One of the best ways to make sure you have fresh vegetables to feed your birds (and yourself!) is to grow your own. There's nothing like walking outside and picking your own homegrown produce for dinner.
"Vegetables are a healthy addition to any bird's menu, both decreasing the percentage of fat content in their diet and providing needed vitamins and minerals," noted Missouri veterinarian and aviculturist, Julie Burge, DVM. Vegetables also provide birds with a source of entertainment and something to do to occupy their time, she added. Most parrots enjoy chewing, tearing and shredding up different types of vegetables. Freshly picked veggies that are raw or steamed generally provide the most nutrition and "chew appeal" for pet birds.
Spinach and carrots among other veggies make great dishes for you and your bird.
So what are you waiting for? Perhaps you've got some space in your back yard where you could put in a small garden. As a bird owner, you're probably thinking about not only what veggies you like, but about your feathered companion as well. What are some vegetables that are favorites among pet birds?
In an informal survey of avian veterinarians and aviculturists, certain veggies came up over and over again as top favorites among pet birds. All are generally easy to grow, even for the novice gardener. To get started, here's a brief nutritional profile for each of these six veggies, along with planting, harvesting and serving tips.
Donna Falconnier, University of Illinois nutrition and wellness educator, calls broccoli the "superhero of the vegetable kingdom." It is rich in vitamins A and C, and offers substantial amounts of B vitamins, iron and calcium. It's also low in calories and high in fiber.
Botanically, broccoli is really an edible flower. "Most broccoli varieties produce central 'heads' that are actually large, flat-topped clusters of tightly-closed, blue-green flower buds," Falconnier said. In addition to the green varieties, there are also purple and creamy white broccolis, and the light-yellow green Romanesco.
Broccoli grows best in cool weather, with temperatures between 40 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit. That means if you live in a temperate climate, plant your broccoli either in early spring (for a late spring harvest) or early fall. If you live in a state like Florida or California with mild winters and hot summers, it's best to plant your broccoli in late fall or early winter.
"Broccoli doesn't do well in hot weather," noted University of Iowa Extension horticulturist Richard Jauron. "You want it to be able to have a chance to grow and mature before it gets too hot."
Start your broccoli from seeds indoors, in peat pots, about 12 weeks before the average frost-free date, and then set out those plants five to six weeks later. Or, buy transplants from a garden center or nursery and plant those in your garden four to six weeks before the last frost.
Plant broccoli in full sun, in rich, moist but well-drained soil. Transplants should be planted 12 to 18 inches apart from each other. Jauron recommends an organic mulch to keep the soil cool and moist and to suppress weed growth. If it doesn't rain, sprinkle the plants with about an inch of water per week.
If you plant your broccoli before it gets too hot, you're probably not going to have an insect problem. Toward the end of the growing season, however, you may have a problem with cabbage worms, root maggots and aphids. If you see any of these insect pests on your broccoli plants, spray it with an organic pesticide that does not require you to wait any days between application and harvest, because at this stage your broccoli may be just about mature.
Most broccoli will be ready for picking 55 to 65 days after you've set out transplants. To harvest it, "cut the main head when it has reached full size but the flower buds are still tightly closed," advised Sandy Mason, Extension Horticulture Educator with the University of Illinois. "If you notice the buds opening up and turning yellow, you've waited too long." After the main head is harvested, smal1er side shoots form a couple of weeks later, and these can be harvested as well.
Now you can serve some of your broccoli to your parrot. Most parrots prefer it raw. Just cut off broccoli florets or pieces of the stems (that have been sliced crossways) so your bird can hold it with its feet and chew it. Some parrots also like steamed or cooked broccoli.
"To have the maximum amount of nutrients, use the smallest amount of water possible and the shortest cooking time possible," Falconnier noted. Cool the broccoli off slightly before serving it to your bird. Don't leave cooked broccoli (or any cooked vegetable) in your bird's cage for more than two hours because of the potential for bacteria.
Spinach is also super nutritious. It is loaded in vitamins A, C and K and is also a good source of iron, folic acid, magnesium and beta-carotene. It is very low in fat and high in dietary fiber.
For pet birds, know that spinach contains a fair amount of oxalic acid, which binds to calcium and pulls it from the body. "If your birds eat a lot of spinach, it's important to make sure they're getting plenty of calcium," cautioned Gayle Soucek, an aviculturist and pet industry consultant in Illinois. But, she added, "Spinach is full of wonderful nutrients, so it shouldn't be avoided, but it should be served as part of a balanced diet."
There are two basic types of spinach: the savoyed variety with the crinkled leaves and the smooth-leaved variety. Like broccoli, spinach is a cool season crop, best planted four to six weeks before the average frost-free date. In the Midwest or Northeast, plant it in the spring or fall. In the Southwest or Southeast, spinach grows well during the winter months.
Plant spinach seeds directly in the garden, about an inch apart, in well-drained soil. Cover seeds with a one-half-inch of soil. "Spinach can be hard to germinate so you want to make sure it doesn't get too dry," Mason said. "You should lightly sprinkle it with water each day, to make sure the soil stays moist." It takes from 3 to 10 days for the seedlings to emerge, depending on weather conditions. Once the seedlings become three to four inches tall, thin them to about five inches apart.
Fortunately, spinach is bothered by relatively few pests, although aphids and slugs sometimes are a problem. Normally tl1ese are easily treated with an organic pesticide.
Harvest can begin 40 to 50 days after planting. Rather than pull out the entire plant, Mason suggests you just pick the large, outer leaves. Leave the inner leaves, and they will continue to grow and produce more spinach.
Spinach can be served to your bird raw (by hanging it from the cage bars for little birds or giving whole spinach leaves to large parrots to chew on) or lightly cooked. "By lightly cooking spinach, you can actually make the vitamin A and beta-carotene more bio-available," Falconnier said. Either steam spinach for two to three minutes in a vegetable steamer, or sauté it with a little olive oil. Let it cool slightly before serving it to your bird. Don't overcook or boil spinach, because that will decrease the nutrient value.
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