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Feeding Our Parrots Well

There are many different ideas espoused by aviculturists, bird food manufacturers, veterinarians and behavior consultants today relative to the issue of diet. Many of those offering opinions have strong feelings on the matter, and can be most persuasive. Yet, many of those strong opinions conflict with each other.

We hear, "Seed makes parrots fat and should not be fed at all." Then we see an advertisement by a reputable company, which implies that our bird can live to old age eating their vitaminized seed blend. We hear, "A pelleted diet is the only way to insure optimal health." Yet, we can’t get our parrot to eat pellets. We are advised, "Grapes and apples are nothing but sugar water and shouldn’t be fed." Yet, at least they are fresh foods; how can they be bad?

Statements such as these leave us feeling relatively confused and wanting more information. It is difficult to take such a combination of bits and pieces of information and transform them into a great diet for our birds, given that these same birds seem to have their own preferences also, which must be taken into consideration.

We need some clarity about this issue of diet. What is a balanced diet? How do we provide that effectively? How do we get our parrots to cooperate? Why do they act the way they do about some foods? What are reasonable expectations on our part when we introduce new foods? How can we get this whole thing to work?

Achieving Balance…

The answers actually are relatively simple. I will assert that parrots will balance their own diets if (1) we provide them with a large and diverse variety of live, fresh foods, (2) if they are not fed foods which pervert their appetites, (3) if the choices we offer are consistent with the foods they evolved to eat in the wild…and, (4) if we give them a chance to do so.

Approximately 20 years ago, laboratory studies were performed on the nutritional needs of rats. It was found that, provided with enough variety in the form of fresh foods, these rats could and would balance their own diets over a period of time. In other words, they seemed to have an instinctive knowledge of their own nutritional requirements and an ability to fulfill those, if provided with the raw materials for doing so.

Subsequent to that, an even more fascinating study was done with human children. Interestingly, it was found that these children also had the ability to balance their own diets, provided that they were given a wide variety of fresh foods, and that they were not given foods that have the ability to pervert the appetite. A given child might eat only broccoli for two days, then drink quarts of milk for a few days, then crave lots of whole wheat bread, but over a period of time, he would eat enough of the foods necessary to achieve a balanced diet, if he were not allowed to consume foods that have the ability to pervert the appetite.

Foods high in either fat or simple carbohydrates, especially sugar, or both are known to pervert human appetite. Most of us have had this experience during our lives. The more fast food we eat, the more fast food we want. The more sugar we eat, the more we crave foods containing sugar. Conversely, I remember a time in my life when I became quite strict about my own diet. At the time, I ate a vegetarian diet largely devoid of either fat or sugar. During this period, I visited my husband’s relatives in South Dakota. I will never forget the revulsion I felt as I contemplated the meat loaf swimming in fat in the casserole dish. My appetite had become relatively pure as a consequence of eating the way I had been, and at the time so much animal fat repulsed me. Sadly, if I were to encounter the same meal at this point, I might actually enjoy it while feeling a little guilty. The point of this remains that a diet containing moderate amounts of either fat or sugar will pervert our appetites to the point where we make food choices that are not very good.

Given that rats and human children have proven themselves to scientific researchers capable of following their appetites to make food choices which will bring them good health, what do we think parrots have been doing in the wild? As prey animals, it is absolutely necessary that they enjoy optimal health. Disease or weakness of any sort will attract the attentions of a predator, and life ends. It appears quite obvious that parrots are well able to pick and choose among native foods in order to balance their own diets successfully.

I often see evidence of my own birds’ ability to choose what they need nutritionally from among the choices offered. My pairs of breeding Greys may not eat their dark leafy greens with much enthusiasm until just before breeding season. At that point, they devour those provided. One parrot may go weeks without eating pellets, then devour a whole dish.

What Perverts the Appetite?

Accordingly, I believe our job is to provide them with as varied a diet as possible, containing abundant amounts of fresh foods, and to avoid feeding them foods that will pervert their appetites and render them incapable of making wise choices. That leaves us with the question of what foods, and feeding methods, will pervert a parrot’s appetite.

Having delved into this issue extensively with my own flock, I believe that the answer to this is two-fold, and is the one which might be expected, given the information above. The foods which pervert a parrot’s appetite are those that (1) contain more fat than that same parrot would encounter in the wild, and (2) sugary foods in excess of what would be encountered in the wild. In some cases, salt also will pervert the appetite. I often hear from the owners of large macaws that their birds will only eat table food to the exclusion of everything else. In these cases, the birds’ appetites have been perverted by these prepared human foods. Our parrots have evolved digestive systems that function best when encountering foods similar to what they would have encountered in the wild, in the same amounts in which they would be encountered.

Further, it is important to provide foods in appropriate amounts. So often the well-intentioned parrot owner goes a little overboard in providing foods that her bird seems to like. If the bird likes grapes, he gets six grapes instead of one. This is another way in which we pervert the parrot’s appetite. Not only do six grapes have way too much sugar, there’s no room left for anything else in the parrots’ crop after six grapes. It is important that the variety he receives contains an appropriate balance of healthful foods. I estimate roughly that fruits should comprise no more than 15% to 20% of a fresh mix, and the rest should be vegetables, cooked beans, and whole grains, nuts, seeds, and other healthful whole foods.

Feed Live Foods

Second, I would further assert that, if we are to expect parrots to be able to make wise food choices, then we should provide them with live foods, such as they evolved eating in the wild. This is why I am opposed to completely pelleted diets. Not only are pellets relatively boring, offering no stimulation to these vibrant creatures, they are a dead food. None of the ingredients is still alive and fresh. When we serve a fresh vegetable, all the cells of that vegetable are still alive and functioning, despite the fact that it has been separated from the parent plant. Those cells do not die until the food is cooked or frozen.

Those live foods contain delicate enzymes and combinations of nutrients that no pellet can ever provide. I am in favor of feeding pellets and do so in two ways with my own parrots, as I will explain a little further on. However, I believe that to feed a parrot a diet comprised of more than 50% pellets is folly, when their biological systems are designed to use fresh foods. Moreover, we do not yet know enough about the nutritional needs of parrots to be 100% sure that pellets provide complete nutrition, despite the claims of manufacturers. For instance, just recently an article appeared detailing the fact that a young macaw had suffered a condition called perosis, which is a twisting of the legs. The macaw had been raised on a 100% pelleted diet that happened to be low in choline. Adult birds can manufacture their own choline, but a young bird must get it from the diet.

Differing Dietary Needs

Third, we must recognize that different species of parrots have evolved in different regions of the world and encounter different food sources in those localities. Moreover, they have different customs. Should we feed the same foods to an African Grey whose ancestors evolved close to the equator in Africa, and who regularly feed on the ground, as we do to a Blue and Gold Macaw that evolved in the rain forests of South America and does not usually feed on the ground often? I don’t believe so, and this fact will readily dispense with so many of the generalizations we hear regarding diet.

Birds that routinely feed on the ground in the wild, such as African Greys, cockatoos and cockatiels, normally eat some seed as part of their diet. Seed falls to the ground when ripe. These parrots have evolved to need the extra fat provided by this element of their wild diet. These same birds in captivity do not normally develop problems with obesity if fed some seed. I personally choose to include 10% to 15% seed in the diet of those species.

Conversely, most macaws, Amazons and Pionus, along with other New World parrots, feed in the canopy of the rain forest and do not typically descend to the ground to feed in the same manner in which Greys do. They do not include as much seed in their diet naturally, and it is these same species that often develop more aggressive behavior, as well as problems with obesity, if fed seed as a significant part of their diet in captivity. These species in my household receive only very limited amounts, and are instead provided with additional nuts and fruits to complement the already extensive variety of fruits and vegetables they are fed.

The Visual Experience and it’s Impact on Eating

Lastly, we must understand how parrots eat, and what factors influence their eating habits so that we do not misinterpret their reactions. Whenever I discuss diet with a parrot owner, I almost always hear, "Oh, I can’t feed him broccoli (or carrots or brown rice or greens…); he doesn’t like it." This owner might have fed broccoli once or twice, but then stopped based upon the fact that the parrot didn’t eat that food immediately. Usually, such misunderstandings are based upon one of two misinterpretations.

First, based upon the assertion that a parrot can balance his own diet, a given parrot may not be driven to eat a particular food on a certain day, simply based upon appetite…his innate knowledge of what he needs at a given time nutritionally. We can not look at a parrot’s reactions to a certain food on a given day as proof that "he doesn’t like it."

Second, it is important that we understand that a parrot’s visual experience will often dictate whether he will eat a certain food or not. Parrots are very "visual" creatures. I suspect that a wild, adult parrot, teaching his fledgling to forage for food, says, "LOOK! You should eat things that look like this," rather than, "Here, taste this. If a plant tastes like this, eat it!" If the latter were the case, a young parrot would be in danger of consuming a poisonous plant in his search for the edible. Although parrots do clearly enjoy the taste of certain foods, scientific fact places the number of taste buds they have at significantly fewer than in the human tongue.

Further, parrots are very conservative creatures. If I place a bird feeder outdoors, it will predictably take the wild birds at least two weeks to go anywhere near it. They must first get used to seeing it, and learn that it means food. Accordingly, when offering new foods, we must realize that our parrot most likely won’t eat them for some time, simply because they first have to get used to seeing the new item.

Introduce New Foods through Mixes

Therefore, the best, most effective way to feed parrots is to feed mixes of foods. Once they get used to looking at a particular mix, it is possible to add any number of new ingredients and have them accepted almost immediately. I typically feed three standard "mixes" of foods: a fresh food mix, a cooked grain mix, and a bread or muffin.

The fresh food mix includes fresh greens, vegetables, cooked beans, fruits, and pasta. It provides a way to feed parrots an abundance of fresh vegetables and fruits without having to chop these up every day…a task many find daunting. Of all the diets I have tried, this is the easiest to prepare and I believe it offers superlative nutrition, while allowing parrots the freedom of choice to meet their own nutritional needs.

To give credit where credit is due, this method of feeding is not my original idea. Although I have encountered similar ideas since, it is a method of feeding that I first learned from Jamie McLeod, owner of The Menagerie in Summerland, California, and which I have adapted to suit my own needs. It is best suited to multiple bird households, but can be adapted for just one or two parrots. This mix will stay fresh for between four and seven days in the refrigerator, eliminating the need to chop fruits and vegetables every day.

The Layered Fresh Food Mix

If you have the time to do this, the following method is a great way to provide a really superlative diet for your birds:

Each week, I set aside a couple of hours to make this layered fresh food mix, which is placed in tightly sealed plastic storage containers (size and number depends upon the number of birds you have). Foods are layered in the following manner, from bottom to top:

1. Greens, chopped (Swiss chard, mustard greens, fresh herbs, French sorrel, cilantro, parsley, kale, collard greens, carrot tops, endive, escarole….)

2. Vegetables, chopped (celery, bell pepper, zucchini, crookneck squash, cucumber, sprouts, cauliflower, kohlrabi, cabbage, shredded carrot, beets, green beans, etc.)

3. Broccoli cooked lightly in microwave (5 to 10 minutes) and chopped (or fresh).

4. Vitamin A vegetables lightly cooked and chopped (banana squash, yams, carrots, etc).

5. Cooked or uncooked pasta

6. Cooked beans (soaked overnight, then cooked for 20 min). The 17 bean mixes are great for this, or you can use your own mixture. Soybeans, including the popular Soak ‘n Cook mixes, must be cooked separately for not less than one hour.

7. Corn on the cob (sliced, then quartered), when in season

8. Apples, chopped.

9. Citrus fruits, chopped (peel included)

10. Grapes, whole (seeds are fine)

11. Frozen mixed vegetables

Layered in this manner (with the citrus near the top and the frozen vegetables as the final layer) the mix stays fresh for up to 4 or more days until needed.

When I am ready to use each container, I empty this into a large bowl to mix the ingredients together thoroughly. At that point, I also usually add one or two other items, such as some of the softer fruits (plums, peaches, melons) and cooked grains. I then place eight scoops of this fresh mix into a second bowl, adding one scoop of a high quality seed mix and one scoop of pellets. I mix this together thoroughly, and serve. Each bird gets between one-half and one cup of this mix both in the morning and the late afternoon, which reflects their instinctive desire to forage at those times. Mixed in this manner, this diet consists of 80% fresh vegetables, fruits, pasta and beans, 10% seed and 10% pellets.

The Advantages Are Many

This diet has several advantages over others. It can be left in the cage for longer periods. Since most of the ingredients are raw and the mix is relatively dry, bacteria can not as easily begin multiplying in the mix with the same rapidity as in cooked bean mixes or mash diets, which are quite wet.

It allows parrots to exercise free choice and eat according to the dictates of appetite and nutritional needs. As stated in the first article of this series, we must strive to provide as much freedom of choice and freedom of movement as possible for our birds, since these are the two primary losses they experience in captivity. We owe it to them to give back a measure of these freedoms in whatever way we can.

It is an exciting diet. There is no end to the way in which you can include more variety. Each week I vary each layer. I choose different greens and different chopped vegetables. I can use kumquats and lemons instead of oranges in the citrus layer. I can substitute blueberries and/or pitted cherries for the grapes. I can use red bell peppers instead of green. I vary the shapes of the pasta included, using tiny alphabet or star-shaped pasta one week, and rotelle the next. Each morning, when mixing up a new tub, I add other items, which provide even more variety. These might include canned garbanzo beans, sprouted sesame seeds and others, cooked grains (brown rice, millet, amaranth, quinoa), starfruits, cactus pears, strawberries, partially cracked nuts (Brazil nuts, almonds, walnuts, etc.) small pieces of toast spread thinly with peanut butter, or Monkey biscuits. I can use small canary seed, rather than the larger parrot seed mixes. I can vary the type of pellets I mix in. In short, the options for providing even more variety are endless. My birds never know what to expect when their food bowl arrives, and run over in excitement to discover what it will be today.

This is also the easiest way I know of to convert a parrot that has been on a seed-only diet to eating fresh foods and pellets both. I feed this diet to a diverse population of birds, wild-caught breeders, hand-raised parrots and rescue birds that have only known seed diets prior to arriving here. Within a relatively short period, all birds succumb to the charms of this food mix. Since the mix contains 10% seed after the final mixing, it takes little coaxing to get even a seed junky to eat the mix. As such a bird works to pick out the seed it contains, he winds up tasting and consuming small pieces of fresh food. He won’t starve, since he’s getting some seed, and will soon be motivated to eat the fresh items also. For those birds more resistant than others, I will add an additional tablespoon of seed to their individual bowl until they have converted. On the other hand, it also contains 10% pellets, and I find that birds that might not be motivated to explore dry pellets in a bowl will taste pellets encountered as part of this mix.

This diet creates beautiful, healthy birds. I have saved the feathers molted from rescue birds that have arrived here, then saved the same body feathers molted after a year on this diet. The comparison is dramatic and exciting.

I have heard one disgruntled comment regarding the feeding of fresh foods in this manner – related to the amount of food that winds up on the bottom of the cage. However, we must understand how parrots have evolved to eat. Their habit is to pick up a morsel of food, take one bite and drop the rest. I have occasionally been puzzled by reports from clients who have recently taken a baby of mine home that, "He isn’t eating." My confusion is always based upon the fact that the bird ate well while here and is receiving a similar diet in his new home. Further questioning usually reveals that the young parrot is eating…in the manner described above…and the fact that most of the food was hitting the bottom of the cage had the new owner worried that he was not eating at all. This is a natural behavior in parrots. In the wild, the dropped food acts as valuable mulch over seeds released from plants and helps to ensure the germination of those seeds…ultimately ensuring that those species will continue to flourish in that habitat. Those who just can’t stand the waste can keep chickens or compost it back into the soil.

The Cooked Grain Mix

The second mix I regularly use is fed in late afternoon, every other day, and removed before bed, since cooked foods will deteriorate more quickly. The basic mix is as follows:

1 cup quinoa (a grain high in calcium and protein, that is found in health food stores)

2 cups water

2 cups grated yams

fresh corn kernels cut from two cobs corn or 1 cup frozen corn

1 cup grated green vegetables

½ cup grated nuts (Brazil, almonds, or walnuts)

½ cup unhulled sesame seed (from the health food store)

½ cup canary seed

½ cup Abba Green 92 nestling food (from www.featheredkidsnstuff.com or (513) 943-9030

Bring the water to a boil and add the quinoa. Bring back to a boil, cover, turn heat down and simmer for 5 minutes. Add yams, stir, cover and cook for 10 minutes longer or until liquid is absorbed. Turn into a bowl, add other ingredients, and mix gently. Serve warm.

Variety is introduced into this mix by substituting different grains for the quinoa, carrots or winter squash for the yams, varying the green vegetable used, and alternating nut varieties.

Third, about twice a week, I will feed a cornbread or muffin. I use a standard cornbread recipe, making sure I use whole grain cornmeal from the health food store and whole-wheat flour. Any number of ingredients can be added to this mix, including grated vegetables and fruits, sesame seeds, pumpkin seeds, raw sunflower seeds, creamed corn, grated low-fat cheese, diced green chilies, etc. An endless number of nutritious additions can be added to a basic mix, thereby once again increasing the variety your parrot gets in his diet.

A Place for Pellets

As mentioned earlier, I think pellets can be a valuable part of a parrot’s diet. Every single one of my birds has a dish of pellets in its cage available for free choice eating, in addition to the fresh mixes served twice a day. However, I don’t care whether they eat them or not. I do find, though, that if appropriate pellets for each species are provided and the parrot is allowed free choice, most will eat their share, according to the dictates of appetite. At times they might consume them all; at others I will dump them out uneaten.

I choose not to use extruded pellets that contain chemical food dyes. Parrots do not encounter such food dyes in the wild, and I see no reason why they should in captivity, especially in view of reports that these substances have caused an aggravation of symptoms in hyperactive children. I believe that "the jury is still out" in regards to this issue and I prefer to avoid their use with my birds. Those pellets I use currently are Harrison’s, Breeder’s Blend, Roudybush, and Scenic Diet. I have found that my African Greys and cockatoos prefer Harrison’s High Potency blend, which has been formulated for species with higher dietary fat needs. My macaws, Amazons and Pionus seem to prefer Breeder’s Blend. I use the Roudybush and Scenic Diet when mixing the fresh food mix in the morning. They help to dry out the mix, and I find that some parrots will eat partially softened pellets, when they won’t eat dry ones.

Allergic Reactions in Parrots

Before I close, I must add one word of caution. We should be aware that parrots can suffer from food allergies and/or reactions to the chemicals with which the foods have been grown, and should we choose to serve such a wide variety of foods, we must be alert to changes in behavior that might indicate such a problem. Just recently, I received a call from a client whose Amazon had begun speaking in a "strained" voice…all the time. Knowing how unlikely it would be for a bird to completely change it’s voice suddenly, she took the bird to the vet who diagnosed a significant inflammatory reaction in the digestive tract, which was causing the funny sounding voice. The client had given this bird strawberries, a fruit it had not had before. Whether it was the fruit itself, or the chemicals used to grow it, that caused the reaction we will never know. However, reactions like this are not too uncommon, and we should be aware of the possibilities that a certain food can be a problem for an individual parrot.

Feeding parrots need not be confusing. Once we know how to provide a really healthful diet, and we have a better understanding of our parrot’s instinctive relationship to food, I believe that our job is to provide such a varied diet as described above, and then turn a blind eye to what is eaten, trusting each bird to choose the foods his appetite dictates. They need a diet consisting of as great a variety of fresh vegetables and fruits as possible, with the addition of grains, beans and nuts. A dish of high quality pellets in the cage provides a valuable nutritionally balanced supplement to these fresh foods. They have evolved to survive best on a diet of primarily live, fresh foods and to be able to make wise food choices if allowed the privilege. Our job is to give them the opportunity and the privilege and then walk away, allowing them to do their part and eat the foods they are drawn to on a given day.