This is obviously the sister article to my previous one about what you can feed your Parrot and this one will be much shorter. However, it never fails that when I think I know something about a subject, I learn a tremendous amount by researching before starting to write.
After searching through the internet and reading numerous lists of toxic foods for Parrots, I’ve been taken aback by some of the items on some of the lists. However, I was delighted to discover “The Caique Site” in which the site owner, aviculturist Dr. John C. McMichael actually footnoted his information.
This was wildly exciting as none of the other sites I visited did that. Instead, they apparently just mindlessly parroted other sources without doing their own research. Should more in-depth information be needed, read his carefully researched article, “Potentially Dangerous Human Foods” (http://caiquesite.com/Foods/dangerous_human_foods.htm).
At the start of this article, Dr. McMichael commented on the lack of controlled studies in Parrots of any of the foods he listed. Instead, he found as I did in my research, that most of information is anecdotal or extrapolated from known toxicity in other species.
Actually Toxic Stuff
First, a mention of what the word ‘toxic’ actually means, as I find the word bandied about with little regard to the actual definition of the word. Despite how it is often used, toxic is not a synonym for bad for you. Indeed, it is defined as something caused by or acting like a poison. So it’s a bit stronger than just being bad for you.
1. Of, pertaining to, affected with, or caused by a toxin or poison: atoxiccondition. 2. Acting as or having the effect of a poison; poisonous: atoxic drug.
So to my knowledge, the list of foods that are potentially toxic to Parrots is actually quite short, including just the following:
Chocolate and cocoa powder
Avocado (including guacamole)
Intoxicating liquor (as in alcoholic drink, a.k.a. booze)
Unlimited quantities of very high salt content foods
And no, not all individual Parrots have a toxic reaction to chocolate any more than chocolate is poisonous to all dogs. However, it has seriously sickened many birds and has actually killed several dogs, so why risk it? Chocolate contains theobromine, which is proven to be toxic to birds and other animals. And incidentally, some teas contain theobromine and should therefore be avoided.
And please, you needn’t tell me about Parrots eating avocado with no ill effects as I have already heard that. According to the avian veterinarian literature, some species of avocado are more toxic to Parrots than others. However, as I understand it, researchers did actually manage to kill some budgies with avocado so I consider it to be another thing to put in the “Why risk it?” category.
I would also put very high salt content foods on this list, as salt toxicity is documented in Parrots as well as other species. Indeed, there was a case of a Hyacinth Macaw being allowed to eat unlimited quantities of salted peanuts. The bird died and on necropsy it was found that the extreme salt consumption had caused the bird’s brain to swell and that was the apparent cause of death.
However, salt is a necessary mineral, so I do not consider occasional salt consumption as being a problem for Parrots. Indeed, it appears that sodium is an important ingredient in both the clay South American Parrots consume at so-called clay licks, as well as the dirt consumed by wild Grey Parrots in Africa.
In her article titled “Precautions for Parrot Keepers,” aviculturist Carolyn Swicegood also lists the pits of apricots, peaches, plums, prunes and the seeds of the cherimoya fruit as toxic.
Some foods should not be fed raw, such as dried beans, and some avian veterinarians (such as Marge Wissman, the excellent board-certified avian veterinarian who writes BIRD TALK’s medical column) warn against feeding large amounts of onions. Also to be avoided are green potatoes, whether cooked or not.
Incidentally, while not actually toxic, human cereals that are packed with vitamins and minerals could prove problematic if large quantities are fed to Parrots. Some products advertise that they contain 100% of the daily requirements of vitamins and minerals (such as iron) for humans in only four ounces of cereal.
As a consequence, consumption of substantial amounts by small animals like Parrots could rapidly lead to a serious overdose of both minerals and fat-soluble vitamins like A, D and K. This could be especially dangerous with species like Lories, Lorikeets and Mynahs, as they cannot tolerate much iron in their diets. The resulting iron storage disease is usually fatal.
The Question of Dairy Products
Several times I’ve seen dairy products listed as “toxic to Parrots” and that is simply not true. Birds are not mammals so one might assume they are therefore lactose intolerant. However, the reality is that they can digest many dairy products (especially those low in lactose), such as cottage cheese and hard cheeses.
As for such things as milk, apparently they cannot easily digest it but that does not necessarily mean it does them any harm. However, when feeding low to moderate amounts of dairy products it is best to monitor the bird’s droppings. If the bird gets diarrhoea (defined as soft or liquid faeces, not the more common condition of polyuria which is an excess of urine), the caretaker should decrease the volume of dairy products that are fed.
Stuff That is NOT Toxic but is Potentially Bad for Them
This category includes the stuff that shouldn't be fed because they are not very good for Parrots – such as foods that are high in fat, grease, and/or high in sugar. We all know that high fat, grease and/or high sugar items are not good for us, either.
This does not, however, mean that a Parrot can never eat a bite of fried bread for breakfast or a small piece of biscuit with their tea. It does, however, mean that fried bread and biscuits should not be a staple in their diet. My old Blue and Yellow hen Sam and I both adore such things but I eat them rarely and when I do, she only gets a small taste. Much to her dismay!
Caffeine (including caffeine-containing soft drinks) has also been cited as being bad for birds but I could not find any proof of that, other than the anecdotal information that caffeine can increase heart rates so likely wouldn’t be good for them. Personally, I would not wish to be around a Parrot that might be jacked up on caffeine!
I found other oddities listed as toxic on various lists, such asparagus, eggplant, olives, carbonated drinks, and Gatorade.™ I could not, however, find out why such things were listed.
Many sources also list as toxic any foods containing large amounts of preservatives, artificial colouring, and other additives. There is little question that organic foods are better, if you can afford them.
Possible Behaviour Problems
As strictly anecdotal information, my IAABC Parrot behaviour division colleagues and myself (www.iaabc.org) agree that we often see correlations between problem behaviours in companion Parrots such as excessive screaming and aggression with the consumption of high fat foods. A word to the wise, yes?
The Issue of “Processed Foods”
I had it firmly stuck in my head that so-called processed foods were a no-no, both for humans and Parrots. However, my research led me to an interesting human nutrition website called “About.com: Nutrition” (http://nutrition.about.com/od/askyournutritionist/f/processedfoods.htm)
that discussed this issue. Since this is good information for your Parrots as well as you, I have reproduced it:
Processed foods have been altered from their natural state for safety reasons and for convenience. The methods used for processing foods include canning, freezing, refrigeration, dehydration and aseptic processing.
We tend to think of processed foods as bad, but it turns out that some processed foods are not bad for your health at all. For example, milk would be considered a processed food because it's pasteurized to kill bacteria and homogenized to keep fats from separating. Some people prefer raw milk, but it can lead to food-borne illness, so we're happy to consume the healthy "processed" milk we find in our grocery stores.
Another example of good food processing is frozen vegetables. Freezing vegetables preserves vitamins and minerals and makes them convenient to cook and eat all year around. Fruit and vegetable juice is also an example of a healthy processed food. In fact, some orange juice is fortified with calcium to make it even more nutritious. Oatmeal, frozen fish, frozen berries and 100% whole-grain bread are also processed foods that are good.
Of course, there are a lot of processed foods that aren't good for you. Many processed foods are made with trans-fats, saturated fats, and large amounts of sodium and sugar. These types of foods should be avoided, or at least eaten sparingly.
Processed foods that may be bad for your diet:
Canned foods with large amounts of sodium or fat
Breads and pastas made with refined white flour instead of whole grains
Packaged high-calorie snack foods such as crisps and sweets
Frozen fish sticks and frozen dinners that are high in sodium
Packaged cakes and biscuits
Boxed meal mixes that are high in fat and sodium
Sugary breakfast cereals
Some studies suggest that eating processed meats may increase your risk of colorectal, kidney and stomach cancer. Processed meats include hot dogs, bologna, sausage, ham and other packaged lunch meats. These meats are frequently high in calories, saturated fats and sodium.
These processed foods and prepackaged meals are very convenient and popular. If you do shop for these foods, be sure to look for products that are made with whole grains, low in sodium and calories, low in saturated fat and free of trans-fats. Make sure you pay attention to serving size, too, and balance out the processed foods you eat with a salad, vegetables, and some whole grain bread.
The conclusion is simple. If you are unsure about feeding something to your Parrot, use your common sense. If you cannot find a clear answer regarding potential problems from a source you trust such as your avian veterinarian, then don’t feed it. It simply isn’t worth the potential risk.
One last note: When I have discussed psittacine diet and nutrition in lecture, in response to my criticizing the safety or nutritional value of a particular food, I often hear, “But my Parrot LIKES it,” as if a Parrot liking something is proof that the foodstuff is good to feed.
My favourite response? “I love chocolate cake and bourbon, but that does not mean they are good for me!”
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