Health & Nutrition
Fats, Oils and Your Bird
This is a cockatiel-specific version of the fats article.
Fat is an essential part of our birds' diet, but it's very high in calories so we have to be careful about the amount that our birds eat. Veterinarians report that obesity and the related problems of atherosclerosis and fatty liver disease are common health issues in pet birds, and cockatiels are one of the species that is most prone to these problems . An efficient metabolism helps animals survive in an arid environment with relatively sparse food supplies (like the Outback), but it can lead to weight gain in "easy living" situations where food is plentiful. Eating an excessive amounts of fat will cause problems, so it's good to pay some attention to the quality and quantity of our birds' fat intake.
The diet of wild cockatiels mostly consists of grass seed, which is expected to have a nutritional profile similar to grains (which are lower in fat and calories than oil seeds). A study on wild cockatiels in an agricultural district found that they preferred sorghum (a grain) over grass seed, and they also preferred sorghum over sunflower (an oil seed) .
For a number of years now, a variety of sources have encouraged us to feed oil to our birds, especially red palm oil and more recently coconut oil. But is this really a good idea? I think that the answer is no in most cases.
All oils are a processed food that has less nutritional value than the original food that the oil came from. Oil is 100% fat; it's expected that some of the vitamins and minerals will be squeezed out of the original plant along with the oil, but most of the nutrients get left behind. Eating the whole seed or nut will provide fewer fat calories and more vitamins, minerals and other nutrients than eating the oil from that seed or nut. It's more desirable to feed the seed or nut instead of the oil.
There are different types of fat and they aren't all created equal, so it's important to understand the differences between them. There are four basic types of fatty acids: the Omega 3 fats and Omega 6 fats which are polyunsaturated, the Omega 9 fats which are monounsaturated, and the saturated fats which don't have an Omega number. There are several different subtypes in each of these groups. Fats can come from plant sources (which do not contain cholesterol) or from animal sources (which do contain cholesterol).
The Omega 3 and Omega 6 fats are essential nutrients, because the body requires them for normal functioning and can't manufacture them. The Omega 9 and the saturated fats are not essential nutrients, because the body can manufacture all that it needs. Eating saturated fat is generally considered to be unhealthy for humans because of the role it plays in heart disease, while the Omega types are all considered to be healthy in sensible amounts. But the scientific community is starting to question the assumption that saturated fat is always bad and the others are always good, and it's likely that reality will turn out to be more complicated than that.
Omega 6 fats are plentiful in seeds, nuts and grains, and most people and their pets have no trouble getting more than they need of these fats. Omega 3 fats are much more difficult to obtain in the modern diet, so this is the fat that needs some attention. It appears that having enough Omega 3 in the diet helps prevent fatty liver disease and a variety of other health problems. A study on cockatiels found that their blood profile improved when the diet was supplemented with Omega 3 fats . Since Omega 9 and saturated fat are nonessential, there's no reason to be concerned about them apart from keeping the consumption rate down to a healthy level.
Natural foods usually contain all four different types of fat, but the percentage of each type varies from one food to another and there's usually one particular type of fat that predominates. The majority of plant foods contain mostly polyunsaturated fats, but there are some exceptions: for example avocado and olive contain mostly monounsaturated fat, while palm oil and coconut oil contain mostly saturated fat. Animal sources (meat, eggs, dairy) contain mostly saturated fat.
The type of fat that birds eat in the wild will depend on their diet. A species that eats a lot of insects will have a significant amount of saturated fat and cholesterol in its natural diet. But species that eat mostly plant foods (including parrots) will get most of their fat calories from the Omega 3 and 6 fats, since these are the main fats in most plants. If we are going to use fat supplementation in our birds' diet, it makes sense to do it using a type of fat that they need and are adapted to, rather than an unnecessary fat that they would not normally eat. Coconut oil is 90% saturated fat and palm oil is about 50% saturated fat, so they're pretty far removed from our birds' natural eating habits and therefore I don't consider them to be desirable oils to feed to birds. Coconut oil is currently being promoted as a "miracle food" for humans, but it appears that the claims are vastly overblown. A study on African grey parrots found that a diet rich in saturated fat caused undesirable changes in their blood chemistry .
That leaves the Omega 3 fats, which are generally hard to obtain in the diet. Most seeds, grains and nuts are excellent sources of Omega 6 but poor sources of Omega 3. Many vegetables have a nice percentage of Omega 3 fat, but it's hard to get enough Omega 3 from this source most vegetables are low in total fat. There are a few seeds that are high in Omega 3 fats, including flax, chia and perilla. Flax is the only one of them that is commonly fed to pet birds, and all of these are small seeds that might not interest a larger bird. But if your bird won't eat the seeds, it's possible to buy the oil, and it might make sense to feed a little Omega 3-rich oil to your bird. Kiwi fruit seed is also very high in Omega 3, so if your bird likes to eat kiwi fruit, there's a nice little bonus in the seeds. Some fruit seeds are toxic, so it's important to know your seed. But kiwi seed is safe and beneficial.
Hemp seed is also a useful source of Omega 3, and it's frequently fed to pet birds. The percentage of Omega 3 fats isn't as high as the other seeds mentioned above, but the amount is significant and it will make a better contribution to the diet than a seed that has a low percentage of Omega 3. Hemp also contains a substantial amount of high-quality protein . It's an oil seed which means that it's high in calories, so keep the amount moderate.
Fish oil and several other types of oil from aquatic sources are high in Omega 3. The Omega 3 fats in fish oil aren't the same kind that's found in plant sources however. Fish oil contains two types called EPA and DHA, while the type found in plants is called ALA. Fish oil is best for humans because they can utilize EPA and DHA better than ALA, but birds don't have this problem and do fine with ALA. Fish oil isn't currently recommended for pet birds due to a lack of information on how well they can use it; there have been more studies on birds and ALA so this is understood a lot better. However a study on cockatiels found that on a short term basis they did well on a diet supplemented with fish oil .
Pellets that have been professionally formulated to provide balanced nutrition will provide appropriate amounts of Omega 3 and 6 fats. The major 'conventional' pellet brands are all formulated for nutritional completeness, including Zupreem, Roudybush, Mazuri, Tropican, and Kaytee. Lafeber's Nutriberries are nutritionally equivalent to pellets, and Harrisons is the only organic pellet that is professionally formulated. There's a high probability that the other organic brands won't deliver the nutrients that you're looking for.
There are some parrot species (macaws, Amazons, African greys) that eat palm fruit in the wild, and moderate amounts of red palm oil might be appropriate for them since it is part of their natural diet and they are adapted to it. Some of the large cockatoos eat young coconut in the wild, but it has much less fat than mature coconut . Wild cockatiels aren't known to eat anything that would have a fatty acid profile remotely similar to red palm oil or coconut oil. RPO has a high level of palmitic acid, which is associated with heart disease in humans. Keep in mind that wild birds have a much higher activity level than captive birds, and the level of fat consumption that's appropriate for wild birds is not appropriate for pets.
Too much of any kind of fat is likely to have a negative effect on your bird's health, even if it's the desirable Omega 3 fats. When you're increasing the amount of Omega 3 fat in your bird's diet, it would be best to reduce the amount of other fats at the same time so that the total amount of fat calories in your bird's diet stays about the same.
Fat is essential and healthy in appropriate amounts. But it's easy to get too much, so the situation calls for smart management, not "fats are healthy, yay let's eat some". There's no risk of not getting enough fat if the bird is eating an appropriate diet, so there's no need to intentionally encourage fat consumption. Use good sense and moderation to strike a healthy balance among all the foods your bird eats.
1. Beaufrere et al., Prevalence of and risk factors associated with atherosclerosis in psittacine birds, Journal of the American Veterinary Medical Association, 2013 http://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/23725433
2. Jones, Feeding Ecology of the Cockatiel, Nymphicus-Hollandicus, in a Grain-Growing Area, Australian Wildlife Research, 1987 http://www.publish.csiro.au/paper/WR9870105.htm
3. Heinze et al, Effect of dietary omega-3 fatty acids on red blood cell lipid composition and plasma metabolites in the cockatiel, Nymphicus hollandicus, Journal of Animal Science, 2011 https://dl.sciencesocieties.org/publications/jas/abstracts/90/9/3068
4. Bavelaar and Beynen, Influence of Amount and Type of Dietary Fat on Plasma Cholesterol Concentrations in African Grey Parrots, The International Journal of Applied Research in Veterinary Medicine, 2003 http://www.jarvm.com/articles/Vol1Iss1/BAVELJVM.htm
5. Callaway, Hempseed as a nutritional resource: An overview, Euphytica, 2004 http://www.fao.org/fsnforum/sites/default/files/resources/Hempseed as a nutritional resource- An overview.pdf
6. Coco Jack website, https://www.coco-jack.com/pages/health-benefits-of-young-thai-coconuts Look for the table at the bottom comparing young coconut to mature. Don't take the marketing hype about marvelous health benefits too seriously.
Copyright 2016 Carolyn Tielfan all rights reserved