Supplementing Avian Diets
It’s important to feed pet birds a wide variety of food to keep them happy and healthy.
Parrots are notoriously picky eaters and will choose items they are familiar with consuming and like the taste of, which is why they love to eat high-fat items like sunflower seeds and peanuts. However, just because they like the food does not mean it is good for them. This was proven in the ‘70s and ‘80s when, unfortunately, a number of parrots became ill due to dietary deficiencies. All pet birds need to eat a variety of foods to stay in peak health and, in some cases, require supplements to ensure their diet is nutritionally complete.
Kids and parrots have a lot in common, since both can be downright stubborn when trying to get them to try something new and healthy. For some parrot owners, patience, persistence and a bit of creativity can pay off in getting their feathered pets to eat a mixture of healthy and nutritious food. This usually starts with a good pellet. Pellets are often made for a specific group of birds—such as Amazons—or a specific species, like the African grey parrot, which needs more of certain nutrients like calcium.
Basically, avian pellets have the nutrients—including vitamins, minerals and amino acids—needed for a bird to thrive. As long as the pet is consuming approximately 60 to 70 percent of their diet in pellets, usually no other supplements should be necessary—unless a bird is ill or breeding, for example. Although pellets can make up a large portion of what a bird is eating, it should not make up more than approximately 75 percent, as they need a variety of other foods, such as vegetables, grains, greens and a bit of fruit—depending on the parrot species.
Macaws, for example, eat a lot of nuts in the wild and should be offered more than other parrot groups or species. The nuts given should be all natural, unsalted and highly nutritious varieties—not fatty nuts like peanuts. Think of peanuts and sunflower seeds as good for a treat and to be used sparingly as an award in positive reinforcement training. In this case, pieces can be given rather than the whole nut or seed. The stomach of a bird is small, and the owner needs to be sure their pets are mostly filling up with nutritious food items.
Dark and bright-colored veggies usually have more nutrients in them, so owners should offer lots of chopped up fresh items, including green beans, broccoli, corn, peas, bell peppers, mustard greens and dark lettuce varieties—iceberg has very little nutritional value. Some vegetables are best if they have been steamed a bit, although most can be fed raw. Frozen mixed veggies can be easy to feed birds after heating in the microwave for a few seconds. Warm food is more enticing for a pet to eat, as is food that is colorful, since birds can see the full spectrum of colors—that’s why some pellets are colored. They particularly like red, orange and yellow.
Vegetables should make up the largest portion of the diet after the pellets, along with grains and seeds. Note that parakeets and cockatiels eat mainly seeds in the wild, so if given a large variety of seeds, as well as fresh foods and a supplement with the vitamins, minerals and amino acids needed, these species can do well. However, pellets are much better for them to eat as a majority of their diet and if that’s what they’re being fed, no supplements should be added.
As for fruit, it should not make up more than 5 percent of what a parrot is consuming unless it is in the lory or lorikeet family, since they actually eat nectar in the wild and have special commercial food that’s made for them as well. Apples, grapes and all berries are best to offer, with citrus fruit making up a very small portion.
Vegetables, greens and fruits need to be very fresh and clean. If the owner will not eat it, then it should not be offered to their pet bird. If the bird will be eating the outer part of the fruit, like a blueberry, it is best to buy organic. Any pits or seeds should never be given, since they can be poisonous. Both avocado and chocolate are also poisonous to pet birds. Anything sugary, salty, fatty, overly processed, containing artificial ingredients or containing dairy should never be fed to pet birds.
Another great food type that can be given is cooked scrambled eggs and other meat, including insects like mealworms. In fact, some species of birds need to have some meat protein to thrive during breeding time. No matter what is offered, cooked and fresh food items need to be taken away after an hour or so and replaced with fresh food daily.
The smaller the bird, the smaller the pieces of food should be. If trying to get a pet to eat something new, it is best to spread it on top of the usual diet, as long as they can see and get to what they are used to eating. Although rare, parrots have been known to starve to death if their diet is suddenly changed. It can take days or weeks for them to get used to something new, so tell owners to take their time and be patient—especially if trying to change from an all seed diet to a pelleted one. Keep mixing in the new food with the old until the pet is consuming the new food readily.
As noted, warm food also can attract interest, and there are some commercial bird mixes that are made to be heated. There are also many healthy treats available, and some have added supplements to help benefit birds when they are stressed, recovering from an illness, molting or breeding. Other ways to get pet birds to try a new food is to offer it hung from the side of the cage, in a treat cup or foraging toy, or have the owner eat the food item in front of their pet, making it seem like the best thing they ever ate.
When pet birds eat more types of nutritious food—along with a main diet of pellets—there’s less of a need for any supplements, allowing the bird to be healthier throughout its life. Considering that some large parrots can live for four or five decades—or even longer—feeding them properly with a variety of food is even more important for these fun, feathered companions. PB
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 40 years of pet industry and retailing experience.