Most avian veterinarians agree that over 85% of captive birds’ health problems are caused by dietary deficiencies.
Unfortunately, the great majority of captive birds are fed either a 100% seed and/or pellet diet with no fresh produce. There are a few ‘lucky’ ones that get a very small selection of fruits and vegetables and/or healthy people food. The all-seed or all-pellet diet kills them. It’s as simple as that and no two ways about it. And a diet limited to a few extras is simply not enough because, as non-specialized canopy eaters, their natural diet consists of mostly organic raw green vegetable matter. The lack of a large variety of fresh greens, vegetables and fruits creates all kinds of health problems like bad plumage, obesity, rickets, respiratory infections, propensity to fungal infection and parasitic infestation, and a low immune system.
Converting your bird to a healthy diet is the single, most important step in giving your bird a long and happy life.
This chapter of our diet section will deal with converting a seed junkie to gloop and/or pellets, and adding fresh fruits, vegetables and greens to their diet. This is not an impossible task and all it requires is time, patience, persistence and a bit of forethought.
Converting to gloop
This is a proven method and there is nothing to it. And I do mean nothing to it. All birds like gloop. It’s not only that they like the taste and texture of the concoction, it’s also that it’s offered warm which they associate with parent feeding. Warm food is comfort food for them.
You should always make sure that the bird is in good health and of normal weight before you start because you can’t afford for a sick or an under-weight bird to go hungry. Their metabolisms are too fast and their weight would plummet too easily.
All you need to do is:
- The evening before you start, take the seeds away from them once the sun sets
- In the morning, put warm (be careful that it feels lukewarm to the touch and not hot) first stage transition gloop on a piece of white paper at the bottom of the cage (if the species is a ground feeding one –and most pet species of psittacines are, at least, partial ground feeders- if not, put it in a bowl that has a wide mouth) and sprinkle a few of his favorite seeds on it.
- In the evening of the same day, take the gloop away and give the bird a small portion of seeds for dinner (to give you an idea, you would feed a parakeet a level teaspoonful of seeds; a cockatiel would get a shallow tablespoon; an Amazon or Gray, about 1/5 of a cup; an umbrella cockatoo; a quarter cup). It is very important that you do not feed the bird more than these quantities because the idea is for the bird not to starve but to be hungry in the morning so he will start eating the gloop. If you feed him too much, he won’t feel the need to try it and the whole exercise will be futile.
- Continue doing this until you see that the bird is eating the gloop (it has never taken me longer than a week to get to this point and, on several occasions just a couple of days) and once he is, eliminate the sprinkled seeds and offer only the gloop
- Once he is eating it regularly, start him on the second stage gloop; and, once he is eating this one regularly, the third stage gloop will be a breeze and you can already start experimenting with flavors and recipes.
Variety of flavors is very important because parrots get tired of the same food every day so, in order to maintain his interest, you will need to provide him with variety. I alternate spicy and sweet of different flavors every day of the week plus I always try to come up with a different recipe every now and then just to surprise them and keep their interest alive. You will find the gloop basic recipe and some examples of different flavors in our recipe section.
Converting to pellets
Some clarifications first:
- Always make sure the bird is healthy and in good weight before you start.
- Do your research and make a decision on the type of pellet you want to introduce your bird to. There is a wide range of options: from all organic and natural to artificially colored and flavored (which I don’t recommend as a staple but which I admit to offer as a special treat, on occasion).
- Choose the appropriate size pellet for your bird and, if there is a species specific one, consider that one first as every species has different dietary needs and there is no one pellet that could feed a number of species.
- There are species that do better on seeds than pellets, for example: natural seed eaters like canaries and finches, and certain psittacines like Australian budgies. There are also species that do better with a combination of seeds and pellets like cockatiels, parrotlets and lovebirds so do thorough research before you make a final decision.
- I’ve never converted a bird to just pellets for the simple reason that I believe that gloop, fresh produce and a small portion of seeds combined with pellets is healthier for them.
- There are several different methods and, if one doesn’t work, don’t despair, just try another one. And, if every method fails, try the tricks. But, above all, do not give up. Eventually, you will prevail.
- There are two ways of making sure the bird is indeed eating the pellets: one is to see the bird consuming them and, two, is to notice the change in his droppings as the color goes from green to brownish, or whatever the color of the pellet.
Mixing pellets with seeds method: There are two ways of doing this method: the gradual way and the 50/50 way. With the gradual way you start by replacing 10% of the seed with pellets for the first week and increase the percentage by another 10% each week until the food is all pellets. With the 50/50 way, you simply replace half the seeds with pellets and continue doing so until the bird is eating them. At this point, and only if your bird belongs to a species that benefits from all pellets and not one that requires half pellets/half seeds, replace all the seeds with pellets and offer them for breakfast and dinner.
Afternoon/evening switch method: Again, two ways of doing this method: the 30 minute morning and evening switch; and the morning and evening switch. In the first one, you feed seeds for only 30 minutes in the morning and replace them with pellets for rest of day, then feed seeds again for another 30 minutes at sunset until the bird is eating the pellets during the day when you would start feeding just pellets for breakfast and dinner. And, in the second one, you simply give him all pellets in the morning and just leave them there until the evening when you would offer a small portion of seeds for dinner until he starts eating the pellets during the day when you would discontinue the seeds at night. Personally, I don’t think the first one is effective because birds can eat enough seeds in thirty minutes to fill themselves up, especially if they figured out that they will be take away from them.
48 hours method: In this method, you simply offer pellets for 48 hours and, if the bird doesn’t start eating them, switch him back to seeds for another 48 hours, then pellets again and so on and so forth until the bird is eating pellets. Personally, I don’t like this method. I think it’s unnecessarily risky.
- Change the placement of the food. Use a bowl and/or put the pellets on a flat surface at the bottom of the cage. Some birds prefer eating from the highest bowl first, and others prefer eating from a bowl at the bottom.
- Have the bird eating next to another one that is already on pellets. Birds learn from other birds.
- If your bird likes certain fruits or vegetables, you can try sprinkling some seed on them (sticky fruit is best for this like bananas or ripe peaches). Then try sprinkling pellets.
- Grind the pellets in a blender, add some water or juice and mix some seeds into this mash. The bird will have to go through the mash to get the seeds and will taste it in the process. This works well with smaller species such as budgies, lovebirds and cockatiels but I don’t like the idea of getting them used to something you will not be able or willing to provide on a permanent basis.
- Feed him the pellets when the bird is outside of the cage as a treat.
- Mix pellets with shredded newspaper, small toys, sticks anything that he might consider fun to play with.
- Remove all perches from the cage so the bird has to use the border of the food bowl to perch.
- Try a different, more attractive brand like the fruity ones. Once you get him used to eating pellets, you can always switch him to a healthier one.
- Use a mirror as a food dish and put the pellets right on top of it.
Converting to fresh produce
First Step: Establish the conditioned response
All altricial birds, and psittaforms in particular, learn very early in life what is safe to eat and what is not by imitating their parents throughout the weaning process. Unfortunately for us, bird guardians, most breeders wean to just seeds because it’s easy, fast and cheap creating a huge problem for the bird guardian because, in terms of diet, what is not offered at a very early age becomes ‘bad’ food in their eyes and, in order to convince them to try new foods (especially something that looks as different as a piece of fruit or a leafy green to a seed), you need to establish a conditioned response in them. This is done by your eating your bird’s food at the same time he eats it.
You start by eating seeds or nuts with your bird every morning. Stand next to him and eating one seed yourself first, then offer one to him while repeating a sentence that will become the ‘mantra’ of food conversion. I say: ‘Mmmmm, it’s good’. I also usually tell them the name of whatever it is I am eating like ‘Mmmm, it’s good. Apple. Apple is good’. In the case of seeds, I use the word ‘peanuts’ to designate all seeds. These are just examples, of course, you can use any sentence you like only you need to use always the same words and the same tone of voice so the bird starts to make the connection that whenever he hears this phrase, it means whatever is being offered to him is good, safe food to eat. And you start by using seeds and/or nuts because this is something the bird has been eating since he was weaned and already knows it’s good.
This sharing breakfast with your bird should be done, if at all possible, throughout his entire life. It’s best to keep the conditioned response always ‘on’ (parrots have excellent memories but they do exchange one behavior for another unless the first one is repeated regularly) and it’s needed to continuously introduce new foods. It’s also a bonding and flocking behavior and very beneficial for the bird from an emotional point of view.
Second Step: Start the diversification
Once the bird knows the routine and eagerly waits his turn for the seed, you go on to the next step: eat a favorite treat with him. If you are lucky enough to have a bird that already eats a few fruits and/or vegetables, use these but if the bird is a complete seed junkie and eats no fresh produce whatsoever, start by eating and offering a piece of birdy bread or muffin (you can substitute with a good quality multigrain bread –organic is better- or cracker) then move on to apples, corn on the cob, red papaya, grapes, bananas, baked sweet potatoes and watermelon (I don’t know of a single bird which does not like these).
This step can take the longest but you need to persevere and keep on trying day after day after day until he tastes the new food (I sometimes use their upper mandible as a scoop and ‘hook’ a bit of food in it so it’s easier for them to taste it). Eventually, he will put his tongue out and touch the tip of it to the new food. Then he will taste the tiniest piece and the rest will be history, as they say.
Third step: Continuous expansion
I know that this might seem redundant to most bird guardians but it’s important to reiterate it: parrots need a large variety of foods so this step should never end. The more variety he eats, the healthier he’ll be. If you persevere, in six months time, your bird will be eating a reasonable variety of fresh fruits and vegetables. Greens take longer, and the biggest obstacle is that most of the ones that are good for them are simply not palatable to us (like raw collard greens or kale) but, if it’s any consolation, you do get used to eating all kinds of stuff that you never ever thought you would and, what’s good for them is also good for you.
One very important point to make here is that it’s no use trying to fool them by pretending to eat. These are highly intelligent birds that learn by imitation and they are, therefore, masters of observation so they know if you are faking it. You’ll need to chew, swallow and finish the entire portion every single morning. No picnic, granted but the reward is a healthy bird, and a healthy bird is a happy one.
Written by: Beatriz Cazeneuve