Diet for parrots
Diet is one of the most important husbandry aspects in maintaining a parrot healthy; when caged parrots are fed a poor diet their health will soon reflect this. Obesity, white plaques in the mouth from a vitamin deficiency, an overgrown beak, spiraling nails, respiratory tract infection, plumage stress marks or color changes and more all soon become apparent. To keep a parrot healthy the diet must be varied, nutritious and interesting. It must also be presented in such a manner so as to make it attractive to the bird.
Birds, like humans, will eat what they like most if given an opportunity. Everyone loves cakes, sweets and desserts. But these foods are fattening, often contain unhealthy oils, tend to be laden with sugar and are carbohydrate bombs. The same happens with parrots. If fed a bowl of mixed fruits, vegetables, chopped greens, seeds and nuts, they will eat the sunflower seeds and peanuts first, followed by safflower seeds and hemp, then the other nuts and finally, if present in the mix, oats, wheat and buckwheat. They will ignore the millets, milo, fruits, vegetables and more. They simply do not provide the energy that the less healthy fatty seeds provide. This means that the seed mix offered to the birds should be selected for the species for which they are intended for.
Amazons, Galahs Eolophus roseicapillus and some Australian parrots become obese very easily on fatty seeds; some develop fatty tumors as a result of such fat heavy diets. Because of this, their diet should be selected so that it is varied and requires considerable effort to consume; the calorie expenditure to shell one sunflower seed is the same as a millet seed, except that to compensate for the volume the bird must shell a dozen millet seeds. The diet for these parrots should also contain a minimal amount of fat. Macaws, on the other hand, require fat in their diet. The same applies to African Greys Psittacus erithacus, which like the large macaws evolved to process fatty palm seeds. To insure that my birds receive what is healthy, I like to have several mixes available and to provide the different mixes to the different species. The seeds complement the pelleted diet (approximately 60% of the diet), which we also feed and which together with vegetables, fruits, cooked mixes, sprouts and more
form the diet.
Pellets are a processed food that have widest acceptance in the USA, where they were first marketed by Dr T.J. Lafeber. Countries like Australia, Brazil and the EU are now paying closer attention to these manufactured diets. They are not perfect; pellets were formulated from poultry research, as NO company has funded or conducted research on parrots in the wild, but their use has seen a significant drop in nutritional diseases being reported in parrots.
Poultry are terrestrial, have a short lifespan and are precocial—the chicks can feed themselves from the minute they hatch. Parrots are the complete opposite. They are altricial, meaning that the chicks require assistance for some time before they can fend for themselves. Pellets, however, provide an assurance that a nutritional deficiency can be avoided. They are better than a diet based primarily on sunflower seeds and peanuts.
Pellets come in organic, natural and non-organic types. The organic label is used by some companies to charge a premium and rely on the ever growing number of people who believe these products are superior. In Australia, Argentina and elsewhere wild parrots have been raiding non organic crops for many decades and no one has seen any negative effect. On the other hand, the overuse of chemicals in food production should be avoided. There is also the problem of certification: who can assure the end consumer that the food being sold for their pets is truly organic and what does the “natural” label truly mean? My recommendation is to investigate in detail each type and to make the decision not on emotion but on facts.
Whether you feed seeds or pellets, approximately 20% of the food you offer your birds should consists of vegetables, fruits and other foods, including germinating seeds and grains, whole grain bread, cooked whole grain pasta, quinoa and brown rice. I err more towards vegetables than fruits; indeed for every 6 vegetables types I feed one type of fruit. This is because wild parrots feed predominately on unripe fruits. They do this to avoid competition with mammals (particularly primates and bats) and frugivorous birds, including toucans and hornbills. The unripe fruit is low in sugar and often bitter and astringent. Commercial fruits have been produced to become ultra sweet. This is easily proven: bite into a wild apple and
then a commercial apple. I am sure the unpleasant taste of the first will be pervasive. The extremely sweet cultivated fruits should thus be avoided. If you feed fruits, select tropical varieties which are nutritionally superior to temperate fruits like apple, pear, grapes and cherries, or choose types that are less sweet, such as the heirloom cooking apples, or select fruit that are not yet ripe; the ripening process boosts the sugar content. I prefer to feed vegetables and greens and use fruit as a treat.
Some vegetables are steamed to break the fiber and facilitate access to certain nutrients in the gut. Classic examples are carrot, pumpkin and sweet potatoes, which are rich in beta carotene, but this pro vitamin A is sequestered in the fibers and is difficult to access except when these vegetables are partly cooked. High beta carotene intake is seen in many parrots. The best example is the African Grey Psittacus erithacus, whose wild diet is heavy in the beta carotene rich seeds of the oil palm Elaeeis guinensis.
Another dietary element that can be used is pulses. Lentils, garbanzo, pinto beans, mung beans and more can be partly cooked or germinated. Either process is required to reduce lectins, which are naturally present in these foods and are harmful to the body, often interfering with metabolism and the uptake of nutrients. Moreover, sprouting these pulses makes them nutritiously superior to the dry form; in sprouts, fibers, proteins, essential fatty acids and enzymes become easier to access during digestion. As an example, the vitamin content in sprouting mung beans can increase 200%. The same applies to germinating seeds. A mixture of germinating seeds and pulses provides a healthy food, which the parrots will readily eat and which can complement the rest of the fare. When sprouting, it is imperative to wash the sprouts extremely well and to use a bacterial retardant during the initial soaking process. We have used bleach, apple cider vinegar and grapefruit seed extract during the 6-8 hours of initial soaking. The seeds and pulses are then washed in copious amounts of water several times daily. Once the pulses and seeds begin to show a tiny sprout, they are soaked for two hours in a bacterial retardant (usually grapefruit seed extract) and then washed again. The sprouts are then examined and smelled. They should never have an acrid or acidic odor. If they do, discard them and start over. Good, clean sprouts should have a sweet and desirable odor. The
sprouts can then be fed. I always leave them sit in a colander for 20-30 minutes to get rid of the excess water and feed them very early in the morning. The bowls are removed after an hour or two. This is to prevent the husks and remaining grains and beans from fermenting in our hot climate.
Another means of destroying bacteria in sprouts is to blanch them in boiling water. This process does destroy some of the nutritious elements but the end result is still healthy.
An alternative to sprout is to soak and then cook pulses and seeds. Corn, garbanzo, mung and pinto beans, buckwheat, sunflower, safflower and many more can be soaked for an hour and then boiled until they become slightly soft. Generally speaking garbanzo takes longer to cook then lentils, so it is best to add the different grains to the different stages of cooking. The mix should not be overcooked, as most parrots dislike mush. You can add vegetables and pasta to this mix. Again, in a warm climate provide it only in the morning and remove any uneaten amount after an hour or two to deter the foods from souring.
With all parrots, food presentation is key. Parrots like colorful foods. This is why most species select the pellets containing color over the varieties that are a natural wheat color. When feeding a cooked mix, add colorful vegetables—beet, carrot, pumpkin, corn off the cob, peas and more. Also, present the healthy foods early in the morning, when they are hungriest. If the birds refuse these foods, remove their seeds or pellets the night before so that they are especially hungry in the morning. Feeding the food warm can also have a stimulating effect.
Keys to a healthy parrot are a varied diet. Some thought and effort will allow your bird to live a long, healthy life.