by Lori Pikkaart
I recently had a spellbinding conversation with biologist, Dr. Jason Crean, and learned some fascinating facts and up-to-date research on feeding pet birds. Dr. Crean is a degreed biologist, award-winning educator and professor, and avid aviculturist who serves in many capacities, working closely with avian field researchers. His personal flock includes aracaris, parrotlets, a macaw and a palm cockatoo.
Admittedly, I was hoping he could simply tell me what proportions of each food I should be feeding my birds, but he explained that the complexities of avian nutrition go much deeper than that. Space doesn’t allow for a lot of detail, but here are some talking points he shared, that – no pun intended – gave me a lot of food for thought and we hope you are able to take time to ponder them as well.
What do parrots eat in the wild?
In the wild, many parrots eat a variety of fruit, greens, vegetables, bugs, larvae, flowers, and nuts. Is that what most of us are feeding our parrots? No. Also, treating every parrot species the same nutritionally is a mistake. Each has different needs. The truth is, nobody really knows what parrots eat in the wild in the long-term; only a handful of individuals and species have been studied, but we don’t know long-term what they are eating and why. Cockatoos have been observed eating larvae from tree bark and Hyacinth Macaws eating the seeds out of cow poop. Parrots are very opportunistic because they are in competition with other wild animals for food. They will even eat unripe fruits to avoid competing with primates. In the wild, no two days are the same, so they are making different food choices every day. This leads us to believe that our captive friends also ought to have different choices every day to keep them guessing and make them more open to a more diverse diet.
Let’s talk about fat.
Parrot owners are sometimes guilty of not feeding enough or the right fats, either feeding a cheap seed mix or no fats at all. Human infants require Omega-3 fatty acids for proper brain development. The same is true for baby parrots. Commercially available hand-feeding formulas do not contain these essential ingredients, even if added, and this puts the birds at a disadvantage in mental development and into adulthood – possibly a foundational contribution to plucking behavior.
Considering that birds have one of the fastest resting metabolic rates of animals, their hearts are humming along even if they are just resting on a perch all day. Omega-3 fats help maintain a healthy metabolism, promote good gut bacteria, and boost immunity. The best sources include walnuts, hemp, chia & flax seeds, as well as mealworms. Coconut oil is another highly beneficial oil that provides different but sorely needed benefits to our birds. Note that Omega-3s denature when exposed to heat, light, or even just sitting on a shelf for a period of time, so if the bird is consuming processed foods that claim to have these ingredients, they are suspect, due to the process of heating during manufacture.
In the old days (as late as the 1960’s) it was common practice for parrot owners to feed their birds mealworms. Now we can get them freeze-dried or we can be adventurous and cultivate them ourselves, controlling what the worms eat, and as a result, controlling what our parrots ingest. If you feed the mealworms healthy fats, they’ll pass those onto the parrots that consume them. Just put them in a Rubbermaid bin filled with moist fiber, vegetable scraps, ground flax and whole kale leaves. My birds’ eyes will actually pin with excitement when they see their dinners crawling around. I’ll bet you never knew birds liked to hunt! Feathered velociraptors indeed.
What’s wrong with pellets?
More than ten years ago, my veterinary colleague Dr. Karen Becker and I came to the unconventional conclusion that commercially processed food is not necessarily better than seeds. Check your birds’ pellet ingredients. If peanut and sunflower are a main ingredient, or they’re including cheap and low quality ingredients like corn gluten meal, those pellets are not using calories wisely. They are cheap fillers, not nutritionally sound. The more fiber in a pellet, the better. A bird’s liver doesn’t know what to do with processed food. When grains and nuts are heat-processed, their amino acids transform into inflammatory and carcinogenic compounds so finding a cold-pressed, non-heat processed pellet is important. Even though this pellet may be of better quality, it should never compose a significant portion of the bird’s diet.
So, what should our parrots eat?
Honestly, it’s a lot of guesswork based on direct observations over time. We need to feed them a changing diversity to cover the basics. These are a few things to consider when thinking of improving the nutrition offered to your bird:
Plants. In their four forms, they have different nutrients at each stage: 1) Seeds & soaked seeds (such as legumes, lentils, mung beans, sunflower, quinoa, wheat), 2) Sprouts, 3) Microgreens (when a plant first starts to get leaves), 4) Adult greens.
Mealworms (insect protein). Live ones, when put in the sun, manufacture vitamin D3.
Fruit. Only 10-15% of diet. Not overripe fruit. Fruit seeds and pulp, like from papaya, squashes, honeydew, and cantaloupe. In the wild they eat fruit to get to the seeds. Once I cut a small pumpkin in half, placed mash with sprouts inside, and the birds went wild to eat the pulp and seeds!
Pellets. High quality and cold-pressed only, no more than 10% of their diet. As far as quantity, if your bird is cleaning out his bowl, then the bird is probably still hungry.Keeping birds is a scientific experiment that has no end. All birds will eat good food. It’s more about changing our own human behavior, then the bird behavior will follow.
Thank you, Dr. Crean!
If you’d like to learn more about Dr. Jason Crean and his leading-edge nutritional ideologies, here are a few resources:
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