Parrot Parrot

Are Pellets a Panacea

Or Is a Balanced, Varied Diet the Answer?

Hyacinth Macaw Eating Grapes

Many people question the quality of pelleted diets for bird. They wonder if these foods truly constitute the healthiest nutritional plan for their parrots, finches, and other pet birds. While some veterinarians have completely gone over to an all-pelleted diet, many people instinctively feel this can’t be the answer for their pets. Sometimes in answer to a client’s concerns about an all-pelleted diet, the vet will say, “Birds do not eat only seeds in the wild.” This might be true, but I know for sure that birds do not eat any pellets in the wild, so this is hardly a sound argument in favor of a totally pelleted diet.

What then is the solution? Variety and balance. If you do some research on your particular species’ geographical origins and dietary needs, you can develop a nutritional plan that is both healthy and interesting for your bird. Parrots in particular need a varied and interesting diet because they are intelligent creatures who demand a stimulating environment. Can you imagine if we were only given small brown cubes to eat each day? We would get bored with it very quickly.

I recently heard a well-known avian veterinarian and researcher, Dr. Darryl Styles, speak at the American Federation of Aviculture’s convention in Los Angeles. While he was not specifically discussing diet, he made an interesting statement about birds: “A lory is about as different from a macaw as a dog is from a cow.”

This statement struck me as particularly important because I have always had a strong feeling that pellets have been created with specific species in mind. Studies on pellet ingredients have often involved the most commonly kept species, such as cockatiels. Therefore, it seems reasonable to question whether a diet made for a bird from desert-type areas of Australia would be the best diet for a bird from the Brazilian rainforest. Certainly these birds have different dietary requirements based on their geographical heritage. You have probably noticed that there are no pellets specifically made for cockatoos versus amazon parrots. Occasionally you will see special dietary considerations made for macaws, such as with hand-rearing formula, but usually the only difference between pellets is the size. While domestic dogs and cats are very similar regardless of their breed, birds are so very different from one another and cannot be fed the same diet whether they be a Patagonian conure from the southernmost parts of the New World or a Greater Vasa parrot from the island of Madagascar. Since many species are reported to eat local berries and grains, these will vary from one region to another. Birds almost always eat some form of seeds in the wild, so these are not inherently “bad” for them as some people suggest. In the early days of avian research it was common to autopsy birds to see what that ate. Many of the findings indicate these birds certainly eat quite a bit of seed in the wild, and many species likely eat small insects.

A number of reports from aviaries have suggested that pelleted diets do not improve the health of birds, but can actually create problems. Some breeders have reported an increased incidence of tumors, kidney problems and even kidney failure, and a variety of other health issues affecting their flocks. These reports have come from breeders of such birds as budgerigars, lovebirds, and eclectus parrots, species that come from very different environments and most likely have different dietary needs based on their geographical heritage. While I will admit reports from breeders are not scientific studies, they do warrant further investigation. Long-term studies of the effects of a largely pelleted diet on specific species have not been done. Therefore, overreliance on pellets as the sole source of nutrition seems premature. For example, what are the effects of feeding a pellet that contains ethoxyquin to an amazon parrot for 40-plus years?

What then is a healthy diet for your birds? The first thing to do is research their homeland. What sorts of fruit-bearing trees grow there? What sorts of berries? Are their indigenous grains such an quinoa or maize? You should even find out what human-cultivated crops are grown there since farming has gone on for thousands of years and these foods were likely a staple of the birds’ diet. Select your seeds and nuts based on the natural diet. You can put together your own “mix” or find a close approximation in a pre-made mix. Some of the most successful breeders I’ve spoken to say they mix their own seeds so they can control the percentages. For example, English budgies seem to do better if there is a large percentage of seeds generally used for canaries. Some budgie breeders increase the percentage of hemp seed as well.

Sprouting seeds is an excellent food choice. Seeds are lower in fat and higher in amino acids and other nutrients when they are “alive” and growing. Professional sprouting trays can simplify the process. Also, learn everything you can about sprouting and how to avoid bacterial contamination of your sprouts. Do not keep sprouted seeds in the refrigerator for more than three days and wash sprouts thoroughly before serving. If they have any bad smell or stickiness, they may have spoiled and should not be served. Some people use a solution of water and grapefruit seed extract to wash their sprouts and remove any bacteria. Some will use a very small amount of bleach in the water to wash them. Research the variety of ways you can sprout and serve your seeds before taking this on.

Fresh vegetables are enjoyed by most species. For larger parrots, big pieces of carrot or other vegetables can not only balance their nutrition but can give them something interesting to destroy. Carrots should be slightly cooked so they can better assimilate the beta carotene, but they can still be “hard” when served.

Most parrots can be seen eating berries and fruit from trees in their wild habitat. For example, Abyssinian lovebirds relish figs. This is an essential part of their natural diet and therefore is a vital part of their diet in captivity. African greys eat palm nuts in the wild. Some birds might eat juniper berries in the wild. Some might have even more specialized diets, such as lories and lorikeets, who eat a largely nectar and fruit based diet. It is your personal research that will help you devise the best plan for the species you keep. While it isn’t possible to totally mimic the diet in the wild (and this isn’t necessarily advantageous since even that might not be balanced during times of famine in those habitats), you can learn the most important thing: that a diet that is varied and nutritious makes the most sense and will keep your bird healthy and happy.

One final note about pellets. I feed my birds pellets. This might surprise you after reading this article. The truth is, they make life easier for people who have fifty or more birds. However, I feed them in balance to their other foods. They get a nice, varied seed mix; fresh vegetables and occasional fruits or berries; an occasional sprig of millet (N.B. Millet is not the worst food on earth as many vets might tell you–it is simply not balanced to feed it in large amounts. Millet is actually one of the lower-fat seeds out there and is fine if fed in proper proportion within the diet). I feed pellets about three days a week. The birds thoroughly enjoy them. I did notice that when I used to feed the pellets more often, the birds started to ignore them after a while. It was as if they were simply sick of the same old thing. Now they look forward to their bowl of pellets and eat them as if they are a nice change.

When I think of my pet birds’ diet I think about what will not only keep them physically healthy, but what will keep them interested and stimulated. Parrots are extremely intelligent creatures. They like to explore their world, especially with their beaks. Giving them a varied and stimulating diet fulfills more than the need for nutrition.

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