By Vanessa Rolfe, DVM
One of the most important aspects of keeping your bird healthy is proper bird nutrition. It can be tricky to get right since each species has its own set of needs. Even single individuals may have slightly different requirements dependent on such things as the stage of life, and exercise.
Getting the nutrition right is further complicated by the fact that it may be difficult to get birds to eat foods that they may need but with which they are not familiar.
The most common diet that people find in stores is a ‘birdseed mix.’ Unfortunately, seed diets are just not an adequate source of nutrients. These can be high in fat and deficient in many nutrients such as vitamin A, calcium, and often protein. Seeds are not too far off from the nutritional equivalent of bread with margarine or French fried potatoes. For most birds, limit seeds to small treats assuming you give at all.
Folklore and tradition, as well as birds’ obvious enjoyment of eating them, are what makes seeds so commonly available and fed. In fact, a minority of parrot species that we keep as pets eat seed as a majority of their diet in the wild. The species that do, do not eat the domesticated varieties of seed found in the typical seed mix. The nutritional content of the live plant material, wild-type seeds, nuts, and fruits are is very different than the domesticated, dried, mostly dead, packaged, and “sitting on a shelf” seed mixes in stores. Regardless of the “complete diet” notes on the label, no seed mix is adequate.
Make no mistake. Birds will choose seeds, just like a child may choose sweets over more nutritious foods, because they taste good and are high in carbs and fat. A familiar way to describe this is ‘empty calories.’ Also, a bird’s instinct is to fill up on the dried seeds because when seeds are mature and dried, it means the end of a growing season and lean times ahead.
Over time, deficiencies in nutrients prematurely age our pets. Pet birds have a significantly shorter average lifespan than expected — and many veterinarians think this is mostly due to common diets people feed. Birds neither thrive nor stay healthy and happy with deficiencies. For example, many behavior issues such as screaming, aggression, and abnormal feather destruction have their root in nutrition. A balanced diet is a cornerstone of every life, and for a bird, it is no different.
A quick summary of best feeding practices, we suggest that most parrots in a home environment be fed a diet based on a formulated food (frequently called pellets), with a moderate amount of other highly nutritious ingredients. These instructions translate to about 85% pellets, with up to 15% high-nutrient vegetables. Use only tiny amounts of treats (i.e. fruit and grain products), since these don’t have many nutrients. There should also be a small amount of a natural source of omega-3 fatty acids.
Canaries and some finches should eat a similar diet: based on formulated ‘mash’ diets or tiny (or pulverized) pellets and will usually accept greens and shredded vegetables.
There are a few exceptions to this diet plan (some species, and individual variations dependent on special needs and medical conditions). We encourage you to talk to your bird’s veterinarian to guide you through the best nutritional plan for your bird and do not wish these instructions here to conflict with your veterinarian’s advice. Dr. Rolfe at The Bird & Exotic Hospital checks the effect of the diet routinely during wellness consultations since there can be subtle effects from the diet that show the diet needs adjusting.
It is not unusual for a bird to resist trying new foods, such as pellets. A bird can resist to the point of starvation. If your bird doesn’t quickly try eating the pellets or other healthy foods, you must go slowly and use many techniques to try to get your bird to eat them. You are more than welcome to email us at firstname.lastname@example.org to request a more detailed set of methods to get your bird to eat a more complete diet.