By Dr. Leslie Ross BSc. ; D.V.M.
Greetings my devoted fans! Recently I have been on vacation with my owners so I have not had the chance to touch bases with you for some time. Please accept my apologies! My folks seem to love my companionship and can never seem to trust leaving me at home with even the best of caregivers to keep me company. I love my folks with all my heart so I can accept their separation anxiety issues, in keeping, I guess, with my unique personal attributes that they can’t bear to be without for long. But wait… how presumptuous of me to have veered off the flight plan of this discussion so early…now back to the task at hand!
I have chosen as my subject of focus for today’s basic feeding guidelines for cage birds, But before I plunge into this discussion it seems appropriate at this time for me to clarify my identity. I will in brief describe myself as a very fit, rather buff Amazon parrot in the prime of my life. I enjoy as a hobby informing my expanding alliance of friends and fans of important details associated with bird care and further, at relevant times, my philosophy about life and the human condition from my birds-eye view.
But forgive me; I have digressed from my topic. In a nutshell, I would like to state that by providing a fresh, nutritionally complete and balanced diet to your pet bird you are implementing one of the best ways to protect and promote his or her good health and allow for an extended life. Fresh, nourishing food attractively served encourages birds to enjoy their meal and have strong and healthy bodies and further, vigorous immune systems to help them ward of disease.
Now, it is of paramount importance for me to point out that there is no one-size-fits-all recommendation for the optimum diet of different species of birds. The reason, of course, is that nutrition is a very complex subject, and a healthy diet for one bird species or individual may vary widely depending on the individual’s environment, general health, age and genetic makeup. Still, as a general guideline, ongoing research is indicating that the best kind of bird diet, is mostly composed of pellets (kibble-like formulated food), vegetables and for larger type birds, fruit in limited amounts.
For the daily menu of parrots, (a category of bird very close to my heart), the consensus of the experts is, as a rule of thumb, that it is best to offer a diet consisting of about 60-80% pellets and 20-40% vegetables with some, but limited, access to fruit. Some well-meaning folks like to offer meat to their parrots; In general, meat is too high in fat and cholesterol to be of any real health benefit. Other folks like to feed Chinese herbs. Although it is fair to say that there is some promise in this field, not enough research is yet present to consider them safe and in fact in some cases they can actually be dangerous for your bird buddy.
Nuts in limited quantities are safe and well appreciated by most parrots. However, their fat content is again quite high so it is important not to over-feed these treats.
Much of the same applies to smaller bird types such as budgies, canaries, finches and lovebirds. Optimally, these little guys do best on a pelleted diet formulated especially for their bird type, with very limited access to seeds. Fruit is generally unappreciated by these folks but veggies, especially slivered or grated, are often welcomed. Also, for many of these birds, on special occasions a mealworm or wax worm or a small insect is a delightful change from their routine daily menu. (As an aside, on the subject of pelleted formulations, if I had two thumbs, both would be up supporting companies such as Lafeber’s Harrison’s Roudybush Volkman, McBrides, Pretty Bird, Zupreem, and Topper Bird. Although the above list is not by any means meant to exclude other manufacturers that may produce excellent pelleted bird food, these named companies are well established and produce good quality, tasty products in my humble opinion).
Very unfortunately, many birds of all types are not accustomed to eating pelleted bird food because they were not introduced to it at an early age. I might be able to help you change your bird over with a little trick! Try pressing a few pellets into a small piece of wheat bread then, as you change over; gradually take more and more of the bread away. I should caution you however that bread should not be a daily ration as it is not really nutritious for us birds. Now, if this bread trick doesn’t work, try soaking the pellets in a little fruit juice before hand feeding them to your bird. Persistence is the key but be sure that you don’t end up with your bird buddy going on a hunger strike. Before moving on with my discussion I should point out one more little detail about pelleted foods that is helpful to be aware of, which is that some of these foods contain food coloring resulting in rather colorful, even fluorescent orange or red stools that are no cause for alarm!
With regards to vegetables, ideally, the vegetables should be fresh and certified organic whenever available. It is best to offer dark leafy- green vegetables such as kale, collards and mustard quite frequently. These veggies are high in calcium and good for your bird. More occasionally spinach, bok choy and chard can be offered as well. Even frozen mixed vegetables can be very good as an option, and often are more convenient at certain times of they year. Frozen peas, corn, carrots and beans; bell peppers, and sweet corn on the cob are all just fine.
For added variety, for all of us birds, non-toxic garden weeds such as dandelion and milk thistle can be added to our menus, but nix on the avocados, and onions, (which can be toxic to many bird species). Also, a small amount of healthy people- food in moderation and the occasional chili once in a while to spice up your bird’s life is fine. (With an emphasis on “in moderation “…never forget that we are not exactly heavy weights in the animal kingdom, so a little snack to a person can be a huge meal for us birds).
Have you noticed yet??…no mention of seeds! Well, now is the time for me to fly down this alley of discussion. It is very important for you folks to know that studies have shown for years that seed junkies of all types of birds are very frequently Zn and calcium deficient, vitamin A and D deficient, and overweight. This is because an all seed diet is one that has an inappropriate amino acid balance, contains low quantities of fat-soluble vitamins, and contains many empty calories.
Now, you might argue, quite correctly, that birds in the wild commonly consume a wide variety of seeds and fruits depending on the species so seeds and fruit in plentiful amounts should be o.k. Not so much! It needs to be pointed out that native birds in the wild experience a much different life-style then cage birds do. Take for example my wild relatives that feed on fruits, especially wild figs, seed, nuts, berries, buds and blossoms. These birds are very busy on a daily basis flying above forest canopies or in the crowns of tall trees foraging for fruits and seeds so it follows that their daily energy requirements are much higher. Further, their natural diet is much more varied due to seasonal changes and plant diversity in their wild environment. Also, very importantly, they are in the sun often and consequently are not prone to Vitamin D deficiency as are indoor seed-fed pet birds. In essence, fending for themselves on a daily basis actually makes them healthier as long as they don’t become a tasty meal for a hungry predator of course!
But forgive me…I have veered off the flight plan. Let’s get back to the discussion of cage-bird diets.
Sunflower seeds and millet sprays and fruit treats and nutriberries need to be de-emphasized big- time. Sunflower seeds are like fast food…fatty and not very nutritional leading often to fatty livers and hardened arteries. The other items mentioned above are basically terrific sources of calories and little else. Any fruit is OK – but as a treat only, not a dietary staple.
On the subject of the value of adding bird vitamins to your bird’s, water bowl, all I have to say is the notion needs to be nixed that you are doing your bird any favor. In fact, water with added vitamins loses its nutrient value very quickly only to become a bacterial swimming pool within a few hours. Powdered vitamins dusted on a piece of favorite fruit or veggie is a much better alternative.
For us parrot types, grit is totally unnecessary. For smaller birds like budgies, canaries and finches, especially those still persisting with an all seed diet, grit in small portions may be offered, but generally speaking is totally unnecessary. In fact, over-consumption of grit can lead to intestinal blockage problems, especially if a bird is a little “under the weather”. In fact, if you do choose to have a little grit available, and if your bird is not feeling well, it is always best to remove the grit from the cage and take him to your bird doctor as soon as possible.
Of course, for all birds, as with humans, food presentation is very important so I am now going to step up to the plate regarding this topic. Let’s start with your purchase of bird food at your favorite pet or grocery store. It is best, as a general rule, to buy your seed in sealed bags since it is going to be much fresher and cleaner then if it is scooped from bulk bins. Bulk bin seed mixes in most cases are neither “shaken nor stirred!” for many days or even weeks and can become quite stale and dusty especially at the bottom of the bin.
Now, on to the topic of food dishes that look full that are really just full of seed shells or nut hulls. Appearances can be deceiving! Also, disappearance of food from the food dish is not a reliable way of determining if your bird is eating properly since it may be tossing most seed out of the bowl in a dedicated search for its favorite kind. (Just like my owner’s new baby does with the food she dislikes which she tosses off her highchair down to the dog). Further on the subject of food presentation, we don’t enjoy having to perform flexibility maneuvers or assume yoga postures while we eat. What we want is a sense of body security. For example, we prefer solidly secured perches that can provide us with enough headroom as we eat our dinner without our having to guard our heads from objects above us if we need to adjust our position or look up. We also want a reasonably quiet environment to dine, relatively undisturbed by noises and other distractions. If we are decrepit we need our food close and our perches low. Finally, and very importantly, we need clean, fresh water close by but above our tail level. As a personal note, it really ties my tail feathers in a knot to think about drinking or eating from soiled bowls, when simple measures can avoid the double- dip drop occurring. Please help us to avoid the inevitable when we turn around on our perches to settle down after a good meal by securing our perches ABOVE our tail feathers!
To conclude, as I have stated previously, it would be presumptuous of me to imply that the ‘one size fits all’ concept applies to the subject of optimum diets for birds. As I also pointed out earlier in this article, nutrition is a very complex subject, and a healthy diet for one bird species or individual may vary widely depending on the individual’s environment, general health, age and genetic makeup. Still, I am sure that if you follow these basic guidelines you will have a head start on ensuring that your bird friend can experience a healthy, happy and long life.