A sequel to Liz Wilson's article, Parrot Nutrition. To make the most sense of this article, please read that one first.
When I finally realized years ago that my Blue and Yellow Macaw Sam was chronically ill due to underlying malnutrition, I was stunned. After all, as a veterinary nurse, I was “known” as someone skilled in the field of avian and exotic animal nursing (which wasn’t hard because there were only maybe five of us).
I had lectured repeatedly at avian veterinary conferences and had a reputation as someone who really knew about the care of companion birds, and even wrote a textbook chapter about it? So how could it be that MY Parrot was suffering this common problem? How was this possible?
This problem needed fixing. There were a couple of brand new formulated diets that had appeared on the market at the time (which Sam had previously tossed across the room), and I was determined she would learn to eat them.
I had already seen how well these so-called “pellets” worked with Parrots – they really improved the quality of life for companion birds.
There was no doubt that Sam would be healthier if she ate formulated foods as a base diet. I frankly did not care if she agreed.
The insufficient diet she had been eating for 15+ years had finally caught up with her (sometimes malnutrition can take a long time to manifest), but I would not tolerate this continuing. I had seen entirely too many birds die of malnutrition and this was NOT going to happen to Sam, whether she liked it or not!
• Digital scale
• Formulated diet for Parrots (your choice)
• Blender or food processor (or a heavy rolling pin)
• Notebook and pen to record date and weight
• Food your bird recognizes and likes
• Absolute determination (often the most difficult ingredient to find)
Get a digital scale with an accuracy of +/- 1 gram.
Start weighing your bird at the same time each day.
Write the date and weight in your notebook. This is an important step, so don’t skip it. I prefer to weigh first thing in the morning after that HUGE first poop of the day, but you can weigh any time that is convenient as long as you are consistent. A bird’s weight can vary widely through the day depending on what it has eaten (just as with people). As an example, several years ago, I did a little experiment with Sam, weighing her right before and after she ate all the pizza she wanted. According to my scale, she gained SIXTY GRAMS during that 20-minute time span (until she pooped again, of course)!
Decide which formulated diet you wish the bird to eat.
Choose a food that your bird LOVES and recognizes on sight. With Sam, I used fresh frozen corn, defrosted. With other birds I have converted, I have used both sunflower seeds in the shell and millet.
Grind formulated diets into a powder in a blender, food processor or crushed with a rolling pin (the old-fashioned way).
Mix formulated diet powder and favourite food 50-50 in a bowl, adding enough warm water to make a horrible graham-cracker-crust-like stuff that sticks the ground formulated diets to the favourite food.
Feed a small amount of the mixture per day to your Parrot in the beginning – maybe 3-4 tablespoons for a medium-sized Parrot like a Grey. Add more if the bird eats it all, and you'll get a feel for the right volume.
Continue to weigh the bird at the same time each day, recording it in your notebook. When the bird’s weight is stable, start decreasing the favourite food a little at a time. When I am not in a hurry, I let the weight stabilize for a couple of days before decreasing the favourite food again.
If you wish, offer a SMALL amount of ONLY very healthy dark green and dark orange vegetables for a little while in the afternoon. NO JUNK FOOD.
Gradually decrease the favourite food until it is eliminated from the diet, and in the last few days, start adding solid (not ground) formulated diets to the mix, so the birds learn to eat them that way. The BIGGEST problem with Parrots and diets is our proclivity for over-feeding, especially the things our birds love. If you haven't already, read my article on Parrot Nutrition. It explains a lot.
Incidentally, Sam was absolutely pathetic during this process. Her food word is “cracker” (not my fault!) and she said it whenever she wanted something to eat. So when I’d get home from work I’d hear this pitiful little voice calling out weakly, “Cracker? Cracker?” It was obvious that she thought I was killing her. When I let her out of her cage, she would scrabble around on the floor around it, obviously searching for a sunflower seed I’d missed with the vacuum.
I didn’t care. Tough love was necessary here and that is what Sam got from me. I took her off seed “cold turkey” and had her eating a formulated diet in 10 days. I didn't CARE how pathetic she was, as she was NOT going to continue to get sick!
I converted Sam to a base of a formulated diet back in 1982 – 26 years ago – and (touch wood) Sam has not been sick since.
Avian veterinarians often do not wish to convert a Parrot to a better diet when it is ill, under the assumption that the bird is under enough stress. However, in some cases we do not have that luxury.
Under the close supervision of my avian veterinarian, I converted a desperately debilitated 15-year-old Cockatiel to a base diet of pellets. The little hen was a chronic egg-layer who had been on an all-seed diet all her life.
As a result, she was suffering from multiple pathological fractures due to osteoporosis secondary to severe malnutrition. (There is no calcium or Vitamin D3 in seed, so to make eggshells, her body pulled calcium out of her bones. This rendered them fragile like spun glass.)
The poor bird’s avian veterinarian did not think she would survive if she did not start eating a good diet immediately – so with much trepidation, I agreed to try. It took me 8 days to convert the little hen to a formulated diet using this technique, and the tiel did fine. (Indeed, it appeared more stressful on me than on her, as I was terrified she would die.)
So am I advocating that everybody do a cold turkey conversion of their birds from a seed-based diet to a formulated one? Not at all. However, I am emphatically encouraging all companion bird owners to take a long, hard look at what their birds are actually consuming. If their diets are not optimal, then owners need to DO SOMETHING ABOUT IT. Slower conversions work just fine, as long as the birds are converted.
The number one obstacle to a bird learning to eat a good diet is the owner, and that means you! I have heard some people say they don’t want to be “mean” to their birds by insisting a Parrot learn to eat well. As far as I am concerned, this approach is the reason why obesity and type 2 diabetes are such a growing problem with children in the US and most Western countries. The child prefers junk food and sweets so that is what the parents allow … and that is not good parenting, in my book!
And speaking of children, it also helps to remember what paediatricians say about teaching children to eat new foods. According to my reading, they advocate offering a new food (prepared a variety of ways if necessary) a minimum of 15 times before giving up. Fifteen times! Many Parrot owners tell me they offer something once or twice and then give up, but that isn’t good enough.
The bird is never going to learn to eat it if it’s never offered again! My Macaw started eating broccoli a couple of years ago, much to my astonishment. I’d only offered her broccoli off-and-on for … maybe 30 years? Why did she change her mind about it? I have no clue, as she does not wish to discuss it. Frustrating creature, but at probably 60+ years of age, she is healthy and happy and that is all I care about!