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Feeding the Companion Parrot

by Pamela Clark

This article originally appeared in the Holistic Bird Newsletter  Revised August 2006. 

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.

Malnutrition 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 diseases.  Parrots 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 species.”

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 by malnutrition.”

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 demise.”[i]  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.

Psitttacine 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 keeping.

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 parrots.

Factors 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 dietary guidelines. 

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 eat.

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.

The When 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 enjoyment.  Foraging 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.

Feed 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 vegetables.  However, 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.

Avoid 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 training tricks.

Acceptance 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 broccoli.  The 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.

Food 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 that.

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.

Understanding 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 minerals.

Protein… 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.  The 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 other foods.

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…Requirements and Sources

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 psittacine health.

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 diet.

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 the diet.

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…Requirements and Sources

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 lifestyle.

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.

Vitamins 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.

 The 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 organisms.  Parrots 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 processes.  According 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 supplementation.  In 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 diet. 

Trace minerals are needed in much lower amounts and include magnesium, iron, copper, selenium, chromium, silicon, vanadium, tin and nickel.

Putting It All Together

 As 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. 

The 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 following:

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.)

Use: 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!

Advantages:

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.

And lastly,


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% fresh foods.

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.

Other Mixes….

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 corn

     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 his diet.

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. 


[i] Campbell, DVM, Valerie L.  “Avian Nutritional Diseases,” http://www.cockatiels.org/nutrition.html

[ii] Brian Speer, DVM.  Lecture on Behavioral Disease, Parrot Festival, Houston, Texas, January 2002

[iii] Personal communications with Brian Speer, DVM and Avian Behavior Consultant Liz Wilson. January 2001.

[iv] Murphy DVM, Joel. How to Care for Your Pet Bird, Clearwater, FL: MABH Publishing, 1994, 53-91.

[v] McCluggage DVM, David.  Holistic Care for Birds, New York, NY:  Howell Book House, 1999, 65-83.

[vi] Ibid.

[vii] Ibid

[viii] Ibid

Copyright Pamela Clark May 2002. All rights reserved. Parts or whole may not be reprinted without express written permission of the author.



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