Saturday, February 5, 2011

Addended: Parrots and food - what's the "right" answer?

**My addendum to this post comes after another DVM posted about his Eclectus patient. While I do find that working with your bird on diet for a good fit is the ideal approach, I will add some caveats:

1) I feed my birds a predominantly pelleted diet supplemented with table food. They are in excellent health, have beautiful plumage, and seem generally to be happy/healthy birds. Since this works for us, I adhere to the 80/20 rule (or 70/30) - 80% pellets/20% regular food. This is what is currently touted by avian veterinarians. It changes...

2) Monitoring your pet for signs of ill health are crucial and can be an indicator that the diet is not appropriate: signs include picking and feather destruction, dark colored, brittle feathers, overgrowth or very rapid growth of the beak and nails, and being overweight. A healthy bird in good weight should have an easily palpable keel (the "chest bone" that runs down the middl). There should not be plump, round muscle on the side. The muscle should drop away smoothly. Weighing your bird at least once weekly can alert you quickly to illness, as birds will frequently start to lose weight before any other signs of illness are evident. Here is a good place to look at some average weights for different species. Birds, as people, will fluctuate a few grams in their weight, but a loss of 5% or more of body weight is concerning and should warrant a trip to the veterinarian.

3) Read up about the species you choose to own! It is important to know the particulars of each species and dietary recommendations. As I said before, they vary enormously between species. Research research research!

4) Feather picking is not always a sign of boredom. It can also be the first indicator of illness/poor diet. If your bird begins to pick, a trip to the avian veterinarian for a full check-up is in order. If nothing turns up, a behavioral cause should be sought.

I had a request (thank you, Elizabeth) for a post on parrot nutrition. As many of my readers have wound up here due to my title, which isn't really that descriptive, I thought I would oblige my parrot fans. After all, 3 of them run my life.

The question of diet in parrots is an enormously tricky one. The problem arises in that each type of bird whether it be macaw, caique, or African grey represents a different species of psittacine. Where all dogs are dogs regardless of breed, all parrots are not the same. Even within species (like between the Cockatoos), diet requirements can vary enormously.

For instance, macaws need higher fat diets than other parrots. In the wild, they subsist on largely nut based diets. This is especially true for the larger macaws such as Hyacinths. On the other hand, cockatiels in the wild are seed and crop eaters (and can be quite destructive to crops). Some types of Amazons subsist almost entirely on fruit diets. Lorikeets are nectar-drinking birds and require a nectar diet.

With all the diversity, it is no wonder that parrot diet is such a hot topic of debate. The endless argument between seeds, pellets, and table food is an old one in psittacine aviculture. Many believe that seeds are evil and should never be fed to captive parrots. They have a high fat content, some say "empty calories," and overeating of seeds can contribute to severe liver disease, hardening of the arteries, and countless other health problems.

On the other hand, there are pellets. A formulated, pelleted diet dyed with colors (or not, depending on the brand) that is supposed to be good for every type of bird on the bag. My personal bag of Zupreem has an African grey, a conure, and a Macaw depicted on the front. Many believe that pellets are absolutely the right answer.

What it boils down to is that it is very unlikely that a strictly pelleted diet is good for any species of bird. The food companies have produced a mass market product that is probably aimed at somewhere in the middle of most pet bird species. The fat content is probably not enough for macaws, whereas it might be too much for a cockatiel or a budgie. On that same note, it is highly unlikely that an all seed diet is good for any bird (although budgies, parrotlets, and cockatiels seem to do fine on it).

The answer I think lies in common sense and balance, just as it does for human diets. Moderation in all things. It is important to consider first the lifestyle difference between a captive parrot (very sedentary) and a wild parrot (spending > 80% of the day flying, scavenging, and foraging for food). Captive parrots have food presented to them in a bowl and have access at all times. Wild parrots spend most of the day finding food.

One suggestion to increase your parrots activity level, increase his interest in his surroundings, and encourage natural behaviors is to hide the food. This involves simply wrapping pellets and other food items (seeds, Nutriberries, etc) in newspaper, paper towels, or other easily shredded material, and hiding it around the bird's cage. This stimulates natural foraging instincts, cuts down significantly on self-mutilation due to boredom, and encourages your parrot to work for his food.

The next suggestion is variety, variety, variety. Instead of feeding just pellets or just seeds, a mixture of both, offered at different times throughout the day can keep your parrot interested and healthy. A small bowl of healthy seed "treats" at night can become something to which they look forward (because they will learn and start to expect it!). Safflower seeds, hulled peanuts, almonds, and cashews can all make up this "treat" bowl.

Finally, add "people" food, lots of it. Stay away from the big no-nos such as avocado, chocolate, caffeine, and alcohol (although I will say that with the exception of avocado, my birds have had all of those at one time or another) and choose healthily - dark, leafy greens like kale and broccoli, deep orange and red vegetables, noodles, eggs (cooked only), and the like. It amps up your bird's interest and quality of life if they can eat when you are eating and encourages flock behavior.

What it boils down to is that no one knows the "right" answer to parrot diets, just like no one knows the "right" answer totally to dog, cat, or human diets. Do what works for you and your bird! No 2 birds, even within the same species, are alike. Finding the right balance between pellets, seeds, and table food can be difficult, but it can be done.


Fi from Four Paws and Whiskers said...

Nothing to do with parrots, but many congratulations on your pregnancy and maybe it is why you were feeling so frustrated with work lately :)

J.C. Burcham, DVM said...

You're right, there is no one "right" food for all parrots. However, a case I saw today reminds me that there is still so much mis-information out there. My patient today was a 1-year old male Eclectus who has been feed primarily a wonderful variety of healthy table food--and yet his feathers are extremely dull and brittle. I hope I can post a follow-up in several months after the bird has been eating 80% Harrison's Bird Diet High Potency formula, because I truly think a formulated diet is far better than a home-made diet. (The analogy I use is dog owners who cook their own pets' food but don't have it reviewed by a veterinary nutritionist and therefore don't know if it's really balanced...but it SEEMS like it must be right because it has a little of everything.) In the meantime, we're running some blood work to look for other underlying causes. I highly recommend HBD to the majority of my avian patients.

Mary said...

Great post! I can particularly relate to the part where you say your parrots rule your life:) Mine are WAY more maintenance than my two 70lb+ dogs!

Mine are both on Zupreem natural pellets and seem to be doing fine. I used to work for an avian vet, so I learned a lot more than I would have as just a parrot enthusiast.

My cockatiel is at least 11-years old and my conure is 10. My conure went through a feather-picking phase, but miraculously stopped when we adopted our first dog-thus, not nutrition related. I take them to the vet every year and I am very conscious that none of my pets be overweight, cockatiel or American bulldog. I do worry about my cockatiel with her incessant egg-laying, but she has a cuttlebone and a mineral block to supplement her calcium levels. She is a picky eater. I transitioned her to from seed to pellets around eight years go, but she doesn't go for human food unless it's crackers or popcorn.

My conure loves carrots and fruit, but not the leafy greens. His favorite is Cool Whip. He actually recognizes the sound of the container opening. I have mixed medication with a tiny bit to help him get it down. I know, I'm a terrible bird mom :/

Mary said...

I forgot to add that growing up I had parakeets that lived almost 10 years on an exclusive seed diet. It does kind of make you wonder about nutrition!

The Homeless Parrot said...

Thank you, J.C. for those comments. I added an addendum that hopefully will clarify. I like HBD personally, but I like the colors in Zupreem. I know this is very controversial (the dyes, etc) - but my birds have strong feelings about the different colors, so I have kept the colored pellets for them.

The Homeless Parrot said...

Mary, I have seen 'tiels, parakeets, and parrotlets live long lives on seed based diets. They have such high metabolisms that I think they can handle the "trashy" diet well!

J.C. Burcham, DVM said...

Thanks for the additional information, well said!

Elizabeth said...

Your reference to feather picking brought up a question. One of my cockatiels has a spot on his back that he picks at often. He doesn't remove the feathers; he just preens this one area while squeaking in pain. It used to only occur for about a month every year since 2003. The vet said it's an irritated follicle. But the spot has been giving him trouble for several months now.

I thought it might be related to humidity so I've been running two humidifiers (Utah is extremely dry). That helps but it doesn't solve the problem. Could this be diet related? Audrey is 22 and prefers seed and millet to the table food that I offer him.

Beloved Parrot said...

Thanks for the insights about parrot diets -- there's just no end to what we still don't know.

And thanks, too, for finally admitting that the parrots run your life -- as they do all of ours.

The Great Parrot Takeover is coming! ;-)