Written by Shannon Fujimoto Nakaya, DVM
Disclaimer: The information provided on this page is not intended as a substitute for veterinary care.
Food for pet birds services two purposes: nutrition and foraging enrichment. Wild parrots eat a wide variety of food items – dozens of different nuts, fruit, leaves, seeds, and flowers. Available foods differ during different seasons and from year to year. Curiosity about new food items correlates with survivability during lean seasons. While commercial diets claim to be “nutritionally complete,” they are made from limited ingredients. Moreover, knowledge about what is “complete” for each of the different species of parrot during different life stages is still a work in progress. Birds accustomed to a wide of variety of food items will more easily accept dietary adjustments as they progresses through different life stages.
So what to feed?
Vegetable, grains, and legumes can make up 40 to 80% your bird’s daily intake. Remember, the more variety the better and this category offers the most in the way of variety.
Grains: cooked pasta, rice, barley, quinoa, couscous, millet, etc.
Legumes: cooked peas, lentils, beans.
Vegetables can be cooked or raw: broccoli, green beans, corn, spinach, kale, dandelion greens, celery, red peppers, carrots, sweet potatoes, squash.
Other: tofu, sprouted seeds, eggs, yogurt.
Pelleted Diets do provide balanced nutrition and are convenient to feed. Similar in concept to dog food and cat food, these products are nutritionally superior to seed mixes because the birds cannot selectively pick out the tastier (more fattening and less nutritious) parts of the mix. Pelleted diets can provide all of the caloric needs of a bird in less than 1 hour, whereas wild parrots spend 4 to 6 hours foraging for food daily. Problems observed in pet parrots include obesity, boredom, feather damaging behaviors, and other problem behaviors.
Seed Mixes - should make up no more than 20% of a birds daily intake. Seed alone is never sufficient. Seeds and nuts are high in fat and protein and low in essential vitamins and minerals. Although many seed mixes are marketed as complete and balanced, most birds only eat their favorite seeds and the nutritious parts of the mix end up at the bottom of the cage. Often, the best use of seeds is to mix small, measured servings in with other food in order to encourage your bird to eat a more diverse diet. For example, the average cockatiel could receive ½ to 1 teaspoon of seed mix in addition to pellets and a dish of fresh "people" food.
Fruit should be offered in moderation as it is rich in sugars – natural sugars, but sugars nonetheless. I have diagnosed birds with hyperglycemia (blood glucose levels > 250mg/dL and sometimes as high as 1000 mg/dL) sometimes based on diet. Remember that a handful of grapes to a parrot is like a human eating 2 pounds of grapes. Another client reported that her teen-aged parrot had suddenly become edgy and started biting. This problem resolved when she realized that the behavior coincided with increased fruit consumption. When the fruit was restricted, the bird calmed down.
Blueberries are high in calcium and antioxidants.
Cantaloupe is rich in vitamin A.
There is some question about seeds (apples, cherries, plums, peaches) containing toxic substances. It would be unusual for a bird to eat enough quantity to suffer a fatal apple seed poisoning. That being said, the saying does go, "better to be safe than sorry." If it is the type of seed or pit generally not consumed by humans, like those mentioned above, I usually remove them and offer the rest of the fruit to my birds. Both myself and my birds have many of the little seeds in strawberries and kiwis without any noticeable ill effects.
Presentation makes a meal an activity. Wild parrots spend 4 to 6 hours a day foraging for yummy tidbits. Captive birds eating commercial seed mixes or kibble can consume all of their caloric needs in 40 minutes or less, leaving many hours of unoccupied time. In addition to presenting a variety of food items, presenting them in creative ways provides enrichment for your pet parrot. There are growing number of smart toys available that make a parrot "work" to get to a treat. Just wrapping a few treats in paper or putting them in a small box is the beginning of a foraging game. Hiding those "presents" takes it to a second level of challenge. Empty boxes adds yet another level of challenge.
Let your bird do the chomping. There is no need to cut everything into bite size pieces for your bird. Let them work at it. Crowns of broccoli (or the stems) whole carrots, celery stalks (or the last few inches of the celery heart) are nutritious food items, as well as, safe entertainment. Even little birds like cockatiels, parakeets, and canaries will engage in biting off little nibbles. If you use natural branches as perches, you can skewer food on the branches.
Products such as nutriberries, nutri-an cakes, avicakes are seed and pellet treats coated with vitamins. These foods tend to be nutritious and engaging. Liquid vitamins tend to degrade very rapidly. Powdered vitamins tend to sift to the bottom of the seed cup and are more effective if your bird will take them on moist food.
Calcium is a mineral that can be especially important to supplement in African Grays and egg laying females. It can be provided by a cuttle bone or mineral block. Calcium gluconate or calcium lactate can also be used. If your bird does not eat cuttle bone, grate it and sprinkle it on favorite foods. Tofu, broccoli, green beans, spinach, blueberries, plain yogurt and crushed egg shells are also good sources of calcium.
Avoid foods that are fatty, salty, sweet, or have caffeine or alcohol.
Avocado should be avoided because it has adverse and fatal effects in some birds.
A varied diet with proper supplementation will result in a healthy bird with greater resistance to disease. Avoid over-feeding. An obese bird is easily stressed and is not healthy.