Malnutrition is the #1 Cause of Illness in Birds
Birds need a good diet just like every other animal. A poor diet creates a bird with a myriad of problems. It can lead to obesity, tumors and diabetes. It also compromises the immune system, making the bird more susceptible to infections. Even so, most people aren’t feeding their birds right. Many give them only seed and water, the equivalent of a bread and water diet in humans. Usually this is due to ignorance.
My Bird Won’t Eat That…
Feeding your birds a nutritional and varied diet is THE most important thing you can do to keep them healthy. If you are having trouble converting your bird please see Getting Your Bird to Try New Foods. Below are the three reasons birds typically won’t convert:
- They do not recognize the item as food.
- The food is being presented wrong.
- The owner isn’t being persistent enough.
Birds do have their preferences, but they should also be willing to accept a variety of foods. My birds get a veggie mix of green beans, Lima beans, carrots, corn and peas. Most of my birds go for the corn first and then consume all but the carrots. Fry, my mitred conure, will eat everything but the Lima beans. Ringnecks will eat the carrots. Peas are my kakarikis’ first choice. Both corn and peas are high in starch. Fry loves all bread products. He often shares breakfast with me. He will ignore everything else and go for the bread, eating all but the “crust,” even on muffins. This doesn’t mean he won’t eat non-bread items. If I place an item in his dish he will eat it. If I’m eating something he will want some too (we’re sharing a chicken tamale as I write this). When a bird does not have access to a favorite food, it has to eat what is available.
My Seed is Better Than Your Seed…
You probably buy a seed mix with “fortified” or “gourmet” on the package, right? I’ll let you in on a little secret about seed mixes: one is just as good as another. While you’re paying $6.49 for 2 lbs. of that “Fiesta Fortified Gourmet Bird Food” I’m paying $8.25 for 25 lbs. of plain seed. Many stores sell seed mixes that contain just seed. Sometimes these mixes aren’t even a name brand or are packaged in-store. They are much cheaper.
“But wait! The seed I buy contains dried fruits, veggies and nutrient supplements!”
Does your bird actually eat any of those dried items, or does it just pick out the seeds? I’ve found that birds a much more likely to try new foods if they are offered in a separate dish. If pellets are mixed in with seed (like manufacturers suggest) they are often ignored. The bird will just eat its seeds and dismiss the foreign item. Offer new items in a different bowl.
Vitamin supplements do not work with seed mixes. If a seed mix claims to contain supplements what it means is that vitamins are sprayed onto some of the seeds. However, because all psittacines husk their seed before eating it, the vitamin-coated exterior is cast aside and only the uncoated seed itself is consumed. It is best to leave seed plain and supplement by offering other foods.
Wet greens double as a bath for budgies.
Pellets vs. Seed
Seed is like bread- it’s good, but in no way a complete diet. If bread is all you eat eventually you will have many problems due to malnutrition. Seed is perfectly healthy if it is supplemented with other foods. Some seeds are higher in fat than others, like sunflower, peanuts and safflower. These should be avoided, especially in species that are prone to obesity (Galahs, amazons, budgies). A few species can tolerate high fat but not many. You can increase the nutritional content of seeds by sprouting them. In the wild birds eat seed still growing on the plant. The dry seed we offer our birds is nowhere near as nutritious as sprouted.
Pellets are designed to be a complete diet. They provide all the vitamins and minerals a bird needs. This means you should NOT offer other foods, especially not cuttlebone, mineral block or vitamins. You risk either overdosing or diluting your bird’s intake by feeding other foods with pellets. The downside of pellets is that they can be expensive and there’s no psychological benefit to feeding them. Birds like to forage and play with their food and pellets are kinda boring.
The bulk of my current diet is seed. Pellets are offered in a separate dish, and yes, the birds do eat them even though they have seed. Every day I also offer a fresh or cooked food. This could be frozen veggies, fresh greens, fruit, pasta, eggs or Crazy Corn. These items are rotated so that every day the birds get a different fresh/cooked food.
Vitamin & Mineral Supplements
Birds have dry mouths. Vitamins are utterly useless when sprinkled on seed or dry foods. Putting them in water does no good either as they will only lose their potency and provide a breeding ground for bacteria. If you do want to use vitamin supplements, sprinkle them on your wet foods.
All birds on a seed diet should be offered cuttlebone and/or mineral block.
Grit should NOT be offered to psittacines. All hookbills husk their seed before consuming it, hence they have no need for grit. Some birds will also consume massive quantities of grit which will impact their crop. Grit is fine for softbills (birds that do not husk their seed like doves and finches).
Feeding a Varied Diet
So what do birds need? Tony Silva probably explains it best. Basically anything that a health food nut would eat is what birds should be eating: lots of vegetables, some fruits, low-fat, low-salt, grains, etc. Use your imagination! Try some of my recipes. Here’s a better idea of what you can feed: corn, peas, carrots, carrot tops, beans (must be COOKED!), legumes, rice (must be COOKED!), pasta, chicken, bread, egg, Crazy Corn, grapes, mangos, apples, peaches, pears, apricots, plums, kiwi, berries (whatever kind is in season), parsley, chickweed and bananas. This is just to give you an idea. You can feed much more than this. Keep it varied.
Fresh sunflower is a big hit.
Sprouting seed will make it far more nutritious.
Skewers can make foods more entertaining.
Making “chop.” Dicing up ingredients and freezing them in baggies allows you to quickly serve quality food later with minimal prep.
Whole foods offer enrichment as well as nutrition.
Special notes on Iceburg Lettuce and Spinach:
Iceburg lettuce has no nutritional value. It’s basically all water. Spinach contains a chemical which binds to calcium, making it unable to be absorbed by the body (so much for Popeye). It is healthy but should only be fed sparingly.
Don’t forget to give your bird fresh water too. Change it everyday. Some birds like to dunk food in their water or use it as a toilet. Sometimes moving the dish to another location may help. If not, you’ll just have to change the water more often or switch to a water bottle. The rule of thumb is if you wouldn’t drink it, change it.
Toxic Foods and Things to Avoid
- fruit pits
- apple seeds
- dairy ( birds can’t digest lactose)
- onion & garlic (only ok in very small amounts)
- uncooked beans/rice
- peanuts (they can harbor aspergillus)
- tomato leaves
Here is a more extensive list of toxic things.
Mammal bacteria is also dangerous. Do not allow your birds to share food with the dog/cat or drink from their water bowls. Likewise, do not allow your birds to take food from your own mouth. If you are going to share food give them their own plate or at least don’t offer them anything your mouth has touched.
© 1997-2016 by Karen Trinkaus. May not be reprinted or used in any way without the author’s permission.