Health & 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 Our knowledge in this area is changing rapidly and old books have outdated information.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. See the article on Pet Birds and the Wild Diet for more information. Knowing something about the wild diet will give you some idea about which foods your bird might prefer. 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 other foods 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%. Some people do feed this amount and are satisfied with it, but not everyone agrees that this is a good idea. Many vets are currently recommending pellets as 20-30% of the diet for small birds like budgies, 30-50% for cockatiel-sized birds, and 50-70% for larger parrots, with healthy well-balanced foods making up the rest of the diet. Pellets have been in use since the 1970s, so we've had time to see the long-term effects of feeding them. There's no doubt about it, pellets have produced significant health improvements in a lot of birds. But a diet with a very high percentage of pellets might seem monotonous to your bird, and a more varied diet will provide enjoyment and mental stimulation.
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. Many veterinarians haven't been highly educated on the subject of nutrition and simply follow the recommendations of the pellet companies, but there are exceptions.
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. It's not enough to simply offer a variety of healthy foods, because this approach is almost guaranteed to be deficient in some nutrients.
Many people opt for a middle of the road approach, since there's more than one way to reach the goal of balanced nutrition. These people give their bird some combination of pellets and natural foods, which helps provide some assurance that you bird is getting the best of everything.
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.
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 may be desirable 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 one way to provide some variety in the seed portion of the diet. Sprouts are not the same as the unripe seed many parrots eat in the wild, since it's a very different stage in the plant's life. But to some degree it does help mimic the "live" portion of your bird's diet.
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 follows a recipe that is designed for nutritional balance. Mash may or may not actually be mashed up into a uniform blend, making it impossible for the bird to pick out favored items and leave unwanted items behind. "Chop" is a combination of chopped-up vegetables and possibly other foods that does not particularly aim for nutritional balance - it's a presentation style rather than a recipe. Or you can simply provide a variety of vegetables cafeteria style and let the bird pick what it wants. Birds apparently don't have a "natural wisdom" that leads them to choose a balanced diet overall. Instead they mostly go for foods that provide things that taste good, like fat and protein. So it's your responsibility to keep an eye on the situation and make sure your bird is getting the nutrients they need.
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 reasonably OK). Do some research if you're not sure whether a particular food or plant is safe.
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. You can 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!
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