Lisa A. Bono
What should my pet African grey be eating?
Remember the saying "You are what you eat?” The same holds true for our pet birds and parrots. A parrot that is offered a seed-only diet may encounter illness and have its lifespan cut short. Improper nutrition can be the underlying cause of other health and behavioral issues for all pet birds, including African grey parrots.
Our pet African grey parrot’s food should consist of a pelleted formula base supplemented with a mix of vegetables, fruits, nuts and
high-quality seed to give the parrot the optimal diet. Percentages will vary depending on who you speak to. Since we cannot provide the exact diet each parrot species encounters in the wild, our goal for our pet birds is to provide foods that are well balanced and varied.
When you are out food shopping, think bright oranges and deep dark green colors for the most nutrition. Purchase organic when possible. Vegetables that are served in the raw state are best because they contain the needed enzymes that help maintain your African grey’s proper bodily functions. The beta-carotene vegetables (e.g., carrots) should be steamed so they can be digested easily. Fresh or cooked foods should be offered daily and should not be left out to spoil. Uneaten food should be removed from the cages or play areas after two hours. Vegetables should be given in higher quantities then fruits. Fruits contain more sugars and can contribute to yeast problems in immune-compromised African greys. Eating fruits produces more of a watery dropping and should not cause alarm. The more exotic and colorful the fruit, the more nutritious (think mangos, papayas, pomegranates over grapes and bananas).
While all parrots need calcium, the African grey parrot seems to suffer from low-blood calcium (hypocalcaemia) more often than any other species. Offer your grey calcium-rich vegetables, greens and fruits such as: kale, mustard greens, broccoli, carrots, dandelion greens, apricots, endive, figs and okra. Spinach, chard and beet greens should be given sparingly since they are known to block the absorption of calcium. They contain oxalic acid, which binds calcium to other trace minerals making them unavailable to your African grey. Vitamin D also plays a role in optimizing calcium metabolism and is made by the body after exposure to ultraviolet light. Michael Stanford, a veterinarian from the United Kingdom has shown that ultraviolet light is crucial for maintaining healthy calcium levels in African greys. So, exposure to natural sunlight when possible and the use of bulbs containing safe UVB output is beneficial.
Other sources of calcium are baked eggshells, walnuts, hazelnuts and almonds. Kashmir K. Csaky, IAABC-Certified Parrot Behavioral Consultant, suggests filberts/hazelnuts for African greys. They are not as high in calcium as almonds, but they don't have as much oxalic acid in them to block the calcium absorption.
Pet birds on a quality pelleted diet usually do not need vitamin or mineral supplementation. Over supplementation can be just as dangerous as not having enough. Visit your vet once a year and have a complete blood count and chemistry profile performed so you know if your African grey is in need of supplementation of any kind. Often birds on an insufficient diet have low calcium levels and may develop infections that can be seen on the blood work.
There are certain foods that are not good to give any bird. They include:
Caffeine: No products containing caffeine should ever be offered to your grey including but not limited to coffee, tea and cola drinks.
African grey parrots often suffer from hypocalcaemia, or low-blood calicum, so provide your parrot with calcium-rich foods and natural or full-spectrum lighting.
Chocolate: Chocolate is digested differently in birds, and other pets, than it is in humans, and the resultant digested products are toxic.
Avocado: The skin, meat and pit contain toxins.
Sugary or salty snacks: Excessive consumption of salt can cause increased thirst, water consumption, urination, depression, neurological excitement, tremors, in coordination and death.
Alcohol beverages: It is not cute or funny to allow your parrot to consume anything that contains alcohol.
Milk products: Our birds lack the digestive enzyme lactase and, therefore, cannot digest milk products containing lactose.
Raw onions and garlic: Small amounts used in cooking are probably not dangerous, but be advised that there might be a problem with large quantities (affects the red blood cells)
Fruit seeds and pits: May be toxic to birds, such as apple seeds, which contain cyanide. It is safest to remove all seeds from the following before offering it to your pet bird: cherries, plums, apricots and peaches are safe to feed, but also contain harmful pits.
When offering your African grey new foods, you may have to try more than once. I often tell clients to bake a sweet potato and cut it in pieces. The first day, offer a plain piece. If that is not well received, the next day try some with cayenne pepper. The third day, add cinnamon. Mix it or bake it into other foods. Never offer food once and give up. Each pet African grey is an individual and has its own tastes. It is up to us to find out what foods our African greys enjoy and to supply them with the right foods to keep them healthy.
Birds learn by observation. In the wild, parrots learn what to eat and what not to eat by watching their parents. Watching what we eat often motivates a parrot to try the food. Also, having another parrot as a role model often stimulates similar behavior. As with any new behavior desired, use positive encouragement (verbal praise and attention) to reinforce your pet bird’s efforts, even if small.
Laura Wade, DVM, ABVP (Avian)
Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets
Located at Broadway Veterinary Clinic, PC
5915 Broadway Lancaster, NY 14086