By Margaret A. Wissman, DVM, DABVP, Avian Practice
Birds need a well balanced diet to get all of the vital nutrients to stay healthy. Courtesy Melinda Hammer, California
Q: How much fruit is OK for my bird? I’ve heard that fruit is high in sugar and can be dangerous to my pet’s health. How do I know how much is too much?
A: There are many misconceptions about the role of fruit in the diet of psittacine birds. Psittacines do have specific food preferences and definite likes and dislikes. This does not mean that we should indulge them by allowing them to consume whatever they like the best, to the exclusion of everything else. We wouldn’t allow our children to eat whatever they like, and the same holds true for our avian friends.
Fruit is fine as a treat, but the majority of the diet should not be comprised of fruit alone, because this will prove deficient in many vital nutrients. All birds require nutrients from the different classes, including fatty acids, proteins and amino acids, carbohydrates, which include indigestible carbohydrates (fiber) and other carbohydrates, such as starches, disaccharides and simple sugars (monosaccharides). They also require vitamins (water soluble and fat soluble) and minerals.
The minerals calcium and phosphorus act primarily in the body’s skeletal structure. Calcium is the primary mineral in the body (approximately 1.5 percent of body weight) and is stored in the bones. Body fluids also carry calcium; here it plays an essential role in blood coagulation, membrane functions and also in contractions of the heart, other muscles and nerve function. Calcium activates several enzyme systems, too.
Phosphorus is another important constituent of bone as well as a component of proteins, carbohydrates and lipid complexes that perform vital functions in the body. Phosphorus plays a role in a wider range of biological functions than almost any other mineral. Excess phosphorus, however, is excreted by the kidneys and with it goes calcium.
For the proper maintenance of bone tissue, the calcium to phosphorus ratio should be approximately 2 to 1, however a range of 0.5 to 1 or 2.5 to 1 can be tolerated. The further this ratio deviates from the ideal level, the more critical proper vitamin D3 levels become. At this point, we are talking about a normal bird that is not involved with reproduction, especially egg-laying.
Certain foods contain the correct Ca : P ratio, and those are good food items to offer. Other foods contain an incorrect ratio, and these items should not be offered as a large portion of the diet. Fruits fall into this latter category. A vegetable with a high calcium content, however, might be deceptive. Some vegetables, such as spinach, contain oxalates, which bind to calcium making it unusable by the body.
Also, fruit is mostly composed of water, sugars, some minerals and fiber; it is not exactly a nutrient-dense food item. Because of the high water content of fruit, your bird will urinate more often when consuming it. Many older texts say that fruits and vegetables (veggies are also often high in water content) cause diarrhea in birds, but actually, the ingestion of these items causes an increase in urination.
An owner that can recognize the difference between true diarrhea (when the solid portion of the dropping contains too much liquid) and an increase in urine (when there is an increased volume of the watery urine) in the droppings is better-equipped to make decisions about a bird’s health. There are normally three portions to the dropping: urine, the clear portion; urates, the white to cream colored thicker portion that is the end result of protein metabolism; and feces, which is the solid, greenish to brown portion.
How much fruit is too much for a bird? That is something that should be decided between you and your avian veterinarian. I really can’t make a generalization that will apply to every pet bird out there. For example, lories require more fruit and nectar than other birds whereas a medical condition might require you to restrict access to sweets for your bird. Most healthy psittacines, however, can safely consume a piece of fruit every day if it is proportionally-sized to them and they are not eating it to the exclusion of other healthy foods, such as pellets. A budgie or cockatiel might enjoy a 1⁄2 to 1 teaspoonful of fruit pieces. A macaw or Amazon fruit portion can be closer to a rounded tablespoon.
We should all strive for a balanced birdy diet, consisting of nutritious pellets, healthy table foods, nuts (other than peanuts), some vegetables and some fruit. Depending on the individual bird, pellets should make up the majority of the diet, and the rest of the diet, 10 to 25 percent, can be made up of other nutritious and fun foods for the bird.