Years ago, when I worked as a veterinary technician, I was surprised how little nutrition seemed to come into play during the treatment of cats and dogs, unless it was an obvious dietary problem like obesity. When I asked the veterinarians about this, they noted that very little of their education was devoted to animal diets, yet nutrition is everything when it comes to the health of our pets.
These days, manufacturers are producing better diets for caged birds, but avian veterinarians still see many cases every day where poor nutrition has caused a health issue. As Ron Reid, a zoologist/nutritionist and technical services manager for Vitakraft Sunseed, states, “Nutrition can be the number-one problem in a pet bird’s health. These animals are totally dependent on us to fulfill their nutritional needs in captivity.”
It should not be a surprise to anyone that it is critical for bird owners to understand the nutritional needs of their pets. “The assertion that a balanced diet is essential to the health of birds is obvious,” says avian nutritionist Thomas Roudybush, president of Roudybush Inc.. But how much of a bird’s diet should consist of pellet food versus fresh food, such as vegetables, grains and fruits? Roudybush asserts that a bird owner “can easily feed the same amount of fresh vegetables as dry diet [pellets] without upsetting the diet’s balance of nutrients.”
Michael Massie, president of Pretty Bird International, agrees that a 50/50 pellet to fresh ratio generally works best. But experts also note that because fresh food has such a high percentage of water, they have less nutrients and provide less energy—although rarely do caged birds need a lot of high-energy food, which mainly comes in the form of fat.
In fact, because caged birds rarely get much exercise, giving them too much fat can cause many health problems. “It’s a well-known fact that obesity and poor nutrition are growing problems in our culture . . . and birds are no exception to this alarming trend,” says the team at Wyld’s Wingdom, a distributor of bird products and food, based in Norfolk, Va.
Melanie Allen, avian product specialist with Rolf C. Hagen Corp., reiterates the point. “Overweight birds are very common and they are most at risk for health problems,” she says.
Seeds, especially the oil seeds such as sunflower and safflower, and many nuts are high in fat and low in nutrients like vitamin A and calcium. “High-energy foods like nuts and oil seeds are much more likely to interfere with the balance of nutrients when added to a formulated diet,” Roudybush says.
Of course, birds must get some fat in their diet, and bird pellets are made with fat as well as proteins, carbohydrates and nutrients in the right ratios to help cover their dietary needs. “There are many types of formulated diets available, and bird owners should be careful to choose one developed specifically for their pet’s species,” notes Wyld Wingdom.
Diets that are made for Amazon parrots, for example, have a much lower fat content, as these birds are prone to obesity. Macaws, on the other hand, eat a lot of nuts in the wild, so their diet has more high-energy food (fat) in it to keep them healthy. In fact, parrot species, such as the palm cockatoo, sun conure and the macaw group, require higher-energy diets, according to Massie, so their diets can be supplemented with nuts and seeds.
Sometimes a bird’s natural diet—what it would eat in the wild—is taken into consideration when making up the formulas, although not completely. “The nutritional needs of wild versus captive birds can be quite different,” Roudybush says. “Captive pet birds usually need less energy than their wild counterparts,” because they live a much more sedentary life.
Reid adds: “Other factors to consider in feeding birds are location of the bird, environmental temperatures, [and] how active the bird is—all are influences on dietary needs.”
For example, breeding birds, as well as birds that are kept in flight cages or under stressful conditions, need higher energy food. “A bird that burns off his excessive fat intake from extra nuts (or seeds) because he flies or is allowed ample time to exercise can tolerate a higher ratio of [fat in their diet] than one who is confined to a limited environment,” says Allen.
Robyn Bright has a master’s degree in parrot biology and more than 35 years of pet retailing experience.