Health & Nutrition
The Best Diet for Cockatiels
Note: this article was written specifically for cockatiels. It may or may not be applicable to other species
What is the best diet for cockatiels? The
truth is that nobody really knows exactly what diet meets their needs most
perfectly, and there are different ways that you can provide a good blend of
nutrients. A well-balanced diet can include pellets, vegetables,
seeds/grains/legumes, and other
There's no doubt whatsoever that an all-seed diet is unhealthy in the long run, and contributes to health problems like fatty liver disease. Because of this, some people think that seeds are unhealthy and pet birds shouldn't be allowed to eat them. THIS IS NOT TRUE. Seeds are an excellent high-nutrition food, and may be particularly desirable for cockatiels because tiels are seed-eaters in the wild. But seeds are not nutritionally complete, and it can cause health problems if we feed too many of them. So we need to encourage our birds to also eat other types of food that provide the nutrients that seeds don't contain.
There's an important difference between seed-eating in the wild and seed-eating in captivity: wild birds have a wide range of options and can consume seeds in all stages of development, from unripe green seeds to mature dry seed. They also have access to other food sources, and cockatiels are known to chew on grass and plant stems and eat an unknown quantity of insects, as well as consuming grit and charcoal from burned areas. In addition, wild cockatiels are a LOT more active than pet birds, so they need a lot more calories in the diet. The high fat content in some seeds is good for wild birds but not so much for pets. Check out our article on the Feeding Ecology of Wild Cockatiels and the article on Pet Birds and the Wild Diet for more info.
Captive birds have fewer choices since they are limited to what we offer them, and what we tend to offer is mature dry seed. It's good stuff, but it doesn't contain everything that wild birds can get. That's why it's important to offer vegetables, to supply some of the nutrients that wild birds obtain from their favorite greenfoods. A variety of veggies is best since they vary in their nutritional content. Most cockatiels don't like fruit, and vegetables have more nutrients anyway, so it's OK to not bother with fruit.
Vitamin D3 is a nutrient of special concern because plant foods
don't provide it. Wild birds make their own vitamin D in a chemical
reaction with sunlight. You either need to have a dietary source (like pellets)
or get your bird outdoors frequently for exposure to natural sunlight. There's
more information in our Lighting and
Vitamin D3 article.
Minerals are important to the diet too, and calcium is especially important for the health of breeding hens. Cuttlebone and mineral blocks are popular sources of calcium, but other nutrients are needed for the body to absorb the calcium, especially magnesium and vitamin D3.
Grit is another way to provide minerals, but this is a controversial subject because it's been reported that mineral-deficient birds overconsumed grit, impacted their crops, and died. The majority of advice on the internet is opposed to offering grit because of this, but it seems very likely that this is based on misdiagnosis and misconceptions. The Grit article has lots of information on this subject, including reports from a variety of informed sources telling us that wild cockatiels consume several types of grit and other nonfood materials.
Pellets are a processed manufactured food that is intended to be nutritionally complete. The Pellet article goes into more detail on this subject. For a variety of reasons it's not actually possible to have absolute nutritional completeness in a single food. But pellets are the closest that humans are able to come to a perfect food for birds, so it's beneficial to include them in the diet. Nowadays most pellet companies recommend a diet of 80-90% pellets, with the rest of the diet made up of vegetables and perhaps a small amount of seeds or nuts. Some veterinarians make similar recommendations, but some well-informed veterinarians and birdkeepers feel that 30-50% may be a more appropriate level for cockatiels. The percentage might be higher for other species; it makes sense that cockatiels, who are adapted to a harsh environment, would do best on a diet that's not as rich as what rain forest birds get.
It's important to strike a good balance between meeting a bird's nutritional
needs and meeting its psychological needs. Eating just one kind of food all
the time would be boring, so there's a lot of enrichment value in having
many different kinds of food in the diet. This is an important reason
why a 30-50% level may be better than 80-90%.
There are several different brands of pellets on the market. Most are designed to be nutritionally complete, although some of the smaller brands may not be, and Harrisons is the only organic pellet that is formulated to be nutritionally complete, and other 'organic' brands may not provide vitamin D and be lacking in other important nutrients. Some people prefer to avoid pellets with artificial coloring, although many cockatiels prefer the colored pellets. Nutriberries are nutritionally equivalent to pellets but look like seed balls, so many cockatiels accept them easily; some tiels prefer to have their human crush the balls so the bird can pick up the loose pieces. Nutriberries are easily available in the US and Canada but may be unavailable or very expensive in other places.
How do you teach a cockatiel to eat pellets and vegetables? Frequently the answer is SLOWLY. Don't listen to recommendations to take away the bird's regular food in an attempt to force it to eat the new foods, because this sometimes ends with the bird starving to death. It's all right to offer only the new foods for a couple of hours in the morning to encourage the bird to eat them, but the bird's regular food should be available for most of the day. There are tips for encouraging a bird to eat new foods in our Diet Conversions article.
Birds have a specific appetite for some nutrients and will naturally seek them out when they need them, but they only do this with some nutrients not all. You can't rely on a bird's "natural wisdom" to pick out a well-balanced diet on its own, because Mother Nature hasn't given birds this kind of wisdom. She tells them to go after calories and protein and a couple of other nutrients, and that's it.
It might be necessary to limit certain foods that are beneficial in reasonable amounts, but are so delicious that your bird might want to overeat them. Sunflower seeds are a good example. Sunflower has gotten a bad rap as birdie junk food, but this isn't true. Sunflower seed is actually very nutritious. But sunflower is also higher in fat than some seeds, which can cause problems if your bird eats too many of them. It's fine to let your bird eat sunflower but not good to allow unlimited quantities unless your bird has a special situation that calls for plenty of calories.
Cooked egg is another good example. It's highly nutritious and very delicious, but should be limited to small amounts because the fat and protein content is so high. There are also concerns in the veterinary community about the cholesterol in eggs leading to atherosclerosis in cockatiels and other parrots, and some vets recommend not feeding it at all. If you do decide to feed it, keep the quantity small. A piece of egg the size of the bird's eye seems reasonable. A piece the size of the bird's head is not. The Protein article has more information.
Other diet options include mash, chop and birdie bread. A mash is a mixture of foods, usually one or more cooked grains mixed with vegetables and other nutritious items (possibly including pellets). In spite of the name, it doesn't have to be mashed into a smooth porridge; the grains can be left whole and the vegetables chopped into small pieces. The main difference between mash and chop is that a mash recipe attempts to be nutritionally complete while a chop recipe just mixes healthy foods together without trying for any particular nutritional balance. Birdie bread is a variation on the same theme; instead of whole grains you mix veggies and other nutritious items into bread dough and bake it. There are many mash, chop and bread recipes on the internet; some are more nutritious than others, so look for recipes that offer the most nutrition. Many birdie breads are high in fat, so try to avoid high-fat recipes.
Healthy human foods can be provided, but avoid foods that contain salt and sugar. Avoid vitamin-fortified human foods too (including many breakfast cereals); they contain too much zinc and iron for birds.
There may be situations where vitamin supplements are useful, but most of the time it's better not to use them. Vitamin supplements should NOT be given to a bird that is eating pellets/Nutriberries because this can lead to vitamin overdose aka vitamin toxicity. When vitamins are added to the water the dosage is unpredictable, since it depends on how much was added to the water and how much the bird drinks. But vitamins in the water help promote the growth of bacteria. Vitamin-fortified seed is basically useless, since the vitamins are sprayed on the hull which the bird doesn't eat; but if the bird somehow manages to consume the vitamins on these seeds, then feeding vitamin supplements in addition to the seed will once again put the bird at risk of an overdose.
Breeding birds need more of everything - more calories, more protein, more fat. The hen in particular needs plenty of calcium as well as the vitamin D that's essential for calcium absorption (see the Lighting and Vitamin D article for more information). They will also need access to high-nutrition soft foods when the babies hatch, because soft foods are easier for the babies to digest than dry seed. It can be time-consuming to teach an adult bird to eat new foods (see the Diet Conversions article), so the parents should be taught to eat soft foods before they even start breeding.
Pellets are an excellent baby food; the parents will eat the dry pellets and drink water to soften them up. Other good baby foods include homemade sprouts (not the store-bought kind, since they can have issues with mold and bacteria); organic multi-grain bread; small amounts of cooked egg; and other high-nutrition cooked foods. Any rice or flour in the cooked foods should be whole grain, not refined/white. It is essential to provide the parents with nutrient-dense foods to prevent malnutrition in the babies. Babies who are raised on an inadequate diet are likely to have weak, malformed feet and other lifelong health issues.
Harrisons makes a high-potency pellet whose nutrient content seems to be pretty similar to that of handfeeding formula. If your cockatiel parents will eat it, the high potency pellet is an excellent breeding food. You can also feed the parents actual handfeeding formula; they aren't likely to take it from a syringe, but they might be willing to eat it from a spoon or bowl, or mixed into some other food like cooked sweet potatoes.
Sodium deficiency is fairly common in breeding birds, and if they don't have access to extra sodium they may start plucking the babies in an effort to meet their sodium needs (the babies' blood contains sodium). Sodium-rich vegetables like chard or celery will help the parents meet their sodium needs through diet. You can also spread a small amount of salted butter on a piece of whole-grain bread for the parents to eat, or provide a salt wheel (the type made for rodents). However, it's best to provide the salt wheel BEFORE the parents become deficient, so they won't gorge on it and then feed large amounts of salt to the babies.
A liquid calcium product made specifically for birds may be helpful. But it's possible to overdose on calcium, so liquid calcium should be used with great caution and restraint. There are several different brands (Calcivet is the best known) but they all seem to have the same formula: Liquid Calcium Borogluconate 33g/L with Vitamin D3 (2500 Lu/L) and Magnesium (MG ++7) 2g/L. It's good to have liquid calcium on hand when your birds are breeding; it can prevent calcium deficiency in your hen if she doesn't have access to other good sources of calcium and vitamin D, and a drop of liquid calcium placed directly in the beak will sometimes relieve egg binding. This type of calcium is very easily absorbed by the body.
It's best to not provide grit to parents who have small babies in the nest, since the babies' small crops could easily become impacted if the parents feed them grit. Adult birds can regurgitate any time they want to and get rid of excess grit that way. But babies can't do this.
Sick/underweight birds may have very individual needs depending on the nature of the illness, so ask your vet for advice and also do an internet search looking for information related to your bird's problems. For example, there are a number of dietary adjustments that can help correct liver disease.
In many cases, the advice for breeding birds will also be helpful for sick or underweight birds. But there are some cases where it will not be appropriate so consult your vet if there's any doubt about what kind of diet is best for your bird's condition. Handfeeding formula or high-potency pellets can provide dense nutrition. Soaked or sprouted seeds will be easier to digest than dry seed. It's prudent to avoid using grit with a mineral-deficient bird, and instead use calcium sources that haven't been accused of causing crop impaction.
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