A question to which hobby owners would all answer yes: ‘Do you want to give your bird the best diet? Does that query have a definitive answer? Not in the present state of knowledge.
Wild Bird Diet
Can that provide useful information? This would be the best place to consider an ideal diet. Perhaps? Let’s see.
Tony da Silva, ex-curator of Loro Parque, writes
In the wild, some foods may be available for much of the year but will be eaten only at a certain stage of development or at a specific time of the year, such as when the young are about to fledge, or only if other food resources become scarce.
Da Silva’s field work in South America with various Parrot species found over 60 items consumed. There are reasons though that make it hardly feasible to imitate a wild diet
· The sheer number of types of fruit, flowers, seeds bark, insects consumed
· The lack of such items in temperature climates
· The variability of what the birds are eating at different stages of their life cycle
· Wild birds increased fat and protein requirements for flight
· Our incomplete knowledge for many species
A Bit of Pellet History
Now pellets. When did their manufacture begin how have they developed? In the l980s, processed pelleted and extruded diets were first developed. These diets - advertised as superior to the formerly seed-based ones - from a certain point of view were correct. Many, many, far too many bird keepers fed exclusively on seeds and this deprived the birds of essential nutrients. And to make matters worse, many of them added foods the birds adored which were extremely bad for the birds’ health.
I’m not claiming that one potato crisp or a piece of cookie will cause your bird to drop off their perch but daily consumption of high fat, fried, processed human food either salted or sweetened will inevitably shorten their life and increase the likelihood of fatty livers, clogged up arteries, gout and other illnesses. I’ve experienced all these conditions with rescue birds but never with birds that came from a reputable breeder or that I hand reared.
Scientific research papers on Parrot nutrition aren’t as numerous as with other species. In the bird world, it is poultry research that gets the best funding for obvious reasons. And early formulations of pellets were based on poultry research. No one has yet researched the long-term use of pellets on Parrots’ longevity. It’s mindboggling to imagine how such a study could be carried out
An influential article came out 15 years ago in the Veterinary Record in which the authors L. Hess, G. Maudlin and K Rosenthal examined 135 pet birds and estimated the nutrient content of their diets. The owners were surveyed by questionnaire to determine their birds' weekly consumption. The birds were divided into six food groups on the basis of the amounts of seeds, pellets and human food they consumed.
Two independent laboratories analysed the nutrient content of everything each bird ate. The dietary content of individual nutrients was then compared with the estimated maintenance requirements for pet birds. Birds consuming less than approximately 50 % of their diets as formulated products had inadequate intakes of Vitamins A and D3 and calcium. Diets high in human food were low in protein, energy, Vitamins and minerals. Diets high in seed were excessive in fat and deficient in Vitamins A and D3 and calcium.
Veterinarians who were consistently seeing malnourished and dull, lethargic and overweight birds eating nothing but seed encouraged owners to replace seeds with pelleted diets. And this trend has continued. Many reports demonstrate the improvement in overweight or unwell birds who have been switched to a pellets diet.
And better still the ingredients of pelleted diets began to diversify – one size doesn’t fit all in bird terms. The variety of pellets now on the market is truly astonishing and you can find specific formulations for various species. My own experience with Kaytee hand feeding formula with Benni Blue and Gold who was pulled at 6 weeks from the nest has been exemplary. He throve. Find lots of tasty Kaytee food here.
How much easier that was than a few years previously when I hand fed a clutch of five orphaned Regent Parakeets with my own hand- mixed formula. Four of the five survived and fledged.
If you decide to go down the pellet route, read the ingredients carefully and see how well they match up to knowledge you have of your species in the wild. Buy your complete food here.
Some of us object to pellets for their uniformity. Pellets look the same and taste the same every day. I love grape nuts cereal but would not like to see them served up twice a day.
In nature, psittacines are seedeaters.
EB Cravens one of the most experienced aviculturists around gave this list ‘... guava seeds, passionfruit seeds, fig seeds, apple seeds, Casuarina seeds, eucalyptus seeds, papaya seeds, palm seeds, thistle, flower and grass seeds, corn rice and grain crop seeds, oak seeds, Podocarpus and Pyrocantha seeds, pine seeds, beech seeds, squash, cucumber and melon seeds, rape, bean, pea, lentil, buckwheat seeds, and hundreds more.
Seeds are naturally-stored packages of live energy and they are prime reasons why so many Parrots and Parakeets have strong, durable hooked bills. Keepers of Budgerigars, Lovebirds, Conures, Rosellas, Amazons, Cockatoos, Macaws and more are doing their birds a huge disservice by agreeing with the brainwash theory that seeds are bad for Parrots.
Read more from EB Cravens here.
Although Parrots eat seeds in the wild it is now clear that an all seed diet is deficient. Relying on seeds as the sole diet of most bird species will result in malnutrition. Some bird species will display signs of malnutrition earlier than others, depending on what that species requirements are. Signs of malnutrition in birds include:
Excessive growth of the beak and nails
Black discoloration in green or yellow feathers
Excess keratin (horn) on the beak, giving it a scaly appearance
Paralysis (lutino Cockatiels)
Brown thickened flaking cere (Budgerigars)
Egg binding, soft-shelled eggs, straddle legged babies
Feather destructive behaviour
Fatty liver disease
Malnutrition is not limited to birds on an all-seed diet. Other diets, including formulated diets, can also contribute to malnutrition.
Gloria Scholbe in an informative article advises us to consider these thoughts:
· No single food or food formula exists that will meet the nutritional requirements of all species of birds
· Seeds are a natural and important source of nutrients that should be included as a part of most bird diets.
· Excluding all seeds from our birds' diets simply because they lack some nutrients, the same as all other food, is a poor dietary decision.
· An all seed diet causes malnutrition in birds.
The problem for us (but not for the birds) is that most of them prefer seeds them to green foods. So, what’s happened is that birds refuse their veggies day after day, so carers stop chopping and offering. Then, when the Parrot is taken to the vet for a nutrition- related illness, the vet will prescribe pellets.
Whichever decision you take whether to make pellets or seeds, one important consideration is that usually ‘you get what you pay for.’ Cheap alternatives of either sort can be harmful. Synthetic colours in pellets, dust in seeds, rancidity in both if stored incorrectly.
What Parrot carers say
I’ve canvassed a variety of Parrot owners, of different types, professional shown and trainers, successful breeders, hobbyists and free flyers. Most of them have birds, pets, breeding birds or free flyers I have actually seen and admired their plumage and behaviour. I asked Sam Marriage of Marriages for his view. Here are some of the answers I got.
Sam is the 6th generation of his family to be involved in animal food stuffs. He says:
We do make a lot of animal feed pellets so believe a pellet it is not a bad way to feed an animal.
However mentally the way a rabbit or a chicken for example feeds is very different than a Parrot.
Parrots are very intelligent birds, naturally in the wild they are foraging for food, using their feet, beak and tongue to crack open shells and interact with their food it needs to be mentally simulating.
I’m just not convinced that a mass produced single texture, single sized pellet, high in carbohydrates and milled to a powder, heat treated to over 100 degrees is ideally the most nutritious or will offer any form of long term interest for the birds. There is a big movement at the moment in animal feeds for ‘cold press pellets’ this is a big topic for the non-meat-eating animal feed sector.
What is important is ‘seed quality’, and the blend quality. Ensuring the mix isn’t high in the wrong things that can so easily become an issue, such as obesity.
EB Cravens again: Seeds are interesting to crack. A real peeve with processed pellet diets is they are supremely boring. How would you like to eat dry corn flakes every meal, every day, your whole life? Parrot diets can be a lot of things, but they should never be boring. Unexciting food bowls will mean your birds are only eating to assuage their hungers—a dangerous concept if you have a bird who is not feeling well, or one who does not know much about raising healthy babies in the nest.
I appreciate EB Cravens observations: There is no single perfect way to feed captive Parrots. Please do not think that the convenience of throwing a cat-food like product into the same dish every day is doing your bird any real favours. A quality vitamin-mineral powder sprinkled in tiny “pepper- like” amounts on moist food and then well eaten by your pet is every bit as valuable as the daily vitamin pills taken by humans to complete their full range of nutritional needs. All exotic bird diets are still in their fundamental and formative stages. Until we go out into the wilderness and analyse every seasonal item eaten by every individual species, we will still be making guesses.
Mike Hurley is a Suffolk breeder of a variety of Parrots with free range rheas strutting around the aviaries and paddock. Mike says: The Parrot diet which I feed is based on mixed pulses/mung beans, however the ratios of pulses and other foods varies.
I personally use four criteria for feeding
1. Breed specific nutritional needs;
Parrots like African Greys and Macaws require a higher level of fat rich foods including seeds and nuts than for instance Eclectus and Pionus Parrots who have a much greater need for pulses, fruit and vegetables and very little seed.
2 Variety and availability of food sources
The greater variety the better! Many foods have seasons, this encourages our Parrots to eat a natural variety of foods with the added benefit of giving the required nutritional requirements. Many of these foods can be found in gardens and in the countryside. I specifically grow low labour-intensive plants/trees for the Parrots. E.g. Elder, Figs, Nasturtium, Hibiscus, Courgettes, Walnuts and Mulberry, the list can be endless
3 Individual Parrot preferences
This should never be underestimated. Foods can and in my opinion, should be used as part of an overall enrichment strategy.
In my experience, the vast majority of Parrots can be coerced into eating most foods e.g. pulses and for me this is a food I require them to eat. However, this only accounts for part of the diet. Individual birds, like us, have favourite items of food and as long as the foods are healthy why not indulge them?
It is also important to note that the way in which we feed has to take into account the artificial environment in which we maintain our birds which clearly limits their energy expenditure, both in terms of flight/exercise and maintaining body heat in a temperate climate for this reason I increase high fat foods such as sunflower kernels and Hemp in the winter.
Bill is an aviculturist of many years standing, who has had years of experience in zoos and bird parks and with his own birds.
On diet Bill says ....... 'I believe in supplying a variety of foods which will provide stimulus and enrichment for captive birds. For Parrots, I provide a complete pelleted diet, species specific. Supplemented with fruit and vegetables. occasionally I feed boiled egg whole with the shell intact. And I admit some cooked un processed human food. I never feed un-shelled seeds or nuts, I believe the risk is too great, as moulds can be present in the casing of stored seeds or nuts. As one avian vet explained it's playing Russian roulette with a Parrot's health.
Mike Simmons one of the UK’s best animal trainers. Go and see his bird show at Centre Parks this summer. Still a young man, he has 20 years of experience with Parrots, raptors and other species. Of his Parrots’ diets, he says: The seven Parrots are fed on Harrison's and a vegetable and fruit mix. The two Macaws have more nuts and consume 80% nuts and pellets.
The Patagonian Conures get 40% pellets, 40% seed and the fruit and vegetable mix. The Amazons have 50% pellets and 50% fresh. Mike prefers pellets for the convenience and because takes the guesswork out of providing enough vitamins and minerals.
Ben Bennet our local vet.
Any bird keeper living in the Colchester area is lucky to have Ben Bennett as their vet. I have seen Ben take an untamed aviary bird onto his hand.
He says: The easy answer to this question is pellets rather than seed but this does over simplify the problem. A lot of Parrots I see are on a seed mix and it needs a motivated owner and a pliable Parrot to change over to pellets, often it is better to change the seed mix and ensure there is enough fresh food rather than attempt something that may be very difficult.
Not all seed mixes are the same and there are some very good mixes, but I still sometimes see the poor African Grey with a bowl of sunflower seeds. I also feel that we have made the move to foods for species rather than the generic Parrot food. I have clients who make the most wonderful fresh mixes of sprouted pulses and other fresh food but this takes time, dedication and an attention to detail that not everyone has.
I have had breeders who feel that their birds will not breed when fed pellets and others who do well with them. I do feel boredom can be a problem with birds on pellet diets but so can it be on seed diets. I think the diet needs to be tuned to the needs and ability of the bird and owner.
Debbie Delmer in Wales has one Blue and Gold Macaw, the 10-year-old redoubtable Alfie, so well trained that he is used to bring escaped birds down out of trees. In her new home in Wales Alfie has been used as a rescue bird bringing escaped birds down out of trees.
Of his diet, she says: Alfie has Kaytee pellet food. He loves them and eats them all. I give small amounts of mixed seed occasionally as a treat but if he has them all the time he just throws most of it. Alfie eats lots of fresh food too but nothing processed.
Clare Budgen has some birds like Amazons in her aviary and also 2 free flying pet Macaws. She says: ‘Apart from fresh fruit, veg and nuts, I feed soaked seed, sometimes a Parrot seed mix and Parrot pellets. They don’t really like pellets and I feel as though I’m wasting my money. My aviary kept Amazons will eat Harrison's pellets if pushed. My Macaws prefer fruitier pellets but mainly throw them on the floor!
Jayne Boulton together with her husband Pete cares for 12 rescues and bought Parrots. She says: As far as pellets or seeds are concerned we feed a seed based diet. I have tried pellets, Harrison's and Hagen, but nothing was consumed, just flung around the room.
When I got my first Parrot the breeder put me onto Johnson and Jeff Low Sunflower for African Greys (which you can buy here). I know they have peanuts in but the company assures the customer that they are heat treated and human grade. They have, at least stopped putting the peanuts in shells into the mix. I like the fruit and other things they put in the mix too.
We used to buy the No 1 for Clifford (our Green wing Macaw) or the fruit- based one, but I now feed him the same as the Greys. I have tried Tidymix and AS30 but none of mine would eat it. Every day they get a variety of fruits and veggies with a little treat like egg or toast, with banana on.
And finally, any consensus?
Pellets seems to be more popular with some professionals and vets. That they should be fed at 90% as some manufacturers advise is not considered good husbandry. The proportion that I found for pellets was 5% to 60%. Ditto for seeds.
That vegetables are better than most fruits which have too much sugar is accepted practice. That human foods should be strictly limited and with many items not given at all is also considered good practice. No one as yet told Artha my African Grey who knows how to open the biscuit time and extract a chocolate biscuit which has to give up immediately. She gets a tiny, tiny piece back.
Find a huge variety of Parrot seed and pellets here.
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