One of the greatest challenges facing parrot
caregivers today is that of providing an optimal diet.
There seems at this time to be little to no agreement among
professionals in aviculture and related professions as to what
constitutes the best diet for each species, and conflicting
information leads the parrot owner closer and closer over time
toward a state of confusion and frustration.
Coupled with the difficulty of learning what to feed to
foster the best health in our parrots, is the resistance to new
foods that our parrots display.
Thus, the well-intentioned caregiver who tries to follow
the advice given about what to feed often eventually gives up in
despair of getting the bird to eat the recommended diet.
Is it really any wonder that many bird owners
simply succumb to the temptation to provide seed as the largest
component of the diet? This
thinking was voiced recently by one well-meaning, but misguided,
bird owner who declared her preference for feeding seed on the
basis that at least her bird would enjoy his life, even if it were
to be shorter because of his diet.
Other owners do not settle for this solution,
and continue to investigate and research parrot diets in hopes of
finding the answers necessary to successfully feeding a parrot in
a manner that will insure good health and longevity.
Such a search toward taking more personal responsibility
for parrot care, rather than simply accepting the advice of one
authority, leads to more quality parrot care in all areas.
This is the hidden blessing that living with parrots
affords us – as we seek to learn more about their care needs, we
are challenged to think for ourselves. This is quite different
from the manner in which we have been led to act in our society,
which encourages us to abdicate personal responsibility and
instead rely upon the guidance of professionals in our midst.
in Companion Parrots is the “Norm”
It is critically important that we continue
to strive to learn more about parrot nutrition, as new information
becomes available. Over
a decade ago, Joel Murphy, DVM wrote in his book The
Complete Guide to Parrot Nutrition, “Good nutrition is the
most important requirement of a parrot for a long life, good
health, and reproductive success.
Today, however, with the increased popularity of pet
parrots, malnutrition is the number one cause of death.
Malnutrition not only kills birds directly, but also
predisposes parrots to a wide host of bacterial, viral, and fungal
have been kept in captivity for thousands of years, but little is
known about each parrot species’ dietary requirements.
There have been few scientific studies on parrot nutrition
and no individual or organization (including the National Academy
of Sciences) has determined the optimum diet for any parrot
Little has changed since that was published.
In his most recent book, How
to Care for Your Pet Bird, he writes “Malnutrition is the
leading cause of disease in the pet bird.
It is rare for a parakeet or cockatiel to die of an illness
that is not caused by a poor diet. All psittacine birds are omnivorous. Omnivorous means both meat and vegetable eaters.
The number one cause of malnutrition is feeding a
psittacine bird a simple seed or grain diet. …Feeding your pet
bird correctly is the most important part of proper bird care.
Even today, most budgerigars and cockatiels die of diseases
caused by poor diets. Larger
parrots are known for their long life spans of 40 to 70 years.
In reality, most live very short lives – often cut short
Valerie Campbell, DVM writes, “Problems related to improper
nutrition are extremely common in pet birds. In the larger parrot
species (amazons, cockatoos, macaws), whose normal life spans are
quite long, it is reported that the majority of these birds die
within 5 years of purchase. Nutrition plays a major role in their
She goes on to discuss a recent Dutch study, which revealed
that “60% of the birds presented for autopsy showed signs of
nutritional deficiency.” Thus,
in a very real sense, the parrot owner holds his bird’s life in
his hands when he chooses the diet he will feed.
After years of experience as an avian behavior consultant, I
have concluded that malnutrition is also at the root, or is at
least a partial cause, of behavioral disease as well.
The vast majority of behavior problems in parrots are due
in part to poor diet. We
know ourselves that we do not feel well, nor can we behave well,
when we eat foods high in sugar and fat and that lack important
nutrients. I believe
that an evaluation of the diet and it’s effect on the parrot is
a cornerstone of good behavioral work.
Nutrition as An Evolving Field of Knowledge
As we examine the issue of psittacine
nutrition, it is helpful to understand a little about the recent
history of parrot keeping in the United States.
For instance, as recently as the 1980’s, most parrots
were wild-caught and existed solely as caged birds; they were not
handled by their owners.[ii]
That was a mere 20 years ago.
It has only been in the last two decades that parrots have
been bred in the numbers they are today.
In response to this increase in their population, the
fields of avian veterinary medicine and avian behavior
consultation have sprung up.
Some dates pulled from the history of avian veterinary
medicine allow us to understand just what a “new” field this
is. The Association
of Avian Veterinarians was established in 1982 and board
certification of avian veterinarians did not begin until 1993[iii]
The field of behavior consulting has just as recently come
into being. These
dates provide a frame of reference which allows us to better
understand why owners find so much conflicting advice about the
correct diet for parrots, as well as other areas of parrot
Parrot caregivers will come to a better
understanding of how to provide a good diet for their birds when
they understand how ideas about diet have evolved, the current
status of information about wild parrot diets, the role that
vision plays in food selection, the patterned factors that govern
foraging in the wild, and the true nutritional value of different
diet elements. Feeding
parrots with a sense of confidence need not be a confusing matter.
During the past few decades and until
relatively recently, companion parrots and breeding stock have
been fed a seed-based diet, supplemented with table food and/or
fruit. Since seed
mixes do not provide adequate nutrition, any parrots eating
primarily seed eventually suffered from nutritional deficiencies
that predisposed them to infection and caused other health problem
as well. Seed
contains a poor calcium/phosphorus ratio, which leads to calcium
deficiencies. It also
lacks an adequate amount of vitamin A, which is important to the
functioning of the immune system. Lastly, seed will not meet the
protein requirements of a parrot.
Thus, a seed diet ultimately places a parrot’s health in
jeopardy, as veterinarians have discovered.
Further, the seeds that form the basis for
most seed mixes are also grown for cooking oil production and are
not at all the same as the seeds wild parrots consume. Thus, seed
mixes fed today can not be thought of as a “natural” food for
parrots. The seeds
that parrots eat in the wild are not harvested or imported into
this country, and it is likely that they do not contain the high
fat levels found in those contained in most seed mixes sold today
for parrot consumption.
In the past two decades, formulated diets,
commonly called “pellets,” made their appearance on pet food
store shelves, and provided veterinarians with a better
alternative to seed-based diets.
Pellets have been embraced by the majority of vets, who
have collectively begun urging owners to convert their birds to
pellets and eliminate seed from their diets, as the sole answer to
dietary needs. However,
enough time has now elapsed since the introduction of pelleted and
extruded diets that we have begun to see problems among some
species related to the consumption of these.
Some of the problems that have appeared have
been related to protein levels in pellets that are too high for
some species, including but not limited to Pionus species and
cockatiels, and which result in the development of gout or PU/PD (polyuria/polydypsia)
in some individuals. In
addition, reports of both iron toxicity and vitamin D toxicity
connected with the feeding of pellets have surfaced.
Less frequently, we hear of problems caused in young
parrots weaned to pellets with inadequate amounts of some
nutrients, such as perosis (twisting of the leg bones) caused by
low levels of choline in the manufactured diet.
Simply put, we do not yet know enough about the nutritional
needs of all parrot species to claim that any one manufactured
diet is going to meet their nutritional needs.
The recognition of these health problems caused by pellets
forces us once again to reevaluate the manner in which we feed our
for Consideration When Creating Your Parrot’s Diet
Some avian veterinarians believe that parrot
owners should be encouraged to feed a 100% manufactured diet to
their birds because the majority of owners are not capable of
providing a good diet otherwise.
I never fail to feed saddened when I encounter this
ideology, for it essentially removes the benefit and privilege of
choice from the parrot owner, as well as the parrot.
In other words, the owner is encouraged to feed a pelleted
diet, not because of strong conviction that the diet is optimal,
but because it is perceived as the lesser of two evils.
However, I see no reason why owners can not
learn the fundamentals of good nutrition and provide wisely for
their birds. For
those who care not to do so, reliance upon pelleted foods as the
total diet is a viable choice.
The majority of parrots can and do enjoy good
health when eating a pelleted-only diet.
Further, I believe the majority of parrots benefit from
eating pellets as a staple in the diet.
For one thing, parrots need a “default” diet.
By my definition, this is a diet that is packaged, easy to
feed, and will supply all their nutritional needs.
If I were to die tomorrow, and there were no one to chop
their fruits and vegetables, my parrots would all be fine –
because they all enjoy a high-quality pelleted diet in addition to
their fresh foods. Further,
I regard the ability to eat and enjoy a high quality pelleted diet
as a living skill. Pellets
are a great source of protein and other essential nutrients.
However, there are good reasons to provide a
diet that includes more choices for the parrot.
And, parrot owners also deserve a choice, and will have one
if they take the time to read and put into practice the best of
For those parrot owners interested in
learning how to feed an optimal diet prepared at home (a diet that
is offered in addition to pellets), it is necessary to learn not
only what to feed, but how
to feed. Many factors
inherent to a wild parrot’s eating habits continue to govern
their reactions to foods in captivity.
Timing of feedings plays a part in food acceptance.
The types of foods offered also can impact a parrot’s
appetite over time, causing him to refuse to eat healthier fare.
The manner in which food is offered will many times dictate
whether or not the meal is ultimately met with acceptance. Even an
owner’s attitude can influence what his bird will accept and
Secondly, we must have a fundamental
understanding of nutrition, of the basic nutritional building
blocks necessary to growth and maintenance of tissues, bones,
feathers and a healthy immune system, as well as the best sources
of these. The basic
classes of nutrients include protein, fat, carbohydrates, vitamins
and minerals. We will
take a look at the role each plays in the psittacine diet and at
the food choices that will supply each to the parrot.
and How of Feeding Parrots
It is important to examine when and how
to feed parrots in order to insure acceptance of the foods
offered, and will take a look at some of the most common mistakes
made by parrot owners. First,
however, we must begin with a fundamental recognition of the fact
that parrots enjoy eating.
In the wild, it is a social activity replete with
is an “event.” The
more we strive to feed parrots in a manner that reflects the
patterns they follow in nature, the greater success we will have
with them in our homes.
It is generally accepted as true that parrots
forage in the wild twice each day, in the early morning and the
late afternoon and early evening before dark.
It is my experience that parrots eat more readily and
enthusiastically if a new crock of food is provided to them at
these times. My own
parrots receive their morning meal predictably at 8:00 am.
Their evening meal is given to them between 4:00 and 6:00
pm, depending upon the time of year. I strive to feed them at least an hour before dusk, so that
they have plenty of time to eat before darkness falls. In this manner, we also make eating an “event.”
In my home, pellets are provided in a separate dish and are
available all the time. For
the morning and evening feedings, they are provided with a dish of
fresh, raw vegetables, fruit, cooked legumes, grains and beans,
some seeds and nuts. I
strive to provide lots of variety in these two daily meals and am
gratified when the birds enthusiastically rush to their food
dishes to see what they will find each time they are fed.
Parrots Twice a Day for Best Health
As I indicated above, I frequently find that
poor diet plays a large role in the development of behavior
problems. In many of these cases, not only must we make improvements in
what is fed to the
parrot, but in when and how it is fed.
In some instances, parrots are provided with a dish of
fresh foods in the morning, but nothing in the evening.
This is based upon the rationale that they have pellets
available at all times and they can just eat those from mid-day
onward when they are hungry.
The problem with this plan is that some
parrots will not eat enough pellets to really develop a feeling of
satiety. They will
ignore, or only eat lightly of the pellets, in hopes of being
offered “tastier” fare. In our snack-loving society, they usually are not
disappointed and will be offered “treats” throughout the
evening, or will share the table food the family enjoys.
This latter is not a problem if the foods shared are very
healthy. However, I have yet to find a situation where the parrot is
sharing meals consisting of cooked whole grains, lightly steamed
vegetables, and lean meats. Instead,
when I request a three-day food diary, the foods listed for dinner
are invariably macaroni and cheese, spaghetti, pizza, etc..
It is more important to closely examine what
a parrot is eating, rather than what the parrot is offered. Repeatedly when doing so, I find that the bird is “holding
out” for offerings of table food and treats.
In one home, the bird ate breakfast with the family, which
consisted of cereal and milk or waffles.
He was then given “lunch,” which consisted of a crock
of vegetables and fruit. At
dinner, he was fed the same table food consumed by his human
family. Since the
morning and evening meals fell in timing closer to the times he is
genetically programmed to forage, he ate a great deal at those
times, and generally ignored his vegetables that were provided at
noon. His caregiver
had come to the conclusion that he “didn’t like” fresh
the real reason he largely ignored them was that they were
provided at a time of day when he was not interested in eating.
Parrots should not be fed “lunch.” They should be provided with two main meals of their own each morning
and early evening. After
having had a chance to eat from those, it is permissible for the
parrot to join the human family for some table food at dinner.
However, the family’s dinner should not be served to the
parrot as his only evening meal.
Snack Foods and Limit Table Food
Certain foods will “pervert” a parrot’s
appetite, in my experience, in that the bird will come to favor
them over others and will “hold out” for those.
In one case, I was having trouble figuring out what the
parrot really ate. I
had requested a diet diary for a three-day period and saw that the
parrot was provided with two main meals each day, but the owner
complained that he was not eating much of those.
Upon closer examination, it was revealed that this bird was
subsisting solely upon peanut butter filled pretzels and other
treats. His well-
meaning human family had a habit of snacking throughout the day
and they were sure to always include their African Grey in this.
So many snacks were offered to the bird during the day,
that he had no desire to eat his fresh foods.
Foods high in fat, simple carbohydrates
(including sugar) and salt have a way of “perverting” the
appetite in such a manner that the more one eats of them, the more
one wants of them. The
same phenomena can be seen in parrots as well.
Because of issues related to “timing” of
feedings, and to appetite, I am opposed to the frequent feedings
of table food and snack foods.
When evaluating a parrot’s diet, I do not like to see
table food make up more than 20% of the diet.
Not only is the standard American diet too high in fat,
salt, sugar, and processed foods, but it is largely a cooked
diet. Parrots evolved in the wild eating fresh, live raw foods.
These raw foods have an abundance of enzymes, essential
fatty acids, and phyto-nutrients that are destroyed by cooking.
I do not believe that a parrot will enjoy the best health
if the majority of the foods he eats are processed and cooked.
If, as we continue to assert, they are not yet
domesticated, then common sense would appear to dictate that they
will enjoy the greatest level of health in captivity if fed at
least 50% of their diet in fresh, live, raw foods. Every mouthful a parrot takes should count toward good
nutrition. If a bird
fills up on pretzels, cereal, spaghetti and dried fruit, he is not
going to want to eat raw greens, blueberries and broccoli.
Unfortunately, in our addictive society, food
is often used to satisfy emotional needs, rather than nutritional
needs. Many of our
“snacks” fill that purpose.
A great many owners project this emotional need to have
“snacks” onto their parrot companions. This leads to a problem with poor nutrition for the bird
himself. If owners
want to provide snacks to their parrots, they should stick to
fresh nuts, and these should be limited as well.
They are best reserved for rewarding good behavior and
Depends Upon Familiarity
Another factor that governs acceptance
concerns the manner in which the food is offered.
Parrots are notoriously conservative creatures, shunning
anything that is unfamiliar.
This often leads owners to misinterpret their birds
reactions to foods offered. When the parrot is presented with broccoli and he has never
seen broccoli before, his first reaction is going to be to toss it
down without a second look…that is, if he’s brave enough to go
near it. However,
chances are the owner will interpret this as a “dislike” of
majority of parrots will need to see a new food many times before
trying it as a food source.
For this reason, you will see a greater level
of acceptance of new foods if all foods are served in “mixes.” I use three mixes when I feed my own parrots.
The first is a fresh food mix that contains chopped greens,
chopped vegetables, cooked beans, grains and legumes, fruit, whole
grain pasta, and frozen vegetables.
Because my birds are used to the overall appearance of this
mix, I can put anything into it and they will eat it because the
general appearance of the meal has not changed.
The second mix of foods I use is a cooked grain mix,
wherein one to three different types of grains are cooked along
with shredded or chopped sweet potatoes, carrots, squash or
pumpkin. To this mix
is added other shredded vegetables, ground nuts, etc.
The third “mix” I serve is a birdie bread mix. Recipes for birdie bread abound, but there is none better
than Gloria Scholbe’s recipe, which can be found at www.holisticbird.org.
I feed the fresh food mix in the morning,
because this can be left in the cage all day without danger of
spoilage, since the majority of the ingredients are not cooked.
In the evening, I feed the fresh food mix again with a
piece of birdie bread or a cooked grain mix in place of the fresh mix. If the birds are
offered any table food, it is at least an hour or more after they
have had a chance to thoroughly enjoy their own meal.
Lastly, as unlikely as it might sound, the
owner’s attitude about the food she is serving her birds can go
a long way to determining which foods the parrot will accept.
Not only are our birds incredibly empathic, but they are
masters at reading body language.
When the owner presents a crock of fresh vegetables, but
does so with the conviction that the bird won’t eat them, she is
likely to cue the bird that something is “wrong” with the food
itself. Owners will
see the greatest acceptance of foods offered when they are offered
with the conviction that the parrot will eat them and enjoy them.
Selection is a Learned Behavior
In order to hold this conviction, we must
dispense with our ideas about what the parrot likes.
In my experience, parrot owners are overly concerned with
providing foods that their companion birds like. Apparently, we
love them so much that we want desperately to please them. That is a recurrent theme that I encounter with each and
every consultation I do. I
personally hold a private belief that the slight desperation I
sense in the owner’s need to please the parrot has it’s roots
in an unspoken undercurrent of guilt at keeping a flighted
creature in a cage with clipped wings.
Granted, this is not ever a spoken feeling or motivation.
However, the degree to which owners attempt to please their
parrots with food is far and above anything I see with dogs and
cats. The latter are,
in most cases, dispassionately provided with kibble, and that’s
In attempting to reply to an owner’s
concerns about feeding foods that his bird “likes,” I explain
that breeding parrots in the wild likely do not take their
fledglings out to forage the first few times and say, “Here,
little one, take a bite of this and see if you like it. If you
don’t, we’ll make the whole flock fly over there
and you can try that plant to see if you like it.” Instead, the message conveyed is more likely to be simply,
“Here…this is what African Greys eat.
We’re African Greys, and here is how to eat it!”
In other words, eating and food choices are learned, and we
would do well in captivity to follow such a thought pattern when
feeding our own parrots. Rather
than paying such close attention to an individual parrot’s
reaction to a given food on a given day, and drawing conclusions
about his preferences from that, we must instead serve a large
variety of healthful foods at appropriate times of the day, and
minimize the feeding of any less healthful foods. We will then
have made significant progress towards keeping a healthy bird.
We must also commit to providing a
“landscape” of healthy food choices.
We must have enough humility to realize that parrots in the
wild do effectively make food selections that insure their best
health. We must allow
room for the possibility that captive parrots are capable of doing
the same thing, if they are eating a well-chosen diet that does
not include unhealthy foods.
In the wild, if a parrot eats sparingly of a certain plant,
that plant does not disappear out of the landscape simply because
the parrot is not feeding on it every day.
Similarly, in captivity we must provide a “landscape”
of healthy food choices and keep these in place, even if our
parrot doesn’t eat a significant amount of each every day. True, this results in a lot of waste. That’s okay.
Thus, in summary, parrots will achieve the
greatest health when fed twice a day a meal prepared specifically
for them to meet their nutritional needs, that consists of chopped
mixes of raw or lightly cooked whole foods.
These should be served with the conviction that they will
be met with acceptance.
the Basics of Nutrition
Once we understand when and how to feed
parrots, we must then evaluate the diet we are feeding.
I can not reiterate often enough the importance of parrot
owners thinking for themselves about diet, researching and
learning more each day, in order to decide for themselves the diet
that is appropriate to their species. The first step in doing so
is to gain a basic knowledge of nutrition and the various
categories of nutrients that a parrot must consume in order to
maintain good health. These
include proteins (amino acids), carbohydrates, fats (essential
fatty acids), vitamins, minerals, and other essential trace
Requirements and Sources
The diet you are feeding your parrots should
be first evaluated to determine whether adequate amounts of
protein are being consumed. Proteins,
which are comprised of amino acids, are used by the parrot to grow
and repair muscle, organs, feathers, beak, and other body tissue.
Amino acids, which are often called the “building
blocks” of protein, are divided into two groups: essential and
non-essential amino acids can be manufactured by the parrot’s
own body. However,
there are at least ten amino acids that must be supplied by the
diet, because the body can not manufacture them. These are called the essential amino acids, and they are
arginine, lysine, methionine, tryptophan, histidine, isoleucine,
leucine, phenylalanine, threonine and valine.[iv]
The protein contained in foods is similarly
categorized as either “complete” protein or “incomplete
protein,” depending upon whether the food contains all of the
amino acids, or only some of them. For instance, corn contains
protein, but it lacks many of the essential amino acids, and thus
is looked upon as a poor source of protein.
Eggs and other animal proteins contain high
levels of all of the essential amino acids and are considered to
be higher quality protein foods.
Pellets also are an acknowledged source of complete protein
for psittacine birds. As we know, they are considered by many to be a complete
diet, in and of themselves, eliminating the need for any other
foods. I, and many
others however, refuse to accept that parrots should be fed a
pelleted food as the total diet. David McCluggage, DVM in Holistic
Care for Birds, explains it well:
“A current trend recommends feeding birds a formulated
commercial diet. We
cannot recommend this method because we do not believe it offers
optimum nutrition to birds. People should not restrict their birds’ diet to only highly
processed foods. It
would be absurd if someone told us that the best diet for us is a
pelleted diet – the same pellet for every meal, day in and day
out. We know much
more about what the human body needs nutritionally, and we are
told continually that we must eat a variety of different fresh
foods daily. Why
would birds be any different?
Although feeding your bird a certified, organic, pelleted
food can be a good addition to its diet, using the pellet as the
entire diet is inadequate and unappealing for birds.”[v]
Other good protein sources are garbanzo
beans, lentils, soy beans, pinto beans, red kidney beans, split
peas, and white kidney beans.
Dairy products and meats can be fed as
sources of complete protein.
Parrots need small amounts of protein to supply essential
amino acids. Such sources include eggs, well-cooked chicken and
fish, and dairy products. When legumes (beans)are fed along with
whole grains, the need to feed animal protein is eliminated.
While it is often written that parrots are
“lactose intolerant,” meaning that they can not digest dairy
produces, in reality they can digest low to moderate amounts of
dairy products. Eggs and cottage cheese are excellent sources of protein.
If you feed dairy products, feed them in moderation and
watch your parrot’s droppings.
If loose, watery stools result from the amount fed, then
reduce the amount given.
In determining how much animal protein should
be fed, we can look at what we know about the protein requirements
previously published. It
is often recommended that parrots consume between 10% and 16%
protein daily. Breeding birds and young, growing birds need
additional amounts. According
to Dr. Murphy, feeding a teaspoon of complete protein daily would
satisfy the maintenance requirements for a medium-sized parrot.[vi]
Nuts are high in both fat and protein and
also contain minerals. Nuts are perhaps the best “snack” food
that we can give our birds.
If a parrot does not consume enough high
quality, or “complete,” protein foods it will not have good
health. Amino acid
deficiencies result in increased susceptibility to bacterial and
other infections, feather picking, poor feather quality overall,
poor growth and decreased fertility in breeding birds.
Parrots also need more protein during periods of growth,
when molting and when breeding.
Too much protein can also be detrimental to
health, and anecdotal information has now been gathered which
suggests that some species will develop gout when fed diets too
high in protein. When a parrot consumes too much protein, the excess amino
acids are used for the creation of energy.
The end product of this process is uric acid, which must
then be excreted by the kidneys.
In extreme cases, this leads to kidney damage.
Protein requirements for a given parrot will
also depend upon the fat content of the diet.
The number of calories in the diet we feed a parrot will
dictate the amount of food the bird eats.
If the diet is high in calories, the bird will consume less
food. Thus, the
protein levels in the diet must be higher, in order for the bird
to consume an adequate amount.
If the diet is low in calories, more food will be consumed
and the bird will then need less protein in each mouthful.
Therein lies the problem with feeding a lot of snack food
to a parrot. Snack
foods sold for consumption by humans are typically high in
calories and will cause a bird to cut down on his consumption of
healthier fare. If he
is not provided with an adequate amount of protein in the balance
of his diet, malnutrition will result.
Unfortunately, at this time we do not have
accurate figures for the protein requirements of each species.
However, some information has been gathered and anecdotal
information accumulates with each passing year.
In my own experience, I find African Grey parrots and the
majority of cockatoos to have slightly higher protein requirements
that the New World species. These
parrots often experience the best health when fed either
Harrison’s High Potency pellets or Scenic Diet pellets – both
higher in protein than other brands. (I make this statement with
the assumption that the parrots eating these pellets are also
receiving fresh whole foods in their diet as well.)
My own approach with my flock, which has to
date achieved excellent results, has been to provide pellets for
free choice consumption, along with the fresh food mixes and other
foods that I serve. I
believe, and have for years, that parrots will balance their own
diets if served an abundant variety of nutritionally dense foods
and are not fed fatty or sugary foods that will pervert their
appetites. I find
that there are times that my parrots hardly touch their pellets,
while at others, they will consume them to the exclusion of all
Fresh vegetables provide a variety of
valuable nutrients, but many are deficient in amino acids
(protein), calcium and some vitamins. You will not achieve your
goal of feeding a balanced diet to your parrots if you merely
supplement a seed diet with fresh vegetables. However, while
vegetables are often low in amino acids, they can be combined in
such a way as to provide good quality protein. The greater the
variety of vegetables fed, the more likely you will be to provide
a balanced diet. Some
vegetables (legumes), such as beans, are fairly high in protein.
Carbohydrates also are necessary to good
health. The term
“carbohydrates” refers to simple sugars, starches and
non-digestible fiber, or cellulose. Carbohydrates are provided by
fruit, vegetables, and grains.
Carbohydrates, with the exception of fiber, provide energy
to the body. Fiber
itself does not provide any nutrients, and it still remains
uncertain whether it is necessary to psittacine health.
However, it has been shown that poultry will engage at
times in cannibalism and feather picking when fed a diet lacking
in fiber. Fiber also
has been shown important to human health.
Therefore, we might assume that it is also of importance to
The percentage of carbohydrates necessary to
parrots also remains unclear at this time, although we do know
that some species have higher requirements than others, such as
lories and lorikeets. While
the over-consumption of fats has routinely been blamed for obesity
in parrots, a diet too low in fat will often cause the over
consumption of carbohydrates, which also results in obesity -
especially if adequate amounts of protein are not included in the
Fruits provide carbohydrates and may help to
maintain the acid/alkaline balance in the body.
Generally speaking, however, fruit is low in protein,
vitamins and minerals. As with seed, if too much fruit is consumed
the parrot may neglect to eat other, more nutrition foods.
Its consumption should be limited to no more than 10% of
Non-oily seeds and grains are another
valuable source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. These
include millet, canary seed, buckwheat, oats, rye, barley, wheat,
quinoa, spelt, kamut, amaranth and rice.
These grains can be fed soaked, sprouted or cooked.
Fats are another category of nutrient
necessary to psittacine birds, although requirements vary widely
among species. Fats
provide essential fatty acids and, along with carbohydrates,
provide energy to the body. Parrots in the wild seek out high fat (high calorie) foods,
and will do the same in captivity.
This is another reason to limit human snacks and table
food, as well as seed. Obesity
in some species, such as Amazons, is quite common and results from
eating high fat foods while enjoying a relatively sedentary
Seed mixes fed to parrots are one source of
fats and essential fatty acids.
Seeds are rich in oils containing essential fatty acids.
They also provide carbohydrates and some vitamins.
They are one of the most-enjoyed foods you can offer a
parrot. If offered
seeds as a free-choice diet component, parrots will usually eat
the seed to the exclusion of anything else offered, thus I am
opposed to providing a dish of just seed to most parrots.
Many companies offer “vitamized” or
vitamin-enriched seed mixes in hopes of reassuring the parrot
owner that such a product will resolve the many known inadequacies
of the seed diet. However,
the added vitamins have only been coated on the outside of the
seed and are discarded along with the hull when eating. As Dr.
Murphy writes, “Putting vitamins on the hulls of seeds is no
different than putting vitamins on a candy bar wrapper and selling
the candy to children as ‘vitamin-enriched candy.’”
All that said, however, seed can and should
be a nutritious part of your parrot’s diet when fed wisely.
As you will see when you examine the diet ideas at the end
of this article, seed can be limited to 5% to 10% of
the diet, can serve to help create a true foraging
experience for your parrot at mealtime, and can also be used to
convert a seed junkie or strictly pellet-eating parrot to a diet
that contains an abundance of fresh raw foods and nutrient dense
cooked whole grains, beans and legumes.
Plus, when fed in limited quantities, seeds still remain a
valuable source of essential fatty acids.
and Minerals…Requirements and Sources
The psittacine diet must also provide
vitamins and minerals. Vitamins
are divided into two categories: fat soluble and water soluble.
The fat soluble vitamins are A, D, E and K. All others are water soluble.
Vitamin A deficiency is frequently seen in
companion parrots, especially those eating a seed diet.
Birds manufacture their own vitamin A from beta-carotenes,
which are found in reddish or orange vegetables and fruit. Good sources for vitamin A include sweet potatoes, yams,
carrots, winter squash, apricots, parsnips, broccoli, brussels
sprouts, cauliflower, cabbage, carrot tops, turnip greens,
dandelion greens and mustard greens.
respiratory system of all parrots contains hair-like structures
called cilia that remove dust, bacteria and fungi from the air and
trap them in mucus. A
diet lacking in vitamin A causes the destruction of these
structures, leaving the parrot without defense against disease
also use beta-carotenes to manufacture feather pigments.
Dull feather color is often an indicator of a diet lacking
in vitamin A.
Other vitamins necessary to good growth and
health include vitamins D, E, K, C, and the B vitamins.
Birds can manufacture vitamin D when their skin is exposed
to sunlight (or the correct frequencies of UV light), so that
birds that spend more time outdoors may need a lower amount of
this nutrient in their diet.
Pellets contain adequate amounts of vitamin D.
Both too little and too much vitamin D can be harmful to
parrots. This is an
area in which future research will benefit parrots in captivity.
Vitamin E is used for many metabolic
to Joel Murphy, DVM, analysis of foods that parrot eat in the
jungle reveals a high level of vitamin E.[vii]
While the optimum amount in the diet is not known, effort should
be made to feed some foods high in this nutrient.
Vitamin C is manufactured by the parrot’s
body and is not usually considered a vitamin that needs
times of stress or illness, however, the bird may not be able to
manufacture adequate amounts of this vitamin and supplementation
may be beneficial.
According to Dr. Joel Murphy, if a parrot is
not eating 80% or more of its diet as pellets, vitamin
supplementation should be provided by purchasing a powdered form
of avian vitamins that can be sprinkled onto fresh foods.[viii]
Minerals also are necessary for good health.
The most important mineral in the diet, and the major
mineral in the parrot’s body, is calcium, which is used for bone
and egg formation, muscle contraction, heart and nerve function
and blood coagulation. Parrots eating a seed diet tend to, over
time, develop a calcium deficiency, in addition to vitamin A
deficiency. Seeds are low in
calcium and high in phosphorus. The best food sources of calcium
are almonds, apricots, beans, broccoli, cabbage, carrots, eggs,
endive, figs, hazelnuts, kale, parsnips, tofu, and watercress.
Other minerals necessary in the diet include
phosphorus, manganese, sodium, zinc, iodine.
Sodium toxicity is frequently seen by veterinarians in
parrots who consume human snack foods.
Iodine deficiency will be seen in parrots eating a seed
Trace minerals are needed in much lower
amounts and include magnesium, iron, copper, selenium, chromium,
silicon, vanadium, tin and nickel.
It All Together
stated above, feeding parrots a large variety of foods with good
acceptance on their part is best accomplished by feeding mixes of
foods. Below is a
recipe for making a fresh food mix that only requires chopping
fruits and vegetables once a week.
It is a recipe I developed for feeding fresh foods to over
40 birds a week, so some modification of this is necessary when
feeding only a small flock. However,
this modification is easily accomplished.
Following this set of instructions, are guidelines for
converting any seed-eating or pellet-eating parrot to this diet in
a slow, caring way that does not place the bird in a position of
experiencing extreme hunger ever.
Layered Fresh Food Mix and Diet Conversion
This diet has several advantages, not the least of which is that I
can feed fresh foods to over 40 birds on a daily basis, while only
chopping fruits and vegetables once a week. For those of you with
only one or two birds, this idea can be modified easily.
Once a week, I layer in plastic storage containers (I use seven
2-gallon containers since I'm feeding so many birds) the
Layer 1 (bottom layer) - chopped greens, which are varied each
week. One week, I'll use collard greens and parsley and mustard
greens, and the next I might use Swiss chard, kale and dandelion
greens. (If you have only one parrot, or a few parrots, just
choose one type of greens, but vary this weekly.)
Layer 2 - chopped (1/4 to 1/2 inch cubes) green vegetables,
including any of the following: Brussels sprouts, zucchini and
other summer squash, jicama, red or green peppers, fresh hot
peppers, chayote squash, jicama, green beans, fresh peas,
cucumber, celery, anise root, etc.
Layer 3 - chopped broccoli and shredded carrots
Layer 4 - a mixture of chopped apples, oranges and whole grapes
Layer 5 - frozen mixed vegetables.
The containers are then placed in the refrigerator (don't freeze).
Issues of freshness:
this mix stays fresh in these tubs for up to seven days for three
reasons. First, layered salads stay fresher longer. Second, the
orange juice from the chopped oranges filters down and slightly
acidifies that mix. The frozen mixed vegetables placed on top
super-cool the mix immediately (cold air sinks/warm air rises). I
do also wash all the fruits, vegetables and greens with Oxyfresh
Cleansing Gele, which not only gets them clean but also has some
anti-bacterial action. (Any
veggie wash will do if you can’t find the Oxyfresh products.)
each morning, I empty out one container into a large mixing bowl.
At that point, I add
other foods that would not hold up or stay fresh in the layered
mix, such as: soft fruits (blueberries, peaches, plums, kiwi
fruits, melon, etc), sprouts, cooked grains (amaranth, quinoa,
brown rice, barley, etc), uncooked whole wheat pasta, and cooked
beans. The addition of a combination of cooked beans and cooked
grains provides another source of complete protein in the diet.
Sometimes, in order to generate a little
excitement, I'll sneak in a package of pine nuts or walnut pieces.
Usually, I feed nuts separately, but I like to use this fresh mix
to surprise the parrots as well.
Once everything from the tub is completely mixed together, I add
enough of a very clean, high quality seed mix to make up 5% to 10%
of this mix. I might
also add a scoop of pellets.
This is then mixed together and fed to the birds. (Pellets
are optional, but their inclusion into this mix at some point can
help with their introduction.)
This recipe can be adapted for any number of birds with a little
creativity, by reducing either the number or size of the
containers used or both. For just one medium-sized parrot, such as
an African Grey, you can create three containers, each holding
about 4 cups. One
container will keep for about two days, even after being opened
and mixed up. It may
take some playing around to find the right-sized containers, as
well as the right amount of veggies and fruits to include, in
terms of variety – but it will be well worth it.
I promise you!
1. There's no need to chop fresh foods every day.
2. Parrots are very visual creatures. If you stick a bird feeder
outside, it will take the wild birds at least two weeks to start
to feed from it. When fruits and vegetables are fed singly, or in
large pieces, or in small combinations, and you add something new,
it is likely to be rejected solely on the basis of the fact that
it is visually unfamiliar. When you feed a mix like this, you can
put anything into it and it will be accepted because the
appearance of the mix hasn't changed overall.
This allows you to introduce more variety into the diet,
which in turn will encourage better health.
3. This mix is exciting for the birds, and allows them a true
foraging experience. They never know what they're going to find in
their food dishes and show considerable interest when I feed them.
A huge amount of variety can be achieved. Greens and the types of
vegetables used vary from week to week. The pasta shapes are
varied (alphabet, whole wheat, elbow, etc.). You can use other
types of citrus instead of oranges, including grapefruit, lemons,
tangerines, etc. Instead of grapes, you can substitute fresh
blueberries and pitted ripe cherries, or fresh cranberries.
4. Parrots that won't eat pellets, often will when they are
combined into this mix as directed above because (1) they are part
of an exciting mix, and (2) they will be slightly softened by
absorbing some of the moisture from the mix.
5. I leave this in the cages from 7:00 am
until 4:00 pm, which you can't do with mixes that have been frozen
or cooked. Since the majority of the foods are neither cooked nor
frozen, they stay fresher longer. Bacterial growth is increased by
temperature, moisture, and the breakdown of cell walls. This mix
tends to be relatively dry, because the pasta and pellets absorb
the vast majority of the moisture. Further the cell walls in the
fruits and vegetables are largely intact because they have not
been broken down by either freezing or cooking. In hot weather, it
tends to desiccate rather than spoil.
6. Seed junkies can easily by converted to a fresh food diet using
this mix and a methodical approach, which I have outlined below.
Converting a hard-core seed
junkie to a fresh food diet:
1. Begin with four dishes in the cage – (1) pellets of choice
(no dyes or preservatives hopefully), (2) a high quality seed mix,
(3) water and (4) the fresh food mix into which you have mixed
seed. The latter will not be eaten for several weeks. Get over it.
Serve the fresh food mix twice a day, in the morning and in the
late afternoon or evening, for the sole purpose of creating a
pattern of feeding and allowing the bird to get used to looking at
it. Note: the fresh food mix should have a ratio of 50% seed and
50% fresh foods from the recipe above (pellets optional).
Try not to provide table food or “treats” between these
two feeding times.
2. The day you see the bird exploring the fresh food mix in order
to eat the seed out of it, you make the following change: In the
morning, you remove the seed dish and have only three dishes in
the cage – (1) pellets, (2) water and (3) the fresh mix. In the
evening, you again feed the fresh food mix, but
give the seed dish back. We don't want a bird undergoing diet
conversion to be hungry. A hungry, anxious bird does not make
behavioral changes gracefully.
3. The day you see the bird with a piece of fresh food in his
mouth, or observe that he has eaten some of it, you eliminate the
seed dish completely from his cage and from this point onward you
won’t be feeding seed at all, except as part of the fresh food
mix. From that point onward, you provide only three dishes – (1)
water, (2) pellets, and (3) the fresh mix that is 50% seed and 50%
4. A month later, and on each succeeding month, you decrease the
amount of seed in the mix until it is down to between 5 - 10% of
the mix. So, for instance, if you remove the seed dish on February
1, then on March 1, you will begin to feed a mix that is 40% seed
and 60% fresh mix. On April 1, you will begin to feed 30% seed and
70% fresh foods. And so on.
As I stated above, in addition to this fresh
mix, I also serve two other mixes to my flock.
These consist of a basic birdie bread, into which any
number of ingredients can be added, and a cooked grain mix. The recipe for the grain mix is as follows:
The Cooked Grain Mix
The second mix I regularly use is fed in late afternoon,
every other day or so, and removed before bed, since cooked foods
will deteriorate more quickly.
The basic mix is as follows:
1 cup quinoa (a grain high in calcium and protein, that is
found in health food stores)
2 cups water
2 cups grated yams (or other vegetable high in Vitamin A)
fresh corn kernels cut from two cobs corn or 1 cup frozen
1 cup grated green vegetables
½ cup grated nuts (Brazil, almonds, or walnuts)
½ cup unhulled sesame seed (from the health food store)
½ cup canary seed
Bring the water to a boil and add the quinoa.
Bring back to a boil, cover, turn heat down and simmer for
5 minutes. Add yams,
cover again and cook for 10 minutes longer or until liquid is
absorbed. Turn into a
bowl, add other ingredients, and mix gently.
Serve warm. (A rice cooker can also be used to cook a
mixture of grains, water and shredded yams.)
Variety is introduced into this mix by substituting
different grains for the quinoa (this might require a longer
cooking time), carrots, pumpkin or winter squash for the yams,
varying the green vegetable used, and alternating nut varieties.
Third, about twice a week, I will feed a cornbread or
muffin. I use a standard cornbread recipe, making sure I use whole
grain cornmeal from the health food store and whole-wheat flour.
Any number of ingredients can be added to this mix,
including grated vegetables and fruits, sesame seeds, pumpkin
seeds, raw sunflower seeds, creamed corn, grated low-fat cheese,
diced green chilies, etc. An
endless number of nutritious additions can be added to a basic
mix, thereby once again increasing the variety your parrot gets in
I have had excellent success with my own
flock when feeding these three mixes of foods.
Not only do they display vibrant, exquisitely-colored
plumage free of stress bars, but they are sassy, loud, active
birds who enjoy life to the fullest.
They demonstrate their delight in receiving a new dish of
food twice a day. For
years, I have had no disease problems at all.
Truly, the key to avoiding disease in parrots is to feed
them in such a manner that they enjoy the healthiest of immune
systems, and we achieve this by feeding a huge variety of
healthful foods from each of the categories I have outlined, in
the percentages dictated by our currently scant knowledge.
Campbell, DVM, Valerie L.
“Avian Nutritional Diseases,” http://www.cockatiels.org/nutrition.html
Brian Speer, DVM. Lecture
on Behavioral Disease, Parrot Festival, Houston, Texas,
Personal communications with Brian Speer, DVM and Avian
Behavior Consultant Liz Wilson. January 2001.
Murphy DVM, Joel. How to
Care for Your Pet Bird, Clearwater, FL: MABH Publishing,
McCluggage DVM, David. Holistic
Care for Birds, New York, NY:
Howell Book House, 1999, 65-83.