What to Feed Your Pet Bird

By E.R. Bennett, DVM

Virtually all new-bird owners feed their birds a seed diet (sometimes supplemented with vitamins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, and other table food treats). This diet represents a starvation ration and these birds are suffering from malnutrition. While seeds do provide some nutrition, they lack about 20 important nutrients such as proteins, vitamins, minerals and trace minerals (see addendum), and therefore, cannot serve as a complete diet.  Seeds are too high in fat (safflower/sunflower seed = 38.4/49.5% fat vs. formulated diets = 4-6% fat) and have almost no vitamin A, vitamin D, or calcium.

Some owners try to compensate for deficiencies in seeds by adding a vitamin/mineral mix to the water of food. The problem is that the vitamins break down and quickly become useless in water.  Even worse, vitamins enhance bacterial contamination of the drinking water. Powdered supplements on the seeds are worthless since even the trace amounts that might be on the dry hulls will be discarded when the bird cracks the seed. Table foods can be used to create a balanced diet, but the ingredients must be in proper proportions, and the birds must eat the entire mixture. Simply offering some table food (even sprinkled with a vitamin/mineral mix) to a seed-eating bird does not adequately compensate for its excess fat and nutritional deficiencies.

Signs of malnutrition

To their credit, birds will live for years and even successfully breed on an all seed diet. The early signs of nutritional deficiencies are often subtle. Greg Harrison, DVM, AVBP (Avian Practice) believes the early signs of nutritional disease include malformed feathers, excessive growth of the beak and nails, flaky skin, black discoloration on green or yellow feathers, excess keratin accumulation on the beak, chronic infections, and even changes in personality. Dr. Harrison estimates that about 90% of illness in the birds he sees is due partially or, in many cases, entirely to poor nutrition.

Some nutritional diseases are subtle. For example, most budgerigars presented with overgrown beaks and nails are suffering from hepatic Lipidosis secondary to being fed an all seed diet. Selenium/vitamin E deficiency may cause paralysis, which is most commonly seen in color mutation cockatiels.  Budgerigars may present with a pathologic brown thickened flaking cere (vs. benign brown hypertrophy), flaky skin and are overweight. In many cases this is due to a decreased function of the thyroid gland. The therapy is not to put the patient on thyroid supplementation, but to change the diet to increase iodine (also increase protein and vitamin A), so the thyroid gland can function normally.

We commonly see canaries that have stopped singing and have scaly feet and legs. Mites may be a cause, but usually these are signs of malnutrition and are corrected when the birds are slowly converted to a proper diet. Virtually every Amazon parrot we see has excessive flaking and growth of the beak, dull green feathers, sometimes with black discoloration. Within 1-2 years of changing to formulated diets, these birds will have normal beaks and bright green feathers.

So what should owners feed their birds?

The easy answer is to feed a formulated diet. The harder part is to slowly train your birds to accept the new food. Just as there are formulate d foods diets for dogs, cats, and rabbits, formulated diets for birds are also available form veterinarians and pet stores. Many veterinarians carry Harrison ’s Bird Foods. Pet stores carry other brands of formulated diets such as Hagen, Kaytee, Lafeber. L and M Animal Farms, Pretty Bird, Purina Mills/Mazuri, Roudybush, and Zeigler. Scientific research about psittacine nutrition is just in the beginning and thus, there is still controversy about the ideal avian diet. While we still have a great deal to learn about avian nutrition, current formulated diets are based on extrapolations from years of poultry nutrition research, new psittacine nutritional research, and experience of aviculturists and veterinarians.

Many owners ask about what birds eat in the wild with the assumption that “natural” diets would be the best for their pets. Wild birds in Africa , South America , and Australia may be eating various seeds, vegetation, and insects. They are certainly not eating sunflower seeds, millet, and the vegetables found in grocery stores. Even if we could reproduce their natural diet, there are still good reasons why this diet would not be appropriate for our pets. Captive birds are not exposed to the same activity and environmental stresses encountered in the wild and therefore, would not have the same nutritional requirements of wild birds. More importantly, free ranging birds do not live as long as pets. Starvation does occur in nature. Our nutritional goal for pet birds is to maximize their health by exceeding the level of nutrition they would otherwise have in the wild.

There is also controversy about how to feed and supplement diets. The late Dr. Ted Lafeber (manufacturer of Lafeber’s Bird Food) recommended feeding birds twice daily with treats in between meals. Sally Blanchard (editor of Pet Bird Report) considers this a myth and recommends having formulated rations available at all times. Dr. Greg Harrison (manufacturer of Harrison ’s Bird Foods) strongly believes that supplementation with table food will imbalance the carefully designed formulated rations. Sally Blanchard argues that parrots get bored with one food, and there is not enough knowledge for any one ration to be considered complete. Despite the controversies, there is no debate that the all seed diet in inadequate for pet birds.

Methods of converting birds to formulated diets  

  1. Mix the formulated ration with the seed diet. As the bird begins to “accidentally” taste and eat the new diet, gradually decrease the percentage of seeds, eventually eliminating seeds. This may take weeks to months to accomplish.  Some birds never convert with this method. Once the bird starts to nibble at the new ration, you may want to try method 2.
  2. Offer the seeds only in the morning and evening for a limited time. Leave the formulated ration in the cage at all times. As the bird eats the new diet, gradually eliminate the seeds.  Ask your vet for the correct amount of time to leave the seed mixture in.
  3. Try to get your bird to first eat table foods such as yams, carrots, and dark leafy vegetables. You can entice your bird by eating these items in front of them and making exaggerated sounds about how good it tastes. Try sharing the food with another person, passing the food in front of the bird but not giving it to them until they really beg to try it. You can try the same technique with pieces of Harrison ’s Bird Food since it is a human quality organic food. The package even recommends that you taste the food to test for freshness before offering it to your bird.
  4. Mashed or crumbled versions of formulated rations may be offered and accepted more readily than the larger pieces.
  5. Formulated diets may be incorporated into a homemade recipe such as Dr. Raymond Krays diet (see addendum).

There are many other methods to convert birds from a seed diet to a more balanced ration. Some excellent articles, such as Hooking your hookbill on pellets and My bird won’t eat that, are listed in the references.

Final notes

  1. If you feed Harrison ’s bird foods, remember that they are 100% organic and have no preservatives. Be sure to discard any uneaten food within 24 hours. Please note that the color of the feces will change from dark green or black to light brown.
  2. Birds must be provided with fresh clean water. Wash water bowls daily.
  3. Once a malnourished bird is converted to a proper diet, there will be changes in the bird’s body, Birds may itch more as dry flaky skin sheds and birds molt. Aloe/Penetran spray is very helpful in alleviating the itch during this time. They may initially lose fat and increase muscle. Once they start eating the new diet, they may initially overeat, but after several weeks, they will reduce their consumption to lower, normal amounts. This does not mean they “don’t like” the food anymore.

Addendum

The following homemade recipe was developed by Dr. Raymond Kray and has been reported by bird owners to give good to excellent results as a regular maintenance diet or used to help convert birds from a seed to formulated ration.

Ingredients
Equal portions of :

  • Mixed vegetables (fresh, canned, or frozen)
  • Boiled brown or white rice
  • Boiled beans (black-eye peas, chickpeas, kidney beans, lentil beans, lima beans, navy or pinto beans)

This mixture is combined and frozen until ready to feed. Thaw ¼ cup of the mixture, and add ¼ cup pellets, and ¼ cup of seeds, 1/8 teaspoon dicalcium phosphate, and ¼ teaspoon of a multivitamin/mineral/amino acid powder. This recipe is used as 75% of the final diet with the remaining 25% consisting of fruits, vegetables, cheese and meats.

Nutrient Deficiencies of Seed Diets

Protein (amino acids): lysine, methionine
Vitamins: A, D3, B12, and riboflavin: possibly vitamins E, K, pantothenic acid, biotin, niacin and choline.
Minerals: calcium, and possibly sodium
Trace minerals: possibly iron, copper, zinc, manganese, iodine and selenium.
Source: Dr.Randal N. Brue, Director of Nutritional Reaserch, Kaytee Products, Inc.

REFERENCES

  1. Abramson J, Speer BL, Thomsom JB : Th eLarge Macaws. Their Care, Breeding, and Conservation. Raintree Publications. Fort Bragg , CA 1995
  2. Altman R, Clubb S, Dorrestein G, Queensberry K (eds): Avian Medicine and Surgery. Philadelphia WB Saunders Co, 1997.
  3. Anderson , N.L. Hints on Avian Nutrition. Client education from Ohio State University , College of Veterinary Medicine .
  4. Blanchard, Sally. Food and Diet Myths. The Pet Bird Report Vol. 3 #2.
  5. Blanchard, Sally. My Bird Won’t Eat That. The Pet Bird Report Vol. 8 #3.
  6. Burgmann, Petra M. Feeding Your Pet Bird. Barron’s Education Series, Inc. 1993.
  7. Hagen, Mark. Hagen Avicultural Research Institute Brochure.
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