What to Feed Your Bird

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Michael Krinsley, D.V.M., ASPCA

Eating Like a Bird
Our avian specialist offers tips to tempt your parrot’s palate.

Photo Credit: Thinkstock

People keep many species as companion animals, each having its own dietary needs. Here at The ASPCA’s Bergh Memorial Animal Hospital, I treat the “frequent flyers,” so to speak. The most frequently seen are in the psittacine family, which includes macaws, parrots, conures, cockatiels and budgies. For this reason, I will focus on providing a balanced diet for this group of birds.

Still in its infancy, the study of nutrition for pet birds saw its beginnings within the last 10 years. Few studies have been completed, so we have had to combine data gathered from poultry scientists, ornithologists, successful aviculturists and veterinarians to help us improve our birds’ diets. We do know that all companion birds need protein, carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals for good health, but the exact combination of particular food items still can only be estimated.

What’s on the Menu?
Placing a variety of seeds and other foods in a dish and expecting your feathered companion to pick out a balanced diet doesn’t work. Birds do not have the ability to choose a proper diet, so it’s up to the owner to provide balanced nutrition. Bird pellets are the most well-balanced, complete food available today. Your local pet supply store most likely carries several brands of these pellets, which are similar in appearance and design to dry dog and cat food.

Vegetables and fruits are great additions to your bird’s balanced diet, but do not comprise a complete diet in themselves. Choose vegetables such as corn, broccoli, carrots, yams and peas rather than iceberg lettuce or celery, which are lacking in nutrients and simply are a source of water and fiber.

Apples, grapes and bananas make good fruit choices. Avoid feeding your bird citrus fruits unless specifically recommended by your avian veterinarian.

Keep the amount of table food you offer to a minimum. Never give your birds chocolate, wine and liquor, caffeinated beverages, avocados or very spicy foods. These are potential dangers.

Keep the Change

While they can be a nutritious and important food in a bird’s diet, no single seed or seed mix can supply a bird with all of his dietary requirements. Birds in the wild will eat seeds exclusively only when other foods are unavailable, as a sort of survival diet. When food supplies are abundant, birds will eat a wide array of food items to correct any imbalance in their diets, including insects, worms, fruits, vegetables and grains.

Unfortunately, many birds have been raised on, or are “addicted to,” all-seed diets. All efforts to convert such picky eaters to a healthy diet such as bird pellets become extremely difficult, because birds usually are resistant to change. This resistance may be explained in part by an instinctive, protective mechanism that serves to prevent birds living in the wild from eating poisonous substances. And, birds initially may not recognize new foods as edible substances. In many cases, an animal may choose a small variety of foods or one single seed such as sunflower and refuse to eat anything else. Such an imbalance is an invitation to disease. Sunflower seeds alone, for example, are extremely deficient in nutrients and very high in fat.

Wild birds naturally alter their diet seasonally as one food supply becomes scarce and another becomes available. Nature’s gradual change of food substances better allows them to adjust to the new diet. A similar slow technique of adjusting your birds’ diet to pelleted foods can be used at home:

* Step One: To effect a healthy change-over in birds who are “seed junkies,” begin by getting your bird eating a good-quality seed mix if he is not on one now. You can distinguish these from poor mixes in several ways. Healthier seed mixes minimize or eliminate fat-filled sunflower seeds and peanuts. Instead, they include a large list of ingredients such as oats, corn, hemp, rape seed, flax and various types of millet. Often, prime-quality mixes also are vitamin- and mineral-fortified.

If your bird’s seed mix is not enriched, you can add powdered vitamins. But despite what you hear in pet stores and read on vitamin labels, do not add the supplements to your bird’s drinking water. This can alter the taste and color of the water, thus discouraging him from drinking. Instead, sprinkle a small amount of powdered vitamins on the seeds. Add supplements only if your bird’s food is not vitamin- and mineral-fortified.

* Step Two: Try layering new foods — avian pellets, dry breakfast cereals such as puffed rice, puffed wheat and puffed millet and even whole grain breads — with layers of the familiar seeds. Be sure the cereals and breads contain protein, vitamins and minerals and are very low in fat and sugar. This technique usually works, although it may take weeks or even months to see a change. Patience is extremely important.

* Step Three: Add layers of the various vitamin- and mineral-enriched bird “nuggets” and “cakes” now on the market. These products, composed of seeds and fully balanced foods, can be crushed and added in layers with the seeds and foods introduced in Step Two.

As these cakes and nuggets already contain the familiar seeds, your birds may accept them if you are lucky, thus eliminating the need to add seed layers in between. However, in most instances, you will be adding cakes and nuggets to seed-only layers, which you can slowly eliminate. Eventually your bird will be eating seeds already contained in the nuggets or cakes alone.

* Step Four: The final step is to add layers of pelleted food in between the cakes and nuggets, which you will then eliminate over time.

If you are able to convert your birds to the pelleted diet, you have done very well. Don’t despair if you have succeeded only in changing over to cakes or nuggets — already you have improved your bird’s diet considerably. To avoid this tedious process altogether, I recommend that owners start all young birds on pellets as soon as possible after weaning.

In the wild, birds eat mainly in the morning and evening, so you can mimic this natural pattern by feeding your birds two meals a day. And never restrict food in debilitated birds. Considering the wide variety of healthy choices available for your bird’s diets, they no longer must suffer from poor nutrition.

Serving SuggestionsGrit is considered unnecessary in pet bird diets. In certain cases, it has been responsible for impaction and even death.

Chlorine added to municipal drinking water supplies does not seem to be a problem for birds, but bottled or distilled water may have certain advantages.

Avoid giving cooked foods that have been left out for long periods of time. These can be very high in bacteria.

Obesity in birds can be avoided by eliminating the high-fat seeds, letting your companions out of the cage for daily exercise and avoiding overfeeding.

© 1997
ASPCA Animal Watch – Spring 1997

Courtesy of
ASPCA
424 East 92nd St.
New York, NY 10128-6804
(212) 876-7700
www.aspca.org

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