APPENDIX LINKS
A: recommended greens B:  recommended vegetables C:  edible flowers
D: recommended fruits E: recommended tubers F: recommended legumes
G: recommended grains H: recommended seeds I: recommended nuts

  A HEALTHY BIRD DIET  
Mixed Nuts

When it comes to avian diet, there is a huge controversy.  Avian vets, breeders, pet shop professionals, bird guardians, researchers, rescuers, etc all have their own opinion as to what constitutes the perfect diet and each of them makes claims to it.  But the sad truth is that none of them is correct because nobody knows what most birds’ nutritional needs are.  We simply have no guidelines.  There just hasn’t been enough research done.  Consider that the first pellets, touted as a complete or total diet for pet birds, were done based on what the manufacturers knew over twenty years ago on chickens nutritional needs!   To give them credit, manufacturers of bird food are trying to catch up and they have made enormous strides in the right direction but it is a work in progress and by no means perfect.  Therefore, the responsibility of providing the best diet possible falls to the bird guardian.  

Here are a few pointers:  

  1. HEALTHY BIRDS EAT HEALTHY DIETS
  1. THERE IS NO SUCH THING AS A PACKAGED ‘COMPLETE DIET’
  1. SPECIES EVOLVE TO THRIVE ON FOOD AVAILABLE IN THEIR NATURAL HABITAT
  1. BIRDS DO NOT CHOOSE TO EAT WHAT IS GOOD FOR THEM

The old axiom We are what we eat’, is even truer for birds than it is for people. Birds that eat an inadequate diet will develop health problems which could be fatal if not corrected in time.  And this is no Chicken Little alarmism, it’s a fact supported by research and documented by animal health professionals.  All avian health professionals agree that the number one problem with pet birds nowadays is malnutrition.  Research done by avian vets came up with the following figure for major nutrient deficiencies in USA pet birds:

Calcium 98% ... Vitamin D 97% ... Vitamin A 67% ... Vitamin E 27%

And, although, for certain species, pellets are healthier than seeds, there is no single commercial food that covers all their dietary needs regardless of the manufacturer’s claims on the package or the impressive list of all the vitamins and minerals they might contain.  For one thing, we don’t know if those proportions are healthy for them and, for another, almost all ingredients in them are not part of their natural diet.   Things like soy, for example.   There is no soy in the natural diet of any of our pet bird species.   There are very few avian species that have such specialized diets that they eat only a handful of things and none of them are kept as pets.  And, lastly, birds get tired of always eating the same thing.   All birds require a large variety of food for a healthy life.

As to what their specific diet should be, one thing to always keep in mind is that species have evolved to be able to thrive in the particular habitat they live in, and almost all of our companion bird species come from tropical, subtropical or temperate climates where vegetation abound.  Even the few species we keep that originated in arid areas always stay close to water sources surrounded by vegetation.  This tells us that a very large if not the biggest part of their diet is fresh plant material: buds, leaves, flowers, grasses, fruits, branches, etc.   It provides them with vitamins, minerals, enzymes and fiber.  A much smaller part of their diet consists of grains, seeds and legumes.  Some species consume nuts as well, and others insects and/or worms.  These foods provide protein and are mostly consumed during breeding season.   But, in nature, protein in large concentrations is only found in meat and none of our pet bird species is a predator or a carrion eater.  They like and will gladly eat meat but it’s not part of their natural diet.  We know this not only from observation of the birds in their natural habitat but also by analyzing the shape of their beaks:   psittacines have beaks designed for eating plant material, nuts and grains, while passerines and columbines have beaks meant to eat seeds, greens and fruits.   And, while some seeds and legumes have a high content of protein, they are just not that abundant in the wild so we can gather from this information that, in general, psittacines need a lot of fresh produce and relatively low protein.   It is, therefore, safe to free-feed seeds to passerines and columbines (which are natural seed eaters) but never to psittacines (which are not).  A parrot that is free-fed seeds or pellets will consume too much protein which, in the long run, will destroy its liver and kidneys.

Birds will choose to eat only what they know and like.  In the wild, the parents will feed the babies the same foods they were taught to eat by their parents.  This food is what is available in their natural habitat and will perfectly fulfill all their needs as the species evolved to thrive on it.  Our birds are bred in captivity and learn to eat what we humans think is good… or cheap… or easy.   I am sure there are breeders who are conscientious aviculturists and bird lovers who provide their hatchlings with a wide variety of healthy food but, in my personal experience, the greatest majority of them wean to seeds because it’s easy, fast and very cheap.  A bird that never ate a vegetable or a fruit before will not want to try it.  And, even the ones that were raised with an adequate diet, if allowed to choose, will end up eating three or four favorite things over and over, and this will be, most likely, food that is too rich in protein or sugar.    Malnutrition comes in many different forms and it doesn’t necessarily mean that the bird guardians do not love the bird or are not willing to put the money, time and work into feeding it a proper diet, it’s often due to the owners not knowing what the bird needs to eat to stay healthy.  And I personally believe that most birds end up with nutritional deficiencies because its owners spoil it.   The same way that a mother would not allow a toddler to choose his food, a bird guardian should not allow a bird to eat only what he likes.  When it comes to birds, guardians need to exercise ‘tough love’ and force them to eat right.

Now, as to what constitutes a good diet We might not know as much as we need to but we do have some clues.   I have always found that canaries, finches, cardinals, doves, pigeons, etc are fairly easy to keep well fed.   By the shape of their beak we know they are natural seed eaters and, even the most recalcitrant of them will eventually try a new green or fruit if we insist long enough.   The problem eaters are always and without exception the psittacines and, as they happen to be the ones with the most complex diets, I will devote the biggest part of this piece to them.  

Now, I am sure that most bird guardians will look at this diet and think to themselves that there is no way they will ever get their bird to follow it but the idea is to know what the best diet is and try to get as close to it as possible.  It takes time, it takes patience, it takes persistence, it takes work and it takes a lot of creativity but there is always room for improvement and that’s what we need to aim for.  Every new green, veggie or fruit that you incorporate into your regular bird’s diet, it’s another step in the right direction.

30% OF TOTAL DIET SHOULD BE GREENS.

Salad Greens Most psittacines we keep as pets fall within the category of ‘non-specialized canopy eaters’.   This means that their natural diet would consist mostly of vegetable material and, ideally, at least a third of it should be leafy greens.  Green is the color of chlorophyll, the solar energy trapper in plants that makes all life on Earth possible.  And the leaves are the biochemical guts of the plant where all the essential amino acids, fatty acids, vitamins, and carbohydrates are manufactured in the first place.  This makes leafy greens one of the richest sources of nutrients in the vegetable kingdom.  The darker the green color, the more nutritious they are.  And, the more greens the bird eats, the healthier he’ll be.  The best greens to feed are of a dark color such as collard greens, kale, spinach, beet, dandelion, Swiss chard, water cress, turnip, and romaine.  Let’s look at collard greens benefits, for example:  they are an excellent source of vitamins A, C and E, manganese, folate, dietary fiber, and calcium.   In addition, collard greens are a very good source of potassium, vitamin B1, B2, B5 and B6, magnesium, protein, omega-3 fatty acids, niacin, zinc, phosphorous, selenium and iron.  Isn’t that a dandy of a green?!  One word of caution about greens high in oxates (kale, spinach, collard greens, etc) which inhibit calcium absorption, you cannot just offer them these all the time because they are ‘better’ than others.  A wide variety of greens needs to be consumed so as to reduce the possibility of health problems.  They should also be given raw, as much as possible, and avoid combining them with fruits that have a high acidity content (like citrus). (Please refer to our list of greens in
Appendix A).

20% of TOTAL  diet should be vegetables                       

Veggies are nutrient dense. The nutrient content of different types varies considerably. With the exception of pulses, vegetables provide little protein and fat but they contain water soluble vitamins like vitamin B and C, fat-soluble vitamins like vitamin A and D, and phytonutrients, health building substances which provide all kinds of health benefits to those who consume them.   And even though they also contain carbohydrates, they pack a lot of nutrition into a minimum of calories.   Half a cup of vegetables would amount to not more, on average, than 35 calories and even those few calories hardly count because of this neat little biochemical quirk that only veggies enjoy: the body uses almost as many calories to digest vegetables as there are in the vegetables in the first place, and the leftover calories don't even have a fighting chance of being stored in a fat cellTaking into consideration that one of the biggest problems with our birds is obesity, this ‘quirk’ is very useful to us.   Now, most of the food we refer to as vegetables are actually fruits, like tomatoes and cucumbers, grain like corn, etc. and even legumes as all the snap beans varieties and that’s because vegetables is not a scientific but a culinary term but we will refer to them as vegetables here.  Now, take tomatoes, for example.   Tomatoes are reported to contain around 4,000 phytonutrients, plant chemicals which pack powerful health properties. In addition to having a powerful antioxidant profile, a tomato stores a lot of other good stuff in 26 calories: fiber, vitamin A and C, a little protein, a bit of vitamin B6, riboflavin, niacin, and even a pinch of the minerals: zinc, iron, magnesium, manganese, and copper. It is even low in sodium and high in potassium. Always try to provide a range of colors as each color carries a different set of nutrients.    (Please refer to our list of vegetables in Appendix B).   Within this category, we should also included edible flowers like squash, pumpkin, day lilies, dandelions, marigolds, hibiscus, chamomile, etc. (Please refer to Appendix C for our list of edible flowers).

20% of total diet should be fresh FRUITS 

 ‘An apple a day keeps the doctor away’ we were told when children, and truer words have yet to be written in terms of nutrition for birds.  Fruits are not just sugar and water as we used to think years ago.  They are full of vitamins and phytonutrientsThe best fruits are those where the color extends throughout the 900011
 FoodCollection fruit like berries, which contain the most nutritional benefit.   But to continue using the example of apples, although I don’t give them to my birds every day, they do get them very often because apples are rich in fiber and low in calories; they are full of pectin, which is not only an excellent digestion aid but also lowers cholesterol; they help stabilize blood sugar; have anti-cancer properties from all the antioxidants and, very important for parrots, they have quercetin, which has anti-inflammatory and anti-tumor properties, repairs small blood vessel damage and it blocks an enzyme that allows the accumulation of sorbitol, linked to kidney damage and high uric acid levels.    And to put the icing on the cake, they have vitamins, as well!  Plus, birds love fruits.  I have yet to meet a bird which does not like apples, red papayas, grapes or cherries.  But don’t stop with these four, the more variety your bird eats, the better for him.  There is such a huge smorgasbord of them available nowadays and every single one should be offered to your bird.  And just because a fruit is not palatable to us, it does not mean that it will not be to them.  For one thing, all our fruits have been in one way or another engineered to be more succulent, sweeter, bigger and better colored to the point that they resemble only vaguely their wild ancestors.  Birds in the wild eat all kinds of fruits that humans would never even consider eating.  I have a couple of birds that eat fresh cranberries (very good for their kidneys, always a weak point for pet birds) and I don’t know a single human being who finds them tasty. (Please refer to Appendix D for our list of fruits).

15% OF TOTAL DIET SHOULD BE TUBERS, LEGUMES AND GRAINS

The function of this category is to provide fiber for digestion and complex carbohydrates for energy but they are also quite starchy and can contribute to obesity in captive birds, thus the low percentage of them in the diet.  Free flying birds that don’t live in cages can have a bit more than that.  The guardian would have to determine the quantity they can eat based on how active the bird is.

Tubers are actually enlarged underground stems used by the plant as storage.  They are also called root vegetables and some examples are potatoes, yams, yucca, water chestnuts, malanga, etc.  They should all be given to the birds thoroughly cooked, whether boiled or baked in the skin and offered sparingly due to their high starch content and because, in reality, they are not part of the natural diet of any pet bird (there are very few species of birds that actually dig in the ground to eat tubers).

The notable exception in this category is the sweet potato which is one of the best vegetables in terms of avian nutrition and can be fed in larger quantities.  They are an excellent source of protein, fiber, beta carotene, vitamin C, folate and calcium. Some people give them raw to their birds (my birds will only eat them cooked, though).  Please note that yams are not the same as sweet potatoes; yams come from Africa instead of South America, and they don’t have the same nutritional value.  Try giving them all-red, blue and purple potatoes for a change of pace.   Please refer to Appendix E for a list of edible tubers. 

  Legumes (also known as pulses) are dry fruits that develop in a pod, like peas, beans, lentils and peanuts (this is correct, peanuts are not nuts, they are legumes which pods never open up on their own).  They are rich in fiber and iron but they are also high in protein.  That is the reason why they need to be given sparingly and some of them not at all, like the soybean.  Soybeans are not only not part of the natural diet of any of our pet bird species, they are not part of any known bird’s natural diet.  They  have a very high protein content ( a no-no for any bird food); a chemical that mimics very closely the effect of estrogen (a feminine hormone –not the healthiest thing for a bird!); the highest levels of all legumes of phytic acid (an anti-nutrient that it’s believed to block the absorption of certain minerals, including magnesium, calcium, iron and zinc); digestive enzyme-inhibitors (the body needs beneficial enzymes to properly process food); hemagglutinin (a clot-promoting substance which causes red blood cells to clump together and not be able to properly absorb oxygen for distribution to the body's tissues); and they also have one of the highest percentages of contamination by pesticides of any of the foods we eat.  New Zealand parrot breeders reported a high incidence of infertility, goiter, beak and bone deformities, immune system deficiency and early sexual maturation in birds fed soy products.  I do not recommend giving soy beans or any product made with soy to birds.  Please refer to Appendix F for a list of legumes. 

Wild rice The name grain comes from a latin word (granum) which means seed.  And that is what grains are, seeds or fruits (as in the case of corn) that normally but not always come from grasses.   Commercially, there are whole grains and processed grains (as in rolled oats or flour) but for avian diet purposes, it’s best to use only whole because in their ‘natural’ form, whole grains are "packages" of nutrients, phyto-protective components and fiber which, together, work far better than one of them alone or even all of them consumed separately.  Whole grains are also called berries or groats.   They are high in fiber and nutrients, low in fat and very inexpensive.   Examples of grains are wheat, oat, spelt and all rices.   Whole grains contain fiber, B-vitamins, vitamin E, phytonutrients, magnesium, and selenium, which may offer antioxidant protection and help lower blood cholesterol levels.  They are good for cardio-vascular health, stabilizing blood sugar and insulin levels, and overall digestive health but grains are low in the amino acids lysine and methionine which are necessary for good health (quinoa being the exception and why it should always be fed to birds).    Please refer to our Appendix G for a list of grains. 

10% OF TOTAL DIET SHOULD BE NUTS AND/OR SEEDS

And here comes the difficult part for most bird guardians.  Only ten percent?!   How could it be only ten percent when most of the commercial bird diets touted as ‘complete’ out there are mostly all seeds and nuts?   The answer to this question is anybody’s guess but I suspect it has to do with the fact that most avian diets are based on chicken nutrition or the diets of species of birds that have been kept as pets for hundreds of years like canaries, finches and cardinals, all of them natural seed eaters.   The pet parrot boom is a relatively new phenomenon and, most likely, manufacturers rushed to put together a product they could sell without actually doing a whole lot of research about it.  It could also have to do with what provides the largest amount of returns on investments: seeds are very cheap when bought in bulk and can be resold for many, many times their cost.   Seeds and nuts are also the easiest product to package and market, they are self-contained and have a long shelf life.  Let’s face it, a diet that consists mostly of fresh plant material is very hard to package and ship and would have an incredibly short shelf life which would make the products very expensive.  And birds do love those seeds!

Seeds are not bad per se and there are many different kinds.  Flower seeds are usually higher in oil (sunflower, safflower, hemp, rape, etc), while cereal seeds (canary grass, millet, palmer grass) are lower, most of them are usually put under the ‘grain’ category  and that’s where we’ll deal with them.  In this chapter, we will cover only flower seeds although we are including canary seed and millet for practical purposes and I remind you that this piece is not meant for natural seed eaters as finches, canaries, cardinals, doves, etc but for psittacines which are not, never have been and never will be natural seed eaters.  Seeds are a reliable source of protein and, as a treat or a small part of their diet they are acceptable.  Parrots in the wild consume seed on a regular basis but the seeds they eat are not that abundant and they are mostly green.  A green seed is a seed that is not quite mature and still inside a fruit.  This is not the kind of seed found in commercial bird seed mixes.  It’s the all-seed or the mostly-seed diet that are killers.  The excess of protein destroys their livers and kidneys and create all kinds of health problems derived from malnutrition: obesity, vitamin deficiencies, fatty liver, gout, rickets, goiter, anemia, respiratory infections, sinusitis, seizures and egg-binding to name a few.   One of the most popular seeds for parrots are sunflowers and while unsalted, human grade can be used sparingly as a treat or a training tool, as a staple, they are much too high in fat (47 to 49%!) and deficient in lysine, which is essential for plumage development.  Depending on the species, this ten percent could be increased to fifteen or even twenty (for granivores like cockatiels or other birds during breeding season), used only as treats (eclectus) or never be fed (lorikeets and lorries).   Please refer to our Appendix H for a list of seeds. 

Nuts, on the other hand, if fed in a measured manner, are not bad at all for the simple reason that although they are also high in fat, they are bad cholesterol-free and contain unsaturated fats for a healthy cardio-vascular system.  Nuts also provide magnesium, which helps maintain bone structure; and chromium, which helps to ensure proper insulin function.  And, as they are nutrient-dense, birds feel full with a lesser quantity.

They contain zinc for growth and wound healing, and manganese, which protects against free radicals.  All nuts are a good source of vitamin E, an important antioxidant and, like all plant foods, they are high in fiber and phytochemicals—both of which help protect against cancer and other chronic diseases.   The nuts category encompasses some foods that aren't true nuts but have been given honorary status due to their similar nutritional qualities like the Brazil nut, and the cashew (both technically seeds).   Please refer to our Appendix I for a list of nuts.
 

5% OF TOTAL DIET SHOULD BE ANIMAL PROTEIN

Animal protein includes eggs, worms, larvae and meat. Examples are hard-boiled or scrambled eggs, egg biscuits, wax moth and lesser bee moth larvae, earthworms, mulberry silk worms, night-crawlers and chicken legs.   Mealworms are too high in fat while low in protein so they are not recommended.  Beef and pork should never be offered due to their high cholesterol and fat content.   And, all worms and insects should be acquired from commercial, reputable sources, never from one’s own garden or backyard.  For one thing one never knows what they have been exposed to in terms of chemicals and, for another, they could be harboring bacteria.

Although protein is not the only benefit of these foods because  worms and larvae also have calcium, phosphorus and carbohydrates, in truth, they are mostly protein and, as all our pet birds get too much protein to begin with, this percentage needs to be adjusted very carefully and on a bird-by-bird basis taking into consideration not only the species but also the level of activity the bird has.   Personally, I only feed my psittacines a very, very small portion of hard boiled or scrambled egg once a month in the winter and twice a month during breeding season and, if scrambled,  always with a green chopped in it.   I never feed any larva or worms,  I couldn’t stand the thought of an animal being eaten alive.  And they get a small chicken leg bone, with the meat all stripped out, once a year for their birthday which is celebrated for everybody on the same day.  Some of them love them, some will not touch them.   

This concludes the first part of our Avian Diet.  We hope you found it useful.  There will be a second piece where we will deal with supplements; cooked versus raw food; packaged food like pellets, strategies to convert a seed-junkie, recipes, etc.

Written by:  Beatriz Cazeneuve

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