There are more than 50 parrot species native to Australia. They inhabit many diverse environments and span several climactic zones. When talking about the diet of Australian parrots, it is helpful to separate them into groups based upon the food they eat in nature and their foraging behavior.
All Australian parrots — except lories and lorikeets — are essentially seed hunters. Australian parrots in their natural environment rely upon seeds for their survival.
Lories and lorikeets feed on nectar and pollen, but also eat fruits, flowers, seeds and more.
There has been scant information regarding the different seed types available to parrots in their natural environment and incomplete knowledge regarding the beneficial effects of searching for these seeds. For Australian parrots, the food value of a seed diet and skills associated with foraging for seed are fundamental to their life in the wild.
There are a great variety of seed types available to Australian parrots, but grass seeds provide most with their staple food. Australian parrots also eat seeds found inside the pulp of fruits, berries, hard nuts and pods of Australian plants, bush shrubs and trees.
The seeds of Australian flora are quite small. Although highly nutritious, the many forms of seeds available to Australian parrots do not, by themselves, provide a full range of nutrients, and so other foods are required to balance their nutrient needs. These additional nutrients are often found during the process of foraging.
Foraging For Seeds
Knowledge of the way Australian parrots search for seeds in the wild is also necessary to understand the needs of these parrots when kept in our homes as pet birds.
Foraging is the word used to describe the act of searching for food. Some parrots feed mostly on the ground, while others spend most of their time searching for food in trees. Above all else, parrots survive in nature because of their ability to forage. This is a learned skill that is nurtured first in the nest and then develops explosively between the ages of weaning and adolescence.
Foraging skills continue to be learned and memorized throughout life. In the search for food, parrots use their keen eyesight and ultraviolet vision to locate ripe fruit. A strong flying ability is required by some parrots; for others, it is a less important part of finding food. The larger Australian parrots combine intense concentration, enduring patience, muscular tongues, powerful beaks and visual acuity to extricate tiny seeds from nuts with microscopic precision.
Physical dexterity is crucial for parrots finding and eating food. Before eating seeds, parrots remove the outer lining using their specialized mobile, hard palate, muscular tongue and beak. Parrots other than grass parrots often use their feet to hold food items while eating.
The proportion of foraging time spent flying, on the ground or in trees varies among parrot species. The numbers of hours and time of day spent foraging also varies between parrot species.
All Australian parrots forage in the early morning followed by a rest period, where they retreat to the cover and safety of trees. Rain can delay ground foraging. Parrots that live in a hot climate remain in trees during the heat of the day. Here, the parrots keep occupied by chewing on branches and leaves.
Many parrots continue to forage during the middle of the day. The final foraging period extends for an hour or so before sunset. By dusk, all Australian parrots have returned to a roosting tree.
Food Challenges For Pet Birds
We face two main challenges when keeping parrots as pets. First, we must provide our birds with a variety of food that closely resembles the food value of their natural diet. Second, we must offer them opportunities to fill in the time they would otherwise spend searching for food if they were in the wild — we have to offer foraging opportunities.
It is not possible to recommend a single diet and method of feeding that suits all of the Australian parrots. For this reason, it is best to divide the Australian parrots into three groups based upon their foraging behavior and diet.
The first group includes budgerigars, cockatiels and grass parrots. These birds eat grass seeds and spend most of their foraging time on the ground. At other times they rest in trees. The second group of parrots spends most of their day foraging either in trees or on the ground. Rosellas, king parrots, cockatoos, Eclectus and most other Australian parrots fall into this group. Lorikeets make up the final group. These energetic parrots are entirely tree foragers and depend upon pollen as their staple food.
Daily Routine for Budgerigars, Cockatiels & Grass Parrots
Budgerigars, cockatiels and other small parrots inhabit the dry inland areas of Australia, where grasslands dominate the natural environment. As a group, they are commonly referred to as grass parrots. Grass seeds are their staple food. At daylight, they start their search for seeding grasses and often fly long distances to locate feeding grounds, because food is scarce across their hot, dry country.
They forage on the ground and prefer the fresh, green seeds of seeding grasses. When these are not available, they search the ground for fallen grass seeds and chew on herbaceous plants. When it is too hot to forage on the ground, they move into trees during the day. Here they rest and occupy themselves chewing on branches.
Budgerigars often chortle to themselves and interact quietly with other nearby flock members. In the cool of late afternoon, before dusk, they return to the ground in search of food before returning to roosting trees or their nest holes.
These smaller parrots are open-country birds that must rely upon their strong flying ability, long-term memory and foraging skills to survive. They make ideal pets when their daily routine provides them with opportunities that encourage the development of these natural characteristics.
Strong flight is an important part of foraging behavior for wild budgerigars and cockatiels, as they must fly long distances in search of seeding grasses. Supervised flight outside the cage is encouraged for pet budgerigars and cockatiels. Strong flight is beneficial to their health and happiness and, when permitted prior to mealtime, mimics natural behavior because this is the time when birds fly in search of food and are most energetic. This is a natural time for searching and of discovery, and an ideal time to encourage learning (tricks) in pet parrots.
Budgies & Cockatiels: Fast Eaters
In the wild, budgerigars and cockatiels eat their food very quickly because of a scarcity of food supply across their natural range and also because foraging time is reduced by the time lost while flying to their feeding grounds and from not being able to forage on the ground during the heat of the day.
As pets, they also eat quickly. To follow their natural foraging routine, feed them for half an hour in the morning and in the afternoon. Offer free flight during the preparation of these meals (when it is safe to do so), as this is the time they would be flying in the wild. Because they are ground feeders, place their food dish on the cage floor or on a flat, feeding bowl outside the cage.
After the morning feed, replace the dish with a shallow dish containing very few seeds and covered with a fresh, leafy eucalyptus branch to camouflage these hidden treats. Millet sprays can also be given to provide daytime foraging opportunities. This restricted food routine helps reduce the high risk budgerigars have toward obesity and fat tumors. Remove all food from the cage following the evening meal to prevent foraging opportunities prior to the next morning’s mealtime.
Wild budgerigars and cockatiels forage as a flock. This behavior strengthens flock security and is necessary for protection from predators. Sharing mealtimes with your pet bird initiates the same bond that wild birds have with their flock members and strengthens the trust your pet bird has with you and your family.
A mixture of millet seeds (Panicum spp., Setaria spp., Echinochloa spp), plain canary grass (Phalaris canariensis), oats (Avena sativa), wheat (Triticum aestivum) and other small seeds provides a good seed mix for these smaller pet birds.
Nutritional supplements must be added to the seed diet of budgerigars and cockatiels in order to match the food value available to wild birds and provided by the many varieties of highly nutritious native grass seeds. Supplements are also needed to provide the protein, fatty acids, vitamins and minerals lacking in a seed-only diet.
As pets, this group of parrots rarely accepts soft, fleshy fruits or vegetables, because they live in a very dry environment, where their natural foods contain little moisture. Millet sprays are readily devoured, although they will accept more fibrous fruits (e.g., apples) and vegetables (e.g., long beans). These can be provided as treats and training aids.
The hunger of wild budgerigars and cockatiels is usually satisfied before the heat of the day, when they move to the cover of trees. Here they entertain themselves for many hours, as their crops are full and they are not hungry. Therefore, foraging-type behavioral problems (e.g. feather plucking and self mutilation) are uncommon in pet budgerigars and cockatiels because they have a natural capacity to entertain themselves, especially when provided with tree or bush foliage during the day. However, companion budgerigars and cockatiels are susceptible to breeding-type behavioral problems (feather picking, aggression and excessive egg laying) due to their natural opportunistic breeding behavior.
Daily Routine For Cockatoos & Other Parrots
Australian cockatoos and other larger parrots native to Australia spend time foraging both in the trees and on the ground. For this reason, their daily feeding routine is different from that recommended for budgerigars and cockatiels. These parrots are essentially grass seed eaters and ground feeders. Lorikeets are entirely tree foragers and nectar feeders.
The cockatoos are larger than the grass parrots and live in a cooler, wetter environment. They forage throughout the entire day both on the ground and in trees to satisfy their hunger and nutrient needs. Their daily routine in our homes must provide foraging opportunities that are both time consuming and challenging to ensure that they remain occupied throughout the day. They should be encouraged to use their beak, tongue, foot and brain during foraging.
This section describes a core diet that is suitable for the Australian cockatoos and parrots. There may be differences in the textures and hardness of foods and branches recommended for each particular species that relate to their natural foods and foraging behavior.
Cockatoos require hard vegetables and fruits to eat, as well as large, hardwood branches and hard nuts to destroy. Eclectus, rosellas and the smaller parrots require softer foods and green branches to strip and chew.
Foods in their natural state are most beneficial and relished by pet birds. In our homes, fresh organic fruits and vegetables are nutritious, and they also present foraging opportunities and occupation for this group of Australian parrots. A selection of seasonal fresh fruits and vegetables, coupled with a seed mix, provides interesting color and a variety of different tastes for their sensory stimulation.
The recommended core diet for this group of Australian cockatoos, therefore, includes a seed mix, and fresh fruits and vegetable items that can be prepared in different ways to encourage beak exercise and activity for the muscular tongue, as well as foot and claw coordination. Foraging dexterity builds confidence and inquisitiveness in young birds, creating a strong foundation for lifelong learning as a companion bird. These items can be served on a stainless-steel skewer, mashed, chopped, diced, cooked, soaked or sprouted to add variety and to suit the textures contained in the natural foods of the different species.
Fruits and vegetables, as well as agricultural grains and pulses, however, do not provide a complete nutritional balance for pet birds. For this reason, following an ongoing health program of added nutritional supplements [in the form of pellets] is essential to vitality and longevity in captivity. Without provision of all the essential nutrients, pet birds are prone to over-engorging on foodstuffs and ingesting foreign bodies while searching for depleted nutrients in carpets, power cords, etc. Other examples of diet-related problems include feather picking, excessive screaming, aggression, poor feather quality and a lack of energy.
Furthermore, it is observed in nature that sharing meals is the most important flock/family group meeting time of the day. “Happiness” behaviors, such as tail wiggles, chatting and playful antics, are observed during these times. Therefore, the best companion bird feeding routine mimics the morning and evening flock activity of wild birds. Provide freshly prepared fruits and vegetables at your meal times, ideally breakfast time, and again as part of the family evening meal.
Eating at the same times as the family reinforces the pet bird-to-human bond and provides essential security and confidence that their caretakers will return at the end of the day to eat and play again with them.
In the wild, this group of parrots spends much of the day foraging in trees individually and in small groups. Individual foraging in the captive setting can be achieved when the people are away from home by providing a selection of fresh, clean branches and millet sprays, as well as a dish of small seeds. This eliminates the need for fruits and vegetables to be left in the cage where they may spoil during the heat of the day.
A final element for food consideration is portion size. The amount of food required must be allocated according to the relative size and dietary requirements of the pet bird. Flighted birds require and use more energy than those with trimmed wing feathers. Most pet parrots are far more sedentary and require less food than their wild cousins, which must spend many hours each day foraging for survival and fly repeatedly during foraging and also to evade predation. Overfeeding is a common cause of fat tumors in several Australian parrot species, such as budgerigars, galah cockatoos and white cockatoos.
Daily Routine For Lorikeets
The nomadic movement of Australian lorikeets, specifically the rainbow lory (Trichoglossus spp.), is governed by the availability of blossoms. The noisy and active lories and lorikeets are almost exclusively tree foragers and rarely come to the ground. They are strong flyers, have razor-sharp beaks and tend to be extremely aggressive when feeding.
Australian lorikeets feed principally on pollen and nectar of Eucalyptus, Melaleuca spp., bottle brush, Grevillea spp. or other native trees and shrubs. They have a specialized tongue that is used to harvest pollen. They also eat fruits, flowers and their buds, berries, seeds of trees, leaf buds, as well as insects and their larvae. In our homes, lories and lorikeets are fond of cultivated fruits, especially apples, pears, banana and other soft fruits.
Lorikeets are as busy as bees. They are flock birds that move from one stand of flowering trees to the next. They begin foraging early in the morning, searching for pollen and nectar. They have small crops compared to seed-eating parrots, so they must forage for many hours during the day. They also forage late afternoon before returning to a roosting tree at dusk.
As pets, lorikeets require many flying and foraging opportunities in order to satisfy their energetic personalities. They are better able to eat moist soft foods, and this type of food is recommended for them.
Lorikeets are messy eaters in our homes as a result of the foods we feed them. Commercial dry foods are a convenient way to feed lorikeets, as it is impossible to provide them with enough of their natural foods (tree blossoms, etc.) to support their high-nutrient demands. Commercial nectars are also available.
Lorikeets should be offered branches daily. In the absence of habitat-specific treats or fresh foraging matter, lorikeets and most, if not all, of the medium to large parrots enjoy picking nuts and buds of Australian native trees and bushes, such as bottle brush, tea trees, eucalyptus gums, Pittosporum, etc.