What are you feeding your bird? Pellets? Seeds? Fresh foods? Potato chips? Are your struggling to weed through the numerous books and articles on avian diet and nutrition, trying to sort out all of the conflicting information? Our knowledge of avian diet and nutrition continues to evolve regularly and recommendations change as new information is discovered. Sadly, many pet birds are on diets that are nutritionally deficient.
It is important to evaluate what your bird actually eats, not what you offer your bird. Many birds are offered a varied diet, but the bird chooses to eat only the seeds in the mixture much like a child might choose to eat candy when given the choice between candy and green vegetables. Unfortunately, birds eating these poor diets often have long term health consequences.
The Effects of Malnutrition
Many of the clinical conditions we see in veterinary medicine could be avoided by feeding an appropriate diet. Seed diets are high in calories, low in calcium, low in iodine, low in most vitamins (especially vitamins A, B, and E), and are generally lacking in protein or certain amino acids (such as lysine and methionine). Over time, these deficiencies lead to a number of serious medical conditions including immune system dysfunction; poor feather color and quality; overgrowth of nails and beaks; flaky itchy skin; delayed or incomplete molting; liver disease; muscle weakness; convulsions; lethargy; obesity; tumors such as lipomas and xanthomas; upper respiratory diseases; and reproductive issues such as egg binding, egg yolk peritonitis, deformed baby birds, or infertility.
What Should I Feed My Bird?
Each bird is a unique individual and there is no one diet that is perfect for every bird. However, in general, the following recommendations are best for most birds:
A formulated (pelleted diet) should make up approximately 60-80% of the entire diet. Pelleted diets are scientifically formulated to meet the bird’s nutritional requirements. There are numerous types of commercial pelleted diets – we recommend Harrison’s, Roudybush, and Zupreem most often, but there are several other good diets on the market. Some are available only through a veterinarian while others are readily available at your local pet store. Many avian stores mix several brands of pellets together. This variety makes the diet interesting and makes it less likely that you will have a finicky bird. It is best to avoid the commercial bird diets that are made up of a mixture of pellets and seeds – these are not healthy diets though they are routinely sold in pet stores. The majority of birds will eat the seeds from the mixture and leave the pellets behind.
Vegetables are a necessary part of a bird’s diet and should make up 20-30% of the diet. Vegetables high in Vitamin A should be encouraged. Examples of vegetables rich in Vitamin A include green leafy vegetables such as collard greens, mustard greens, kale, spinach, dandelion greens, beet greens, parsley, and chard; broccoli; bell peppers (green, yellow, and red); sweet potato; carrots; squash; pumpkin; and chili peppers. Offer 2-3 types of vegetables at a time to avoid the perception of abundance – this can be a trigger for reproductive diseases in some birds. All vegetables should be washed thoroughly prior to offering them to your bird.
Table Foods & Treats
Most birds enjoy eating what the human flock members are eating. The remainder of the diet can include human table foods, seeds, and nuts. Birds can eat most of the foods that humans can eat, so you can offer a wide variety. Examples include other vegetables such as corn, bean sprouts, zucchini, and asparagus; fruits of any type; lean meat such as well-cooked chicken, fish, or turkey; whole grains including pasta, bread, unsweetened cereal, crackers, rice, and bran; eggs; yogurt; cottage cheese; and legumes such as beans and peas. Human quality seeds and nuts may be offered in small quantities as treats or in foraging toys. It is ideal to offer foods with a variety of shapes, colors, textures, and sizes. However, avoid soft, warm, moist foods such as oatmeal, warm cereal, baby food, or mashed potatoes. These foods can simulate regurgitation, leading to reproductive issues in some birds.
Foods to Avoid
There are few foods that are truly dangerous to birds. There are numerous avian internet sites that list toxic foods, but there is little research behind many of these claims. However, it is probably best to avoid any questionable foods. Here is a list of potentially toxic foods in birds:
- Avocados may contain a toxic compound associated with the seed. This compound can leech into the edible portion of the fruit and is potentially toxic to the avian cardiovascular system.
- Foods high in sugar or salt
- Seeds from apples, peaches, plums, apricots, and pears contain small amounts of cyanide. In reality, the amount is likely minimal, but it is best to avoid access to the seeds of these fruits.
- Onions and potentially large amounts of garlic: In other species, these can lead to a hemolytic anemia.
- Rhubarb leaves contain oxalates that can be harmful to the urinary system.
- Mushrooms: Most mushrooms for human consumption are fine, but because there is a potential for liver and gastrointestinal toxicity, it is best to avoid mushrooms.
- Tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant are in the Solanaceae (nightsthade) family. Unripened (green) tomatoes, potatoes, and eggplant along with the stems, vines, or leaves contain a toxic compound called solanine. The ripened fruit and vegetables are not toxic.
- Peanuts: Animal grade peanuts or those that have been stored improperly can develop molds that can produce a potentially fatal toxin called aflatoxin. If you choose to feed peanuts, choose human grade peanuts and store them in a dry, cool environment.
- Dried beans: Uncooked beans can contain hemaglutin and trypsin inhibitor that can be toxic in birds. These are safe to feed if thoroughly cooked.
Birds on a healthy diet do not need an additional vitamin source, though there are a number of avian vitamin supplements on the market. First, it is never wise to add supplements to the drinking water. It is important that your bird always has access to fresh, clean water and the addition of supplements to the water will often deter drinking, leading to dehydration. In addition, adding vitamins to a balanced diet can lead to vitamin toxicities (especially Vitamin A & D) that can be dangerous to your bird.
The Conversion Process
Conversion to a better diet is often challenging, but can be accomplished with patience and persistence. There are several ways to achieve conversion to a pelleted diet. Spreading the new diet out on a sheet, white paper, or a mirror makes the pellets more interesting to some birds. Human flock members can gently pick and scratch at the pellets, while pretending to eat some of them. Many birds want to join in if other flock members, either humans or other converted birds, are eating. Make sure to choose an appropriate size pellet for your bird or crush a larger sized pellet for your small bird. Offering interesting pellets such as Harrison’s Power Treats or Pepper Lifetime Coarse can help.
Another method involves weaning your bird slowly from seeds to pellets. This can be accomplished by slowly adding pellets to your bird’s current diet. Over the course of 7-10 days, slowly increase the pelleted portion while decreasing the seed portion. You can also wean your bird by offering seeds for limited periods. For example, offer seeds for 1 hour twice per day, then replace the seeds with pellets. The next day, offer seeds for 50 minutes, then 40 minutes, and so on.
While most birds will not starve during a conversion process, it is important to weigh your bird daily and monitor for signs of illness. In addition, monitor your bird’s droppings. On a pelleted diet, the dropping will likely be larger and lighter in color. If you are noticing small amounts of dark green or black droppings, your bird may not be eating enough. A 10% decrease in body weight or a significant change in droppings (amount or color) is concerning and requires veterinary attention. If the conversion process is not going well, you can schedule the conversion at your avian veterinary hospital. Your bird will be hospitalized for up to 7-10 days while the conversion is taking place. If your bird is exhibiting weight loss, your veterinarian can provide hand feeding until your bird is eating the pelleted diet.
Most birds in the wild eat in the morning and evening – they do not snack all day like many of our pet birds. Remember that parrots are similar to humans – they will eat their favorite food (like sunflower seeds) even when they are not hungry, filling up on these junk foods and refusing nutritional food items. Instead, offer your bird two meals per day, removing any uneaten portion after 30-60 minutes. If you are gone for extended periods of time, leave a small amount of pellets in the cage along with several foraging opportunities.
One Size Does Not Fit All
Finally, it is important to note that ‘one size does not fit all’ in avian nutrition. These recommendations are general guidelines, but depending on your species of bird and the individual bird, your avian veterinarian may have additional recommendations. Amazons are predisposed to obesity, while Macaws require a higher fat level in their diet. Lories and lorikeets eat nectar and are predisposed to iron storage disease, requiring diets that are lower in iron. Eclectus species require a higher proportion of vegetables rich in Vitamin A, while some cockatiels on an all-pellet diet develop kidney disease. Specific diet adjustments may be made in your individual bird according to his or her species, lifestyle, age, and general health.