To Feed Your Bird
By E.R. Bennett, DVM
new-bird owners feed their birds a seed diet (sometimes
supplemented with vitamins, minerals, fruits, vegetables, and
other table food treats). This diet represents a starvation ration
and these birds are suffering from malnutrition. While seeds do
provide some nutrition, they lack about 20 important nutrients
such as proteins, vitamins, minerals and trace minerals (see
addendum), and therefore, cannot serve as a complete diet.
Seeds are too high in fat (safflower/sunflower seed =
38.4/49.5% fat vs. formulated diets = 4-6% fat) and have almost no
vitamin A, vitamin D, or calcium.
Some owners try to
compensate for deficiencies in seeds by adding a vitamin/mineral
mix to the water of food. The problem is that the vitamins break
down and quickly become useless in water.
Even worse, vitamins enhance bacterial contamination of the
drinking water. Powdered supplements on the seeds are worthless
since even the trace amounts that might be on the dry hulls will
be discarded when the bird cracks the seed. Table foods can be
used to create a balanced diet, but the ingredients must be in
proper proportions, and the birds must eat the entire mixture.
Simply offering some table food (even sprinkled with a
vitamin/mineral mix) to a seed-eating bird does not adequately
compensate for its excess fat and nutritional deficiencies.
Signs of malnutrition
To their credit, birds will live for years and even successfully
breed on an all seed diet. The early signs of nutritional
deficiencies are often subtle. Greg Harrison, DVM, AVBP (Avian
Practice) believes the early signs of nutritional disease include
malformed feathers, excessive growth of the beak and nails, flaky
skin, black discoloration on green or yellow feathers, excess
keratin accumulation on the beak, chronic infections, and even
changes in personality. Dr. Harrison estimates that about 90% of
illness in the birds he sees is due partially or, in many cases,
entirely to poor nutrition.
Some nutritional diseases are subtle. For example, most
budgerigars presented with overgrown beaks and nails are suffering
from hepatic Lipidosis secondary to being fed an all seed diet.
Selenium/vitamin E deficiency may cause paralysis, which is most
commonly seen in color mutation cockatiels.
Budgerigars may present with a pathologic brown thickened
flaking cere (vs. benign brown hypertrophy), flaky skin and are
overweight. In many cases this is due to a decreased function of
the thyroid gland. The therapy is not to put the patient on
thyroid supplementation, but to change the diet to increase iodine
(also increase protein and vitamin A), so the thyroid gland can
We commonly see
canaries that have stopped singing and have scaly feet and legs.
Mites may be a cause, but usually these are signs of malnutrition
and are corrected when the birds are slowly converted to a proper
diet. Virtually every Amazon parrot we see has excessive flaking
and growth of the beak, dull green feathers, sometimes with black
discoloration. Within 1-2 years of changing to formulated diets,
these birds will have normal beaks and bright green feathers.
So what should owners feed their birds?
The easy answer is to feed a formulated diet. The harder part is
to slowly train your birds to accept the new food. Just as there
are formulate d foods diets for dogs, cats, and rabbits,
formulated diets for birds are also available form veterinarians
and pet stores. Many veterinarians carry
’s Bird Foods. Pet stores carry other brands of formulated diets
such as Hagen, Kaytee, Lafeber. L and M Animal Farms, Pretty Bird,
Purina Mills/Mazuri, Roudybush, and Zeigler. Scientific research
about psittacine nutrition is just in the beginning and thus,
there is still controversy about the ideal avian diet. While we
still have a great deal to learn about avian nutrition, current
formulated diets are based on extrapolations from years of poultry
nutrition research, new psittacine nutritional research, and
experience of aviculturists and veterinarians.
Many owners ask about what birds eat in the wild with the
assumption that “natural” diets would be the best for their
pets. Wild birds in
may be eating various seeds, vegetation, and insects. They are
certainly not eating sunflower seeds, millet, and the vegetables
found in grocery stores. Even if we could reproduce their natural
diet, there are still good reasons why this diet would not be
appropriate for our pets. Captive birds are not exposed to the
same activity and environmental stresses encountered in the wild
and therefore, would not have the same nutritional requirements of
wild birds. More importantly, free ranging birds do not live as
long as pets. Starvation does occur in nature. Our nutritional
goal for pet birds is to maximize their health by exceeding the
level of nutrition they would otherwise have in the wild.
There is also controversy about how to feed and supplement
diets. The late Dr. Ted Lafeber (manufacturer of Lafeber’s Bird
Food) recommended feeding birds twice daily with treats in between
meals. Sally Blanchard (editor of Pet Bird Report)
considers this a myth and recommends having formulated rations
available at all times. Dr. Greg Harrison (manufacturer of
’s Bird Foods) strongly believes that supplementation with table
food will imbalance the carefully designed formulated rations.
Sally Blanchard argues that parrots get bored with one food, and
there is not enough knowledge for any one ration to be considered
complete. Despite the controversies, there is no debate that the
all seed diet in inadequate for pet birds.
Methods of converting birds to formulated diets
- Mix the formulated ration with the seed diet. As the
bird begins to “accidentally” taste and eat the new diet,
gradually decrease the percentage of seeds, eventually
eliminating seeds. This may take weeks to months to
birds never convert with this method. Once the bird starts to
nibble at the new ration, you may want to try method 2.
- Offer the seeds only in the morning and evening for a
limited time. Leave the formulated ration in the cage at all
times. As the bird eats the new diet, gradually eliminate the
seeds. Ask your
vet for the correct amount of time to leave the seed mixture
- Try to get your bird to first eat table foods such as
yams, carrots, and dark leafy vegetables. You can entice your
bird by eating these items in front of them and making
exaggerated sounds about how good it tastes. Try sharing the
food with another person, passing the food in front of the
bird but not giving it to them until they really beg to try
it. You can try the same technique with pieces of
’s Bird Food since it is a human quality organic food. The
package even recommends that you taste the food to test for
freshness before offering it to your bird.
- Mashed or crumbled versions of formulated rations may
be offered and accepted more readily than the larger pieces.
- Formulated diets may be incorporated into a homemade
recipe such as Dr. Raymond Krays diet (see addendum).
are many other methods to convert birds from a seed diet to a more
balanced ration. Some excellent articles, such as Hooking your
hookbill on pellets and My bird won’t eat that, are
listed in the references.
If you feed
’s bird foods, remember that they are 100% organic and have no
preservatives. Be sure to discard any uneaten food within 24
hours. Please note that the color of the feces will change from
dark green or black to light brown.
Birds must be provided with fresh
clean water. Wash water bowls daily.
Once a malnourished bird is converted to a proper diet, there will
be changes in the bird’s body, Birds may itch more as dry flaky
skin sheds and birds molt. Aloe/Penetran spray is very helpful in
alleviating the itch during this time. They may initially lose fat
and increase muscle. Once they start eating the new diet, they may
initially overeat, but after several weeks, they will reduce their
consumption to lower, normal amounts. This does not mean they
“don’t like” the food anymore.
The following homemade recipe was developed by Dr. Raymond
Kray and has been reported by bird owners to give good to
excellent results as a regular maintenance diet or used to help
convert birds from a seed to formulated ration.
Equal portions of :
Mixed vegetables (fresh, canned, or frozen)
Boiled brown or white rice
Boiled beans (black-eye peas, chickpeas,
kidney beans, lentil beans, lima beans, navy or pinto beans)
This mixture is combined and frozen until
ready to feed. Thaw ¼ cup of the mixture, and add ¼ cup pellets,
and ¼ cup of seeds, 1/8 teaspoon dicalcium phosphate, and ¼
teaspoon of a multivitamin/mineral/amino acid powder. This recipe
is used as 75% of the final diet with the remaining 25% consisting
of fruits, vegetables, cheese and meats.
Nutrient Deficiencies of Seed Diets
Protein (amino acids): lysine, methionine
Vitamins: A, D3,
B12, and riboflavin: possibly vitamins E, K, pantothenic acid,
biotin, niacin and choline.
and possibly sodium
possibly iron, copper, zinc, manganese, iodine and selenium.
Dr.Randal N. Brue, Director of Nutritional Reaserch, Kaytee