Parrots in their natural environment utilise a very wide variety of plants throughout the year, ingesting fruit, seeds, berries, leaves, buds and roots. There are a few exceptions, such as the nectar-eating lorikeets.
There is a common misconception that parrots can survive on a diet of sunflower seeds and peanuts. This diet is deficient in at least 32 nutrients, including vitamins (B vitamins, biotin, vitamin D3, vitamin K, folic acid and the vitamin A precursor, beta-carotene), minerals (calcium and phosphorus), trace elements (selenium, copper, iron, zinc and iodine), protein, fibre and omega 3 fatty acids. Raw seeds and peanuts can also carry fungi which can cause life-threatening disease in your birds.
Just like people, parrots would rather eat what tastes good than what is healthy for them. Think of these fatty seeds as ‘birdie chocolate’. As it is not possible to offer captive parrots the variety of food that they would eat in the wild, pelleted diets have been developed to meet their basic nutritional needs.
It is recommended that approximately 60% of the parrot’s diet should be a formulated product, with the addition of vegetables, fruit and a limited amount of high-quality seeds and nuts. Certain species have more specialised requirements – the large macaws, for example, need more fat in their diet, which can be achieved by the addition of tree nuts. Eclectus parrots have increased vitamin A requirements and should have a minimal amount of seed in their diet. They may also be sensitive to colourants and preservatives in the formulated diet. Specialised fluid diets are available for the nectar-eating lorikeets. Daily access to unfiltered sunlight is also important for effective calcium metabolism and feather health.
Healthy fruit and veg
The majority of fruit and vegetables are safe and healthy for birds to eat. The major exceptions are avocado (it can be deadly to parrots even in small amounts) and vegetables in the onion family. Milk products are also not suitable as parrots cannot digest it. Salty, oily or spicy foods should not be fed, as well as anything containing caffeine (coffee, Ceylon tea and some soft drinks) or alcohol.
Common signs of nutritional deficiencies in parrots:
- Overgrowth and poor quality of the beak and nails – flaking, chipping and breaking.
- Poor quality feathers – scruffy, inflexible, break easily and abnormal moulting.
- Abnormal feather colour, for example black feathers on green or blue birds or pink feathers on African greys.
- Thickened skin and sores under the feet.
- Sinus problems and swellings on the face, and breathing difficulties.
- Feather plucking.
- Severe cases can have strokes, heart attacks and other life-threatening problems.
The healthy choice
It can take some time and perseverance to convert a parrot to a healthy, balanced diet. Parrots can develop marked preferences for foods of a certain taste, texture or colour, and can be extremely resistant to trying new foodstuffs.
The following tricks can be tried during the conversion process:
- Mix the old and the new food. Gradually, over a few weeks, decrease the amount of the original diet. Tantrum-type behaviour with the bird screaming or throwing food, for example, can be expected.
- Allow the bird to see others eating the new diet.
- Remove all perches except the one by the food bowl, forcing the bird into proximity of the food.
- For flock birds such as cockatiels, place a mirror on the floor and scatter food over it.
- Attempt to hand-feed the new diet as a ‘treat’.
- Moisten the extruded pellets with fruit juice.
- Feed the old diet for 30 minutes, morning and evening, and feed the new diet in between.
- When all else fails, admit the bird to an avian hospital and convert him there. Birds will often more easily accept new food in a novel environment.
- Weigh the bird regularly and return to the original diet if more than 10% of the original body mass is lost.
Reap the rewards
Teaching your parrot to accept a healthy diet is the single most important action that can be taken to keep him healthy in the long term. There are several excellent diets available in South Africa and although they may cost more than a bag of seed, you will reap the rewards by having a happy, healthy companion for many years.
Should you need any further help, contact your avian veterinarian for advice.
Article by: Dr Elliot is from the Bird and Exotic Animal Hospital, Onderstepoort Veterinary Academic Hospital