but the water will stay much fresher for longer, although it will still need to be cleaned out well and often, just like any pet water container.

If any supplements are being given, it is best to not put them in the water as this can make it spoil very quickly. It is best to put the supplements on wet foods when possible and dry food when necessary. Keep in mind that any bird that is eating a diet that includes around 50 percent pellets should not need any supplements like vitamins, minerals and amino acids, as these are already added to the pellet formulas.

How often food and water dishes and bottles need to be washed depends on a number of factors including how warm it is in the environment and how soiled the dishes become each day. Water dishes usually need to be cleaned every other day, while dry-food cups should be washed at least every third day. It is very important to keep the dishes clean or bacteria that can lead to illness can grow.

Although special detergents are made to clean bird dishes and bottles properly, pet owners can use a mild cleaner such as dishwashing soap. It is important that all corners and seams are scrubbed out well, especially in water dishes. Sometimes cotton swabs or small brushes can help to be sure all parts of the dish are completely washed. 

The water dish should never feel slimy and must be cleaned out whenever needed, which may mean more than once a day for some messy birds. It is usually best to use filtered water rather than tap water, depending on the tap water and what chemicals are added. Some tap water has high concentrations of certain elements such as iron, which may cause a problem over time with some bird species. 

After cleaning dishes well, it is sometimes necessary to sanitize them using either a specialized pet dish sanitizer or by soaking them for 10 to 15 minutes in a solution of bleach and water (approximately five percent bleach). Whenever dishes and bottles are cleaned/sanitized, they must be rinsed out with clean water until there is absolutely no soap or sanitizer left. Dishes should then be dried completely—even water dishes— before reusing. 

It is often easier to have at least two complete sets of dishes, so one set can be in use while the other is being cleaned and sanitized in a dishwasher if available. The way to keep pet birds healthy is twofold: they must be eating a proper diet, and their dishes, as well as the cage and environment, must be kept clean.

Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.


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