Our knowledge of bird nutrition is constantly improving. As with all other animals, birds need a proper balance of carbohydrates, proteins, fat, vitamins, minerals and water. Different species of birds often require different foods.
Should I be concerned about what my bird eats?
Improper nutrition is a common cause of health problems in pet birds. Be sure that you are feeding your bird a diet that is appropriate for their species and health status. Dietary
information given casually over the internet or from pet store personnel may not be optimal for your bird. Your bird’s health depends upon how well it is fed. Please ask us for the best, most current information on proper diet for your bird
What does my bird naturally eat?
Depending on the species, birds will eat an assortment of seeds, fruits, nuts, berries, blossoms, roots, and vegetation such as leaf buds. Some birds even eat insects and their larva. They are known to raid farmer’s crops, destroy sprouts, mature crops and bagged grain. The staple food items of a bird’s diet often change with seasonal availability. Keep in mind wild, free-living birds are under higher energy requirements than those in captivity. This is because they have to fly, forage, and resist weather and temperature extremes. In captivity the same caloric intake may lead to obesity or other health problems.
What should I NOT feed my bird?
Seeds: Commercial seed diets tend to be high in calories for a captive bird and deficient in key nutrients such as calcium and vitamin A. This is compounded when a bird picks through the diet and selectively eat 1 0r 2 “favorite” types of seeds. Seeds are highly palatable and sought preferentially but, nutritionally, they are like giving candy to a child. Overconsumption leads to malnutrition.
With most pet parrots, seed is an optional part of the diet and must be limited. Individual seeds can be offered as training or foraging rewards. These rewards should be small enough that they are consumed in 10 seconds or less. This prevents disrupting the flow of training and limits the amount of seed that can be consumed. For many birds, a safflower seed, small (fingernail-sized) millet bunch, tiny peanut fragment, or grey-stripe sunflower seed is a perfect reward.
Other items to avoid include iceberg lettuce as it is mostly water and has little nutritional value. Avocados should be avoided because of the high fat content and because some of its parts are known to be toxic. Many houseplants can be toxic also. For a list of toxic foods and plants to avoid, check toxic plants section later in this booklet.
Take your bird’s FAVORITE food, usually sunflower seeds, pine nuts, or other nuts, and ONLY give that to them when you are training your bird. Think of the power of that treat and how much easier it will be to train your bird!
What Should I Feed My Bird?
The following covers most pet parrots but does NOT include lories or lorikeets or other non-parrot species. For any other types of birds, please consult us directly for current recommendations.
Most pet parrots should ideally have 2 dishes for food in their cage. One should contain a formulated (aka pelleted) diet. In the other bowl, a simple selection of one or two vegetables (not grains) are supplied daily. Appropriate vegetables include broccoli, green beans, carrots, squash, or greens. Water should also be supplied, either in a bowl or other watering device (e.g., sipper bottle). Sipper bottles or watering nipples must be cleaned and checked daily for proper function. For your bird, I recommend offering a formulated pellet free-choice, and providing one or two vegetable (not grain) selections daily. Vegetables should be fresh or thawed-from-frozen. If your bird does not currently eat a formulated pellet, be sure to consult with a veterinarian before converting. Birds should be reasonably fit before radical changes in diet are committed. Conversion also requires training your bird that pellets are good food. The goal for most parrots is to receive approximately 80% of their diets as a formulated diet and 20% as vegetables. Exceptions to this rule of thumb are eclectus parrots, which should probably receive at least 50% of their diet in vegetables. Also, some color-mutation cockatiels (esp. lutinos or albinos) often require more seed in their diet but your veterinarian can help determine if this is appropriate for your bird.
Formulated (aka Pelleted) Diets
“Pellets͟” refers to a variety of commercially-made formulated diets available for pet birds. They are considered ideal because they have all the ingredients of a balanced diet in a form that does not allow favoritism and selective ingestion of ingredients. There are a variety of formulated diets and they come in many shapes and colors. Some pelleted diets do not resemble pellets at all and instead look like crumbles, cubes, or fruit-colored cat food. Another type of formulated diet is made from hulled seeds that are clustered together with a molasses and vitamin mixture (e.g., Lafeber’s Nutriberries). These do provide complete nutrition and can be attractive options for birds that resist transition to other formulated diets.
Examples of formulated (pelleted) diets that we recommend for a maintenance diet:
- Harrison’s Adult Lifetime (coarse or fine)
- Zupreem Fruitblend or Naturals Lafeber Nutri-Berries or Pellet-Berries Lafeber Pellets
- Roudybush Daily Maintenance
- TOP Organics, TOP Organic Pellets (not seed mixes)
Fortified Diets to Avoid
There are also “fortified” seed diets but these do not provide a balanced diet since the birds select out their favorite seeds and any fortified coatings are removed when with the seed hull during consumption. Many of these seed diets also contain pellets but they are poorly made and few birds actually eat them, particularly with the presence of tastier items—meaning much of the diet is wasted. For these reasons, we recommend avoiding these types of whole-seed diets.
How do I convert my bird to a pelleted diet?
For successful conversion, it is important to realize that we are CHANGING BEHAVIOR, not just offering food. To some birds, a formulated pellet will not look like food. Furthermore, if they are older birds, they have very firmly set routines in their life and may be reluctant to try new things. However, parrotsare flock birds and will try new foods that their flock members show an interest in. So, to get your bird to try new foods, you have to make a ROUTINE of sharing those foods with your bird and CONVINCE them that you are interested in them. Set aside time every day to work your bird, play with or eat the new food items, and don’t give up, even when your bird does not show interest for several days.
Cockatiels or budgies: It may be important to have your bird’s wings clipped unless they are very tame in order to maintain the bird’s focus on you. Spread a variety of choices of pellets out on a table surface covered by a towel and set your bird amongst them. Use your hand to simulate a scratching and pecking flock member. Pick at the pellets, crunch them in your fingernails, and flick them about. Do this daily as it must be seen as a regular flock behavior. During the introduction period, offer pellets in a separate bowl from the old diet. Once your bird begins to eat the pellets consistently, you can replace its old diet. You may also find that using smaller pieces or varieties of pellets will be more readily accepted and you can later increase the size you feed. You may want to simulate foraging, using your fingers, in the food bowl in the cage as a final conversion training method as well. Since these species are ground-feeders, it may help to offer the pellets on the floor of the cage or in a flat dish instead of in a bowl. Even then, be sure to monitor your bird’s droppings to ensure that they are eating well. Once the birds are regularly consuming a pellet diet you will notice changes in their droppings. The droppings will generally be larger and lighter in color than when on seed. If you only see scant, dark green feces or black feces, your bird may not be eating and will need to be offered its old diet again.
Lovebirds and small conures: It may be important to have your bird’s wings clipped unless they are very tame, in order to maintain the bird’s focus on you and your fingers. Have the bird stand on your fingers with your hand flat, palm up. Spread pellets out on your palm. Use the fingers of your opposite hand to simulate a scratching and pecking flock member. Pick at the pellets, crunch them in your fingernails, and flick them about. I recommend doing this exercise in the morning before the bird has a chance to eat other foods– the time when they are most hungry. Do this daily as it must be seen as it becomes ROUTINE. During the introductory period, offer pellets in a separate bowl from the old diet. Once your bird begins to eat the pellets consistently, you can replace its old diet. You may also find that using smaller pellets will be more readily accepted and you can later increase the size you feed. You may want to do a similar exercise in the food bowl in the cage to direct their attention to the pellets there.
Since these species are tree-top feeders, it helps to keep the dish of pellets up in the cage near their favorite perch. Even then, be sure to monitor your bird’s droppings to ensure that they are eating well. Once the birds are regularly consuming a pellet diet you will notice changes in their droppings. The droppings will generally be larger and lighter in color than when on seed. If you only see scant, dark green feces or black feces, your bird may not be eating and will need to be offered its old diet again.
Larger parrots (Caiques, pionus parrots, senegals, cockatoos, grey parrots, macaws, Amazons, etc.): Place a dish of pellets and a dish of the old diet in the cage at all times. Once a day at a time when the bird is most hungry (typically first thing in the morning), bring the bird out and set them on a training stand or table. Play with the food in your fingers and eat some (or at least act like you are eating it). Do this for about 10 minutes and try to entice the bird to eat the new food. Do this at least once daily and don’t give up. Some birds try the food quickly. Others require seeing it as a regular part of their routine before they eventually try it. Once your bird is picking up pieces and eating them, you can usually safely
remove the dish of seed. Watch the droppings closely and if you stop seeing formed feces in the droppings then the bird may not be eating the new diet sufficiently yet and you will want to continue offering the seed and try removing it again later.
Other bird species: There are formulated diets made for almost any species of pet bird. If your bird is not covered here, please call us and discuss the options available and how to convert your bird’s diet.
Can I feed fruits and vegetables to my bird?
It is suggested that a selection of various fruits and vegetables be fed to your bird every day. They are a good source of carbohydrates, vitamins and minerals. It is recommended that 20 –30% of the diet should be fruits and vegetables. Dark, leafy greens plus yellow and red fruits and vegetables have the best nutritional value. Frozen-thawed or fresh vegetables are the most nutritious. Cooking can rob a food of some of its nutritive value but some birds do prefer the soft texture. Presentation is extremely important—the food needs to be presented in an appetizing form and be readily prehended (manipulated) with their beak. Small species such as cockatiels
and budgerigars frequently show more interest in slivered or thinly-sliced raw vegetables. It can also help to clip slivers of vegetable (e.g., carrot) to the inside of the cage at perch-height. Larger species, that prefer to hold food in their feet, will respond better to cut pieces provided in a bowl or flat surface. There are individual preferences to how vegetables are cut, whether the skin is still intact, and whether it is cooked or raw. DON͛T GIVE UP in experimenting to find vegetables or presentations that suit your bird’s tastes.
Will my bird get diarrhea from eating fruits and vegetables?
Because of the high water content of fruits and vegetables, owners are frequently concerned about “diarrhea”. What you are witnessing is increased urine output, which is normal with high moisture consumption. You can also see odd colors (e.g., red colors from berries or tomatoes) and this is perfectly harmless. However, if you are ever concerned, simply stop offering vegetables for a day and see if the droppings resume normal colors and become less wet. Remember to feed your pet bird with the same common sense as you would for you and your family. Wash all produce well as birds are very sensitive to pesticides and other sprays.
What are the recommended fruits and vegetables to give my bird?
Some suggested food items include:
- carrot tops
- parsley (in moderation)
- cherries (not the pit)
- beans (cooked) such as:
- chic peas
- dandelion leaves/flower
- hot peppers
- rice (brown)
- bell peppers
- romaine lettuce
- sprouted seeds
- bok choy
- brussel sprouts
- mustard greens
- sweet potato
Fresh clean water must be available at all times. Depending on the quality of your tap water, consider the use of bottled water. Dishes must be cleaned thoroughly every day with soap and water.
What about people food?
As a general rule any wholesome, nutritious food that you and your family eat, your bird can eat. Follow the general guidelines discussed above and use your common sense. Some birds even enjoy a small amount of lean cooked meat, fish, egg or cheese occasionally. Birds love pasta, tacos, pizza, etc. Dairy products should be consumed in moderation. It is common sense that junk food, chocolate, products containing caffeine and alcoholic beverages be avoided. Your bird will like to eat when your family sits down to dinner, especially if he can see the dinner table. Birds are flock creatures, and like to eat together. Remember, you are your bird’s flock!
Will my bird have any different needs throughout its life?
Birds that are extremely young, stressed, injured, laying eggs or raising young may have certain special requirements. There are specially formulated pelleted foods available for birds with specific nutritional requirements. Consult your veterinarian regarding these situations.
Do I need to use a vitamin-mineral mixture?
Does your bird need extra vitamins, minerals or amino-acids? Powdered supplement should be applied directly onto moist food. Placing these powders on seeds or dried foods is of little value since it will ultimately end up on the bottom of the food dish and not in the bird. Liquid vitamins can be placed in the drinking water if it is changed daily. If a bird is eating at least 50% of its diet in the form of pelleted food it does not need supplements. Specific vitamins or minerals may be more important at various times during a bird’s life (e.g. egg-laying requires calcium supplementation). Calcium supplements are available if your bird is determined to be deficient. Your veterinarian can help you assess your bird’s diet and its particular needs.
RECAP OF FEEDING RECOMMENDATIONS
- For most parrot species, only pellets and vegetables should be presented in food dishes.
- Seeds and people food should be treated as special rewards for good behavior or for foraging. Such rewards should be small and quickly eaten.
- Always monitor the amount of food eaten every day by each bird.
- Offer fresh water every day.
- Offer fresh fruits and vegetables every day. Wash thoroughly all fruits and vegetables as if eating them yourself
- Clean all food and water dishes daily.
- NEVER place food on the bottom of the cage Refusal of a food item one day does not mean you should give up – KEEP TRYING!
Does my bird need gravel or grit?
Controversy exists over the need for gravel. It was once believed that grit was necessary for the mechanical breakdown of food in the gizzard as an aid to digestion. Birds do fine without grit.
Some birds will in fact have problems if grit is over eaten