This article was inspired by an excellent question posted on the Northern Parrot’s Q&A section regarding the confusion caused by British vs. American names for various foodstuffs.
Then it evolved into a discussion of what foods are great sources of nutrition (and fun!) for our companion birds.
We will get to the “two-countries-separated-by-a-single-language” barrier in a bit, but we have to first start with another Liz Wilson disclaimer.
I make no claims to being an expert on this subject. I am not a nutritionist, and I am most especially not a Parrot nutritionist. Indeed, that puts me squarely in the same category as many (most?) people who are writing articles about Parrot nutrition – though I have noticed that many of these writers do not identify themselves that way.
At any rate, I do spend a lot of time reading anything Parrot related and I am a devout believer that good nutrition is crucial to Parrot health. In addition, having worked for twenty years as a veterinary technician specialized in birds and exotic, I have seen way too many cases of malnutrition in Parrots – which I find horrific and more than slightly obscene.
And of course, I won’t ever pass up a chance to climb onto my favourite soap box – the continuing problem of malnutrition in our companion Parrots. Avian medicine realized in the late 1970s – over 30 years ago – that the diets we were feeding our Parrots – predominantly seed with an occasional mouldy peanut and a grape or a bite of apple – was nutritionally horrific. Yet decades later, avian veterinarians still consider malnutrition to be the underlying cause of 50-75% of the medical problems they see in Parrots. STILL. And that really is obscene, yes?
As a result, I have articles posted on this website that discuss nutrition Parrot Nutrition as well as ones that discuss diet conversion Successfully Converting a Parrot to a Formulated Diet.Good nutrition is, of course, the foundation of ABSOLUTELY EVERYTHING. The Parrot that consumes a nutritious diet will have a strong immune system and therefore be able to live a long and healthy life, free from most illnesses.
Those of us who work with behaviour agree that a nutritious diet can also decrease some so-called “behaviour problems” in companion Parrots. (More on that in a future article)
So what is a Healthy Diet for a Parrot?
The hard reality is that we don’t know. At last count there are almost 380 species of psittacine birds on this planet, found in a wild variety of environments that range from tropical to temperate environments – from the deserts of Australian outback to the humid rain forests of Indonesia and South America.
There is no way psittacine birds in such different habitats are eating the same diet. Additionally, it is unlikely that one species of Parrot is eating the same diet as another species even if they share the same habitat. And we certainly know there are some species of Parrot that are more specialized feeders – such as the Hyacinth Macaw with their predominantly nut diet and the nectar-eating family of Lories and Lorikeets.
And all the Macaws likely need a little more fat and maybe Greys need a bit more Calcium (or do they need Vitamin D3 instead?) and maybe Cockatoos need more protein? So much is not yet known about Parrots in the wild!
The Formulated Diet for Parrots
However, as far as I am concerned, the good news is that nutritionists who specialize in Parrots have been able to come up with complete formulated diets (a.k.a. “pellets”) that can offer a healthy baseline for our companion birds.
Indeed, working in avian medicine for 20 years as a veterinary technician, I saw a dramatic improvement in the health and longevity of companion Parrots when people started feeding their birds formulated diets when they arrived on the scene in the early 1980s.
And thanks to those companies providing quality formulated diets for Parrots, our companion birds can live long, healthy lives.
From what I was taught by some of the top avian veterinarians in the world, a decent diet for the generic Parrot (which of course does not exist) 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 used for training purposes.
Please note, by the way, that the Parrot actually has to consume these things. You don’t get credit for just putting healthy foodstuff in their bowl as nothing magical happens between the stuff in the bowl and the bird. The bird actually has to eat the healthy stuff. But the good news is that a strong base of formulated diet helps greatly with those birds who are picky eaters.
My Blue and Yellow Macaw has never been fond of green things as I suspect she fears they might turn her <gasp!> into an Amazon. But her eating a high percentage of formulated diets has protected her from the dangers of malnutrition for over 30 years.
The Most Common Nutritional Deficiencies in Companion Parrots
Because I have no training in nutrition, I try to keep things simple for myself. I don’t know anything about things like free radicals and antioxidants, nor do I know what bearing (if any) they might have on Parrot nutrition. I do, however, know the things in which our companion Parrots seem most often deficient: Vitamin A, Vitamin D3 and Calcium.
Vitamin A is pretty straight forward. It is beta carotene - the precursor to Vitamin A – that gives vegetables and fruits that lovely dark orange colour – such as sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squashes like acorn and butternut, and fruits like mango, peaches and cantaloupe. The Parrot’s body converts beta carotene to Vitamin A as the body needs it.
This is important to note, as Vitamin A is a fat-soluble vitamin so any excess is stored in the body. This means that an animal can get over-dosed on fat soluble vitamins, leading to serious problems. This is why you need to be careful about vitamin supplementation – as well as those vitamin-supplemented treats. With fat soluble vitamins, it is NOT a case of a little being good and a lot being better.
Vitamin D3 is a little trickier. Vitamin D is the vehicle by which a Parrot’s body can absorb Calcium from the diet it eats. So you can feed a high Calcium diet but if the Parrot is deficient in the right form of Vitamin D, it won’t be able to properly use that Calcium. And for birds (and reptiles, in case you’re interested), the right form of Vitamin D is not Vitamin D2 – which is found in many high nutrition vegetables like greens. The right form is Vitamin D3 – which is not found – that I know of – in any plants on this planet. Vitamin D3 is ONLY found in unfiltered sunlight (not through solid things like window glass), full ultraviolet spectrum lighting designed for this purpose, vitamin supplements designed for Parrots, and formulated diets for Parrots.
Calcium (& Phosphorus) is also trickier. To reach a proper balance in the body so everything works properly (homeostasis), Calcium and Phosphorus in the diet needs to be in a ration of approximately 2:1. In other words, two parts Calcium to one part Phosphorus. So if your Parrot eats something high in Phosphorus like legumes (beans, peanuts) and grapes, then it needs to consume something else that contains twice as much Calcium.
You confused, yet? I know I am! And this is one more reason why I am pleased to feed my Macaw a large percentage of a formulated diet every day. After all, a formulated diet does much better than I regarding balancing Phosphorus and Calcium and providing the correct amounts of vitamins like A and D. Whew!
For more in-depth information about Calcium and lighting, see my article on this website titled (oddly enough): Calcium & Vitamin D & Specialized Lighting
Colour-Coding the Diet
Years ago, aviculturist Phoebe Linden came up with an excellent way to teach her clients about a good diet of fresh foods. Simply put, she colour-coded her fresh diet.
As she explained it, the predominant colour should be dark green: such lovely things as kale, collard greens, spinach, dandelion, and broccoli.
The next predominant colour should be dark orange: high Vitamin A things like (as previously mentioned) sweet potatoes, carrots, winter squashes like acorn and butternut, and fruits like mango, peaches and cantaloupe.
The least predominant colour of the diet should be white – with relatively low nutritional items like apple and pear.
Please click to read What Can I Feed my Parrot? - PART 2 where I will look at other diet tricks and additions plus list a range of foods safe to feed your Parrot.
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