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Parrot Dietary Needs
Parrots, also known as hookbills or psittacines, are omnivores that are native to tropical and sub-tropical regions worldwide. They belong to order Psittaciformes, which includes a variety of birds - from the tiny parrotlet and common budgerigar (or American parakeet) to large macaws and cockatoos. Each of these species eats a specific diet in their native habitat that often consists of leaves, blossoms, fruits, nuts, seeds and insects. Parrots will fly long distances each day in search of their food because they need a great deal of variety to keep them healthy and supply all the necessary nutritents for their optimal health.
However, in captivity, parrots do not have a choice as to their food sources, so it is up to the owner to provide the correct kind of diet for their bird. In general, the following guidelines will apply to most captive-bred parrot species, unless otherwise noted. Specific references will be made for some common groups of birds such as conures, macaws and amazons. Please note that this sheet does not include references for lories and lorikeets, as each species of these birds has different and extremely specific dietary requirements (nectar and blossoms) that need to be thoroughly researched by the owner to provide the proper nutrition.
A Strong Foundation
The base diet for captive bred parrots should be pellets. Even though most of these birds eat small amounts of seed in their native environment, the wild seeds they eat are not from plants that grow in the United States, Canada and Europe. Furthermore, the seeds that parrots choose to eat in the wild are those that are green or sprouting and filled with nutrients. Dry seed, which for a wild bird would be considered the food of last resort in the dry season, is severely lacking in vitamin content and is mostly comprised of carbohydrates and fats. Certain seeds, such as niger and sunflower, do contain high quantities of protein, but there is still a lack of vitamins present. Birds kept on an all-seed diet often have shortened lifespans and can suffer serious health problems such as liver disease and heart attack. A parakeet kept on only a dry seed diet will often live 5-7 years, while one that eats pellets as its primary diet can live 10-12 years or longer!
Bird food manufacturers have tried to solve the problem by adding small brown or colored bits to seed as ‘vitamin pellets’, but a bird used to eating only seed will just throw these out of the cup. Some sources recommend vitamin supplements as an addition to a seed diet, but over-the-counter vitamin supplements usually do not have proper dosages listed for every size of bird. As a result, certain vitamins (like A and D) can be overdosed, sometimes resulting in illness or even death. Macaws and cockatiels seem particularly sensitive to excessive amounts of vitamin D.
Also, vitamin supplements are often just that - vitamins and no minerals! Considering how important minerals like calcium are to the overall health of your bird, adding ‘vitamins’ only solves a small portion of the dietary problem. Seeds are very high in phosphorus and very low in calcium, creating an imbalance of these two minerals in the bloodstream. If these compounds are not present in equal amounts, the bird will have trouble properly using the calcium available. Once the bird becomes calcium deficient, the calcium that it needs to have proper muscle function will be pulled out of its skeleton, resulting in fragile bones and fractures. This is especially true in female birds that need large amounts of calcium and other minerals to produce eggs.
Even if a vitamin and mineral supplement is used the supplement will be spit out along with the seed hulls and not swallowed, unless administered to the parrot on a soft food source that will be completely consumed. Birds don’t have the saliva in the their mouths that mammals do, so the vitamins won’t ‘stick to their tongue’ and be swallowed. If supplements are added to water, they often break down within a few hours and then cause bacteria to grow in the water with the compounds that they leave behind.
The only way to ensure a proper diet is to make pellets the primary portion of the diet. Pellets are a mixt of grains, legumes, vitamins, minerals, essential amino acids and sometimes small amounts of fruits, vegetables and/or eggs. They should comprise between 50 and 80% of a hookbill’s diet to make sure the bird is getting proper nutrition. One exception to this would be the diet of the Eclectus parrot family, which requires more fresh fruits and vegetables.
Pellets come in a variety of sizes, shapes and colors. Since wild birds do not come in contact with artificial dyes and preservatives, it is best to avoid these ingredients if possible, especially in the case of the sensitive Eclectus. However, some birds prefer a colored pellet to a brown one, which, although not ideal, is better than an all-seed diet. Some manufacturers use an all natural vegetable-based dye instead of artificial food coloring, so check the packaging to find out exactly what you’re getting. Select a size of pellet that is appropriate for the bird, but prepare to be flexible. Parakeets and cockatiels often prefer a small seed-shaped pellet, while larger birds like conures prefer a pellet that is big enough to hold with their foot. This is not always the case, so let your bird decide what he or she wants to eat. The formulation of most pellets, except those formulated for specific species of birds, is usually similiar between pellet sizes of the same brand of food.
Though pellets make a good base for most parrots, not all parrots require the same nutrition. Even different birds that come from the same region do not always have the same dietary needs. The addition of other foods is important in your bird’s diet to make sure it is complete and balanced. The following suggestions require you to take into account the protein and fat percentages of the pellets that you feed your bird and adjust them by adding small amounts of other foods. These are only generalizations of families of birds, so talk to your avian vet before you change your bird’s diet.
Bird Specific Suggestions
Parakeets (Budgerigars): These common pet birds are one of the hardiest species in captivity. They can survive on a poor diet of dry seeds, but to give them optimum health and nutrition it is best for them to have a diet with 14% protein and 4-6% fat. Most pellets contain higher protein levels than this, so give them small portions of low fat foods such as millet and canary seed, cooked rice or pasta along with their pellets.
Cockatiels: These birds come from the same area as parakeets but require 16-20% protein and 8-10% fat. Occasionally they will lose too much weight on a mostly pellet diet, so it is beneficial to give them a generous amount of seed. As long as they are given only pellets in the morning and a mixture of pellets and seeds for their evening meal, they should still be getting the right nutrition. Use a standard cockatiel seed mix to fulfill the high fat percentage that cockatiels need to thrive.
African Parrots: This group includes Lovebirds, African Greys and Poicephalus parrots (Senegal, Meyers, Jardines, Red-Bellied). African parrots often use palm fruit as a staple of their wild diet, which is extremely high in fat. In captivity they require lower levels of protein, 10-12%, and higher amounts of fat, 8-10%. Most pellets have the a rather high protein level but are not high enough in fat, so these birds should be offered small amounts of raw unsalted nuts to correct this problem. Lovebirds may have difficulty eating large nuts (unless shelled and finely chopped), so they can be offered small portions of seed with their evening meal. Be sure to offer vegtables that are high in vitamin A and calcium, as African birds tend to become easily deficient in these areas.
Amazons: It seems as though many manufacturers have the Amazon in mind when they make pellets - 14-16% protein and 4-6% fat. Amazons are prone to obesity, so it would be best not to offer them pellets that are higher in fat. Pellets alone can’t sustain them, so add small amounts of fresh fruits and vegetables - save any nuts or seeds for an occasional treat.
Conures: Though these birds are also from South America, their high activity levels require that they have a higher fat content than true Amazons. They can handle a 14-16% protein level, but they should also be provided with an 8-10% fat level by adding seeds and nuts in small amounts to their staple diet. Make sure that these additions are given with the evening meal to ensure that the bird is eating its pellets in the morning.
Macaws: Most of these large birds eat a diet rich with nuts and oily fruits in their native habitat, so they will need the same in captivity. Unless you have a pellet specifically made for macaws with a high 16% protein and a 10% fat content, it is important to offer them a few nuts every day. Most macaws, in fact, have beaks that are designed to crack brazil nuts, so make sure you give them the nuts in the shell to give them a good beak workout!
Eclectus: These birds are unique among most species in that they have an extra long digestive tract designed to digest plant materials. Their natural diet consists of blossoms, leaves and fruit, so pellets should only make up half of their base diet. Make sure the pellets are non-colored and free of chemical additives and preservatives. Chemical additives in formulated pellets can cause problems with Eclectus like involuntary twitching and toe-tapping, and so must be avoided. The other half of their diet should be fresh vegetables and fruit that are prepared daily. Seeds and nuts should be given sparingly, or not at all, to make sure that these birds stay as healthy as possible. Eclectus kept on an all-seed diet become very ill and do not live long in captivity.
Cockatoos: Cockatoos are native to Indonesia, Micronesia, the Philippines and Australia. This area of the world contains a vast array of different habitats. Cockatoos that come from different areas within this region often have extremely different dietary needs. Depending on the species and the overall health of your bird, you can offer them a diet similiar to Amazons or, in some cases, macaws. Many cockatoos, due to their active nature, like a diet with 14-19% protein and low 4-6% fat, but it is dependent on what that particular species and individual bird needs. Consult your vet to fine-tune a diet for this or any other bird.
The Essential Spice
Variety, as we have all heard, is the spice of life. Birds don’t have a very good sense of taste or smell, but they do choose their food by how it looks, its temperature and its texture. Parrots see in vivid 3-D technicolor that is different than what humans see because they can also view the UVA spectrum. A diet of plain brown pellets or seeds is often boring to them and doesn’t give them the kind of excitement that a hungry bird would get tearing its way through the rain forest! Non-edible toys typically provide adequate stimulation, but food variety not only excites your bird, it ensures that the animal is receiving essential vitamins and minerals in their natural form. Pellets are often heat processed or may be exposed to light and air for long periods after the bag is opened, which can degrade and sometimes destroy vitamins that have been added.
Vegetables & Fruits: Whether you like them or not, fruits and vegetables are excellent sources of balanced nutrition. They are not all created equally, though, so it’s important to make sure you give your bird high quality foods. Vegetables should form the bulk of this category, with fruits given as a garnish rather than a meal since fruits are primarily sugar, even though it is natural. Which vegetables are the most nutritious? As a rule, vegetables with a dark green or orange color typically contain large amounts of vitamin A, vitamin C or calcium, as well as a number of important trace elements and bioflavinoids. These compounds are in a form that is ready for your bird’s body to use, so it won’t usually be excreted before the bird can use it (which can happen with dietary additions like cuttlebone and mineral blocks).
Good choices for vegetables include dark leafy greens like collard, mustard and turnip greens, kale, chicory, romaine lettuce and dandelion are also highly nutritious, along with broccoli, carrots, sweet potatoes and winter squash. Most of these can be cooked or raw, depending on the bird’s preference. Be careful not to cook too long, though, or you may end up boiling away the vitamins you are trying to feed the bird! Also, it’s perfectly fine to share these foods if you are preparing them for yourself as a meal or salad. Just hold the salt, butter, dressing or gravy when serving them to your bird.
Most fruits are less nutritious, but a few, like papaya, mango and cantaloupe are rich in vitamin A. Green bell peppers are full of nutritious compounds called bioflavinoids, and berries are rich in antioxidants. Other fruits, such as apples, grapes, pears, bananas, peaches, plums and cherries, are not as nutritious but can still be offered in small amounts. Just make sure you remove all pits and seeds from the fruits, excluding bananas and berries, and cut away any fruit around the pit that has become dark in color. Be careful not to offer too much citrus to your birds because it has been known to cause digestive upsets in birds that are not used to it. Citrus includes fruits that are high in acid content such as oranges, tangerines and pineapples.
Nuts: Many birds require nuts as a part of balanced diet; others just enjoy them for the large amount of energy they provide. Nuts are high in fat but many contain significant amounts of protein and can even be a good source of minerals. Again, not all foods are created equal, but the following nuts are good choices for any parrot: almonds (highest in calcium!), brazil nuts, hazelnuts, peanuts and pistachios. Make sure all the nuts are raw, unsalted and, if in the shell, the shells should not be moldy or dyed.
Palm oil, taken from the palm fruit which grows in tropical regions, is another high fat but nutritious treat and can be purchased specifically as a supplement for birds. This can be added to soft foods (great with cooked sweet potatoes!) to give your bird a true taste of the tropics!
Seeds: Even though they should not be used as a staple diet, seeds are not a completely undesirable food source. As the list of parrot species suggests, they can be part of a well-balanced diet, adding extra fat and variety to your parrot’s daily routine. But seed is not meant to be a sole diet, nor a large percentage of the diet.
Make sure you select seed mixes that are fresh - they shouldn’t be moldy or full of bugs. Try to find a seed mix that is naturally preserved. Choose one that is appropriate for your bird, even if it contains sunflower seeds. Sunflower seeds are not actually addictive, as many parrot owners have claimed. Birds just enjoy the high fat content, like we enjoy potato chips. Sunflower seeds are actually very nutritious, but because they are high in fat and are not a complete protein source, they should be used sparingly. You can also offer pumpkin and other squash seeds as treats. These seeds are nutritional powerhouses, containing lots of protein in addition to magnesium, zinc, iron and other trace minerals.
One way to offer seeds to your bird that exponentially increases their nutritional value is to sprout them. Use a seed mixture that is either comprised of one kind of seed or has no added colored or brown vitamin bits. Soak the seeds overnight in water, then drain and let the moist seeds sit at room temperature for a few days until they have a 1¼4" sprout (root). At this point, all the proteins, vitamins and minerals have been fully activated and the seeds are at their most nutritious. There are a variety of ways to do this, from simply using a glass jar and cheese cloth to elaborate setups with racks to make sure there are always fresh sprouts. Typically, after the water is drained, the jar is rolled on its side to allow the moistened seeds to coat its inner surface. This ensures that the seeds have access to fresh air as well as the moisture they need to grow. It is easy for sprouted seeds to spoil, however, so take the time to research whichever method you prefer to make sure the procedure is done correctly.
Protein: Pellets, nuts and seeds all contain protein. However, not all proteins are created equal; different proteins are used by the body in different ways. Birds get their protein from a variety of sources in the wild, not just seeds and nuts. In fact, the most complete protein source in the plant kingdom is the soybean, which is typically included in every pellet formulation. What is not in every pellet is animal protein.
Parrots are not actually carnivores, but they are opportunistic omnivores that would never turn down free food, even if it came in the form of insects (adults and larvae), the eggs of other animals or carrion. To make sure your bird gets the variety it really needs, offer it some animal protein once in a while.
Insects would be the most natural form of protein to offer, but many hand-raised parrots do not even know what a caterpillar is and can’t fathom that the squirming thing in their bowl is food. For this reason, you may have to settle for something that you are willing to consume, unless bugs are on your menu at home. If a parrot sees you eating something, they’re going to want a taste.
The most perfect source of protein in nature is the egg. Eggs contain all the required nutritients to create a new life, so they have all the building blocks your bird requires. If the egg is only for the bird and you won’t be sharing, include the shell as well. Make sure you either scramble or hard boil the egg so it is fully cooked and free of bacteria. You can also offer your bird small pieces of fully cooked lean meats. Don’t add any salt, fat, sauces or spices (unless you are sure the spices are bird-safe) to the meat.
Snacks: No diet for any animal would be complete without snacks. Although many of the foods listed in this category are more appealing to birds than fruits, vegetables or pellets, they should never be fed in large quantities. However, these foods can be mixed with those the bird may not like to eat, such as cooked rice mixed with chunks of broccoli, to encourage the bird to try new things. Toasted whole grain breads, cooked oatmeal without sugar, cooked brown rice or other whole grains, whole grain pasta, cooked legumes (beans, peas, lentils, tofu and soy products), and breakfast cereals without sugar are snack foods that will provide excellent nutrition for your bird.You can also offer mashed potatoes with no gravy, corn on the cob, cooked white rice, pasta and white bread or dinner rolls in very small amounts.
Choose With Care
Parrots, provided with the right kind of food, will be more resistant to disease and live longer, healthier lives as our companions. Not all foods are suitable for birds. While there is some controversy over the validity of a few of these suggestions, all of them are being included to ensure that no bird will come to harm by accidentally eating something that they shouldn’t. Like people, some birds are more sensitive to certain substances than others.
First, consider where parrots come from: huge expanses of forests or plains where their food is pretty much whatever they pick off the tree, dig out of the ground or find living under tree bark. There are no artificial colors, flavors, preservatives, flavor enhancers, artificial sweeteners or pesticides used in a parrot’s natural environment. Due to how efficient a bird’s body is at taking in chemicals from the air they breathe and the food they eat, these seemingly harmless compounds that are safe for humans may have side effects and endanger the health of your bird. If at all possible, choose foods that are all-natural with no additives or preservatives and/or organically grown. It isn’t possible in all cases to do this, especially if your bird likes colored pellets or if organic produce is unavailable, but every little bit helps.
Birds have not been kept as pets as long as cats and dogs, but some of the basic care requirements do carry over. For example, some of the things that are deadly to your furry pets are no less deadly to your feathered ones. Caffeine, which humans metabolize easily, can be deadly to birds in very small doses. So no coffee, caffeinated tea or soft drinks for your bird. Chocolate is similarly toxic, because it contains a stimulant compound that is similiar to caffeine. Alcohol is also not good for birds for the same reason it is not good for humans. No beer, wine or liquor for your bird, no matter how tempting it seems or how much they seem to like it. Alcohol can cause irreversible damage to the liver and other organs, resulting in serious diseases and a shortened lifespan.
Even among the healthy food choices that are listed on this sheet, there can be potential hazards if a bird owner is not careful about what they choose to feed. Fruits and vegetables are usually a good choice to keep your birds healthy, but the following list contains those that may cause problems or even result in poisoning: avocado, onions, asparagus, garlic and rhubarb. Eggs and meat, while they make a sensible dietary addition in moderation, can pass harmful bacteria on to your bird if not fully cooked. This is also true of raw legumes, so make sure you fully cook any beans that you give to your bird. Nuts that are too old may have fungal spores living in their shells. This is most common in whole peanuts, and these spores can be passed on to an unsuspecting bird, causing serious internal health problems. Always feed your birds nuts that are human grade and as clean and fresh as possible.
Snack foods can be unhealthy if they are fed in large amounts. Birds are such small animals that for them to eat a single potato chip by themselves is almost like a human eating a whole bag in one sitting! Foods that are greasy, salty or full of refined sugars need to be fed in extreme moderation or avoided entirely. Large amounts of sugar can cause behavior problems and too much fat can result in liver damage, clogged arteries and heart attacks. Also, because some species of birds do not drink a lot of water (especially if they get a lot of fresh foods in their diet), large amounts of ingested salt may not be excreted properly and can actually result in the death of your bird.
Finally, remember that birds are not mammals. Birds are not physically able to produce milk and do not possess the enzymes to properly digest it. There is no reason a bird should be fed any dairy products. If your pet receives protein from eggs and meat, vitamins and minerals from vegetables and fruits, fats from nuts and carbohydrates from grains, they are receiving a balanced diet. Some birds may enjoy a bite of cheese or yogurt or a sip of milk in cereal now and again, but it should not be a habit. Milk contains compounds that can inhibit the absorption of nutrients when ingested at the same time as other foods, and it can cause serious digestive upsets and diarrhea. If your bird absolutely insists on having dairy products, there are soy and rice alternatives to milk, yogurt and cheese.
All of the following suggestions, if applied to the life of most psittacine birds, will greatly increase the chances of your pet living a longer, healthier life with greater stimulation from its diet. However, birds often act like a young human child when it comes to their diet. They like the tastiest treats, like seed and nuts, and may refuse to eat anything else. Birds have a very fast metabolism, so you can’t just ‘send them to bed without supper’ and hope they’ll eat healthy things in the morning. Depriving birds of food for even short periods of time can cause illness and even death in some species after only 24 hours. Unfortunately, not all parrot breeders wean their babies onto pellets and fresh foods, so a bird will not always recognize them as a viable food source. What is a frustrated parrot owner to do?
Birdie See: If you have a bird that is bonded to you, the easiest way to get it to try something new is to see you eating it. Put your preferences aside and eat fresh vegetables, fruits, whole grains and other tasty treats in front of your bird. Act excited when you eat it and tell the bird how yummy it is. Most bird pellets, while bland, are not bad for humans, and many (especially organic) are healthy for us too. So don’t feel weird about eating pellets in front of your bird, but don’t expect results overnight. Parrots are intelligent creatures that would prefer to have things their way. Make sure while you are demonstrating good eating habits you also mix the bird’s food with pellets; perhaps 25% pellets and 75% seed the first week and 50/50 the second week. Once you see the bird trying the pellets, you can continue to diminish the seed diet slowly until seed is reserved for an evening treat or training reward. It’s best not to feed your bird a mix of 75% pellets and 25% seed until you see it eating pellets. Birds have been known to starve to death with a bowl full of food in front of them if it isn’t food they recognize.
Birds will also imitate other birds as far as their eating habits are concerned. This is how they learn to eat in the wild. If there is another bird in the household who eats pellets, or if you can board your bird at a veterinary clinic or at the house of a friend who has pellet-eating birds, it is possible to convert your bird this way. Whichever way you choose, be prepared to throw out or vacuum up a lot of pellets at first. This process is slow but will ultimately be worthwhile when you see the effects of pellets on the overall health of your bird.
Warm It Up: Most handfed parrots in the pet trade are fed a warm, liquidy substance as their primary diet when they are babies. Slowly but surely they are taught by their human caretaker to eat the food of an adult bird and are weaned off of the formula. The warm, mushy texture of formula is almost universally appealing to handfed birds and can be used to help them try pellets. If you soak pellets in hot water until they are somewhat mushy and serve this to your bird warm, either in a bowl or on a spoon, you may have surprising results. Of course, eventually you will have to serve the pellets drier and drier until the bird eats them as they are packaged. You can also moisten them with a little bit of 100% fruit juice as an extra incentive to convince the bird how tasty they are.
This can also work for vegetables, especially things like sweet potatoes and squash, which are typically mushy when you cook them anyway. If your bird enjoys these vegetables, start slowly adding in other kinds of cooked vegetables or grains, pureed fruits or soaked pellets. Just make sure not to leave any mixtures like this in the cage for more than 4 hours or they might spoil. Also, make sure the moistened pellets or cooked foods are warm, not hot, to the touch. Otherwise your bird may swallow them without realizing how hot they are and burn its crop.
Tricky Treats: For smaller birds, such as cockatiels or lovebirds, another strategy might be to try some of the pre-made products that look like treats but are pellets and seeds bound together by molasses or other tasty substances. These are often shaped like small balls of seed or flattened sheets that break off into squares. While you usually will have to crush them up at first and mix them with the rest of the bird’s seed, eventually you should be able to diminish the regular seed mix and just substitute the pre-made foods. Even though it isn’t the desired way to get a bird to eat a balanced diet, these products will ensure that the bird is getting SOME nutrition by tricking them into eating pellets or vitaminized hulled seeds. This method can also be used, once the bird is eating the entire treat, to gradually sneak in more pellets of the same size and color to complete the conversion.
String it up: Sometimes, warming up vegetables or watching someone else eat them isn’t enough for birds. They need to be able to forage and explore just like they would in the wild. This need can be used to your advantage, so don’t be afraid to experiment! Chop up fruits and vegetables into different sizes or shapes and string them on a metal kabob. Weave a leaf of greens through the bars of your bird’s cage. Roll moist pieces of fresh food in dry seeds (or some other dry treat your bird likes) and let the bird pick them off by itself, forcing them to at least taste the food underneath the seeds. Make a batch of corn bread specifically for your bird, adding in eggs with the shells and all kinds of diced veggies. There are many ways to make eating fun for your bird. Don’t be afraid to try something new!
If a prospective parrot owner is a little daunted by all the information presented here, it’s important to remember that unlike our dog and cat companions, parrots are only a few generations out of the jungle. Their dietary requirements are exactly the same as their relatives out in the wild, only we can’t just go to our local store and buy the kinds of things they would naturally eat. We have to do our best with what is available to us and take the time to teach our parrots to eat these nutritious foods. As responsible pet owners, it is our obligation to provide companion animals with the healthiest possible diet, not just choose whatever is easiest. A few months of frustration during a dietary conversion can translate into years of happy, healthy companionship with one of these beautiful creatures.