Feeding Your Bird for Health

David McCluggage, D.V.M., C.V.A.

[[quote]]The doctor of the future will give no medicine but will interest his patients in the care of the human frame, in diet and in the cause and prevention of disease.[[quote]]

- Thomas A. Edison

Nutritional research on feeding parrots and other psittacine birds remains very sparse. A recent literature search listed 14 articles in total. Another source listed 50 articles, but most of them were not research oriented, instead being clinical case studies or the personal opinion of the author. In comparison, there are hundreds of research papers published on nutrition in people each month! Of the various species kept as companion animals or farm animals, it is clear that there is less research in non-poultry avian nutrition than any other group of animals.

Since good nutrition is vital, we have a real dilemma in deciding how to feed parrots. Most of how we feed our birds has evolved from years of trial and error. It is more of an art than a science. Since we know so little information from research, it seems likely that studying what the birds eat in the wild will help us decide how to feed in a home situation. Most of the psittacine species can be considered opportunistic omnivores, meaning they eat what is available in their ecosystem, when it is available. Thus, they eat nuts and grains in the fall and winter (for those living in regions that have seasonal changes). They eat fruiting bodies when they are available. They eat greens and sprouts when they are available, and they likely eat insects and other animals or parts of animals that are found during their foraging for food or on the fruits and grains they are eating. Likely, a significant part of their nutrition is what comes from what they consume digging through the soil and mineral deposits near where they live.

Studying a bird's diet in the wild with the intent of learning how to feed them in captivity becomes nearly impossible, due to the complexity of the undertaking

Complicating the situation further is the wide diversity of species and the varied ecosystems in which the different birds reside. Birds are members of the Class Aves, which is equally as diverse as the Class Mammalia. Lories, chickens, ducks, parrots, finches, doves, hawks and ravens all eat far different diets. Even keeping within relatively similar species, the psittacines for instance, those living in Australia eat far different diets than birds in Africa or South America. Even similar species living in the same country will often eat diets far different than their related species. It has been documented that Amazon parrots, living in the same Amazon River ecosystem as macaws, will eat a diet far different from that of the macaws.

Because of this lack of knowledge about what we need to feed a bird, WellVet.com believes that we must be guided by the basic principles of nutrition that are time tested: feed a variety of fresh foods, feed the seed and grain eating birds fresh seeds and grains, and do not allow the bird to eat too much of any single food item.

Many birds are solely fed seed mixes that have been "fortified" with added vitamins and minerals. Since it's shell protects a seed, no real additional nutrients can be added to the seed since the bird removes the shell and eats the inner seed. This method of feeding birds is no more effective than feeding plain seed, and may be worse. Why Worse? Many of the added nutrients are synthetic vitamins instead of natural vitamins, or the added nutrients come from sources that WellVet.com would consider inappropriate to feed to birds.

It is clear that the outdated method of feeding birds seed diets, then trying to "balance" the diet by adding vitamins and a calcium supplement should be abandoned

Other birds are fed commercial,"formulated diets", also called pelleted diets. Many of these diets have simple sugars to enhance taste, are colored, and contain preservatives. They are also, with few exceptions, made from poorer quality raw ingredients, thus keeping the price down and the profit margin high. Even the "organic" diets are highly processed, destroying many of the most beneficial complex phytonutrients. All commercial diets suffer from the lack of variety that is the key to a healthy diet. All commercial or pelleted diets are based on the absurd premise that we know what to feed these wonderful companion birds. Practical sense tells us that these highly processed commercial diets are not acceptable. If some person suggested to us that we feed ourselves a formulated processed food, the same diet day in and day out, we would reject the concept, knowing the need for high quality fresh foods that are varied throughout the week. Since we know vastly more about nutrition for people, and we understand we can't make a "people pellet" there is no reason to believe that these commercial diets are good for our birds.

It is clear that the outdated method of feeding birds seed diets, then trying to "balance" the diet by adding vitamins and a calcium supplement should be abandoned Commercial diets simply are not a well-conceived or rational alternative to a natural, fresh food diet.

How To Feed Your Bird

It Is NOT Just WHAT You Feed Your Bird, But HOW You Feed

Psittacine birds in their natural habitat will consume a variety of food items, including seeds, nuts, grains, sprouts and leaves, insects, and fruits. Some have even been known to consume meat (mice, small birds, and carcasses). Typically, all birds will subsist entirely on one type of food if it is plentiful, especially if they like the food (this is why we have "sunflower seed addicts, for example). When birds are feeding they are vulnerable to predators, so they want to eat as much as they can as fast as they can and then go back to the safety of their tree. Seeds are ideal in this regard; large amounts can be eaten rapidly. When a bird is given free access to all the seeds they want, they will consume large amounts of seed.

The best method to alter the diet of the "seed addict" is to limit the total amount of all of the different food items provided. The eternally full food cup creates picky eaters that consume only a limited variety of foods

Thus, birds will naturally become [[quot]]addicted[[quot]] to their favorite foods if allowed free access to the food items as they like the most. They don't really become addicted, they become accustomed to what they eat, are genetically predetermined to want to fill their crop rapidly, are suspicious by nature when new foods are offered, and, if left to their own accord, will tend to eat only the most tasty treats that are offered.

To correct this, we have to again look at bird's behavior in the wild.

In nature, when their favorite food source is no longer available, birds become hungry. Hunger establishes the foraging instinct, and the bird will seek out new food sources. When provided free access to seeds, the foraging instinct is lost, resulting in birds that subsist entirely on seeds. Offering new foods often fails to broaden the diet, unless you severely limit the food items they most relish. The best method to alter the diet of the "seed addict" is to limit the total amount of every or all varieties of the different food items provided. The eternally full food cup creates picky eaters that consume only a limited variety of foods.

Feed twice daily and only place the appropriate amount of food in the feed cup each time that the bird will consume in a few hours.

It is best to have no food available for 2-4 hours prior to each meal. This makes the bird look forward to the next meal, making them less likely to be picky about what you feed.

You can leave a few pieces of the dry foods they like the least, such as a formulated diet, but they must never have access to the foods they like all the time, or they won't eat the varied diet we want.

Feeding Schedule

For many people the best routine would be to feed seeds or other dry food items (e.g., pellets) in the morning. Either remove the food cups in one hour or make sure that the bird will consume all the available food early in the day by providing small portions. The evening feeding could include other food items such as cheeses, meats, eggs, vegetables and fruits.

The reason most people should feed dry foods in the morning relates to the need to remove perishable foods from the cage before they spoil. Any food that can become spoiled (i.e. Any food that you would not eat yourself if left out on the counter for more than three hours) should never be left in the cage longer than the three-hour limit. Since birds are usually left alone throughout the day, perishable foods cannot be removed from the cage in a few hours, if fed these foods in the morning.

What to Feed

WellVet.com encourages feeding foods to birds that we would be willing to eat ourselves. Birds are at least as sensitive, if not more so, to the potential toxins, pesticides, preservatives, and bacteria in foods as are people. They should be fed only the highest quality foods.

The first step is choosing fresh fruit and vegetables at its peak. It should be firm and have good color, without excessive bruising.

Fruits and vegetables should be carefully cleaned to remove wax and pesticides before feeding. When you bring it home, you must first clean your fruit and vegetables. Wash the wax off the fruit by soaking in warm water, with a little biodegradable soap in the water, adding a little vinegar will help remove the waxy coating applied to many fruits. Scrub off the wax with a clean plastic scrubber. The reason we must wash off the wax and remove the dirt is that we MUST do this in order to wash off the pesticides and herbicides, which are beneath the wax.

The Morning Meal

Feed dry foods in the morning.

  1. Feed a small amount of seeds
    1. Small birds should have 1/2 teaspoon of seeds, largest birds 2 tablespoons of seeds
  2. Feed a few nuts
    1. Almonds, walnuts, pecans (not many peanuts, they are actually legumes, not nuts)
    2. Feed small birds a couple chopped pieces, larger birds can have a couple nuts
    3. Macaws seem to need even more nuts, maybe 6-8 a day
  3. Feed a few whole grains, organic granolas and whole grain organic breakfast foods are excellent.
  4. Feed a few pellets or formulated diet
    1. This helps round out the diet and gives the bird something to eat throughout the day
    2. DO NOT feed any pelleted diet that has sugars (commonly called by names that end in "ose") or any product that contains preservatives or colorings. We recommend feeding organic formulated diets.

The Evening Meal

This is the time when most people have the time to make up a more complex meal. This is usually the best time to feed the "wet foods" that contain all the fruits, vegetables, legumes, sprouts, meats, and sweet potatoes.

Fruits (can make up to 10% of the entire daily diet)

  • Cantaloupe
  • Mango
  • Grape
  • Pear
  • Apricot
  • Orange
  • Apple
  • Dates
  • Banana
  • Papaya

Vegetables and Tubers (can make up to 20% of the diet)

  • Carrots
  • Kale, Beet tops
  • Sweet Potato
  • Broccoli
  • Dandelion
  • Squash
  • Beets
  • Peppers (capsicum)
  • Sweet Potato

Bedtime Treats

Now is the time to remove all food and water cups and thoroughly clean them with soap and water (no need for disinfectants), then dry carefully and you are ready to reuse them.

For bedtime, feed a very small amount of some wholesome food item that they will eat, but not relish. Feed them some whole grains, perhaps a few pieces of organic formulated diet. and add in a treat, perhaps a nut that they like.

Finally, as always, make sure your birds have fresh clean water at bedtime.