The Right Stuff
Pet birds need the right foods, and in appropriate amounts suitable for their particular species, in order to thrive and stay healthy.
Parrots and children have a lot in common when it comes to what they are willing to eat. Generally, both birds and young children are reluctant to try new foods, and both often prefer high-fat or sugary delights to any type of nutritious tidbits like vegetables. This puts pet owners—and parents—in a quandary. Fortunately, however, the bird food market offers plenty of nutritious diets that pets will happily eat, given some time and patience.
The first thing bird owners must understand is that the challenge with feeding birds is not always about the food they are feeding, but rather what the bird is actually choosing to eat. If a parrot is given a mix that includes high-fat, flavorful foods such as sunflower seeds and peanuts, it will eat these items often to the exclusion of everything else. Unfortunately, these seeds and nuts are missing many key vital nutrients, and although pet birds love to eat this “junk” food, it will not keep the bird healthy.
This is why pellets were developed; each pellet contains grains, vegetables, fruits and other healthy foods, as well as added vitamins, minerals and amino acids to make these diets as nutritionally complete as possible. Still, pellets should never be the only food that parrots eat, as even species-specific pellet formulas do not have everything a bird needs to thrive. Pellets should make up approximately 65 percent, with the rest made up of vegetables and grains (around 25-30 percent), fruit (about five percent) and possibly some seeds, nuts and other foods (depending on species).
Vegetables should include colorful and/or dark varieties that are high in nutrition—usually red, dark green and yellow types—and grains should be whole and unbleached, like oats and brown/wild rice mixes. There are some great commercial grain mixes for birds available that are perfect for parrots. Berries are the best type of fruit to give, and citrus should only be offered occasionally.
There are some foods that pet owners should never feed their birds. For example, avocados and onions are poisonous. Also, chocolate is toxic to parrots. Pet owners should also avoid feeding foods that are sugary, salty and greasy, as well as all dairy products. Meat can be a good source of protein, and boiled eggs, mealworms and manufactured egg foods are great for birds, especially if they are going to be bred or are feeding young.
It should be noted that the two most popular parrots kept as pets—parakeets (budgerigars) and cockatiels—do eat a lot of seeds in the wild, unlike most other parrot species, but the variety is much greater. In the wild, they also consume many other types of food as well. Although manufacturers offer seed mixtures that are quite varied, these are not nutritionally complete and need to be supplemented with other foods, including fresh foods mentioned above. These pets will also need supplements that include vitamins, minerals and amino acids.
Parakeets and cockatiels can eat species-specific pellets instead of seed mixes, but if they are eating pellets as their main diet, they do not require additional supplements. The commercially made pellets offered already include these nutrients, and giving too much of certain vitamins or minerals can be just as harmful as not getting enough. It is a good idea to be sure that birds always have a calcium block and/or cuttlebone to chew on so they get enough calcium in their diet.
A specialized supplement might be appropriate when a bird is stressed in any way, such as after being relocated, when it is molting or breeding or experiencing a change in its environment. There are a number of supplements available that can help support and provide a nutritional boost to stressed birds.
The skin and coat is usually the first place where deficiencies in the diet can be detected, as the skin is the last organ to get any nutrition. When a bird is thriving and well nourished, its “coat” of feathers will be bright, sleek and smooth. If certain nutrients are low or missing in the diet, the feathers can look ratty, dull and may even show stress bars—light, dark or clear lines that are usually seen in the larger wing and tail feathers. Of course, if a bird is acting differently in any way—for example being lethargic or not eating much—or if its droppings have changed, it should be taken to a veterinarian right away.
Feather chewing and plucking may be caused by a number of factors including dietary deficiencies. Veterinarians can check or rule out factors such as environmental or parasitic causes before testing to see if any vitamin or mineral nutrients are low. Sometimes testing can be avoided if the owner knows exactly what the bird is consuming so the vet can make an educated guess on what is most likely needed.
Parrots can be very stubborn when it comes to what they will eat, and they can even starve to death if their diet is changed to a new one all at once. If a customer has a bird that is on an all-seed diet, especially if it’s one of the medium to larger species, then it needs to be changed to a pellet diet with lots of fresh food and mixes that will fill the bird’s nutritional needs.
When trying to get any bird to eat new food items, start by mixing the new food in with the old and, slowly, over a period of weeks put in less and less of the old food and more of the new. Owners should pretend to eat (or actually eat) food in front of their pet and make a big deal out of it, as if it is the most delicious thing they have ever tasted.
New food can be put into foraging toys or hung from the bars. It can also be offered warm, as heating the food will amplify the aroma. Fresh food can be put all over the top of the food dish so the bird at least has to move the new food off to get to the diet they are used to eating. Offer the same new foods over and over again, and never give up. It can take weeks for a bird to start eating a new food, so owners have to be more stubborn than their pets.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.