Feeding a bird an adequate diet is one of the most important responsibilities of a bird guardian and one of the most difficult ones to fulfill.
Most of our birds would come to us as inveterate seed junkies and, in order for us to convert them to healthier food, we need to try every trick in the book. Two of the most useful ‘tricks’ are a feeding schedule and presentation. There is also a section about preparation included which is not meant to stimulate them to eat the produce but for their own safety.
Birds in the wild feed throughout the day but that’s because they need to constantly forage in order to find enough food to survive. Birds in captivity get their food ‘on a silver platter’ eliminating the need to search for it so we need to feed them when they are at their hungriest.
Birds are intensely photosensitive and, as most captive birds are diurnal, they wake up at dawn and go to sleep at dusk, so the two most important feedings should take place early in the morning and in the evening, when the sun starts to set. Specific times of doing this vary during the year as the seasons change so, for a bird guardian, there is no ‘set’ schedule and his or her life must, by necessity, revolve around the birds’ needs. For practical purposes, we will refer to the morning feeding as breakfast and the evening one as dinner.
Not all species eat at the same time, some of them are very early feeders (all passerines –canaries, finches, cardinals-, columbines –doves, pigeons- and galliforms –chickens, quails), some don’t start to eat that very early (most psittacines), and some are late risers and feeders (macaws) but they all eat a big meal in the morning, forage during the day except for the time when they nap (usually from noon to 2:00 pm) and then have a good dinner when the sun starts to set, right before they get ready to go to sleep. It is, therefore, healthier for them if we follow their natural schedule and, it is also useful to us because they are more likely to be willing to try new foods when they are at their hungriest.
I believe that a very large selection of food offered at the same time is actually detrimental to them because they end up eating only the handful of things they prefer. Whereas, if we just offer them one single vegetable, one single fruit and one single leafy green, they will eat most of them out of sheer necessity ensuring, thus, a well rounded diet. Therefore, breakfast should consist of mostly fresh produce: a different fruit, vegetable and leafy green every day of the week and gloop or some other whole grain, rice and vegetable dish. Birdy bread or birdy muffins can be substituted for gloop, but not more often than twice a week because they are higher in carbs and lower in fiber (gloop is made out of whole grains but baked products are made of flours). Please refer to our lists of fruits, vegetables, greens and flowers for reference (http://www.newyorkbirds.net/diet.html) and to our piece on recipes for some good ideas.
Breakfast is actually available to them all day long so they can pick at it at their leisure. Because gloop is cooked, it does not really spoil that easily and will stay fresh the entire day unless it’s very hot and humid in which case it needs to be removed at noon.
Dinner should consist of food with the higher protein content (seeds, nuts and pellets) and should be carefully measured so the bird consumes its portion within a few minutes and nothing remains. No psittacine should ever have free access to seeds, nuts and/or pellets all day long. None of these foods is bad per se but they are all too high in protein and, when the birds are allowed free rein, they will choose to eat them all day long disregarding the healthier produce. This will, inevitably, lead to obesity and liver and/or kidney malfunction.
This section deals mainly with psittacines because passerines, columbines and galliforms are actually quite easy to feed. Even the ones that have never been exposed to any other food but seeds will start eating produce and cooked grains in a short period of time and on their own regardless of presentation or preparation for the simple reason that they are all parent raised. It’s the parrots and parrot-like birds, which are usually handfed and weaned to seeds, that present a definite challenge and that’s why presentation is so important.
There are three main characteristics typical of psittacines that we utilize to our own benefit for food presentation: their attraction to colors, the fact that they will use their beak and taste anything that resembles a toy, and the method they use to feed in the wild (canopy and/or ground feeding).
Birds are very visual and highly attracted to colors and an arrangement of food that presents a visual contrast will appeal to them so always choose a fruit and a veggie of different colors like yellow zucchini and red strawberries or carrots and black grapes or sweet potatoes and blueberries. Aside from the fact that it makes the plate more attractive to them, it also ensures a variety of nutrients as each color means a different predominant vitamin and/or mineral content.
Present them in different shapes: mashed, cubed, sliced, grated, julienne, chunked, whole, as a slaw, etc. In different ways; raw as well as cooked: baked, boiled, grilled, steamed, even sautéed using just the merest touch of olive oil on the skillet, etc. In different ‘containers’ and/or places: on a plate or a white piece of paper, in a bowl, in a paper cup, skewed on a branch or a kabob stick, clipped or tied to the highest point of their housing, etc. remembering that ground feeders will be more attracted to something on the ‘floor’ and that canopy eaters prefer things up high. If you are dealing with a picky eater, make a toy out of them. Birds that would not try a new food will taste and bite into a toy. Any veggie or fruit that has firm flesh can be carved or cut into an attractive shape and made into a toy: like a little man made out of carrot sticks with a potato head, flowers made out of red radishes held together with a string like a lei or a string of red radishes mixed with peas or green beans that can be hung from a swing. Leafy greens are usually accepted easier if dripping wet and put up high (especially for the little ones like keets, tiels, lovebirds, etc.). Larger parrots prefer crunchy greens (like the stalk of the romaine lettuce, Swiss Chard and broccoli) so offer this part first and they will eventually eat the leafy part as well. And don’t forget to season! A splash of olive oil, chopped fresh herbs like oregano or basil and a sprinkle of paprika will make that baked potato more attractive to their eyes and to their palate.
It is also good to offer entire stalks or entire plants whenever possible. Root veggies like beets or carrots can be eaten entirely so don’t throw away those greens, but instead wash them thoroughly and offer the whole thing to them. Entire dandelion plants with the dirt just rinsed off the roots are excellent liver cleansers. Please refer to our list of greens for a larger selection
All wild animals but most especially birds (and most psittacines are only a couple of generations away from their wild-caught ancestors) have very little resistance to exposure to environmental chemicals and what is a safe level for humans is deadly to a bird. Unfortunately, more than four million tons of pesticides are used every year in USA agricultural fields so chemicals are 100% ubiquitous in all our foods.
The sure way to prevent our birds from being exposed to them is to feed them only USDA certified 100% organically grown and an effort should always be made to use as much of it as possible for their food. But fresh organic produce is still very expensive and, even though we have come a long way in the last few years in terms of availability, we still cannot find every single fruit, vegetable and leafy green in the organic section of the supermarket all year round so, for purposes of this article, we will assume that all produce is ‘regular’ and not organically grown.
Not all crops are treated equally when it comes to pesticides, some are safer than others. Below are lists of the most and the least contaminated crops in terms of chemical toxicity compiled by the USDA. I recommend that produce found on the ‘worst’ list is always purchased organically grown or substituted by one from the ‘best’ list properly prepared.
‘Dirtiest’ produce in descending order, number one being the worst:
2. Bell peppers (green and red)
3. Spinach (tied with 2)
4. U.S. grown cherries
6. Mexican grown cantaloupe
10. Green beans
11. Chilean-grown grapes
‘Cleanest’ in descending order, number one being the best:
2. Sweet potatoes
|4. Brussels sprouts
5. Grapes (U.S.)
The most important part of preparation is washing and I cannot stress this enough. Wash, wash, wash and then wash again. Use warm water and soap whenever possible and that means apples, pears, grapes, tomatoes, etc. It doesn’t matter that it is a fruit and that it’s been prepared to be eaten raw, warm water is not going to hurt them at all. I recommend soaking everything except leafy greens in warm water with a good splash of both white vinegar and dish washing liquid for, at least, half an hour. If you can leave it overnight, better still. After you scrub it (I use a sponge on the ones with delicate skin –like pears- and a scrubby on the thicker-skinned ones –like oranges or apples- or the root vegetables -like beets and potatoes), rinse it with a lot of cold water. If you are in a big hurry, peel everything. But try not to do it on a regular basis because, usually, it’s the skin that has the most nutritional value. Vegetables that are waxed before packing (all cucumbers and some zucchini) will need to be peeled. Leafy greens should be separated leaf by leaf and soak in cold water with vinegar and a few drops of dish detergent, then rinsed carefully, leaf by leaf on both sides allowing the water to run as much as possible over them.
Try to offer all vegetables both raw and cooked. Some of them are actually better when cooked (like tomatoes and carrots) but nothing beats a raw veggie for fiber.
When preparing cooked food and adding dried fruits or vegetables to it, please make sure that no chemical preservatives have been used. Read the label and if it mentions ethoxyquin, BHA and/or BHT, any paraben (methylparaben, ethylparaben, propylparaben, butylparaben and hepatylparaben), sodium, potassium or calcium benzoate, sulfur in any form, etc. do not buy it. There are natural preservatives that are not toxic to birds and, although I would much rather not give them anything that it’s not exactly as nature grew it, they are OK if used sparingly. These are all the organic acids like citric, benzoic (sometimes labeled as BA), sorbic, propionic, ascetic and ascorbic plus rosemary oil and all the tocopherols (alpha, beta, delta and gamma).
A word of caution: Although manufactures must, by law, list all the ingredients on the product label, there is a loophole when it comes to imported raw material and the laws of the country of origin so, although we might not see a preservative listed on the label, if the dried fruit came from China, for example, it can have all kinds of nasty stuff in it that will not be listed. Therefore, anything that is supposed to be dried fruit or vegetable but looks palatable and succulent (good color, moisture, pliant texture, aroma, etc) was, without a doubt, treated with a chemical whether it’s listed or not. I recommend buying dry organic fruits and vegetables at least once as a point of reference. Once you see what naturally dried produce looks like, you can never again mistake one with preservatives for it regardless of what the label says or doesn’t say.
Finally, improvise and use your imagination as much as possible. There are lots of things out there that parrots enjoy that are not usually mentioned as part of their diet, such as green coconuts, fresh sugar cane, aloe vera leaves, cactus pears, carambola (star) fruit, and cooking herbs like sweet basil, oregano and thyme. You can offer them pancakes made with organic whole wheat flour and raw grated vegetables browned in a bit of olive oil; ‘spaghetti’ made of the inside of the barely boiled spaghetti squash with a bit of ‘sauce’ made out of canned organic crushed tomatoes simmered with some oregano, pepper, and paprika; stews made out of different kinds of veggies, barley and/or brown rice and other grains.
A well fed parrot is a healthy parrot and a healthy parrot is a happy parrot.
Written by: Beatriz Cazeneuve