From Endless Smorgasbord To Portion Control
Not long ago, if you asked bird people how much they fed their pet birds, measurements were vague, like a “handful” or “cup full.” Food was typically dropped or plopped in the bowl, or more food was piled on top of leftovers. Not much attention was paid to what a pet bird actually ate or how much of a particular bird food it consumed. A popular sentiment was to maintain a constant supply of food in the bowl, 24/7.
The problem with this “smorgasbord” approach is that it is hard to determine whether the pet bird is receiving a balance of nutrients.
How much are you feeding your bird and what kind of foods? That's what your avian veterinarian will want to know.
“Variety is wonderful,” said Richard Nye, DVM of the Ness Exotic Wellness Center, in Lisle, IL, “but the bird will soon find which of those foods it prefers and only eat that and not sample the rest.”
Nye said that more of his clients are paying attention to the portions they feed their birds, as well as the method of food delivery. “What I’ve seen the past is way more food than the bird can eat in a day or even a week. We want to be in charge of what we provide the bird to get a balanced diet.”
Laura Wade, DVM, of Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets in Lancaster, NY, has also been pushing portion control. “People are feeding half an apple — portions that are way out of whack. Most people give their birds way too much. We’re recognizing the need for portion control more and more as a way for birds to eat better.”
According to Nye, the first step is to go through a process of figuring out the volume of food your bird will eat in a day, and come up with a ration based on this keen observation. “It takes bit of trial and error to figure the ratio out but, once you do, you start to have an idea of how much to feed.”
Nye said that if the food is not gone by the time your bird goes to bed, remove the food instead of leaving it in the cage overnight. This way, “You’ve got a hungry bird in the morning, and you can have it forage with you at breakfast,” Nye said. “Have the bird sample what you eat. I think a lot of birds want to eat what we’re eating; we can give them selective healthy offerings.”
Foraging For Food
Creating foraging opportunities for your bird has continued to gain momentum in the bird community as more people become aware of how birds eat in the wild.
“What I’m telling my clients is that the birds in the wild seldom eat the same thing day after day. They’re scavengers,” said Nye. “Forage with your bird. Your bird is more likely to try it if they see you eating it. Of course, eating is a learned behavior. If you provide a variety of tastes, textures, and colors I think your bird will end up selecting a bunch more things. It’ll try anything.”
“I’ve been pushing a lot foraging lately because it seems to relieve a lot of stress,” Wade said. “The enrichment opportunities in the zoos took the lead, and folks who kept parrots thought what I can do for my birds?”
According to Wade, instead of putting the food in the bowl and walking away, more owners are aware that feeding is not just about making sure your pet bird gets proper nutrition. Emphasis is now being put on how your pet bird eats.
“A lot of our feather pickers, especially macaws that don’t have a lot of toys or free flight, benefit from it because foraging takes up the time they’d spend with negative behaviors, and it stimulates the mind,” Wade said. She also said that foraging methods can be as “simple as wrapping food in paper to the more complex like unscrewing foraging toys.”
Wade also promotes using food as a tool for positive reinforcement. “Figure out what your bird’s favorite treats are, and use them as a motivational food.” Wade suggested that you can pair the food with the person in the house the bird won’t go to or to get it back into the cage. “If the bird only gets an almond when he goes into the cage, he’ll soon associate going back into the cage with a food reward,” Wade said.
“People are taking nutrition more seriously,” Wade said. “They are learning a lot through the Internet — some good, some bad.” Talk to your avian veterinarian about the best diet for your bird.
Watching The Weight
Monitoring your bird’s weight is a way to know if your bird could be ill. “I give clients a couple of options to monitor weight. One, you can get scale and weigh your bird on a weekly basis,” said Nye. Your vet is looking for a trend; any noticeable fluctuations should be brought to your vet’s attention.
The other method Nye suggested is monitoring a bird’s weight is by giving it frequent physical exams.
Nye explained that he gives a bird a “body score”; that is, he judges the amount of muscling/fat on the shape of the bird. For example, if the keel bone is exposed, the bird would have a lower body score (1 out of 5). The bird would be considered overweight if it had a score of 5 out of 5.
“In regard to maintenance, thinner than fatter is better,” Nye said. “But nothing should be on the extreme end of the ratio.”
Nye wants clients to be in touch with how the bird physically feels. “By handling the bird a lot, you can start to sense if the bird ‘feels light today’ when the bird stands on your hand. My physical exam can confirm that. If there’s ever a question about the weight get on the phone and call the vet; describe what you’re seeing. Have that open communication,” Nye said.
On The Look Out For Changes
More and more veterinarians expect their clients to keep an eye on their bird’s droppings to help monitor food intake or potential disease.
“I’d like people to get into daily routine of closely observing their bird, to ask ‘What, if anything, has happened to my bird the last 24 hours?’ They should look at the droppings and the bird. Change the cage papers every 24 hours to see changes in the droppings’ quantity and quality.” Nye said.
Make it simple: Layer papers on the bottom of the cage, and remove a layer each day after you’ve examined the day’s droppings on it. Ask your veterinarian what to look for in your bird’s droppings.
Nye emphasized the importance of doing a daily physical exam of your bird. “I’ve seen birds whose owners say the bird is always at the food dish, but the bird is starving to death because it’s got something wrong its beak,” Nye said. “The birds will tell us what going on; we just have to watch them.”
Asking For Specialized Bird Foods
Wade has seen an increase in feeding organic vegetables compared to 10 years ago. “I have a lot of people who are into the organic foods,” Wade said. “I have clients who are vegetarian or into organics themselves, so they’re looking for a pellet that’s natural/organic.”
In some ways, people are splurging on their birds rather than themselves when it comes to produce shopping. “People opting for organic veggies for their birds even if they don’t eat organic themselves,” Wade said.
Wade pointed out that manufacturers have picked up on trends in people food. “There’s more variety in pellets, such as those for birds with food allergies; weight-reducing diets, as well as high-calorie and low-calorie options.”
The customer is always right, as the saying goes. Bird store owners are finding that their clients are asking for more organic and natural foods, fresh foods and cooked diets. Customers are also asking questions about the ingredients found in their pet birds’ food. Some avian-only store owners now provide custom blend diets filled with organic ingredients, such as dried fruits and vegetables, pellets and seed. Stores, like Bird Paradise in Burlington, N.J., offer build-a-blends, where customers can mix ingredients together, on top of their store’s custom blends.
Terry Beaudoin, of the avian-specialty store Parrot Island in Eden Prairie, Minn., offered this advice. “There’s only a limited availability for organic foods, so it’s important to know and trust your [food] source,” he said.
Donna Garrou of BirdStuff, an avian-only store in Orange, Calif., said it was important for store owners and their employees to know what is in the products the sell. Garrou encourages food manufacturers to train bird stores about their products so the stores can better inform their customers.
Lisa Bono, associate member of the International Associate of Animal Behavior Consultants and owner of the Platinum Parrot in Barnaget, N.J., has seen a large demand for cooked diets. “I have clients who come in talking about what they’ve cooked for the week.” Her clients are always looking for new recipe ideas, and others add items to pre-packaged cooked diets.
Another thing bird owners are asking their retail stores for are foraging toys, and stores are also pushing these types of toys. Bono sends her customers home with foraging items, such as a paper bag or a Dixie cup, along with an idea on how to use it. This has brought her a number of returning customers “I have clients who come in every week for the foraging idea of the week,” said Bono.
Store owners are finding a lot of success in pushing foraging toys as solutions for bored parrots. “If birds are bored, we give them something to do,” said Cindee Crumly, store manager at Omar’s Exotic Birds in Lake Forest, Calif. She recommended giving larger birds, such as macaws, acrylic toys, or toys with open compartments to stuff treats and foot toys inside.
Kathy Lance, co-owner of Bird Paradise, also gives her customers foraging suggestions, as well as ideas on how to raise the difficulty level of a foraging product. “Once their birds figure out the foraging toy, I tell them to place food in a bag, and then place that into the toy,” Lance said. Increasing the toy’s difficulty keeps a bird from getting bored with it, she explained.
Other stores incorporate foraging into their parrot education. Debbie Preuss, of Preuss Pets in Lansing, MI, teaches her parrot chicks to forage at a young age. She has foraging products inside the birds’ cages, and rotates foraging toys on the playstands. “People can understand how [foraging] works,” Preuss said. “It also gives the baby birds a sense of appreciation and a sense of accomplishment when it comes to foraging.”
Garrou sees foraging toys benefiting the owners as well as the birds. “Foraging toys save money,” Garrou said. She tells her customers to replace food bowls with foraging toys, and to reduce the amount they feed. “Parrots are more apt to waste food if they have a lot of it all at once,” Garrou said. When there is less food, the parrot eats it all, instead of tossing it out of the bowl. Foraging toys are limited in the amount of food they can carry, and when birds work for their food, they’re going to eat it.
“It also creates less mess,” said Garrou. When the bird isn’t tossing the food, owners spend less time cleaning it up. Garrou’s birds, which reside in the store, all have foraging toys and eat out of them, too. “This demonstrates how the foraging toys work,” Garrou said. She recommended that stores have a display on hand, such as a DVD playing or the birds in the store using foraging systems, so bird owners can see how foraging toys work.