Talking about diet

Each month, I continue to receive several hundred messages via Facebook asking questions about parrots. The queries come from across the globe and can be divided based on the queries from the past 12 months as follows:

  • 33% concern diet, typically asking if “sunflower seeds and apple” or “pellets alone” can be regarded as a suitable diet for maintenance and/or breeding, or if a softbilled bird mix, canary type eggfood or mealworms are important for parrot breeding. Some of the messages also ask if they can keep and breed Cockatiels Nymphicus hollandicus and Budgerigars Melopsittacus undulatus on millet alone.
  • 27% ask about a medical issue; these questions normally come from countries where avian veterinarians do not exist or cannot be accessed, namely parts of Asia, India, Latin America or Equatorial Africa. Plucking or bacterial infections make up the brunt of these queries. During the monsoon in Asia many questions relate to birds suffering from avian pox.
  • 29% question me about breeding parrots (primarily African Greys but also macaws, conures, amazons and of late lories)
  • 11% of the questions can be placed in the “other” category and tend to relate to very specific matters, including behavior or pet potential of a given species.

Because the majority of the messages continue to related to diet, I have decided to discuss this most important issue in this informational. What I state here is my personal experience based on field work in which I have observed parrots feeding in their natural habitat, have collected the food samples on which the birds were feeding for laboratory analysis and on more than four decades´ of keeping parrots in captivity.

Wild parrots feed on a vast variety of foods. In the first extensive study that I conducted in Argentina, Paraguay and southern Brazil between 1985 and 1989, I recorded over 59 items that were consumed by Maximilian Parrots Pionus maximiliani, 61 items that were eaten by Yellow-winged Amazons Amazona aestiva and 17 items eaten by Sharp-tailed Conures Thectocercus acuticaudatus, the latter only casually observed and not the focus of the research. The items eaten contained the highest amount of fat when the birds were nesting. The food items tended to be eaten as they became available and until the supply was exhausted, when another item was targeted. I was convinced that many other food items that the birds fed on were not identified and that from year to year the diet could vary dramatically, perhaps contributing to very good or very poor breeding success. The birds never fed on just one item, but rather fed predominately on one and complemented their intake with the others.

In my fieldwork, I have found that the parrots consumed shoots, leaves, bark, buds, flowers, seedpods, nuts, fruit and seeds, occasionally a source of protein (lizards or even nestling passerine birds) and once the fresh droppings of Howler Monkeys. In the wild population of Canary-winged Parakeets Brotogeris chiriri in Florida I have seen the birds feeding on swarming termites. I also have an observation of the similarly feral Severe Macaws Ara severus raiding the nest of Quaker Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus. As I watched the fracas between the raiders and defending Quakers, one Severe Macaw emerged with an egg in its bill.

My research in the Amazon and elsewhere confirmed a suspicion that different species feed on different items that only they target. Green-winged Macaws Ara chloropterus, for example, feed on hard palm seeds that the Scarlet Macaws Ara macao seem incapable of cracking. This allows both species to occupy the same habitat and not compete with each other. Other food resources may be available for much of the year but will be eaten only at a certain stage of nesting, such as when the young are about to fledge, or only if other food resources become scarce.

Most of these foods eaten by parrots, when tasted, are very unpalatable. Copey Clusia sp. produces a flower that leads to a fruit, which is a favorite of many Purrhura conures and the Touit parrotlets. When I tasted it, I could not understand the fascination and attraction that parrots find in the astringent fruit. The same can be stated for the fruit of Anacardium occidentale and a great favorite, Spondias mombim.

Toxic compounds, concentrated by plants in unripe seeds, fruits and pods to deter predation, offer no obstacle to parrots, which readily eat these; the parrots cannot wait for the seeds, pods or fruits to ripen, as they then compete with monkeys, other mammals and birds for the same resource, so they eat them when they are green and astringent or even toxic. The parrots nullify the toxic alkaloids by consuming clay or bark or even certain bromeliad flowers. How the parrots learned to consume these elements to bind with the toxins so they can be excreted is one of nature’s mysteries. My suspicion is that a bird sickened by eating one of these toxic compounds recovered after eating bark or clay and that it then taught other flock members to feed on these after consuming the same food.

The diet of wild parrots diet has only been broached above. It is so complex and that an entire book could be devoted to the subject. For the sake of simplicity the information can be summarized as follows: parrots eat tremendous variety of foods, they are opportunistic (eating what is available) but may avoid certain foods at certain times, and the dietary needs of different species varies with the season or breeding stage, suggesting that no single diet could be used across the board for all parrots all of the time. This also suggests that diet can be used to induce breeding.

So how does the information I have just relayed apply to the questions on diet that I have been asked? Firstly, while many pellet manufacturers suggest that their diet is complete and nothing else needs to be fed, parrots need variety. The birds may survive on pellets and water, but is this truly ideal for long-term physical and mental health? Since most parrots are long lived, we simply do not know how pelleted feeds will affect their long term health. Watch any wild parrot and you will quickly learn that they truly explore their environment for edible foods and that they often spend considerable time extracting an edible morsel. As an example, the Glossy Cockatoo Calytorhynchus lathani uses a heavy, bulbous bill to extract diminutive seeds about the size of a pinhead from an Australian pine cone. The birds spend hours working for their meal; they must husk hundreds of cones for their daily sustenance. Pairs produce a single thickly downed chick, which can survive long periods without brooding. This allows its parents to work for many hours to not only sustain themselves but also provide for their nestling. I have seen wild Green-winged Macaws in the Amazon spend an average of 2.35 hours feeding in the morning and 2.18 hours feeding in the afternoon. Similar large blocks of time are spent by other species in their daily foraging bouts.

  In complete contrast, pellets can be swallowed without any manipulation. After 10-15 minutes the birds´ energy needs are satisfied. The pellets also erode a natural behavior of exploring the food with the tongue, rotating it in the foot and removing whatever piece can be eaten. The absence of foraging activity must have some psychological impact on a bird, whose significant part of the day in the wild is spent searching for and extracting food. Secondly, pellets are almost invariably manufactured from nutritional studies based on poultry. But parrots are very different from poultry, which have been bred for a condensed existence—a couple of months for broilers and about two years for egg layers. Parrots are far longer lived, grow slower, are altricial  and most species are arboreal—all the opposite of poultry.

Can pellets thus form the entire dietary component? The answer is obvious—NO!

The other question—that if parrots will thrive on sunflower seeds and apple and Cockatiels and Budgies on one form of millet—also requires a resounding “no!” for a response. Sunflower or millet seeds and apple are terribly inadequate for sustaining a bird healthy long term.  Such a diet will lead to deficiencies, malnutrition and without doubt serious illness. Pellets are a better option to a predominately seed diet, but BOTH require that the diet be broadened significantly.

Mixed seed diets can overcome some of the deficiencies seen in only a single seed diets, but the problem is that many of the smaller seeds will work their way to the bottom of the food bowl, where the birds either ignored or overlook them. In such cases, the birds will eat only the seeds at the top. Offering vitamin-coated seeds is in my opinion worthless, as the parrots shell the seeds; they do not eat the husk. Their mouths are dry. The vitamins thus do not get ingested.

For seed diets, my recommendation is to offer as much variety as possible and to limit the seeds to no more than 60% of the overall diet. These seeds should be offered in like-sized groups and selected for the species being maintained. For most parrots, small sunflower, safflower, hemp and shelled peanuts can be offered one day; assorted millets, oats, buckwheat, perilla, etc. on another day. If the birds will eat them, items like pumpkin seeds can be included. For Budgerigars, a selection of millets, oats and canary seed can be provided, the selection being varied from day to day. The intention is to offer as much variety as possible and to encourage the bird to eat everything.

When formulating a seed diet, keep the biological needs of some species in mind. A Galah or Rose-breasted Cockatoo Eolophus roseicapillus has evolved to eat small, predominately grass seeds. It becomes obese on a fatty seed diet. The obesity can lead to the development of fatty tumors infertility and egg binding. On the other hand, macaws require fat in the diet. What this means is that the hobbyist will need to vary the seed mix for the different species. This does not mean that sunflower, safflower and hemp, all very fatty, must be totally excluded from the diet of a Galah, but that they need to be restricted considerably. On the other hand, a large macaw will pay scant attention to a diet of small millets, canary seed and oats. Their diet should contain nuts.

While on the subject of nuts, I am always concerned about aflotoxins in nuts but especially peanuts and Brazilnuts. This is why I recommend that parrots be fed shelled nuts intended for human consumption. Where in doubt, have the peanuts or nuts tested by a laboratory or health food agency, or look online for methods of detecting aflotoxin contamination. (Aflotoxins cannot be viewed with the naked eye, smelled or tasted.)

The soak and cook diet used decades ago and developed by Dr Raymond Kray is still fed by some pet owners, whose birds are antediluvian. (I know of two Double Yellow-headed Amazona oratrix and one Yellow-naped Amazon Amazona auropalliata that have been fed this diet for over 40 years that look the picture of good health.) This diet consists of equal parts of cooked pinto beans, fresh or frozen corn kernels, dog food and brown rice. My concern is that the high levels of iron in the dog food could prove deadly to some species or that the dog food can  become contaminated with deadly pathogens. The use of the cooked brown rice, corn and pulses with the dog food being replaced by other grains (quinoa, for example) and the addition of other vegetables is good and can be fed as a supplement to a seed diet.

When feeding pellets, remember that it cannot form the entire diet. Supplement the pelleted diet with other items. In no circumstance should pellets comprise more than 60% of the overall diet.

Many of the individuals writing me state that their parrots will not eat anything but seeds or pellets. I simply do not accept such arguments. When I was a kid, I hated spinach and steak, but when those two items were served for dinner, I had two options: go hungry or eat them. I ate them. Parrots can be obstinate. They may reject the other foods initially, but persistence and ingenuity in presentation invariably pays dividends. In over 40 years as an aviculturist, I have yet to find one – yes ONE– parrot that could be coaxed into eating a broader diet.

So now let us look at how to broaden the diet of our caged parrots and then how to coerce our birds into eating this much more nutritious fare.

First, let us discuss how to enrich the diet. The list of suitable items is very long and can incorporate items that may only be regionally available. As an example, we feed the fruit of Spondias mombim, called Hog plum, to our birds. They adore the fruit and will play with the stone for many hours. But this fruit is not available everywhere. In contrast, I cannot grow dandelions or produce rose hips in the very humid south Florida where I live, but hobbyists in the northern parts of the US and Europe can offer their birds these excellent food sources to their birds.

Many weeds that are detested by gardeners can be an excellent food source. Chickweed, sorrel, plantain and many others can be offered whole, with the roots attached. (Look online for the entire list of weeds that can be fed to the birds.) The only caveat is that they come from a chemical and fertilizer free environment. They provide vitamins and minerals needed by the birds in a natural form.

Cultivated fruits have been bred to suit the human palette. This means that they must be sweet. As an example, many cultivated varieties of apple today have as much as 160 grams of sugar per kilogram of fruit. Just 50 years ago, the sugar content was less than half.  If you examine wild fruit eaten by parrots, few are rich in sugar and very rarely are they eaten at their peak of sugar content.

Cultivated fruit should be included in the diet but select varieties that are not packages of sugar. This means seeking out some of the heirloom varieties or picking types intended for cooking. Tropical fruits are excellent. Many have high sugar contents but they are nutritionally superior to temperature fruit and this in my opinion justifies their use. Mango, papaya, guava, Opuntia cactus fruit, carambola (in limited amounts because they contain caramboxin and oxalic acid, which can prove harmful to the kidneys), etc are all suitable. The list is long and again can vary from region to region.

Vegetables are in my opinion an excellent supplement for caged parrots and are preferred over fruit. Hot peppers, okra, carrot, beets, broccoli, fresh peas, corn on the cob, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, jicama and many more should be on the menu. Greens including endive, escarole, chicory and many others should likewise be available. There are two caveats with vegetables: some greens (namely spinach, chard, beet greens and kale) contain oxalates that can affect calcium uptake and should therefore be offered in limited quantities (though never excluded) from the diet, and some vegetables are better cooked—the beta-carotene content in carrots increases in cooking and cruciferous vegetables (including broccoli, cauliflower and Brussels sprouts) loose their thyroid inhibiting qualities when heated. Steaming is the best means of cooking, but boiling can be considered as long as the vegetables are not cooked to a mush. When boiling, use the same water to cook brown rice or whole grain pasta (see below).

Other food items that can be included in the parrot diet are cooked whole grain pasta, brown rice, beans (some, such as black and fava beans, spoil quicker than pinto beans or chick peas), couscous, quinoa and more. Whole grain bread, birdie bread or cake (look online for recipes), nut butter (smeared on the bread) and even certain dry breakfast cereals can be offered to the birds; the latter should not contain sugar or fats and should be derived from whole grains. Germinating changes the nutritional composition of seeds, making them nutritionally superior.  We sprout seeds (including safflower and sunflower), peas, milo, popcorn, lentils, mung beans and more for the birds and they generally eat these before other foods. Flowers, fresh branches, natural foods (palm seeds, pods, etc), green millet sprays and more can be added to the diet as long as they come from a pesticide and insecticide free source.

When feeding fruits, vegetables and cooked foods, two important points need to be borne in mind: they can spoil, so should be removed after a reasonable amount of time, and flying insects may be attracted to them. We provide seeds or pellets in the second feeding; the first feeding is invariably the long list of items mentioned above, which are offered in bowls that are removed after two hours. The exceptions are flowers, branches and natural foods, which can be left in the cage.

The daily challenge is to provide variety to the birds.

So how do you get a bird that refuses to eat anything but seeds or pellets to broaden its dietary intake? The solid food (seeds or pellets) should be removed at night and the fruits or vegetables offered early in the morning; cooked foods should be provided while still warm, which often increases interest and palatability. This food should be left in place for two hours.

Secondly, lets look at presentation. Offering fruits, vegetables, cooked meals, whole grain bread and new foods in the morning is important. The birds will be hungry at that time and more apt to eat these foods.  Once accustomed to this feeding routine, they will begin to scream for your attention when they see the container holding this most treasured meal.

The fruits and vegetables should be offered chopped. They should retain their integrity—mush if rarely eaten. I will never forget when the late John Stoodley recommended that I feed my birds a mash of pulses, vegetables and some fruit. The birds had been accustomed to eating tremendous variety but outright refused to eat the indiscernible mash.  When the integrity of the ingredients was retained, the birds ate the mix of pulses, vegetables and fruits quite well.

Bright colors attract parrots and should always be offered in the daily mélange. Orange, red and yellow are far more attractive to parrots than greens or browns. Beets and carrots are often the first items that a parrot on a will eat.

Finally there is the organic and GMO (genetically modified) issue that must be kept in mind. Where possible, I try to feed my birds organic, but not all foods are available from an organic certified source. I often have to be flexible on this subject because some of the items available to me in Miami (i.e., Brazilnuts) have no organically certified source. Genetically modified foods are according to the US Department of Agriculture healthy, but I am not so convinced and avoid them at all cost. These are personal choices. I want for my birds what is good for me.

When feeding, be creative, open-minded and go the extra effort. Your birds will be healthier and if they are set up for breeding will be much more productive.