Feeding a Balanced Diet in Practice
Alan K Jones BVetMed MRCVS (retd).
Experienced avian veterinarians the world over will agree that the primary cause of disease problems in captive parrots is the result of faulty nutrition. Poor quality food, inappropriate food, too much of the wrong components and not enough of the essential ingredients will all result in a failure to grow, thrive, or breed, as well as predisposing to secondary infections, obesity, cancers, deficiency diseases, and damage to various organs – including skin and plumage. It is therefore of paramount importance that parrot-keepers understand the need for proper feeding in their charges, both so that they can enjoy and perhaps breed from fit and healthy birds, and as a responsibility for the welfare of the birds themselves. This article is taken largely from my book ‘Keeping Parrots – Understanding their Care and Breeding’, published by the Crowood Press in 2011, with additional information written by my colleague Brian Stockdale BVM&S, MRCVS, in the BSAVA Manual of Avian Practice, and reproduced with permission from both the author and The British Small Animal Veterinary Association. These comments are referenced in the text with his initials (BS).
My other article outlined the nutrient requirements of birds, and how they should be fed, so how can parrot-keepers best supply these essential dietary constituents to their birds in a balanced, palatable form? It should now be clear that not only do different types of parrot require different forms of food, but that nutritional requirements will vary throughout the life of the bird, and that the standard seed-based diet is woefully inadequate.
However, it will take many more generations of bird-keepers and a lot of education before we move away from using ‘parrot mix’ as the staple. If we accept that a seed mix is going to be used, then it should be varied and of good quality. Sunflower seeds and peanuts alone will lead to nutritional problems very quickly, and if you buy cheap, you will get rubbish. There is often no ‘sell-buy’ date on bags of loose seed mixes bought from the pet-store, so one has no indication as to the age of the product. What nutrients are in the seed will deteriorate with time, and poor storage will hasten that decline. Add to that the possibility of rodent or insect contamination during storage, and such a cheap mix can be a positive danger to your birds. In addition, seeds taken for bird food are generally of poor quality anyway, having been classed as unfit for human consumption.
Debris from the bottom of a cheap sack of poorly cleaned seed mix
Batches of seeds are cleaned by the producers, using sieves, magnets, air-blowers and the like. These techniques cost money, especially if repeated, so more expensive mixes will be of better quality. Large macaws will need larger nuts added to the mix – these should be unsalted. Other commercial mixes are available that have additional dried fruits and small bread sticks added to the seeds and nuts to provide a more ‘balanced’ mix. In theory, it would then be possible to balance your bird’s diet by adding fresh fruits and vegetables to that mix. However, most birds – like young children – are selective eaters, and will shovel through the bowl to pick out their favourite items, dumping the rest on the floor. If you present most children with a table laid with a burger, broccoli, chips, banana, apple, cheese, chocolate, carrots, pizza, fresh tomatoes, crisps, ice cream and celery, you can imagine which items they will choose!
FRUITS AND VEGETABLES
One way round this problem is to feed the ‘healthy’ items like fruits and vegetables separately in the morning, when the bird is hungry, and add the bowl of seed only at the end of the day, when the bird has then had no choice but to eat the fresh food.
Vegetable products of all groups have high nutritive value for parrots. Items such as cucumber and lettuce may be enjoyed, but have high water content, so droppings will be very liquid after this sort of food. Harder, darker greens are preferable – kale, spinach, cabbage, broccoli, peas and beans are all palatable and enjoyed by most parrots. It is often stated that oxalate in Brassica species (cabbages etc) will compete for digestive uptake with calcium. My clinical experience suggests that this is rarely a problem in practice, and that birds do obtain calcium as well as valuable vitamin A from such foods. Orange or yellow coloured vegetables such as carrots, maize (sweetcorn), yams, butternut squash and peppers are excellent sources of vitamin A and its carotenoid precursors.
Of the fruits, in general tropical fruits such as mango, papaya, bananas, and passion fruit have higher levels of ‘good’ nutrients (especially vitamins) than do temperate varieties like apples and pears. That is not to say that the latter are not good – parrots will enjoy them, and any fruit is better than none – but tropical fruits are even better.
The only fruit that must not be fed to parrots is Avocado (Persea species). This is actively toxic to parrots, although many other bird species may consume it with impunity. So far as I am aware at the time of writing, the toxic principle still has not been identified, but both flesh and stone will harm parrots. Guatamalan and Nabal varieties appear to be more dangerous than Mexican strains.
Avocado pear toxic to parrots
Avocado poisoning in parrots is not an old wives’ tale – I have seen it happen on several occasions. A client of mine went away for a weekend leaving her collection of assorted parrots in the care of her daughter. The daughter dutifully came to the house and cleaned, fed and watered the birds. Whilst there, she spotted a large, ripe avocado in the fruit bowl on the kitchen table. Thinking to give the parrots a special treat to cheer them up while Mum was away, she sliced the fruit and gave each bird a piece. Within hours several of the birds were looking very miserable, showing signs of abdominal pain, hunched up and fluffed, with vomiting and diarrhoea. I received a panicky ‘phone call, and fortunately the history made the diagnosis easy, and supportive treatment was given to the birds. There is no specific antidote, since the toxic principle is unknown. Sadly, in spite of this, four birds died within 24 hours, and the remaining two that had consumed less of the fruit were extremely ill for several days.
The fruits and vegetables may be fed, as suggested, as a separate meal in the morning, with more chance that the parrot will be hungry and will take it if there is no seed on offer. Other parrots will quite happily have two adjacent bowls – one with fruits and vegetables, the other with seeds and nuts – and will eat successfully from both. Adding the fruits and vegetables to the top of the seed mix is likely to result in these items being tossed to the floor by your bird as it searches through for the favoured peanuts and sunflower seeds.
Beware of fruits in outdoor flights in a hot summer. They will ferment, grow mould and deteriorate quickly, and will be a magnet for wasps. They should be fed in the cool of the morning and removed after a couple of hours.
Wasps on fruit in an aviary
You will need to experiment with your bird. Some will prefer fruits and vegetables in large chunks that they can hold in their feet while biting pieces off. Others will eat from a portion that is fastened to the cage or aviary wire by means of a clip or wire holder. Yet others prefer the food to be chopped or diced into small fragments that they can pick up and swallow in one go.
When fruits are plentiful, free-living parrots naturally bite out a choice portion of fruit flesh and discard the rest of the fruit; or will bite through the flesh to get to the seeds at the core. Thus they can be wasteful in their ‘table manners’, but they are capable of opening fruits for themselves! Many of my clients spend hours preparing fruits and vegetables in specific ways for their birds – more through their own preferences than the birds’ - but with the result that the parrot gets used to eating the fruit in a certain way, and will not accept it if presented differently. One of my African grey patients will eat orange only if it is simply cut in half. She will then pick out the juice and flesh from the peel. Another bird – an umbrella cockatoo – will take the same fruit only if it is peeled, divided into segments, and the white pith painstakingly removed by his owner!
Some birds will prefer cooked vegetables, others eat them raw. From a nutritional point of view, raw is obviously preferable, but a little gentle steaming, blanching, or microwaving will not seriously affect the nutritional content, and may make the item more palatable and enhance its flavour. I once had two African grey parrots – Eric and Cosworth. Eric would eat his carrots raw, while Cosworth would take them only if cooked. Again, see which your bird prefers. A little cooked vegetable is better than none at all!
Parrots are social feeders. They will fly out in family groups or large flocks in early morning and late afternoon to forage and feed together. In captivity, especially for indoor pet parrots, the human family is your bird’s ‘flock’. It will therefore be stimulated to eat when you do, and may want to join you! Many owners comment that their parrots eat most when the humans are having their evening meal. Those birds that have been allowed to do so may well make nuisances of themselves by coming to the table and taking food from their owners’ plates. This can be a good way of persuading the bird to try new food items, provided they are suitable (vegetables and salads), as he will want to taste what you are eating. All too often, however, it becomes a route to introduce pet parrots to human ‘junk food’ – pastry, chips and the like! Sugary fruit drinks are not advisable, neither is alcohol!
These are the fruiting bodies of leguminous vegetables – peas and beans in their many varieties. Many bird-keepers feed these to their parrots, especially during the breeding season. They are high in protein and several vitamins, and intake of dietary protein has to increase to breed, lay eggs and rear chicks.
Dried pulses - a selection of peas and beans. Soaked pulses that are starting to sprout
Pulses are purchased in a dried form, and need to be soaked or cooked before feeding to make them more palatable. A small batch should be thoroughly rinsed, then left to soak for 24 hours, with several changes of clean water during this period. After a final rinse, the softened soaked legumes may be fed to your birds. Many people take this a stage further and ‘sprout’ the pulses, by laying the soaked beans on moist absorbent paper on a tray. After 24 – 48 hours, the seeds will split and begin to form shoots. After rinsing once again, these sprouted pulses will form an even better protein and vitamin-rich food source for your birds. Other aviculturists advocate boiling their pulses first to remove toxins potentially present in some varieties of bean. The cooking process will also further soften the product, but will inevitably reduce some of its vitamin content. Again, the cooked pulses should be rinsed thoroughly before feeding to your parrots. Inadequate rinsing of both cooked and uncooked beans can lead to rapid contamination of the food with bacteria and fungi, with possible serious harm to your birds as a result. A pulse diet is rich in both protein and some vitamins, but is low in calcium, so should not be fed as a sole food source. The diet will need the addition of calcium rich foods, or an avian-specific calcium supplement.
From a nutritional standpoint, by far the better option is to feed your parrots on a properly balanced commercially formulated diet. The principle behind these diets is that quality ingredients are combined in appropriate proportions to provide a balance of essential nutrients, and then prepared by either extrusion or pelleting into conveniently-sized nuggets that the bird will consume. In theory your parrot will receive all its dietary requirements in the correct quantities; and there will be no waste as there are no seed husks or peel, and the bird cannot sort through to pick out its favourite items. In practice, this objective will depend on the quality of the raw materials used; the efficiency of the manufacturing process; the storage and transport of the finished product; and its palatability to and acceptance by your parrot.
The quality of the basic ingredients is paramount. One at least of the current manufacturers of formulated diets uses only certified organic products, with no colourings or preservatives. Other companies form the nuggets into a variety of strange shapes, and colour them with various pigments. The colouring is really to attract the human purchaser – the birds really do not seem to mind what colour it is as long as it tastes good! Colourants used should be simple vegetable dyes, and not the variety of artificial E-numbers used in so many human food products. These are known to cause hyperactivity problems in human children, and should be avoided in birds.
Multi-coloured and shaped pellets, mixed with some seed
If no preservatives are used in the finished product, then storage, packaging, transport, and the manufacturing process are all important in order to avoid deterioration and rancidity. The extrusion process is performed at a high temperature, binding the ingredients and pasteurising them to reduce bacterial contamination. The process also increases palatability and digestibility of the components. Pelleting is carried out at lower temperatures, with greater risk of bacterial contamination, more dust, and less palatability.
As understanding of birds’ nutritional requirements increases, so the variety of formulated diets available also increases. They are now available in high-potency (higher fat content) for macaws and greys and breeding birds; lifetime formulae for maintenance; and with different granule size to suit different sizes of bird. This includes a mash for very small species or convalescing patients, and hand-rearing formulae for baby parrots.
Different grades of organic formulated food, from large pellets, through fine pellets to mash
It can be difficult to persuade a ‘sunflower seed junkie’ to take on a nutritionally superior formulated diet. There are many techniques suggested to aid the transition, and as each bird is different in its reaction, what will work for one may not be successful for another. Sometimes the ‘cold turkey’ method works. All other food is removed, and only the chosen formulated diet is offered. This may require hospitalisation at a veterinary clinic, for close monitoring of the bird and its bodyweight. Owners often will not persist with this technique for long enough, because parrots will hold out for many days until they get what they want. This can work for some individuals, and usually once converted they never look back.
In other cases a gradual introduction is successful. Nuggets can be mixed with the parrot’s existing foods, or given in a separate bowl – some birds will select the food in this way. Alternatively, use the technique suggested for fruits and vegetables, giving the formulated food on its own in the morning, topping up with seed and nuts only in the evening. The bird will have had a good chance to sample the new food during the day. Warming the formula slightly will release oils and may improve its flavour. Adding a few drops of fruit juice may have the same effect. As mentioned earlier, parrots enjoy eating with the family, so passing the bird formulated diet from a human plate may encourage it to take the new product.
An argument raised against formulated diets is that they are ‘boring’ for the bird. However, food should not be used to provide stimulation. Parrots, in common with all animals, ‘eat to live’, they do not have the human feelings of anticipation, preparation, presentation, and socialisation associated with eating. Agreed, they are intelligent and inquisitive, and in that respect food may be presented in different ways. Favoured items may be placed into hollow toys, small bags, or cardboard boxes for the parrot to explore and work out how to obtain them. But – giving food should not be used as the bird’s sole source of amusement and occupation.
Parrots should have toys to play with, items to chew and destroy, and space and light to enrich their lives, not just endless food. Variety and interest can be added to a pelleted diet in the form of fresh fruits and vegetables – up to 20% of the total intake.
There is no doubt that parrots that take to a formulated diet with some fruit and vegetable do in the long term appear healthier and fitter, with better feather quality and colour than those on a seed-based diet. Breeding results are generally better as well.
It is natural for parrots to consume different foods as they come into season throughout the year, and captive parrots should be no exception. Whilst it is possible these days to obtain most foods throughout the year in supermarkets, locally-grown and harvested products are strictly seasonal, usually cheaper, and obviously environmentally friendly owing to minimal transportation. Why pay over the odds for specialist foods out of season? Use what comes in when it is available – freeze some if it is suitable for this process – then move on to the next product. Parrots will happily consume fresh spring vegetables early in the year, moving on through the summer fruits and berries, to the autumn harvest of wild foods like rose hips. (Autumn's Harvest) These are a valuable source of vitamin C, and may be frozen. Pomegranates are a particular favourite with many parrots, but naturally have a short season.
These birds’ requirements are also very seasonal. When moulting out old feathers and growing new ones, their demand for calcium and protein will be high. The same requirements apply to young growing birds. Adults that are preparing to mate, lay eggs, and raise young will also need a higher nutritional plane, with extra protein, vitamins, and minerals – especially calcium. Birds recovering from stress, injury or illness may require extra carbohydrates and protein to replace weight loss and repair damaged tissues.
Outside of these times, normal maintenance requirements of parrots will be much reduced. This is particularly true of the less active, indoor pet parrot, which is kept warm and comfortable, with a ready supply of food. So much so that in many cases these birds will become obese, especially if they are allowed to eat too much in the way of junk food.
We have already looked at junk foods as being unsuitable for parrots: pastry, chips, fried foods are as bad for birds in excess as they are for humans. Several common houseplants are also toxic to birds. Foods which are high in carbohydrate and fat but low in protein, such as sunflower seeds, will cause the bird to over-eat in order to acquire sufficient protein. This was explained in Part One. However, wheatgerm appeared frequently in the list of products containing several essential vitamins and minerals, so wholemeal bread or toast is perfectly suitable to supply these items.
However, this is all a matter of degree: too much of the bad items and not enough of the good. To my mind there are just three absolutely forbidden foods for parrots. The first is avocado, which as we have already found is toxic to parrots. The second is salted food. There is sufficient salt for parrots’ needs contained within their foods, without adding to it. Excess salt will lead to kidney damage, so salted crisps or nuts should never be given. The third is chocolate. Theobromines and theophylline are known to be actively poisonous to dogs, and will over-stimulate birds’ hearts, making them at least hyper-active and at worst causing heart failure.
Large macaws like the hyacinthine do need a higher-fat intake than most other parrot species. They will enjoy walnuts and brazil nuts, but their favourites are palm nuts.
Hyacinthine macaw enjoying a pecan nut
Fig parrots (Opopsitta and Psittaculirostris spp.) have a higher-than average requirement for vitamin K. It is believed that these birds have lost the ability to absorb plant-derived vitamin K, and depend in bacterial formation of this vitamin in the gut, and they obtain these bacteria from termites, in whose mounds they often nest.
Lories and lorikeets, as well as other brush-tongued species such as hanging parrots and swift parakeets feed naturally on nectar and pollen. Keepers of these birds originally made their own ‘nectar mixes’ from honey, fruit juices and sponge cake. Now there are several proprietary brands of Lory Nectar available, and these are given along with fresh fruits. However, keeping these birds tends still to be a specialist enthusiast and labour-intensive hobby: they produce very messy sticky droppings, and food has to be changed several times a day. The nectar will ferment and spoil in hot weather, and may freeze in cold weather.
It should now be clear that parrots have complex and varied feeding requirements. Those requirements will vary according to species, age, sex, breeding and moulting cycles, environmental temperature, and time of year. Birds fed a formulated diet with fresh vegetables and fruit in theory should need no additions to their diet, but most parrots given seed-based foods will be fitter and healthier if they are given vitamin and mineral supplements to compensate for any inherent imbalance as well as their natural inclination to feed selectively. Such supplements should be avian-specific, rather than using products intended for cats and dogs.
Water-soluble products tend to be less stable than powdered equivalents, and are likely both to deteriorate quickly in drinking water, and not be consumed in sufficient quantity as parrots generally drink little. Powdered supplements may be added to food, but this should be moist sticky food that is readily consumed by the bird, such as fruit; or items that may be moistened, like egg-biscuit or wholemeal bred. Simply sprinkling the powder over dry seed will be pointless, since the powder will drop to the bottom of the food bowl.
The type of supplement may be varied with specific needs throughout the year, following the birds’ changing requirements for proteins, vitamins and minerals as they breed, lay eggs, and moult feathers.
Finally, if you have obtained a bird that has been hand-reared, it will be accustomed to taking moist food from a spoon or syringe. It is worth continuing to offer your pet small amounts of bird-safe soft foods like live yogurt or fruit and cereal-based baby foods on an occasional basis. This is not for any ‘bonding’ reason, but to make it easier to administer any oral medications that may be required in the future. It is so much easier to give parrots drugs disguised in a familiar treat in this way than it will be to try to syringe-dose the medicine to an unwilling, struggling patient!