The Right Stuff
Retailers should learn the best diets and supplements for pet birds to properly educate customers.
Pet birds need to eat a diet that fulfills all of the nutritional requirements necessary to keep them healthy, active and able to live a long life. This may seem to be an obvious statement, but the problem is that there are many opinions on what birds should eat, what supplements need to be given and so on. With the internet, it can become even more difficult and confusing for bird owners and pet store personnel to know what is right.
First off, none of the bird species we keep as pets will do well on an all seed or all pellet diet. Their main diet can be either of these, depending on the species—although most parrots do best with approximately 70 percent of their diet consisting of pellets made for that group or species. Some commonly kept softbill birds such as canaries and other finches are mainly seedeaters in the wild, but they need to consume other food types to stay in good health. This is also true for parakeets and cockatiels, the most commonly kept parrot species. Pellets can be a good main diet for any of these birds in captivity, as long as they eat a variety of other food items as well.
If a bird’s main diet is made up of at least 60 percent pellets, then they do not need any supplements added like vitamins, minerals and amino acids, as these have already been included in the pellets. If a bird is eating very little or no pellets, then they need a supplement that has these key nutrients added to their food every day. Many other supplements are available that can be used as needed—when a bird is stressed, breeding, molting and so on. These supplements may be helpful, depending on the bird and the circumstance.
Treats can be a fantastic way to give the bird some variety in its diet. Many healthy and nutritious treats are on the market that may include nuts, seeds, dried fruit and vegetables, pellets, grains, etc. Foraging toys are one of the best ways to give treats and favorite food items to parrots, as the bird has to figure out how to get the treat out. Since boredom can be the cause of bad behaviors—and even insanity—in very intelligent parrots, making them think and work for their treats is very important to keep the birds mentally healthy.
Some treats can be fed as is, while some need to be cooked. Note that heating food makes it more tempting to the bird and can sometimes get picky parrots to try something new—especially a main diet. Be aware that a bird’s main diet must never be completely changed all at once from one type to another—like seeds to pellets—because the pet bird may starve itself to death. Like kids, they are suspicious of new food items, or may not recognize a new diet as something to eat. Change the diet over a period of weeks or longer if needed, and add warm water to new items to help entice a bird to try it.
Fruits and Veggies
Fresh food should be offered to all birds every day, as long as it’s clean—if the owner would not eat it then it should not be fed to the birds. Vegetables such as peas, carrots, corn, peppers, green beans, broccoli and greens—like mustard and dark lettuces—are great for most birds. Do not feed birds any light-colored items like celery or iceberg lettuce, since they have little nutritional value to them. Stick with brightly colored veggies because birds will be more interested in them. Cooking can make it easier to eat vegetables by softening them, and they will smell better to the bird as well. Be sure to cut up any produce into small pieces to make the meal easier for smaller birds, like finches. Parrots will enjoy digging into larger pieces. Larger species like to hold produce with their foot to eat it.
Fruits are a great food for almost all pet birds, though they should only make up about five percent of a bird’s diet. Berries are the best to give birds because they are very nutritious, while citrus should be fed sparingly. If the bird will be eating the outer part of the fruit—as with berries—it is best to buy organic when possible. The only fruit that should never be fed to birds is avocado—it is poisonous to them. Never give birds anything other than the flesh and skin of the fruit. Seeds and pits, like those in apples and peaches, are also poisonous.
Other food that can be offered sparingly to birds includes proteins, such as plain cooked eggs and mealworms, which can be a real treat for some species. Cheese, yogurt or any other dairy products should never be fed to birds, since they don’t get milk when they are young. Bread, crackers and pasta made of whole grains are fine to give once in a while. Never give birds any food that is fatty, salty, sugary or has caffeine, alcohol or artificial ingredients. Chocolate is poisonous to birds, so it never should be given. Check the internet for other poisonous foods, as well as houseplants and other household items—parrots are like kids and will chew on everything.
It is best to research the species of bird being kept to find out more about specific things they may need to thrive. For example, African greys need extra calcium in their diet, while large macaws do well getting healthy nuts regularly. Gouldian finches usually don’t breed well unless given mealworms, while Amazon parrots need to have less fatty foods to keep from becoming overweight.
Parrots can be downright finicky with what they will eat, so it is best to give them a variety of food right from the beginning when they are young and more likely to try new things. Like us, they will have favorite items, and there will be some they may never be willing to try. Owners and employees can help by spreading new food over their main diet, hanging things from clips, putting food in foraging toys, heating up the food and enthusiastically eating a food item in front of the bird—or at least pretend to. Sometimes a parrot has to be offered the same food every day for a month before they will try it, so an owner must be as stubborn as their pet bird can be sometimes. But persistence will pay off in the long run, especially when dealing with a pet that can live between 10 and 50 years—or longer. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.