During the mid 1980s I spent considerable time in South America observing parrots in the wild and gathering data on the development of chicks being parent-reared. This information was later compared to chicks of the same species that I was hand-rearing. The objective was to understand how development was affected by the hand-rearing formulation I then used.
One day, I observed as a group of Quaker Parakeets Myiopsitta monachus had gathered on some cowhides that were drying. The birds, I first believed, were eating the salt used to keep the skins from decomposing. Close observation from a blind I set up several days later, however, revealed that the daily visit was to seek bits of fat. Sometime later I spent time on Little Barrier Island in New Zealand observing Kaka Nestor meridionalis. The parrots would climb over a tree, test the wood and place their ear on the branch to listen. They were looking for large grubs, which formed part of the diet on that cold and windy island. Subsequent observations have shown that wild parrots have a broad diet that commonly includes animal or insect protein.
In my collection each year I must worm the African Greys Psittacus erithacus. The pairs are kept outside in suspended cages but each year they become infected with tapeworms, which require an intermediate host. In our case that host is a snail.
Snails are common in south Florida because of the lush greenery and humidity. They crawl around after a rain shower or during the evening. The African Greys seek them out like a child would candy. I have seen Grey Parrots trying to reach through the bars to grasp at snails, which they avidly consume. Indeed show them a snail and they display a great level of excitement. The behavior was learned from wild birds and has been passed down generation after generation.
The subject of feeding animal protein to parrots is the question being answered this week.
Parrots are opportunistic feeders, consuming what is available in their environment. They are primarily fruit, seed, pod, bark and leaf eaters but every species will ingest insects and animal protein. On a very few occasions I have seen the parrots intentionally seek animal protein—they hunted small lizards or took the chicks of passerines—but normally they ate these if the opportunity arose while foraging and not because they were being targeted. As an example, in Amazonian Brazil I once watched a flock of Pyrrhura conures actively exploring a tree, where they found swarming termites, which they then actively ate. On another instance Orange-chinned Parakeets Brotogeris jugularis found guava infested with gentles and then they visited that tree daily until the fruit supply had been exhausted. These observations should not be construed as the parrots requiring animal protein—they do not in almost all exceptions; only a few species in captivity (for example hanging parrots Loriculus spp.) seem to need insect protein for the young to survive.
So should insects or some other animal protein be fed to captive parrots? The answer is both yes and no. I would feed insects to species like hanging parrots that seem to need it to rear their young. I would not feed insects to parrots that do not need it. This is because many insects are hosts for parasites, others are fatty (and most caged parrots lead a very sedentary life) and yet others can actually become a conduit for a harmful pathogen if the insects are not from an absolutely clean source.
The above said, I am not opposed to feeding a small amount of animal protein to some species. In my collection I provide a mixture of cooked whole grain pasta, steamed vegetables, cooked garbanzo and pinto beans and tuna to the African Greys. In the wild I observed that they consumed animal protein when nesting and the canned tuna (packed in water) is a clean source of animal protein. Boiled chicken can also be fed in small amounts to other species, though always in moderation and as a treat. The same applies to cooked (scrambled or boiled) egg. Many beans provide an excellent source of protein, which is easier to digest and not as prone to spoilage. They can be used to induce breeding. This is what the tuna does, but with Greys I have found that a small amount of tuna fed several times weekly will induce pairs to nesting. The same effect has not been seen feeding tofu, cooked egg or beans.
The key when feeding any form of animal protein is that it can spoil easily. Whatever form is fed, it should be removed after no more than an hour. Remember also that moderation is the key. Do not make any form of animal protein a significant part of the diet. Utilize animal protein for a specific reason—such as to induce breeding—or as a treat. And finally when you feed any form of animal protein (canned tuna, boiled chicken, etc) utilize forms that are not fatty or packed in oil.