I started my career as a veterinary technician in the early 1970s (before they invented dirt). I had already been a Parrot owner for several years and they fascinated me. So I pursued knowledge about them where I could - and it was frustrating how little there was to find.
There was virtually nothing known about Parrot nutrition. Pet Store owners constantly lectured me about the dangers of allowing my Blue and Yellow Macaw Sam to eat anything other than “Parrot food”. Eating anything else would kill her, they said. “Parrot food” was of course that ubiquitous concoction of mostly sunflower, mouldy grey peanuts and an occasional dried red pepper.
Nevertheless, it made no sense to me that my Macaw was exclusively a seedeater, as she demonstrated she knew how to crack chicken bones and scoop out the marrow. It was illogical to assume that a human had taught her how to do that, so I persevered with varying Sam’s diet with table food.
By the late 70s, veterinary medicine in the USA started to grasp the inherent problems in an all-seed diet .
Psittacine birds were constantly sick with what people called “colds” – but these were not minor, self-limiting viral infections like the human cold. These were bacterial infections that rapidly became life threatening.
Companion Parrots were dying daily of infections that should have been minor – but due to chronic malnutrition, their immune systems could not fight them off and there was precious little we could do to save them. Old sayings claimed that birds were “fragile, and susceptible to drafts” when in reality we were killing them with the diet we were feeding.
Formulated diets (a.k.a., “pellets”) appeared on the market in the early 1980s, and life for companion Parrots finally began to improve.
So it has been only 30 years since we learned that an all seed diet is a death sentence for companion birds, and 25 years since formulated diets hit the market here in the USA. Even so, avian veterinarians in the US say that malnutrition is still (STILL!) the underlying cause of 75% of the medical problems they see in companion Parrots. That’s unconscionable, as far as I am concerned!
Many of us who worked with birds during that period developed a strong belief in the efficacy of a foundation of formulated diet for companion birds, and in the quarter century since then, I have had no reason to change those beliefs. I am not a nutritionist, so I trust in those who know more about avian nutrition than I do, and that includes some of the top avian veterinarians in the world.
Sam started getting multiple bacterial infections about 5 years after I got her, starting in the late 70s. As a result, she was back on antibiotics repeatedly over a couple of years. Due to my chronic state of oblivion, it was not until the early 80s that I finally realized what was actually happening.
The underlying cause of her repeated infections was malnutrition. She had been eating some healthy table food starting in the late 70s, but the quantities were not sufficient. Eating one serving of broccoli a day doesn’t counterbalance constant junk food consumption in people, and the same is true with Parrots.
Please note, by the way, that Sam had been eating only seed for a minimum of 15 years (and likely much longer) when her poor diet started catching up with her. Obviously, malnutrition can take a long time to manifest.
Once I finally understood what was happening, I took Sam off her seed-based diet and put her on a base of formulated diets. She was not pleased about this, but I was determined so she learned to comply. It has been about 25 years since her dietary change, and Sam has not been sick since. Truly a phenomenal improvement for which I am thankful.
Does this mean that I recommend feeding only formulated diets? Not at all. For as broad a nutritional base as possible, I think Parrots need high nutrition fresh food as well. After all, we do not know what the nutritional needs of Parrots really are.
At last count, there were approximately 347 known species of Parrots spread all over on this planet, and they cannot all be consuming the same diet despite divergent environments. There is no way, for example, that budgerigars in the deserts of the Australian outback are consuming the same foods as a scarlet Macaw in the rain forests of Costa Rica – it is simply not possible.
Therefore, I consider good quality formulated diets to be an excellent foundation on which Parrot owners can build a good nutritional base. However, if you must feed only one thing, please make certain it is a good formulated diet, not seed.
From my observations, the biggest mistake we Parrot owners make with our birds’ diets is over-feeding. I was taught that the generic Parrot (which of course does not exist) apparently consumes 10-15% of its body weight daily – meaning that an Amazon that weighs 400 grams is consuming only 40-60 grams of food a day – and from my experience, that is much less than what most of us put in our bird’s food bowls.
I know that I was feeding my Macaw enough seed to feed a small flock, so she could avoid eating healthy vegetables and still fulfil her appetite needs, happily filling up on her beloved sunflower seeds.
As a result, I no longer ask people what they feed their birds. After all, what you put in food bowls is not the issue. The only issue is what the bird actually eats. So now, I cheerfully drive my clients crazy by asking them to estimate percentages of their bird’s food consumption.
For instance, I want owners to estimate how much of their bird’s daily food consumption is the base diet of seeds or formulated diets.
How much is vegetables and what kinds of vegetables? (On more than one occasion, I have had people list grapes as a vegetable. I hope Europeans are brighter about such things than many Americans are!)
How much fruit and what kinds? I don’t know about Europe, but a large percentage of the fruits Americans eat – such as oranges and grapes – are mostly sugary water, with little or no actual nutrition for Parrots. And how much sugar can a Parrot consume before it not only has nutritional problems but behavioural ones as well?
Incidentally, the only way anyone can comfortably answer the question of percentages is if their bird eats only one thing, and no one can judge how much food is consumed versus what is lobbed across the room to roll under the sofa. However, estimations (or better yet, guestimations) can be very useful when assessing a bird’s actual diet.
From what I was taught by some of the top avian veterinarians in the world, a decent diet for the generic Parrot should be about 60% formulated diet, 25% high nutrition vegetables (especially those high in Vitamin A), with the last 15% composed of nuts, seeds, high nutrition fruits, and an occasional treat.
The Parrots that obviously do not fall into the category of generic Parrots would be the psittacine birds that appear to be more specialized feeders. This would include Hyacinth Macaws (with perhaps a higher requirement for nut consumption), Cockatoos (who might need more animal protein), Eclectus Parrots (who might be more sensitive to chemicals and additives) and Lories and Lorikeets, who are predominantly nectar eaters.
Owners of these species need to consult experienced avian veterinarians and/or experts of those species for more information as to their dietary needs. Incidentally, I used modifiers in the previous sentences because as far as I know, there have been no scientific studies on these specialized feeders, other than with Lories and Lorikeets. All the information I was able to find was based on anecdotal information, and while this might eventually be found to be accurate, it has yet to be scientifically proven.
According to some folks here in the USA, we should be making our birds complicated fresh or cooked diets daily, even though many families don’t even do that for themselves and their children. These people often also denigrate the feeding of formulated diets, claiming they are not good for birds.
From my experience, the average Parrot owner will go to the trouble of making these time-consuming diets for perhaps 2-5 years, and then they will switch to something less laborious. If they have become convinced by these so-called dietary “experts” that formulated diets are not healthy (which is simply not true for most psittacine species), they then cut down to a predominantly seed diet – which we all know is a disaster in the making.
I also question the validity of someone without a degree in avian medicine or veterinary nutrition as claiming to know more than degreed professionals that work for the excellent formulated diet companies.
In the 20 years I worked in veterinary medicine, I personally saw a dramatic decrease in the mortality rate of companion Parrots when people started feeding formulated diets in the early 80s and that trend continues today. Besides, I would rather spend my precious free time interacting with my Macaw, rather than slaving in the kitchen.
Please keep in mind that malnutrition can take a very long time to manifest. So if you know your own bird is not eating well, the fact that it might look fine does NOT mean that it IS fine. And for those of you that claim that your Parrot “won’t eat a good diet”, that is hogwash. Over the years, I have converted hundreds and hundreds of birds to a healthier diet, and every one of them survived the process. Indeed, I have yet to meet a Parrot I could not convert, including such individuals as a twenty-seven year old Cockatiel named Fred.
Only by consuming as balanced a diet as possible can your Parrot live the long and healthy life you wish for it. Unless your bird has access to the fridge when you are not home, then you are the one who controls what your Parrot is eating.
In a separate article I will discuss converting a Parrot to pellets in dreary and painstaking detail, which I am sure will cheer you all up!