An imbalanced or incomplete diet is a common problem with pet birds and is a relatively common cause of illness. There is a lack of scientific study on avian nutrition, especially as it relates to the different species. While our avian nutrition is still in the early stages, most experts agree that a good diet for parrots begins with a formulated diet with a variety of other foods added as supplements.
For most pet birds, especially parrots and parakeets, a diet based primarily on seeds is deficient in many nutrients, including vitamin A and calcium, and is too high in fat. This is not to say that seed does not have a place in avian diets, but many birds come to prefer them to the exclusion of other healthy choices and can be fussy when it comes to trying a varied diet. Some birds will even pick out a couple of favorites from a seed mix, which further reduces the nutritional balance in the diet. When it comes to parrot nutrition, consider seeds to be somewhat like junk food: birds love them, but they are not the healthiest choice. For most species of parrot, seeds should be strictly limited if not completely eliminated from from your bird's diet. A diet high in seeds will increase the risk of high cholesterol, heart problems, obesity and fatty liver disease. Some species, like budgies and cockatiels, are naturally seed eaters and can tolerate a higher percentage of seed in the diet, but even for these birds, seeds should only make up about 25 percent of the diet.
A number of years ago, realizing that many parrots were suffering from nutritional deficiencies, companies began producing pelleted diets for pet birds. These are made from a variety of foods including grains, seeds, vegetables, fruits, fortified with vitamins and minerals, and are baked into pellet or variety of other extruded shapes. These provide a balanced nutritious diet and prevent birds from picking out their favorite food items and leaving the rest. However, many birds, especially those started on a seed-based diet, do not readily take to eating a formulated diet. As well, formulated diets, though well balanced, do not provide the variety and stimulation that many pet birds crave in their diets (after all, eating the same thing day after would be boring for anyone). Therefore, a pelleted diet should comprise 50 to 75 percent of what the bird eats, and 25 to 50 percent should be fresh vegetables and fruit.
Some good brands of formulated diets include Harrison's, Zupreem, Kaytee, Pretty Bird, and Roudybush. As these diets grow in acceptance and popularity, manufacturers are producing lines formulated for particular species and also for health management (e.g. lower-calorie diets for weight management). As mentioned earlier, these diets come in a variety of shapes from larger chunks down to crumbles, and you may need to experiment to find the type your bird prefers. Some birds, especially those used to a seed-based diet, may be difficult to switch to a formulated diet.
As we come to a better understanding of the nutritional needs of birds, the recommended diet for pet parrots includes a variety of nutritious freshly prepared foods in addition to a formulated diet (pellets) and a small percentage of seeds. Remember that most freshly prepared foods will spoil readily, and should be removed from the cage after a couple of hours. If your bird is not readily accepting new foods, try offering them early in the morning or in the evening, times when birds naturally forage for food in the wild.
Fresh vegetables are a great addition to your bird's diet. Not all vegetables are equally nutritious though; vegetables like celery and lettuce are high in fiber and water but are otherwise not all that nutritious. Dark yellow and leafy green vegetables are usually excellent choices. You can offer vegetables in a variety of forms to entice the bird to try them—fresh whole or chopped, or cooked and fed slightly warm. Try hanging vegetables from the side of the cage in a clip, or offering them in chunks that larger birds can pick up with their feet to gnaw on. You may need to be creative to get them to try things and the aim is to get your bird to eat as many different kinds of vegetables as possible. Try a variety of vegetables such as:
- Carrots (root and tops)
- Sweet potatoes
- Leafy greens such as collards, kale, turnip greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, beet greens, and dandelion greens
- Green beans
- Peppers (bell, cayenne, jalapeno, banana, or cherry)
- Broccoli (head and leaves)
- Sugar snap or snow peas
- Corn (kernels, or on the cob for larger birds)
Remember, no avocado!
Again, you want to feed a wide variety, not just a favored few. Many birds love fruit and will overdo it so limit fruits to a fairly small portion of the overall diet. As with vegetables, many of the more deeply colored fruits contain more nutrition, and it is good to try feeding a variety of more tropical types of fruits parrots might be exposed to in their native habitats. However, make sure they do not eat pits or apple seeds as these can be toxic. Try fruits such as:
- Star fruit
- Passion fruit
Birds can also be fed a variety of nutritious grains, such as cooked brown rice, quinoa, oats, wheat, barley, and pasta. Whole wheat bread and unsweetened whole wheat cereals can also be offered. Cooked legumes such as beans, lentils, and peas are an excellent addition to their diets. Birds can also be offered small amounts of lean well-cooked meat and poultry and cooked eggs.
Sprouted seeds are an excellent source of nutrition for pet birds and an excellent way to supplement with greens. Freshly sprouted seeds are a nutritional gold mine, as the seed mobilizes its nutritional content into a highly digestible and bioavailable form as it starts to grow. Sprouted seeds are rich in vitamins and minerals as well as enzymes and antioxidants, and some consider them to be nature's most perfect food. In any case, they are an excellent way to provide a nutritional boost and most birds love them.
Vitamin and Mineral Supplements
It is usually a good idea to offer a cuttlebone (for extra calcium) but otherwise, extra vitamin and mineral supplements are not needed if you are feeding a well-balanced diet based on formulated foods supplemented with a variety of nutrition home-prepared foods. Additional supplements should only be given on the advice of your veterinarian.
Foods to Avoid
Stay away from junk foods and any foods high in fat, salt, or sugar. Birds are also lactose intolerant so milk products should be limited to small amounts of hard cheese and yogurt.
Chocolate, avocado, and rhubarb are toxic to birds. Of course, do not give any beverages containing caffeine or alcohol. Avoid processed meats or other foods high in nitrates, nitrites, sulfites, or monosodium glutamate (MSG). Onions, sprouted lima, fava and navy beans, fruit pits and apple seeds should also be avoided.
Some experts and owners are concerned about feeding peanuts in the shell because they can be contaminated with Aspergillus fungus, which can cause respiratory illness as well as producing a toxin (aflatoxin, a potent carcinogen). If you feed raw peanuts, get good quality human grade peanuts and do not feed if there is any sign of mold. Shelled, blanched (unsalted, of course) peanut are fine. All food should be inspected and discarded if there are any signs of mold.
Nutritional Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual.
How to care for your pet bird. University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine.
Bird Diet Conversion. University of California, Davis School of Veterinary Medicine.
Human Foods: Are Some Dangerous for Parrots? World Parrot Trust.
Keep Pet Birds Safe from Common Household Toxins. Oregon Veterinary Medical Association.
Aflatoxicosis. Merck Veterinary Manual.