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Bird Food Components

Take an in-depth look at what foods make up a healthy pet bird diet.

Nikki Moustaki

Keel-billed toucan eating pellets and berries

 

There’s a notion about parrots being difficult to feed — they’re fussy and consume so little that it’s nearly impossible to give them the proper nutrition they require. Sure, that might be true for some parrots, but for every picky Polly there’s a Fatty Feathers that will gobble down everything. Whether your bird is a true gourmand or a dainty eater, it’s important to feed it the best possible bird foods to your parrot.

"A lot of research has been done in the past 30 years on avian diets,” said Kathleen Lance, owner of Bird Paradise in Burlington, New Jersey.  "We have learned that birds require the same food elements as other animals — proteins, fats, carbohydrates, vitamins, minerals and water. There is also a psychological component to the eating habits of birds, factors such as color, texture, taste, shape and size. The key word is balance.”

Seed-Based Diet 
Seeds are a plant’s way of making new plants, so when seeds are fresh or sprouting, they’re filled with nutrients. Dried seeds don’t offer a complete diet, and birds fed seed-only diets exclusively will begin to demonstrate health issues in just a few years.

Some birds, like the Australian grass parakeetsbudgies (parakeets) and cockatiels can tolerate a diet higher in percentage of seeds than another species of bird whose wild diet includes a very low proportion of seeds. Still, a seed-only diet leads to problems.

Seeds have gotten a bad rap in the past few years, leading some birdkeepers to exclude them from the diet. Eliminating seeds from a bird’s diet because they lack some nutrients is like excluding any one item from your diet because it doesn’t offer total nutrition. You never hear anyone say, "I’m not going to eat French fries because they lack some of the important nutrients I need.” Rather, French fries are a yummy side dish to that burger and milkshake — you want to include some goodies in a diet with other nutrient rich foods in order to get the vitamins and minerals you require.

"A fresh seed mix provides essential fatty acids for birds,” said Kreig Peterson of Gourmet Pet Supply in Albuquerque, New Mexico. "Seeds are very important for birds because fatty acids are rendered useless, even toxic, once they are exposed to light and air. The seed hull acts as a natural barrier for the fatty acids and prevents their degradation.”

Pelleted Bird Foods
A pelleted form of bird food has been around since about the late 1960s, but became popular in the 1980s and have remained an easy-to-feed base bird food ever since. Ingredients in the many brands of pellets vary, but the basic idea is that the pellets are a "whole food” and can be fed in exclusivity. After some years of use, pellets are still being improved upon to meet specific species’ needs. Many pet bird owners now feed their birds a base diet of pellets with other fresh foods  and seeds to round out the diet.

The trick to pellets is the "change over,” making sure that your bird is actually eating them. Many birds will starve themselves to death rather than eat something new. So, add the pellets gradually to your bird’s previous base bird foods and watch to see that the bird is actually consuming the pellets.

"If your bird drops more than 10 percent of its body weight, re-examine your conversion technique and try another method,” said Lance. "Also, monitor the bird’s mood, condition and droppings. A decrease of more than 20 percent in the number of droppings may also be a sign to try another technique. A very dark green or black stool can mean the bird is not eating. Be sure to consult an avian veterinarian if you feel the bird is responding to the change in any negative way.”

Fruits & Vegetables
Fresh fruits and vegetables are not only a great source of vitamins and minerals, they also add a fun component to your bird’s foods. Offer fruits and veggies every day — whole, chopped, grated, chunked, cooked and sliced.

Give your bird a lot of options. Choose dark green or orange fruits and veggies for a boost in vitamin A. Smart choices include: kale, carrots, squash (cooked), cooked sweet potatoes, spinach, apples, jalapeno peppers, soybeans, green beans, oranges, peaches, pears and plums. Remove any fresh foods after a few hours so that your bird doesn’t snack on anything that has spoiled.

Cooked Bird Foods
Most birds enjoy today’s cooked commercial foods, which consist mainly of grains, legumes, dehydrated vegetables and vitamins. You can make a similar mix yourself, but the commercial versions are quick and easy to use. Some people use cooked diets as their base bird foods, and offer pellets and seeds "on the side,” along with fruits and vegetables.

"Many of the grains in seed, such as wheat, millet, barley and oats, simply aren’t eaten by birds because they are too hard, so cooking these grains makes them very appealing to birds,” said Peterson. "Companion birds find cooked diets to be psychologically satisfying too, and many get excited at feeding time.”

Treats
Healthy commercial treats make convenient snacks for your bird, or, if you have extra time, make your own "birdie bread” (usually corn bread mix with some healthy goodies tossed in). Seed sticks and treats are OK as the occasional snack, but aren’t appropriate for everyday consumption. Small birds usually enjoy millet spray, and though it’s not chock full of nutrients, it’s OK to offer a couple of times a week if you’re feeding other nutritious foods. 

Water
"Water is an often overlooked nutrient, but it’s the most important nutrient in a diet,” said Greg Burkett, DVM, ABVP, owner of The Birdie Boutique in Durham, North Carolina. "Birds need clean,  fresh water at all times.”
Change your bird’s water at least twice a day. Use bottled water if possible but not distilled water. Burkett recommends trying out a water bottle with your bird, because bacteria can’t grow as readily inside the bottle. Some bird keepers recommend using a drop or two of grapefruit seed extract or apple cider vinegar in the water to retard bacteria growth.

Species-Specific Diets
Lately, the trend in avian diets is toward bird species-specific diets. Bird food labels have always indicated species, but that has mainly been to match the size of the food to the size of the bird.

"There are myths floating around such as ‘macaws need more fat,’ ‘greys need more calcium,’ and ‘Eclectus need more vitamin A,’ but none of these rumors have been substantiated,” said Burkett. "The vitamin-A and calcium deficiencies in these particular species can be corrected by feeding a formulated diet. And macaws get fat when fed extra fat in their diet, leading to fatty liver disease, fatty tumors arteriosclerosis and other health problems. It may be found in the future that there are specific requirements for different species, but that work has not been done yet, and in the meantime, all of the birds that I have raised do very well on the formulated diets that are available now.”

Putting It All Together
If you ask 100 bird experts about the proper bird diet, you’re going to get 100 answers. Most experts, however, agree that variety is essential. For birds, balance in the diet is all about variety. The more variety you can offer, the more possibilities that your bird will get the nutrients it needs.

So, it makes sense to feed the most nutritious foods when the bird is hungriest, in the morning, and then feed the base diet in the late afternoon with a little bit of seed tossed in just before bedtime. This gives your bird what it needs when it’s most likely to eat it.

If you put a bowl of seeds alongside a bowl of veggies, the seed will win your bird’s attention. But if you present a cooked diet and some fresh foods in the morning, pellets in the afternoon, and then a small amount of seeds in the evening, your bird will have no choice but to eat what’s offered.

Here’s a basic breakdown of balance buzzwords:

Protein: The building block of muscle. Lack of protein can cause feather and skin issues and lowered immunity. Good protein sources for birds include hard-boiled eggs (boiled more than 40 minutes), well-cooked poultry and fish, cooked beans (never raw) and small amounts of cheese and yogurt (but not milk or ice cream). Nuts are also a good source of protein but not a complete source.

Carbohydrates: Carbs create energy, so a lack of them leads to fatigue and decreased immune function. For birds, carbs are typically found in seeds, cereals, starchy vegetables and fruits.

Fats: Fat is an essential part of the avian diet. Fats help with vitamin absorption, lubricate the skin and feathers, and contributes to overall health. Find appropriate fats for birds  in nuts, seeds, and in oils added to the diet, such as flax seed or fish oils.

Vitamins: Like people, birds also need their vitamins. In general, birds tend to suffer from a deficiency of vitamin A. You’ll find this vitamin in carrots, jalapeno peppers, kale, red peppers, spinach, butternut squash and mango, among other items.

Vitamin D3 is also a common deficiency, but it can be helped by exposure to natural or full-spectrum lighting. The jury is still out on whether or not birds should be supplemented with vitamins in the water. One camp says that it’s necessary and the other warns about making the water a breeding ground for bacteria.

Minerals: Minerals allow multiple bodily systems to function properly, from the musculoskeletal system to the respiratory system to the digestive system. Many captive birds suffer from a calcium deficiency, which can be diagnosed by your veterinarian. Leafy greens (turnip, beet, mustard chard, and watercress), cheese, almonds, broccoli and yams are all high in calcium.

Feeding your pet bird right isn’t as difficult as you think, but it certainly takes a little time and effort. But your bird is worth the extra effort. Don’t over think the diet – just try to give your bird as many nutritious foods as you can each day, and let it sort through them.

Try these tricks to get your bird to try nutritious foods. More>>


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Posted: June 6, 2008, 5:45 p.m. PST

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Reader Comments
Thank you for the great information. I always try to give my birds a large variety of foods.
Kelli, Lithia Springs, GA
Posted: 8/28/2013 9:17:23 AM
Excellent article! Variety truly is best!
Carol, Silver Spring, MD
Posted: 8/26/2013 1:18:58 PM
I ever wanted to be guided abt my birds feeding n how to get them.healthy and finally I had this.thanks bird channel.n I m now trying my efforts to my birds and I got them better.but plz I want how to get them breed healthy bcoz I have so many birds like parakeets cockatiels grey parrots macaws fishers love birds pheasants chakoors partridges quails pigeons n only I love them not for business I need good opinions
fahad, International
Posted: 6/11/2013 12:37:17 PM
Great article on providing the best bird food for our parrots - I just wish more people would read and follow!
John, International
Posted: 1/31/2013 2:46:39 PM
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