Meet Buffy, a wild caught Blue Fronted Amazon. We were at least her fourth owners, and had to do some guessing at her past. Luckily, her previous owners gave us vet records. And from there, I could glean some information about her past.
What does this have to do with diet? For twenty years, Buffy's diet consisted of a seed mix and peanuts. In 2002, she stopped eating, ended up fluffed up on the bottom of her cage, and had to be rushed to the vet by her previous owners. The cause? Malnutrition. Vitamin shots and a diet change saved her life and drives home a simple point -- seed diets are lacking in many important nutrients. Sadly, due to malnutrition and all of the other stresses of her long life, Buffy passed away on April 24th, 2005.
The avian community can't agree on much of anything. Not whether to clip wings or not clip wings, how to socialize birds, what size and types of cages, and most especially what makes a good diet. But they do agree on one thing: seed diets are not healthy for the majority of parrots. The fact that some birds do well on seed-based diets is a tribute to the hardiness of parrots, not proof that the diet is balanced.
When we brought home our first parrot, Tea, I read everything there was to know about parrots, sucked down books like candy, and read online as well. Everything I read said that nutrition was vital to keeping a bird in good health. But no one agreed. So, I knew I'd have to figure things out for myself, what made me comfortable and made my birds happy.
Once we took him to the vet, I began to learn exactly how important diet was. Every one of our birds came with calcium and protein deficiencies, one of which was bad enough to cause a fractured leg with normal handling. And all of them were weaned to not great diets. Two got seeds and a random mix of vegetables (veggies, unless you're careful, tend to lack protein and calcium, as do most seeds. This is a problem for people vegetarians too). One ate Kaytee Rainbow and occasional fresh food, but never got sunlight or fresh air (petstore boy). And one ate a mix of seed, fruit, and nuts, as well as some fresh food. His protein levels were the highest. Buffy, the Amazon mentioned above, had the least dietary deficiencies because her previous people weaned her onto pellets. Our blue and gold macaw came with anemia and calcium deficiencies from a seed diet.
So, I listened to the stories of people from the 'pro-pellet' camp, the 'anti-pellet' camp, and the 'people food' camp, and this is where I ended up and what I've learned along the way.
I've done an enormous amount of research on parrot diets. I can go on at great length about the importance of the calcium-phosphorus-D3 ratio, and explain the importance of a dozen types of vitamins. With all of this, I still do not feel comfortable feeding my parrots a diet of entirely fresh foods.
I believe there is no way to successfully replicate a natural diet for most animals, and on top of that, that attempting to replicate a natural diet may not be best for the specific parrot. We can't replicate a natural diet because we do not have any long term studies on the natural diet rhythms of almost all parrots, nor do we have a way to determine that what we see them eating is all of what they eat. Nor do we have available the same specific plants and fruits and seeds that they may eat in the wild.
But that's secondary to my other thought. Animals in the wild are not necessarily eating a balanced diet. Species evolve to live long enough to successfully raise offspring. That's all that is required for a species to survive. Seasonal changes, climate changes, a shift in weather, a drought, too much rain, or worse, access to crops that are not the balance that they're used to. Parrots, like just about all other animals, likely really love the things that are necessary for life but hard to find -- like fat. I'm assuming that sugar probably isn't as big a deal to parrots since they eat a decent amount of fruit. I am not saying that the diet parrots eat in nature is bad for them. Species-wide, it clearly works pretty well, or else there wouldn't be any. What I am saying is that what we've studied may not be indicative of the 'correct' natural diet, and even if it was, that natural diet may not be as good for a specific parrot.
Animals really love things that are not good for them because in the wild, they have limited access to them. Our dog would eat 50 pounds of food a day if he had his wish, and weigh 200 pounds. Naturally, he wouldn't get to, because he'd have to hunt his food every day, and food isn't plentiful. So we have to limit his food to keep his weight appropriate. Things like sunflower seeds and fats are probably in the same boat for parrots. I'm certain that if allowed to pick and choose, they would probably figure it out over time, but I also think that may depend on the parrot. My macaw would eat nothing but nuts if he had his choice. If I offered him a lot of less healthy things, he'd likely fill himself up on that and not get any good nutrition. Having a subset of their diet be something that is generally balanced for parrots (although not completely balanced for all species and absolutely not a 'complete' diet) helps offset this issue.
I believe that the only way to tell if a diet works is to feed the diet to whatever creature is to eat it, and use the wonders of modern medicine as well as the test of time to determine if the animal remains healthy. Now, I can do this to some degree myself, but I far prefer to take the learnings of others who have more experience and tweak it as the case may be for the specific creature in question. I am not a nutritionist, nor do I deeply want to be one. I am quite happy to take the basic formula that many different nutritionists and vets have proven to work for some subset of parrots and use that as the base for my parrot's diet, so long as it continues to work for them.
Pellets are convenient. Yes, ladies and gentlemen, I'm lazy. I have no desire to spend an hour a day chopping up veggies and attempting to mix up various foods. Would I do it if I thought it was the absolute best diet for the parrots? Absolutely. But I don't. And I like very much the knowledge that if life crops up, I can feed them pellets and be fairly comfortable with their diet.
I often get asked what the best pellet is. Unfortunately, this isn't a fair question for a lot of reasons. There are a few problems with pelleted diets in general. They are all created to fit the needs of a vastly different group of species. The term parrot is about as specific as the term mammal, and I'm guessing that you don't eat the same thing as a cat would. In addition to the lack of specialization, pellets are a relatively new thing. There have been feeding studies on some, but whether or not it meets all the needs of YOUR parrot is not guaranteed. I am always for feeding a mix of pellets and reading the labels. Educate yourself on what your parrot needs, talk with your avian vet about it, and learn as much as you can and choose what pellets to put in the mix from that.
I can tell you what brands of pellets I feed my parrots, but this will likely only be helpful if you're located in North America. Rather than go into great details, here's what you should be looking for in a pellet:
A pelleted diet is NOT complete. I would never suggest that anyone feed their parrots a diet of only pellets. Supplementation with healthy fresh foods is a must.
What if I don't want to feed pellets?
This is a reasonable choice to make if you're willing to put in the time and effort to make sure you're doing things right. I'd suggest joining the group Feeding Feathers on Yahoo, as they're the experts on feeding a fresh-only diet.
But what are healthy fresh foods? Veggies, sprouts, some commercial mixes, some homemade mixes.
Let's talk about veggies first.
A lot of people say that they feed their parrots 'fruits and veggies'. And for a lot of people, that means things like apple, corn, peas, carrots, strawberries, etc. With the exception of carrots, all of these foods are either mostly sugar (apple, strawberries), mostly fiber (peas), or sugar and an excessive amount of phosphorus (corn).
The problem with fruits is that they are often lacking in nutritional value --and this of course, means that most parrots adore them. Veggies, on the other hand, are generally much higher in nutritional value, which translates to parrots (and many humans, young and old) often not liking them as much.
I think the official rule about fresh food and parrots is that if your typical five year old would like it, the parrot probably shouldn't be eating much of it.
Please note: Lories require much, much higher amounts of fruit in their diet and a specialized diet in general. Most of this is not going to apply to them.
With a very few exceptions, namely fruits with an orange flesh, almost all fruits are considered treat food in my house, and thus make up less than 10% of the diet at most. I think that for most parrots, a diet high in fruit is going to be actively harmful. Most fruits are higher in calories (due to the sugar content) than most vegetables, which fills up a parrot on low nutrition items, not leaving enough room for other, far healthier foods.
So, what are healthier foods?
From Sally Blanchard's Companion Parrot Quarterly:
Not all veggies and fruits are good sources of healthy nutrients. The most popular parrot people foods seem to be apples, grapes, and corn. While these foods may make an enjoyable snack, they don't contain high nutritive values and are pretty much empty calories. Although I do feed these from time to time, I try to make sure my parrots everyday eat at least one high vitamin A vegetable each day. These include sweet potatoes, yams, winter squash, carrots, pumpkin, peppers, broccoli, collard greens, turnip greens, kale and mustard greens. The fresher the better. Sweet potatoes and squash are best baked.
From my own experience of blood test results on parrots eating a bad diet, I know that the most frequent deficiencies are calcium, protein, and vitamin A. Protein is completely handled by offering a pelleted diet, and almost all pellets also contain calcium and vitamin A. However, we do not know exactly how much calcium or vitamin A (or anything else, for that matter) that parrots require, so offering more in a daily veggie ration is useful. Natural vitamins, in almost every case, are not toxic, even in high doses. Parrots cannot overdose on beta carotene (vitamin A precursor that's found in food), and so more is far better than less.
http://www.forthebirdsdvm.com/pages/vitamin-a-comparison-list is a good list of the amounts of vitamin A in various vegetables.
Calcium is another big problem, not necessarily because of calcium intake. In order to effectively use calcium, parrots must ingest two times as much calcium as they do phosphorus, plus receive an effective amount of vitamin D3. Parrots can make vitamin D3 with exposure to sunlight, and it is also supplemented in pellets. The problem is phosphorus.
Phosphorus is a very common mineral in food... particularly food we feed to our parrots. Just off the top of my head, I can think of two extremely common food sources that are extremely high in phosphorus -- seeds and corn. Both of the links above give some details about this, but keeping that in mind, I choose to feed my parrots a number of high calcium veggies on a regular basis, particularly since I own a species notorious for calcium deficiencies (Mr. African grey).
http://www.citracal.com/calcium/foods/vegetables.aspx is a good list of calcium rich vegetables (and other things).
There's one other thing to keep in mind with vegetables, and that's pesticides. There are some types of fruits and vegetables that are much much higher in pesticides than others. The parrot community was shocked this year by the deaths of multiple parrots at a rescue from eating grapes with abnormally high pesticide content. If you cannot or choose not to feed your parrots organic vegetables, please keep in mind the highest pesticide foods and avoid them.
Other foods that we can buy from our local markets without concern for high levels of pesticides are: CORN, SWEET POTATOES, BROCCOLI, BRUSSEL SPROUTS, CAULIFLOWER, U.S. GRAPES, BANANAS, PLUMS, IMPORTED CHERRIES, and WATERMELON.
Here is a list of foods that NEVER should be given to our parrots unless they have been organically grown:
STRAWBERRIES, RED AND GREEN BELL PEPPERS, SPINACH, U.S. CHERRIES, PEACHES, MEXICAN CANTALOUPES, CELERY, APPLES, APRICOTS, GREEN BEANS, CHILEAN GRAPES, AND CUCUMBERS.
What does this mean to you? Seriously consider what fruits and vegetables you're feeding your parrots, their nutritional content, and whether or not it should be considered 'treat food' or a staple of their diet.
Sprouting seed and beans for parrots has become a very popular thing of late, and with good reason. Sprouted seeds are healthy, widely loved by parrots, and provide good enzymes and phytonutrients that a cooked diet does not.
I could go on and on about sprouts, but honestly, the internet has thousands of good resources on the subject. Parrot Chronicles has a good article, as does Land of Vos. A google search will bring you more than you could ever want to know.
There are also a lot of cooked mixes available, both in bird cookbooks and commercial mixes such as Crazy Corn and Beak Appetit. I occasionally feed these to my parrot, but I consider the pelleted diet to be the staple of their grain needs, and thus they are considered occasional treats. Be careful with bean/corn mixes as they contain a huge quantity of phosphorus, and can throw off the calcium/phosphorus ratio unless you feed twice as much calcium rich food.
Birdie bread is another common food that I'd also put in the treat range. Some of them, particularly those made with sprouts, can be extremely healthy, but I wouldn't feed them as the basis of a diet. I'm also not a great cook, and I'd prefer not forcing my parrots to suffer through my bread making attempts.
One cooked mix that I absolutely adore and feed to my parrots on a regular basis is Sally Blanchard's glop. It's loaded with vitamin A, and the yogurt provides always needed calcium to my African grey. Plus, all of the parrots absolutely LOVE it, and it's really easy to make. My flock gets this once or twice a week.
Another really useful cooked mix that I use is Shauna Roberts' mash diet from Feeding Feathers. This is likely the most well researched fresh food diet available, and the basis of a lot of the feeding feathers dietary suggestions.
Treats should make up no more than 10% of the parrot's diet. It's really easy to overfeed treats. Remembering that the small creature so full of life, noise, and wonder only weighs a few ounces (up to two pounds) is important.
Parrots tend to love starchy foods like pasta, mashed potatoes, and bread, plus rich animal proteins like cheese and yogurt. Avoid salty foods, extremely unhealthy foods and those that are toxic. Chocolate, caffeine, alcohol, rhutabega, and avocado are all toxic and should be avoided. Parrots are also lactose intolerant and do not do well with soft cheeses or milk, but most can tolerate hard cheese and yogurt. Peanuts in the shell, one of the most common treats ever, are frequently contaminated with aflatoxins (which can be fatal) and should not be fed to parrots. Anything else that is healthy for you is healthy for them in moderation.
What do I mean by moderation? My sun conure weighs 100 grams. He eats roughly 1 tablespoon of pellets and 1 - 1.5 tablespoons of veggies a day. A treat that would be 10% of his diet would be something smaller than the nail on my pinkie finger. A sliver of cheese, a quarter of an almond, a teaspoon of seeds, 1/4th of a piece of pasta. A larger parrot like an Amazon might get an almond a day, or half a piece of pasta. It's always better to feed too little treats than to feed too much.
It's one of the basic recommendations for seed eating birds -- a bag of seeds and grit. As you can see above, seeds aren't a great basis for a parrot diet -- and neither is grit. Although I could repeat all of this, this webpage clarifies things very well. To summarize: No need for grit.
Another common recommendation is cuttlebones or mineral blocks. Although some parrots love ripping them up, they're not required if the bird is eating a good diet. In addition, some cuttlebones can have heavy metals in them, as they come from cuttlefish, which are sea scavengers. If you do chose to use one, be careful where you get them and how often they go through them.
Although vitamins are good, vitamins in excess can be very, very harmful. A parrot on a healthy diet (particularly if they are also eating pellets) absolutely does NOT need any vitamin drops in their water. In fact, vitamin drops in water mostly helps the bacteria that grow there, rather than the parrots, and can turn some birds off from drinking entirely.
Unfortunately, we as parrot owners don't have an enormous quantity of information on the nutritional needs of different species yet. The best reference I've seen for basic species specific information is Feeding Your Pet Bird by Petra Burgmann.
Research is always the key to everything. What I say has worked for my parrots so far, and I have tried to provide you links and other ways to determine what's right for you. The knowledge of what is and is not a good avian diet is changing constantly, from the seed only diets of twenty years ago to the pelleted diets now. Who knows what will happen next?
As much as we'd like all of our parrots to eat healthy foods, most of them come into our care eating a less than perfect diet. Only seeds, perhaps, or only pellets. They won't touch vegetables, or they will only eat broccoli but would never touch carrots. How, exactly, does one get a parrot to eat a healthy and varied diet when they only want to eat safflower seeds?
Step One: Mental Preparation
First, you should understand that this conversion is not immediate and it will fail if you stop trying. It has taken me on average a month to switch, with benefits as we go along.
Second, find the tools at your disposal. There are several things that you can use as in between foods, or 'weaning' foods. Lafeber's Nutriberries and Avicakes are useful to get a little bit more nutrition into the bird and to convince them that food comes in different shapes. Both fresh foods and cooked mixes can be mixed with a small amount of seed to get a bird to try them and have immediate benefits. Bird Bread can also be used as a 'weaning' food.
Third, make sure you're properly equipped. To do this right, you'll need at least two, possibly three food bowls in the cage. A clip on bowl that can be mounted higher than the usual food bowls is often helpful. A gram scale is an extremely useful thing to have during this as well.
Step Two: The Game Plan
One of the problems with sudden diet conversion is that the bird or birds stop eating. At no point do you want your bird to fear that there will be no food, nor do you want them to starve, obviously. This system works well for that.
There are three parts here. The old diet, the new base diet, and any supplementary things you want to add (such as veggies). The basic concept is simple. Your bird will receive their old diet twice a day for a specified amount of time, as much as they want to eat of it. The new base diet (if they are non perishable foods) is left in the cage constantly, and supplements are added when the birds are most likely to eat them (first thing in the morning is good). Once the bird is consistently eating some of the new diet, you cut down the time the old diet is available until you get to the point that they don't get any at all.
Step Three: Putting things into play.
I'll use some examples of how I transitioned my birds.
Two Green Cheek Conures, weaned onto a diet of seed and some fruit/vegetables.
Each of them had pellets available constantly. They received seed for an hour in the morning and evening to start, as well as avicakes and nutriberries in a treat dish, as well as fresh foods whenever I managed to give it to them (either morning or evening). Once they were eating the avicakes and nutriberries, I cut out one seed meal, and left it at that. It took almost a week before they even touched a pellet. Once they began actually eating the pellets, I cut their seed meal down to 45 minutes. Then 30. Then 15. Then, I closely monitored their weight when they were receiving no seed, and cut back the nutriberries and avicakes to treats only. Once that was completed, I declared victory.
One extremely stubborn African Grey who wanted to eat nothing but safflower seed and perhaps a pea every once in a while.
He took the longest, but was the simplest of all of them.
We started by offering him pellets constantly, and doing two seed meals a day. Unlike the green cheeks, he refused to so much as consider touching the nutriberries or avicakes, so I went to other options. He loves one flavor of Beak Appetit (after spitting out several others), and so he got that every morning while we were weaning him off seed in place of his seed meal. He also enjoyed pellets soaked in juice, and got those from our hand as treats. Eventually, he decided to attempt eating the pellets, and slowly weaned himself over. At that point, I cut down his seed, and now he happily munches pellets all day (and curses me if the ones he likes aren't in his bowl).
We also converted a sun conure from the rainbow Kaytee pellets to non-artificially colored ones in the same way, but that was almost trivially easy compared to the rest. Switching over the Amazon and the blue and gold was also trivial, as they had experienced pelleted diets in the past.
What about a parrot who happily eats pellets but won't eat vegetables? There are a lot of options, but it'll take creativity and knowing your parrot to figure out the right one.
First, there's meal feeding. Take out the regular food at night before the parrot goes to sleep. Leave it out over night, and first thing in the morning, serve up a dish of fruits and veggies. They do not have to be high nutritional vegetables at this point, just coax the parrot to eat anything fresh. I've had really good luck with baby carrots and apple, but you can try whatever you think might work. Leave her that food in the cage for an hour or so, then take it out, and return regular food. Parrots are often hungry first thing in the morning, so if you offer her something then, the 'sauce of hunger' may make her more willing to try it. After the parrot has started eating the beginning foods, mix it up. Try different things. Experiment.
Using food as toys often works as well. A carrot poked through the cage bars, leaves of kale hanging up in the cage, any ideas like that can work really well.
If your parrot is eating a pelleted diet, mixing up fresh foods with seeds can often convince parrots to at least try it.
Try feeding vegetables in different parts of the cage as well. Some may like a dish on the floor. Some might want a clip on cup next to a favorite perch. Some may prefer to eat next to their friend in the cage next door.
But the main way to teach a parrot to eat vegetables is persistence. I fed a lovely dish of chopped up vegetables to my African grey every day for a month. And every day, I ended up feeding them to the dog. It took weeks for him to even taste them, and longer before he ate them. I outwaited him, and now he digs into a dish of vegetables every morning with gusto.
I hope this might help someone else out there getting through a conversion. Just remember, no matter how de-moralizing it seems, the bird will eventually try the new stuff. It just might take a very long time. And the glow of health of a bird on a better diet is worth it.
After seven years of working on all of this, I've settled into a rhythm. All of my parrots are fed free choice pellets during the day, usually Roudybush of various sizes.
In addition to that, they receive a fresh meal of either Shauna Roberts' mash diet or freshly made sprouts every day. I cook up a huge batch of the mash diet every 2 - 3 months, freeze it, and portion it out into daily bags.
In the past, I've done the same with chopped up vegetables as well. Freezers are very useful tools. Keep in mind that freezing fresh vegetables will destroy some of their nutritional content -- but not feeding them at all destroys all of it. Do what works best for you.
Caviar, the black lory, gets a fruit/veggie smoothie for breakfast and eats Lory Life nectar for dinner.
This has worked out very well for me and my parrots.