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What deficiencies are African greys prone to?

By Lisa A Bono

Reviewed by Dr. Anneliese Strunk

The most common nutritional deficiencies that pet African grey parrots are prone to are Vitamin-A, Vitamin-D and Calcium deficiencies. All three play a crucial role in our greys' overall well-being, and they work together to keep them healthy. Most nutritional deficiencies we see in pet birds are secondary to feeding seed-only diets. Seed-only diets are deficient in over 30 vital nutrients, including these three.

Vitamin A

African greys require vitamin A to boost their immune systems and keep them strong. Vitamin A aids in preventing infections by maintaining the lining of the respiratory and urinary tract, and is essential for bone health and good eyesight. Greys that are lacking in vitamin A will not have the protective mucous lining needed in their respiratory tract and are more susceptible to fungal (such as Aspergillosis) and bacterial infections. Lack of vitamin A can also impact other vital organs within the body, such as the kidneys and bowel.

Vitamin-A rich foods include dark leafy greens like broccoli, kale, dandelions, and the orange vegetables and fruits, such as carrots, yams, sweet potatoes (raw or steamed), apricots, mangoes and winter squash. Fresh and dried chili peppers are also noted to have significant amounts of vitamin A.

Vitamin D

The most important health problems associated with vitamin-D deficiency in parrots are immune suppression, which can lead to increased susceptibility of disease (see Vitamin A), as well as abnormalities in calcium absorption and reproductive tract disease.

Vitamin D is responsible for allowing the body to absorb calcium from the diet. Ultraviolet light (UV B) is required to convert vitamin D to its active form to make this happen. Lack of vitamin D can lead to reproductive issues secondary to low calcium, such as egg binding, soft-shell eggs, soft bones, bent keels, splayed legs and abnormal beak development. There are anecdotal reports of low vitamin-D levels leading to disorders of balance known as "stargazing" (twisted back). Skeletal malformations in chicks, such as torticollis (twisted neck) may be secondary to low vitamin-D levels and subsequent low calcium levels.

UVB light is blocked by all solid materials (glass, plexiglass, etc), so all indoor birds should be given 30 minutes to 1 hour of supervised time outdoors (as weather permits/when the temperature is greater than 70 degrees Fahrenheit) or have access to a full-spectrum light (including UV B wavelengths) for three to four hours a day. In areas where natural sunshine is limited (winter months in the northern hemisphere, indoor living area, etc.) full-spectrum lighting is recommended for African grey parrots. There are many types of UV lighting available, and they are not all created equally. Some more powerful UV bulbs have caused superficial eye lesions when kept too close to the bird. To be on the safe side, consult your avian veterinarian for the best lighting setup for your situation.


Calcium deficiency is commonly seen in grey parrots. Hypocalcemia is the term used to describe low-calcium levels in the blood. Despite getting appropriate levels of calcium in the diet, many greys tend to have lower levels of calcium in the blood compared to other parrot species. Greys seem to be more sensitive to this slight hypocalcemia, which can lead to clinical signs, such as weakness, seizures or other neurologic signs. Seizures can become life threatening if left untreated. It should be noted that not all seizure activity is related to hypocalcaemia. Older greys under severe stress, such as during or after a trip to the veterinarian, can also have seizures. A physical examination and blood tests will help your vet determine the cause.

Hypocalcemia most often affects pet African grey parrots, and not wild African grey parrots. This is due to a lack of natural sunshine, which prevents conversion of vitamin D to its active form, which, in turn, does not allow for adequate absorption of calcium. Vitamin D conversion via natural sunlight or full-spectrum lighting occurs in the skin and uropygial (preen) gland. In addition to the vitamin D converted within the skin, grey parrots absorb the vitamin D in the oil produced by the preen gland, thus aiding in the absorption of calcium. Feeding our greys a diet of calcium-rich foods, along with providing access to natural or full-spectrum lighting, are important factors in preventing hypocalcaemia.

The best sources of calcium are dark green leafy vegetables, such as kale, turnip greens, collard greens, mustard greens, and dandelion greens, in addition to broccoli, carrots, endive, figs and okra. Kale is an excellent source of absorbable calcium, while spinach, chard and beet greens should be given sparingly since they are known to block the absorption of calcium. Other sources of calcium are baked eggshells, walnuts, hazelnuts, filberts and almonds.

The Power of Pellets

Before pellets were readily available, it was common practice to supplement a diet with a powder or liquid vitamin. For African greys that mainly consume a diet of a vitamin-and-mineral fortified pellet supplementation is unnecessary and can be dangerous. Pellets are made up of grains, vegetables, fruits, nuts and seeds. This combining of the ingredients during the manufacturing process makes it impossible for your bird to pick and choose what it eats. Because of this, it is less common for them to have nutritional deficiencies and imbalances. It is important, however, to offer a variety of fresh foods because they contain certain nutrients not available in manufactured diets.

Blood Work

The only way to know for sure if your grey is deficient in any area is to have routine blood work done at the yearly well-birdie visit. As Alicia McWatters, Ph.D, wrote for Maggie Wright's "The Grey Play Roundtable" magazine, "With any supplement, you never know how much your bird really needs as each grey is biologically and genetically unique; therefore, dietary requirements will vary."

Over-supplementation can be just as dangerous as not enough. As an example, an over- supplementation of calcium (more than 1 percent of the daily diet) can lead to a decrease in your grey's ability to absorb certain nutrients, such as fats, proteins, vitamins, phosphorus, magnesium, iron, zinc, iodine and manganese. A dietary calcium level of over 2.5 percent can lead to hypercalcemia (too much calcium in the blood), which may cause kidney disease (including gout) and potentially lead to life-threatening consequences. It's never best to guess or leave to chance. Always make sure you have a good avian vet to work with so you can keep your African grey in optimum health.

Anneliese Strunk, DVM sees exclusively avian and exotic pets at Research Boulevard Pet and Bird Hospital in Austin, Tx.
11679 Research Blvd.
Austin, Tx 78757


Are there any deficiencies that affect a grey's feathers?

By Lisa A Bono

Reviewed by Dr Anneliese Strunk

We can learn a lot about our greys' health by the appearance of their feathers. If the eyes are the windows to the soul, then feathers can be considered the windows to overall health. Many issues can come into play when we think of the color and condition of healthy plumage. Diet, temperature and humidity can greatly influence feather quality.

To understand how the feathers reflect the internal environment of our parrots, we need to understand their purpose and how they grow. Feathers not only aid in flying, but they also help to prevent injury, provide waterproofing and insulate against temperature changes.

While growing, the feathers are nourished by a blood supply found at the base of the feather, otherwise known as the quill. Feather growth is demanding on a parrot, so the body requires greater amounts of proteins, vitamins, fats, carbohydrates and minerals during this time. The growing feather is sensitive to any stressor on the body, including external stress, any disease process but especially the bird's nutritional status.

It has been documented that deficiencies of certain amino acids will result in incomplete feather formation, usually manifesting in color changes or dilution of the feather. Stress bars appear as depigmented lines that transect a feather and are related to abnormal development of the feather at that time in the feather's growth. Nutritional deficiencies or variations in nutritional status are significant stressors that can lead to stress bars in developing feathers. If the appropriate nutrition is not offered, this can result in production of stress bars. Multiple lines may be present at different levels of the feather, according to disruption of nutrition during the time of growth. Stress bars usually do not affect a single feather, and often a damaged, depigmented feather is be confused with what is considered a nutritionally induced stress bar.

A Healthy Grey

African grey parrots are one of three species that have powder-down feathers. On African greys, these are small, white plumes with almost brush-like tips that break up into a fine, white powder. People often wonder if the dust produced from a grey parrot is due to a health issue, when in fact, a dusty grey is a healthy grey!

African grey parrots have at least one molt per year, where they lose and re-grow all of their main feathers over a period of four to six weeks. They also shed feathers to some extent throughout the year, and powder-down feathers shed continuously.

Congo African grey parrot feathers should be a light shade of gray silver with a bright-red tail. A good plane of balanced nutrition is required for proper feathers development and uropygial gland function. If the preen gland is not functioning normally, the bird will not be able to waterproof the feathers with the oil from the gland. Plumage will become dirty, non-waterproof and can appear raggedy. Vitamin-A deficiency can certainly lead to abnormal preen-gland function. Faded or ratty feathers are an indication that there may be an underlying disease process, including nutritional deficiencies. Contact your avian vet to discuss any concerns about your bird's feather quality.

Feather Coloration Change

At one point, a scattering of red feathers on an African grey was thought to be a sign of illness. Through the years, we have found that both Congo and Timneh grey parrots can have red ticking of the normally gray feathers. African grey parrots with scattered red feathers have been noted in the wild, supporting that genetics is involved. However, should your parrot suddenly start to have a substantial change of color of it feathers during or after a molt, consult with your avian vet to rule out a health issue.

Optimum Feather Health

  • Vitamin D3/sunlight is beneficial to any parrot. Besides aiding in calcium absorption, the sun's UV rays help your grey's body to synthesize Vitamin D3, along with the oils from the preen gland affecting the coloration and condition of its feathers. Another benefit to natural sunlight is its ability to kill bacteria on birds' feathers.
  • Red palm fruit oil acts as a conditioner for both feathers and skin because it is a good source of alpha and beta-carotene, precursors to vitamin A. Another oil that may be beneficial for feather health is flax seed oil. It is known for its high levels of linoleic acid and linolenic acid (essential fatty acids), and it also contains vitamins A and E. As noted above, over-supplementation can be dangerous, so talk to your avian vet about supplements that may be appropriate for your bird's condition before you start them.
  • The B complex vitamins work together and are important for healthy feathers among other things. Good sources of B vitamins include egg yolks, legumes, nuts, seeds, green leafy vegetables and whole grains.
  • Blood-calcium levels can drop during molting. Talk to your avian veterinarian to discuss if adding a calcium supplement is appropriate during molting.
  • Water is also an important component, and moisture is necessary for both healthy skin and feathers. Routine bathing is vital to maintaining healthy plumage, and it aids in reducing feather powder dust. Some birds prefer a large bowl of water versus a spray bottle or a visit to the shower. It may take some experimenting to find out what bathing style your bird prefers.

Anneliese Strunk, DVM sees exclusively avian and exotic pets at Research Boulevard Pet and Bird Hospital in Austin, Tx.
11679 Research Blvd.
Austin, Tx 78757


What should my pet African grey be eating?

Remember the saying "You are what you eat?" The same holds true for our pet birds. 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 diet 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 companion parrots is to provide a captive diet that is 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 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 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.

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.
  • 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)
  • 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 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.

Reviewed by:

Laura Wade, DVM, ABVP (Avian)
Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets
Located at Broadway Veterinary Clinic, PC
5915 Broadway Lancaster, NY 14086
Visit my Website


Do African greys need palm oil?

By Lisa A Bono

Reviewed by Laura Wade, DVM, Dipl ABVP—Avian

Red palm fruit oil is the flesh of the fruit of the palm tree, Elaeis guineensis. In the wild, African grey parrots feed on the fruits of the oil palm as part of their natural diet.

Pet African grey parrots need an adequate amount of vitamin A and essential fatty acids in their diet for optimum health. Red palm fruit oil is a good source of alpha and beta-carotene, a precursor to vitamin A. It also has a good balance of omega 3 and omega 6 fatty acids and high vitamin-E content (antioxidant effect). These nutrients are beneficial to an African grey's eyes, heart and immune system by strengthening the overall nutritional status. They also aid in healthier skin and plumage and reduce the risk of respiratory infections and kidney disease. On the medical end, red palm fruit oil also has been noted to improve the effectiveness of non steroidal anti-inflammatory drugs during treatment.

I have recently noticed palm nuts for sale and have heard many people feeding the nuts to their pet African greys. What birds are consuming from the actual palm nut is white palm kernel oil. Palm kernel oils do not have the same beneficial properties and will not yield the same health benefits as the red palm fruit oil.

There are several brands of red palm oil on the market, but not all are created equal. When searching for red palm oil for your African grey parrot, look for certified organic red palm fruit oil.

Red palm fruit oil can be mixed in with warm foods or put on bread. Some birds like the taste right from the bottle. Avoid microwaving or cooking the product after it is applied to soft foods, because the fatty acids will break apart.

Palm oil is often recommended by veterinarians for the treatment of birds on an all-seed diet that are showing signs of vitamin-A deficiency, symptoms of which include: respiratory infections; throat sores; dry, flaky feet; foot sores; abnormal kidney enzymes).

It is also useful for treatment of inflammatory conditions, especially as an adjunct to treatment of birds with feather-destructive behavior. As with any nutritional supplement, consult your avian veterinarian. Because the palm oil contains some fat, make sure your bird is not overweight or suffering from liver disease.

Laura Wade, DVM, ABVP (Avian)
Specialized Care for Avian & Exotic Pets
Located at Broadway Veterinary Clinic, PC
5915 Broadway Lancaster, NY 14086
Visit my Website


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