Healthy Diet Essentials For Parrots by Dr. Lindsay Robinson

Feeding a proper, well balanced diet is one of the single most important parts of keeping your parrot healthy. The diet is linked to overall immune health, and many problems arise in birds fed an unhealthy, imbalanced diet (usually a primarily seed-based diet). These include easily broken bones from low bone density, liver disease, eye problems, recurrent respiratory infections, obesity, heart and arterial disease, reproductive issues like egg binding, and even some cancers. In the wild, birds eat a variety of seeds, nuts, fruits and barks. Research is still being done to figure out the most appropriate diet for our pet birds. Our current veterinary recommendations for parrot diets combine what we know about the normal diets of wild birds and what works best for our patients in our practice to keep them healthy.

Completely Balanced Foods

Just like we feed dogs and cats completely balanced foods, 60-70% of a parrot’s diet needs to be an organic, pelleted food. We recommend Harrison’s Organic Pelleted Diet. This food is designed specifically to be a completely balanced diet, and in our experience birds do best on this brand of food. Each pellet contains all of the ingredients research has shown to be important to maintain a healthy bird. If your bird will eat only one food item, then this is the one we recommend to feed. Harrison’s pellets come in large and small sizes for different species of birds. The colorless pellets are preferred for several reasons. First, most birds will choose one color of pellet they like the best and not eat the rest of them. This results in excessive wasting of food, more clean-up for the owner, and more frequent trips to buy food! Second, some birds can have allergies to the dyes used to color pellets. In order to avoid both these pitfalls, choose an organic, colorless pellet such as Harrison’s. Other good brands include LaFeber, Zupreem, or Kaytee. Just make sure to choose a pellet!

Use Caution With Packaged Bird Foods

Be careful when buying commercially packaged bird foods. Some foods are marketed as a complete diet with seeds, nuts and pellets all mixed into one bag. Don’t buy these foods! Parrots will pick out the seeds, nuts and other favored (but less nutritious) parts of the diet and leave the pellets for last, often times only eating a very small amount of what should be the staple of the diet. You have to make sure that what is offered to your bird is balanced, because they won’t make the smart choice for themselves!

Vegetables

About 20-30% of the diet should be fresh vegetables, fruits and wholesome grains. Offering a variety of different colors and textures will give your bird a fun diet while providing extra vitamins and nutrients found in these foods. Below is a list of healthy vegetables, fruits, grains and legumes appropriate to feed your bird:

Vegetables

  * Beet greens                                                         
  * Broccoli                        
  * Carrots                      
  - Cauliflower                 
  - Collard Greens              
  - Corn                                
  - Cucumber        
 -  Dandelion greens                
  - Eggplant                            
  - Endive                      
  - Green beans     
  - Kale                                
  - Mustard Greens
  - Parsley
  - Peppers
  - Radishes
  - Red potatoes (cooked)
  - Romaine lettuce (in smaller amounts)
  - Squash
  - Snow peas
  - Sweet potatoes (cooked)
  - Swiss chard
  - Sugar snap peas
  - Tomato
  - Turnips

Fruits

Fruits (make sure seeds or pits are never offered):

  - Apples              
  - Apricots                           
  - Banana                      
  - Berries                     
  - Cantaloupe          
  - Cherries                           
  - Cranberries     
  - Grapefruit              
  - Grapes                      
  - Honeydew melon              
  - Kiwi
  - Mango
  - Oranges
  - Papaya
  - Peaches
  - Pears
  - Pineapple
  - Plums
  - Pomegranate
  - Star fruit
  - Tangerines

*offer citrus and melons in smaller amounts than other fruits

Grains and Legumes (cooked):

  - Barley                  
  - Beans (black, navy, kidney) 
  - Brown rice          
  - Chickpeas               
  - Lentils
  - Millet
  - Quinoa
  - Whole grain breads
  - Whole grain pasta
  - Whole grain cereals (not sugary ones)

Seeds And Nuts

The remainder of your bird’s diet (about 10-15%) should be seeds and nuts. These provide important fatty acids that your bird will need. Unfortunately, most birds prefer eating seeds over any other food because they are tasty. If seeds are offered at all times, then birds will preferentially pick out the seeds and nuts they like and leave the rest behind. It is like offering children the choice between asparagus and chocolate on the same plate at dinner – if they could choose for themselves the asparagus would never get eaten! For this reason, seeds and nuts should only be given as treats, training tools, or in small amounts during mealtimes.

Seeds and Nuts:

  - Almonds                 
  - Anise seed              
  - Brazil nuts             
  - Cashews                 
  - Hazelnuts               
  - Macadamia nuts          
  - Millet  
  - Peanuts, shelled (shells may contain fungus)
  - Pecans
  - Pine nuts   
  - Pistachios
  - Safflower and sunflower seeds   
  - Walnuts
  - Pumpkin seeds           

Note: sprouted seeds can also be fun for your bird to enjoy! Follow online instructions for sprouting your own seeds if you are interested in doing so. You can also purchase sprouted seeds and beans at whole food stores if you do not wish to sprout them yourself.

Foods to Avoid

Some foods can increase health risks or birds, while others can cause death. Do not feed any food items on the following list to your bird:

  - Alcohol                                    
  - Apple seeds  (contain cyanide)          
  - Avocado (or guacamole)               
  - Caffeine                                        
  - Carbonated drinks                              
  - Chocolate                                 
  - Dairy foods
  - Fried foods 
  - Fruit pits  
  - High fat foods (potato chips, donuts, etc.)
  - Mushrooms   
  - Onions     
  - Table salt       
  - Persimmons    

Feeding Lories And Lorikeets

The exception to the pellet rule are these guys, which are nectar eating birds. There are specific nectar diets available commercially for Lories and Lorikeets that provide completely balanced nutrition. Fresh fruits and vegetables can be offered to these birds in addition to their nectar diet.

Lutino Cockatiels

For some reason this color morph of the cockatiel species needs a higher amount of seeds than other birds. 30% seeds is an adequate amount for these guys, and they do better when given a little higher fat content through the addition of more seeds. Other cockatiels do best on limited seeds.

Supplements

Birds that are fed a nutritionally balanced diet should not need additional vitamins or mineral supplements. In fact, giving a multivitamin supplement can actually produce toxic levels of some vitamins if birds are getting enough of them in the diet. Also, some birds will not drink water that has vitamins added to it, which could result in dehydration and a variety of medical conditions. Consult with your avian veterinarian before giving any supplements to your birds.

One good addition to your bird’s diet and cage environment is a cuttlebone. The birds love to chew on this supplement, and it gives additional calcium when the birds eat it. It is not necessary to have a cuttlebone, but can be a fun, nutritious toy. Also, most birds thrive if given a probiotic. Avian-specific probiotics are necessary (they can’t take human or dog/cat probiotics) because they have a different normal bacterial flora in their intestinal tract. Please ask us about probiotic recommendations for your bird.

Grit

Grit is not necessary for a parrot’s diet, and can actually cause problems with digestion. Do not feed grit to your birds.

How To Feed

How you feed your bird is also important. In the wild, birds spend a large part of their time during the day foraging and searching for food. In our homes, pet birds are often fed just out of a food dish. Because birds are intelligent creatures, this often leads to boredom, which can then lead to undesirable behaviors such as feather plucking, screaming, and destructive chewing.

We recommend feeding your birds a variety of different foods that have different textures, colors and tastes. Most birds will need to be introduced to a varied diet when they are younger so they will more readily accept new foods as they get older. To encourage foraging and to draw out the times your bird spends during mealtimes, try the following:

   • For beginner foragers, cover the food dishes with paper towels or leave 
     strips of paper towels in the food dishes so the birds have to 
     remove them or eat around them.
   • Save paper towel and toilet paper tubes and hide pieces of food inside them.
   • Brown paper lunch sacks can be twisted and used to hide food throughout the cage.
   • Certain treats can be great foraging toys as well: edible snack shacks, 
     LaFeber brand Nutraberries or Pelletberries, and other edible toys.
   • Puzzle toys and foraging toys are available for different skill levels, 
     or you can make your own with bird-safe wood.  Just drill different 
     sized holes in the wood and hide food inside!
   • You can weave strips of leather through the cage bars and attach food 
     items to the leather.
   • Make kabobs out of your bird’s veggies and fruits and hang the wood 
     skewer kabob in the cage.
   • Stuff uncooked pasta shells/wheels with seeds, fruits, nuts and vegetables.
   • Purchase a foraging tree – this is a free standing play gym that has 
     multiple levels where food can be offered.  It encourages exercise through
     climbing and allows the parrot to choose different favorite foods.  
     They are expensive but well worth it!

Since an organic pellet should be the majority of the diet for parrots, we recommend leaving pellets in the cage at all times (as long as your parrot is not overweight and needs dietary restriction of calories). Vegetables and fruits can be offered with the pellets, or during specific mealtimes. Nuts and seeds should not be offered free choice. Favorite seeds and nuts can be used as training tools, and this is a great way to motivate your parrot to learn! These treats can also be offered intermittently for foraging stimulation.

Converting Your Parrot To Pellets

A large number of parrots currently eat seed-based diets. These birds can be challenging to convert to a healthier diet, because the food they are currently eating is to them better tasting. There are several different methods that can be used to convert your bird over to pellets. You can try any method first, but carefully watch your bird during the conversion process to make sure the new food is being eaten.

Birds can actually starve themselves if changed to a diet cold-turkey, and if they do not recognize the new food as food, they simply won’t eat it. Get a gram scale and weigh your bird daily during the conversion process – weight loss would signal that your bird is not eating enough pellets to maintain a healthy weight and the conversion process needs to be slowed down to give your bird time to get used to eating the pellets. Always consult with your avian veterinarian during this process if you are having trouble or concerns. Converting your bird to pellets may be easy or it may take a few months to get your bird eating a healthier diet. Younger birds are easier to convert than those that have been eating seeds for a long time. Please be patient and diligent – it will be worth it in the long run for your bird’s overall health!

Offer pellets free choice – some birds will eat pellets right away without any hesitation. Though these birds are few and far-between, it is worth a try to simply add a food dish with pellets offered all the time for a week or two to see if your bird becomes interested in them. It usually takes 1-2 weeks for a bird to realize a new item is food; they will usually ignore it, then play with it like it’s a toy, then finally start to eat it. Continue to feed your bird’s regular diet during this time until you can see if the pellets are being consumed. If this starts to happen, slowly wean your bird off of free-choice seeds and continue to wean your bird onto a diet of mostly organic pellets. Be careful to monitor for any weight loss the entire time!

Harrison’s Birdy Bread – Harrison’s food makes a cornbread mix to help convert birds from seeds to pellets. We have had good success with this recipe, and the birdy bread comes in several different flavors (they especially love the hot pepper flavor!). You can make enough muffins for an entire week, freeze them, and thaw out enough food for one day at a time. To entice your bird to eat the muffin, make it fun at playtime. Let your bird watch you as you break open the muffin and play with it – birds always want to eat what you are eating! Sprinkle some favorite seeds over the muffin to attract your bird to it even more.

As the conversion process continues, you can start to sprinkle pellets over the muffin in addition to the seeds to get your bird used to the look and feel of the pellets. Once your bird is used to eating the muffins and some pieces of pellets, offer the pellets free choice in a food dish in the cage. Hopefully your bird will start to eat the pellets. If not, the muffins can be fed long-term as a balanced diet. Just follow the muffin mix recipe on the bag! You can add frozen veggie mixes, hardboiled egg, and crushed pellets to the muffin mix for variety.

The LaFeber Conversion – LaFeber company makes organic pellets, nutraberries, avicakes, and pellet berries for birds. Pellet berries are small balls of a mixture of pellets, dried fruits and some seeds. Avicakes are a 50/50 mixture of pellets and seeds. Both of these items can be used to convert your bird onto a pelleted diet. During the process of converting your bird onto pellets, offer 1-3 Pelletberries or Avicakes a day while leaving your bird’s regular diet free choice in the cage. Once you notice your bird eating all parts of the new foods, slowly decrease the amount of seeds you feed your bird and increase the Pelletberries or Avicakes. Once your bird is eating only these food items (and veggies and fruits if they like them!), then start to offer LaFeber pellets free choice in the cage.

Birds may more readily eat the pellets themselves if they are eating either the Pelletberries or Avicakes because they are used to the taste of the pellets now. If your bird begins to eat the pellets, then slowly back off the number of Pelletberries or Avicakes your bird gets each day until the diet is balanced. If your bird will only eat the Avicakes or Pelletberries as the sole diet, don’t worry – they are nutritionally balanced and can be fed long-term as a primary diet and are preferred over the seed based diets.