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Health & Nutrition

Bird Nutrition

A healthy diet can make a huge difference in your bird's lifespan. A good diet can add years to your bird's life, while a poor diet can result in early death due to liver disease, kidney disease or a host of other problems. 

What is the ideal diet for your bird? There are people who make it sound like they have the answer, but the real truth is that NO ONE KNOWS. There are thousands of bird species and hundreds of these species are kept as pets, but we have not figured out the precise nutritional needs for even a single one of these species. There's a limit to how much good it would do us even if we did know, since this information would only tell us the average needs for that species. Individuals within a species don't all have the exact same nutritional needs, and your bird's individual differences might not be well served by the average diet.

So how do you figure out the best diet for your bird? For starters, do some research on the recommendations for your bird's species, and watch out for any special needs that this species may have. Check several recent sources, like the internet or recently published books. Our knowledge in this area is changing rapidly and old books have outdated information. Even with newer sources you are likely to find a lot of disagreement. Some sources advocate feeding pellets as a large percentage of the diet, while others recommend a much smaller percentage or avoiding pellets completely. It's universally agreed that an all-seed diet is unhealthy, but there is no agreement on how much of the diet should consist of seed. Vegetables and fruit are generally considered to be a good thing, but there's conflicting advice on which  items should be fed in limited amounts. There's no way around it: you're going to have to use your own judgment to some degree.

It's very useful to have some idea of what your bird would eat in the wild. It's impossible to replicate this diet, since we don't know exactly what wild birds eat and most of us can't get these foods anyway. Also, replicating the wild diet might not be desirable. The nutritional needs of captive birds are expected to be very different from those of wild birds, since their activity level and general living conditions are very different. But knowing something about the wild diet will give you some idea about which foods will help your bird thrive. Wild birds normally eat a variety of different foods, but the percentage of a specific food (like seed, fruit or insects) can vary a lot from species to species. Birds adapted to the abundant food of the rain forest may be able to tolerate a richer diet than those adapted to the arid conditions of the Outback.

You have some decisions to make. Ideally, how much of each item would you like your bird to eat? Keep in mind that your bird does have a say in this, and what you would like him to eat may not be the same as what he is willing to eat. In particular, what percentages of pellets and seed do you want to aim for?

Pellet manufacturers typically recommend that you feed their product as 80-90% of the diet, with vegetables and fruit making up most of the remaining 10-20%. Many people do feed this amount and are satisfied with it, but not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. There's no doubt about it, pellets have produced significant short-term health improvements in a lot of birds. But pellets are so new that there isn't much information on the long-term effects of feeding large amounts of highly processed food, not to mention how monotonous this diet might seem to your bird. Pellet formulas are based primarily on research done for the poultry industry, which has VERY different needs and goals than pet bird owners. For this reason, many people do not comfortable feeding pellets as a large percentage of the diet. Most veterinarians haven't been highly educated on the subject of nutrition and simply follow the recommendations of the pellet companies. In some cases the pellet companies have even helped write the nutrition chapter in medical textbooks, so their objectivity is questionable.

People who don't trust pellets usually emphasize a well-balanced combination of grains, vegetables, fruits, seeds, nuts, and other natural, healthy foods. This approach requires a lot more education and effort from the bird owner since the foods don't come in a prepackaged nugget where all you have to do is give it to the bird.  But many feel that it's worth it.

Many people opt for a middle of the road approach, since no one really knows what is best. These people give their bird some combination of pellets and natural foods.

Will you offer seed? If your bird wouldn't eat much seed in the wild, it shouldn't be a big part of the diet in captivity. If your bird is primarily a seed eater in the wild then it's probably best to keep some seed in the diet. But in the wild, your bird wouldn't just be eating dry seed. It would have access to seed in every stage of development, from fresh green unripe seed heads to mature, dry seed. Sprouting is an excellent way to boost the nutritional content of seed, and mimic the live, growing seed that your bird would find in the wild. Many pet birds are "seed junkies" who haven't been taught to eat anything else. But too much seed in the diet is a major cause of fatty liver disease, so a conversion to a healthier diet is desirable.

Which vegetables are you going to offer, and how will you serve them? Do you want to offer a mash diet? This is a healthy combination of foods that have been put through a food processor or blended together some other way, making it impossible for the bird to pick out favored items and leave unwanted items behind. A well-balanced mash recipe is important with this technique. Or would you rather provide a cafeteria-style buffet and let your bird pick and choose?  The answer may depend on whether your bird seems to have a "natural wisdom" that leads it to choose a balanced diet overall.

Many birds enjoy eating human food, but it's generally agreed that this shouldn't be a big part of the diet. Some foods that your bird should NEVER be offered are onion, avocado, chocolate, and alcoholic beverages. They're not mammals and can't digest lactose, so most dairy products are out (although yogurt and low-lactose cheese is OK). Do some research if you're not sure whether a particular food or plant is safe. Asking on a forum can be very helpful. So is googling.

Finally, give some thought to foraging opportunities. Birds in the wild have to work for their food, and birds in captivity are stimulated by similar activities. So don't just provide food in a cup. Hang things up in the cage (or elsewhere) for your bird to eat. Keep this activity at a level where your bird is willing and able to succeed - tree feeders are usually more acrobatic and determined than ground feeders.  Place the food so the bird has to climb or even hang upside down to get it. Wrap food in paper for the bird to unwrap, or buy species-appropriate foraging toys. Surf the web for foraging ideas. Healthy eating can be entertaining!

Check the Links section for other nutrition-related information.