FEEDING COMPANION BIRDS
Proper feeding of companion birds has been one of the most challenging aspects of their care, primarily because of limited nutritional research on all species. However, based on studies of poultry and other animals, generalizations can be made on adequate feeding practices for companion birds.
Formulated bird food products (“pellets”) are available from the pet food industry as a convenience to the owner and to ensure a more nutritionally balanced diet than that offered by seeds or homemade diets. The current trend is toward specific formulations addressing age, activity, therapeutic, and stress-related needs of the bird. For example, birds have special nutritional needs during molting, egg laying, or raising young. However, improving a diet in the short term in anticipation of these life stages is not effective; the feeding
practices must be optimal year round. Commercial bird food products may be purchased as pellets, nuggets, crumbles, or hand feeding premixes. Converting a seed-eating bird to a formulated diet must be done with care because new items in the cage may not be immediately recognized as food. Your veterinarian can recommend a commercial formulated bird diet and help you with the conversion process (see informational care sheet on avian diet conversion).
Where commercial diets are not available, attempts are made to produce a homemade diet. While not ideal for pet birds, these usually offer an improvement over an exclusive seed diet. Overall, however, homemade diets are often lacking in calcium, iodine, selenium, protein, fatty acid balance, fiber, pigments, and vitamins A, B complex, E, and D3 while providing an excess of carbohydrates, and phosphorus. Additionally, homemade diets with moist ingredients tend to spoil easily and lose nutrients if not stored properly or if made too far in advance of feeding. The time and effort involved in preparing foods and the difficulty in balancing the nutrients make homemade diets impractical for the pet bird owner. Owners choosing a fresh food plan tend to offer too much variety and quantity of food each day, permitting birds to pick out what they like. Birds will not choose a balanced diet if given free choice. Consult with your avian veterinarian for specific recommendations on items and quantities to feed.
Fresh water should be provided at all times, and changed at least once a day. Some aviculturists and companion bird owners have had success using pet water bottles (sipper bottles) for birds, thereby limiting contamination of water. If this method is chosen, care must be taken daily to ensure that the sipper tube is working properly and the water is being consumed (some parrots will jam seeds into the sipper tube). A jammed sipper tube can quickly lead to dehydration and death. Water cups/bowls/sipper bottles should be thoroughly cleaned each day. Depending on the water quality in your area, you may consider the use of bottled water.
Carefully monitor TOTAL food consumption during any diet change. Introduce small amounts of a new food at a time.
Gradually reduce the total volume of seeds as you increase the volume of more nutritional foods. Clean all food and water cups and remove old food from the cage daily. Do not provide supplemental vitamins unless recommended by your avian veterinarian. Generally if you feed a complete balanced diet (pellets), these will not be necessary. See also the separate handout on diet conversion for many more tips.
A consistent daily feeding program contributes to physical and mental health as much as a varied diet. The availability of natural items such as branches, empty nutshells, leather pieces and coconut shells create a stimulating environment.
Grit is small non-dissolvable rock. The necessity of grit in the diet is debatable. Some birds, such as pigeons, fowl, canaries and finches, may need the availability of grit. In psittacine species, an occasional grit particle is harmless but it is not necessary for healthy maintenance of pet parrots. Too much grit in any species can lead to grit impaction.
Salt licks are not necessary for birds, and should be avoided to reduce risk of salt toxicity.
DEPRAVED EATING HABITS
Birds that routinely eat inappropriate materials (e.g., feces, enclosure substrate) should be examined by a veterinarian. This behavior may be associated with disease or nutritionally deficient diets and is often prevented by the feeding of a more balanced formulated food product.
Lories and lorikeets require specialized diets in captivity. These nectar diets attract insects and result in liquid and messy feces. Your avian veterinarian can recommend a diet for these species.
In soft-billed birds, waterfowl, backyard poultry and game-birds many commercial foods are available for these species. Some toucans and mynahs may have a special dietary requirement for a low-iron formula. Consult your avian veterinarian for recommendations.
Cockatiels and Budgerigars tend to eat a higher percentage of (low fat) seeds in the wild. A viable alternative to standard pellets in these birds is Nutri-An cakes (a 50% low fat seed and 50% pelleted ration that is difficult for them to pick through). Ask your vet for more information on this conversion, which even the most finicky budgie or cockatiel can be converted to (at home or supervised in the hospital setting). If this option is used, insert “Nutri-An cakes” in place of “commercial pellet diets” in the recommendations below. In order for these cakes to deliver optimal nutrition, they must be carefully portion fed (otherwise the bird will pick out and consume only the seeds).
2. Detailed Formula for Providing a Balanced Diet:
**Remember, the percentages listed below are based on quantities actually consumed by your bird, not just what is offered. If an abundance of food is offered, the bird will be able to dictate the percentages of each type consumed. The only way to control this is to portion feed (like you would with a dog or cat).**
Commercial Bird Formulated (“pelleted”) Diets (fed as 75%-80% of the total diet)
Most reputable manufacturers have developed their formulated diets as a collaboration of the efforts and research of many veterinary nutritionists. These diets are constantly evolving and improving (much like commercial dog and cat foods), and are now considered by most avian veterinarians to be the ideal staple diet for most parrot and many other avian species. Furthermore, they are very convenient for owners (easy to dispense, store and clean-up after). There are a wide variety of types on the market that include granules, clusters, and colored and non-colored pellets. They are particularly useful for overweight birds as they tend to be lower in fat.
Follow the manufacturer’s instructions (using a monitored conversion process) and change the cage papers daily to monitor the number of droppings being produced during conversion. If the number is decreased, or there is only water (urine) being passed for more than 24 hours, then return the bird to its original diet and consult with your avian veterinarian. Some birds have starved to death when converted too quickly to a commercial diet. For detailed information on the conversion process, see the manufacturer’s recommendations or our diet conversion handout.
We recommend the commercial bird pelleted type diets as a replacement for seed and vitamin supplementation (vitamins are built into the pellets), but would advise you to also continue giving a variety of fresh foods daily (or at least 3 times a week).
Fresh Foods (no more than 25% of the total diet)
Not only is it important to provide a variety to insure all the dietary requirements are being met, but your intelligent little friends (especially the hook bills and psittacines) also need variety to help prevent boredom. In the wild they would spend a large portion of their day searching for and obtaining their food items. It is a good idea to provide them with “fun foods” to play with such as corn on the cob, dark leafy greens, broccoli, oranges, and peppers (just to name a few). Generally (with only a few exceptions- such as avocado, onion, butter/margarine, and chocolate), if a food is healthy for you, it is ok to feed to your avian friend. If it is unhealthy for you, it should not be offered (French fries or any fried foods, candy and deserts, etc). The most important fresh foods from a nutritional standpoint are the dark leafy greens (mustard greens, turnip greens, kale, endive, etc) and other brightly colored veggies (peppers, squash, zucchini, carrots, etc).
Fruits and Vegetables
These are a source of carbohydrates and many essential vitamins and minerals. The most nutritious vegetable options include: most dark leafy greens, beans, carrots, dandelions, broccoli, sweet potato, etc. Fruits can be offered as well, but the fruits that are available in this country are generally not considered essential for birds. As such, they should be offered in limited quantities as a treat. The juicier fruits, when fed in large quantities often cause more voluminous soft (stools with excess water/urine). This is not a medical concern. Make sure all these items are washed thoroughly prior to use. Using a powdered preservative such as “fresh fruit” sprinkled on the fruit will allow you to store several days worth in the refrigerator without spoilage, and are considered safe to use in pet birds.
Breads and Cereals
These are sources of certain amino acids, carbohydrates, and B vitamins. Good choices include whole grain bread, unsweetened breakfast cereals, granola, tortillas, and pasta. These can be used as a small part of the diet, generally as treat items.
These items can spoil quickly, so they shouldn’t be left in the cage for too long (especially on warm days). Examples of protein rich foods include cooked lean meats, tofu, low fat cottage cheese, other firm light-colored cheese, yogurt and cooked eggs. If your bird is experiencing a problem with obesity, eggs and cheese should be avoided.
Try to severely limit oil seeds such as sunflower, safflower, and peanut. It is best to use these as a hand-fed treat food. For example, a medium sized parrot (i.e.- an Amazon) might only get 10-15 of these seeds a day (or none if he is overweight or has health issues). Grain seeds such as millet, canary seed, corn, grouts, wheat, brown rice, and oats can also be used as a healthier replacement for seeds as a treat, but it is recommended to not leave these in the cage. Instead, use these treat items for training and out-of-cage foraging activities. Seeds provide carbohydrates and some B vitamins. Another healthier alternative to typical seeds found in pet stores are sprouted seeds. These sprouted seeds are generally lower in fat and more nutritious than their unsprouted counterparts. Sprouting kits are available through the website: www.chinaprairie.com
Vitamin and Mineral Supplementation
If you are feeding a variety of foods, it is generally not necessary to use much (or any) vitamin supplementation. When indicated, you can lightly “salt” the soft food once a day. If you are using a commercially prepared diet as more than 50% of the bird’s diet, then do not add any vitamins (unless specifically commended by your veterinarian).
In the event that you should need a vitamin supplement, and a liquid vitamin is chosen, be sure to change the water once a day and closely monitor water consumption (some birds will not drink the vitamin fortified water). Keep in mind that avian vitamins are not subject to any government regulation/standardization, so it is important to use a brand that is reputable in order to ensure a quality product.
Calcium is a very important mineral, especially for African Grays and egg-laying cockatiels and other parrots. For this reason, further supplementation may be needed beyond the pelleted diet. Calcium can be provided in the form of a cuttlebone (soft side toward the bird), white oyster shells, egg shells, crushed Tums, or mineral blocks. Other, more potent products are available through your veterinarian, should your pet require extra supplementation.
Allowing your pet to share occasional meals with you provides an excellent way to strengthen the human/animal bond and make your pet a real part of the family. In so doing, please keep the following rules in mind:
Rules for feeding table foods:
1. Nothing greasy, salty, or sugary
2. No caffeine or alcohol
3. Stick with a “health food” type diet
4. Offer a wide variety of foods
5. Introduce new foods gradually
6. Do not leave fresh food in the cage for more than four hours
(especially high protein foods). Remove and clean the dishes for the next meal.
7. Remove all food from the cage in the evening
8. Wash food and water dishes daily
The Truth about SEEDS:
1. Most birds in the wild would not eat a diet of (high) oil seeds such as sunflower, safflower, peanuts, etc.
2. The use of seeds, particularly oil seeds, as a foundation of the diet leads to nutritional deficiencies and eventually death.
3. Typically birds that live out a longer life eat a wide variety of foods, usually with pellets as the basis.
Seeds are simply inadequate in their nutrition to supply the bird’s needs. They have a nutritional value similar to common human “junk food”. Think about the last time you purchased cooking oil. The choices you had were sunflower, safflower, corn, canola (rape seed oil), peanut, etc. Now visualize the average “deluxe parrot mix”. They’re the same types of seed! While it might be true that birds have access to and eat seed in the wild, the differences between wild foraging and seed-based captive animal diets are enormous. The seeds most commonly encountered in the wild are young, growing (sprouted), less fatty seeds. More importantly, they are available only at certain times of the year, and typically are harvested from leguminous trees, palms, and fruit and nut trees.
Supplementation will not fix a bad diet and is not needed if you have a good one. Vitamins can be used to fix a short term problem, and there are times where higher levels of certain vitamins are beneficial. A multi-vitamin can’t make a “junk food” diet complete or healthy.
We must recognize that we can never hope to provide our birds with all the things that would be available to them in the wild (mostly because we don’t live in a rain forest). It becomes obvious that offering a formulated diet (pellets) as the staple, and a variety of healthy foods as a supplement (in reasonable and balanced portions) is the best option for long-term health. It is also important to choose a diet that is easy and convenient to prepare, because if it is too complicated or time consuming it often becomes difficult to continue long-term.
Corn Bread Mix
This is a method of sneaking new food items into your pet’s diet. Start with a standard boxed corn bread mix. When adding egg, also crush up and add the shell (for calcium). In addition, add a few tablespoons of grated or chopped vegetables, sprouts, dried fruits and so forth. Your imagination is the limit as to the variety and combination of foods added. Bake the bread. Cool. Cut into small pieces that the bird can handle. Refrigerate. This will keep in the fridge for 4-5 days. Leftovers in the dish will dry up. You don’t have to worry about as rapid spoilage in the cage.
Stir together 4 cups of one of the following: whole wheat flower, graham flour, muffin mix, etc. Add 2/3 cup brown sugar + 4 eggs (and the crushed shells) +1 cup ripe banana + ½ cup chunky peanut butter + ½ cup total of either raisins, currents, coconut, shredded carrots, apples or zucchini + 2 tablespoons baking powder + 1 teaspoon nutmeg + 1 teaspoon cinnamon + 1 cup milk. Stir together, adding enough milk to make a thick batter. Use more milk for loaf, less for muffins. Place onto greased pans (1 loaf pan, 19” cake pan) or paper-lined muffin cups. Bake at 350° until bread springs back (when touched lightly) and browned on top.
Kray Diet (Corn, Rice, Bean, and Dog Food)
Dr. Raymond Kray published a diet that is nutritionally balanced for most omnivores. This diet consists of equal portions of corn, cooked pinto beans, brown rice, and dry dog food. Dr. Kray also recommends a daily serving of fresh vegetables, fruits and a vitamin supplement. This diet is convenient in that it may be prepared in large amounts, or divided into daily servings and frozen. Prior to feeding, daily servings are thawed in a microwave or bowl of hot water. You may easily modify this diet without significantly changing its nutritional value. The corn can be replaced with a variety of vegetables (frozen work great); there are several varieties of beans that may be used; and carbohydrates (bread, pasta, tortilla slices, etc.) can be substituted for the rice; and finally the bird-type pellets or even cooked meat can be substituted for dog food. Using this approach it is easy to develop hundreds of variations of the Kray diet, so your avian friend(s) need never become bored.
Below are some variations on the Kray diet. Mix bite sized pieces together in proportions of 1 lb. per category by weight, then divide into daily servings and freeze in zip-lock bags. Use 1 lb. of beans (dry weight) and soak for two hours. Cook until just done, not mushy. The frozen vegetables can be purchased and added to your mix (don’t cook them). The items listed below are suggestions.
Holiday Kray Italian Kray
-Small white and red beans (soaked and cooked) -kidney beans/lima beans soaked and cooked
-Stuffing flavored bread cubes or canned/frozen
-Dog food/cooked turkey -Cooked pasta (small variety such as
-Yams/fresh cranberries/squash tortellini, orzo, or small shells
-Cut green beans/corn/tomatoes
Mexican Kray -Dog food/pepperoni/Italian sausage (sliced
-Pinto beans and black beans (soaked and cooked) into small pieces)
-Corn/flour tortillas cut into pieces
-Dog food/cooked hamburger Fourth of July Kray
-Corn/green pepper/onion/mild chilies -1 lb. can pork and beans or baked beans
(canned are fine) -Dried bread cubes (plain) or cooked salad macaroni
-Corn/green peas/bell pepper
-Dog food/chopped hot dogs