Parrots have different nutritional requirements based upon their country of origin and the natural foods they consume in the wild. Biology follows consumption; a parrot that evolved in the wild to eat food high in protein also needs relatively higher amounts of protein in our homes and zoos. Research into the wild diets and foods provides valuable information about what we might best feed our pet birds.
African grey parrots need to receive adequate amounts of essential fatty acids and protein from their food.
African grey parrots have a wide distribution across tropical Africa, and are opportunistic eaters with a diverse number of food sources. They congregate in various forest habitats, such as both lowland and mangrove forests. They also frequent farmland where maize is grown and occasionally forage in cultivated gardens.
When feeding in the canopy of forested areas, African greys feed on a variety of seeds, nuts, fruits, berries and plants. African grey parrots are often found in areas of oil palms (Elaeis guineensis), which they like to feed on. These fruits contain 90-percent oil and are available year-round. They are also high in vitamin A and essential fatty acids (EFAs). African greys descend to the ground to feed and this fact, too, is significant. Parrots that feed on the ground have access to an increased number of protein sources. In fact, there are anecdotal reports of African greys feeding on carrion. These pieces of information point to the importance of seeing that pet African greys receive adequate amounts of both essential fatty acids and protein.
Food-Health Link In African Grey Parrots
Hypocalcemia (low calcium levels) is common in African greys and results in weakness and seizures. This syndrome might represent a deficiency of vitamin D, since vitamin D is necessary for calcium absorption. However, inadequate amounts of calcium in the food appear to play a role as well.
Many older African greys display problems with skin and feathering, such as overall poor feather quality, feather-destructive behavior and inflammation of the skin of the feet. Many Congo (red-tailed) African greys display faded red tail feathers, rather than the normal vibrant red hue. These conditions all reflect inadequate dietary levels of protein, vitamin A and essential fatty acids. It is beta-carotene in vitamin-A rich foods that creates the bright red tail feathers of the Congo African grey.
African Grey Parrot Nutritional Needs
Even though the exact nutritional needs of African greys have yet to be established, these pieces of information allow us to supply a diet that provides for excellent health. The first consideration in this process must be feeding a diet that contains appropriate amounts of both protein and fat.
Amino acids are the building blocks of proteins, and proteins are the building blocks of healthy muscle and other tissues, as well as feathers. There are approximately 22 amino acids that the body needs. All but eight of these can be produced by the body itself from other sources. The eight that cannot are called essential amino acids because they must come from the diet.
Foods that contain protein may or may not have all the essential amino acids. When a food contains all of these essential amino acids, it is termed a "complete” protein. Since wild African greys consume a diet that contains higher levels of protein than many other species, we must provide foods that contain complete protein.
The best place to begin in this regard is to feed a high-quality pelleted diet that has been formulated for African greys and others that have higher protein requirements. Pelleted diets range in protein content between about 12 percent and 21 percent. A pelleted diet that contains approximately 18-percent protein would be most appropriate for an African grey.
In addition, moderate amounts of animal protein can be fed. Many greys relish a small piece of well-cooked chicken breast, turkey breast, fish or scrambled egg. These can be offered two to three times weekly or more often if your parrot does not yet enjoy a pelleted diet. Feeding cooked or sprouted whole grains and cooked beans together provides another source of complete protein, as well as increases the fiber content. Parrots in the wild consume a diet that is very high in fiber, and this is an important nutrient as well. Adequate amounts of protein results in healthier plumage and faster molting times.
Fatty Acids For African Grey Parrots
Since the fruit of the oil palm is a staple in the diet of wild greys, it is no surprise that greys in captivity appear to be better able to cope with slightly higher levels of fat in the diet than most parrots. In fact, such levels appear to be beneficial. There are numerous anecdotal reports of decreased feather-destructive behavior when greys’ diets were modified to provide them with increased amounts of essential fatty acids (EFAs).
As with protein, some information about fat in general is necessary to provide this category of nutrient successfully to companion greys. All fats are not "created equal.” The type of fat provided is more important than the amount of total fat consumed. Saturated fats, found mostly in meat and cheese, are considered to be the "bad” fats because of their implication in the development of heart disease. Unsaturated fats, such as those found in nuts, are the "good” fats.
Unsaturated and naturally occurring oils are rich in nutrients called "essential fatty acids,” specifically the omega-6 and omega-3 fatty acids. These are called "essential” fatty acids because they are essential for normal growth and development, and they cannot be manufactured by the body, as other fats can. They must come from the food.
Coupled with the fact that African greys evolved to enjoy optimal health from eating a diet high in palm oil (and native plants) pet African greys need an adequate amount of fat, specifically essential fatty acids. These essential fatty acids are easily destroyed by light, air and heat. Pellets, therefore, are not the best source for these nutrients.
Good dietary sources of EFAs include seed (in limited quantity), walnuts, Brazil nuts, pumpkin seeds, dark green leafy vegetables, salmon, tuna, flax seeds, canola oil, legumes and oats. Leafy greens that are high in fatty acids include: arugula, chicory, collard greens, kale, mustard greens, Swiss chard and dandelion greens. If additional supplementation is deemed advisable, very small amounts of a high-quality oil blend, the sort sold as a nutritional supplement, or African palm oil, can be given. Depending upon the parrot, between two and six drops of such a supplement can be put on a small square of toast or other absorbent treat.
Calcium For African Grey Parrots
The next goal is to ensure that our African greys receive adequate amounts of all necessary vitamins and minerals. Again, pellets are an excellent source of these nutrients. However, it is now recognized that superior nutrition is achieved through providing greater variety. As Dr. Brian Speer stated in "Birds for Dummies,” "No one food is currently all your pet bird needs to thrive, not even the wide array of commercially prepared food pellets that should make up the largest portion of a typical pet bird’s healthy diet. Variety is the name of the game.”
Ensuring that your African grey receives adequate amounts of calcium is a more complicated issue. There is speculation that greys might not absorb vitamin D well from food sources. Calcium absorption is regulated by the presence of vitamin D. Vitamin-D deficiencies are common in birds that are fed seed-only diets and that are kept in an environment deficient in ultraviolet light.
Research has shown that, when exposed to full-spectrum light or direct sunshine, serum levels of calcium increase. Parrots are able to manufacture their own vitamin D, just as we do when our skin is exposed to sunshine. Thus, your African grey should have access to either full-spectrum lighting or natural sunshine outdoors in a safe enclosure.
As we strive to feed a greater variety, calcium also deserves special attention. Good sources of calcium are tofu, kale, turnip greens and other green leafy vegetables. Calcium from spinach is poorly absorbed, but kale is an excellent source of absorbable calcium. Good sources of vitamin D are egg yolks and dark leafy greens.
Wild African greys have a landscape of healthy food choices. It’s our responsibility to provide our own landscape of healthy offerings for our birds at home.