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Avian Nutrition and Dietary Requirements

Written by Lee-Anne, Birdmad Girl

Good adequate nutrition is vitally important for a parrot's long term health and well-being. Birds need to eat food items that will provide them with the right amount of vitamins & minerals needed to stay healthy, and maintain an effective immune system against various diseases and illnesses. Different species of birds can have varying dietary requirements. Lorikeets, for example, eat mainly a nectar-based diet. It is therefore important that you research the specific dietary needs of your bird so that you can feed it the most adequate diet.

General Nutritional Requirements


A good quality seed mix with various fruit, vegetables and pellets

All birds need to drink water, and maintaining its quality is just as important as providing it. Be aware that many birds will throw various food items into their water bowls, and some birds may defecate into their water if it is situated low down. This can lead to health problems if ingested, so any water that has been soiled must be changed immediately.

Birds on a good diet should receive an adequate, balanced amount of protein, amino acids, fats & essential fatty acids, carbohydrates, vitamins & minerals. The vitamins & minerals are especially important for maintaining good health in the long term. A lack of certain vitamins & minerals can lead to deficiencies.

Vitamin A is very important. It is required for growth, for normal function of secretary glands and normal reproductive function. Birds that lack vitamin A often appear dull colored, sometimes with flaky beaks, cere & feet. Sometimes the cere appears thickened from excess keratin (hyperkeratosis). Eyes can also be affected, showing swellings and conjunctivitis. Vitamin A is very important for managing fungal respiratory diseases such as aspergillosis, and a lack of it can cause and fungal spores to spread. Vitamin A deficiency is the most common deficiency seen in parrots.

Vitamin D3 is important for maintaining calcium metabolism. Birds need an adequate supply of vitamin D3 in order to absorb any calcium. Calcium deficiency is very common in captive birds. One reason for this is that birds need to absorb ultraviolet light to manufacture it in their skin, and most captive birds do not get much exposure to sunlight or any form of ultraviolet light. Another cause is that a diet that is high in oil-bearing foods like sunflower seeds and peanuts lack calcium, phosphorus and vitamin D3. Calcium and phosphorus imbalance can also lead to problems with producing eggs, causing soft shelled eggs or egg binding.

Vitamin K deficiency is not very common, however it is worth mentioning because it can cause anemia and blood clotting problems.

Iodine is an important mineral. A lack of iodine in the diet can affect the thyroid, causing a decreased production of thyroid stimulation hormones. This can affect the thyroid gland and cause dysplasia of the gland. Pressure from the thyroid on the esophagus can prevent food passing into the stomach, causing a dilated crop that cannot empty properly, leading to weight loss.

Commercial Diets

There are a lot of different diets commercially available for parrots. They range from various seed mixes to pellet diets. Some of these seed mixes are of very poor quality, and do not offer much in terms of vitamins. These poor seed diets are mainly sunflower seed & peanut based. Sunflower seeds are a good source of EFAs (essential fatty acids), but if these form the main base for the bird's diet, health problems will emerge due to a lack of other essential nutrients not present in sunflower seeds. Over-consumption of fats in captive birds can lead to obesity. The difficulty with sunflower seeds is that they are highly addictive, as the bird will enjoy the process of shelling them. Once addicted, it can be very difficult to convert the bird onto a better diet, and the bird will tend to only eat sunflower seeds and peanuts, rejecting most other healthier foods.

If a seed diet is selected as a main base of your parrot's diet, make sure that the seed mixture selected is of good quality. Make sure there is a large variety of things in the mixture that include a variety of seeds including safflower and linseed, and very minimal amounts of sunflower seeds. Some seed mixes contain pre-shelled sunflower seeds, which is much better because it prevents the bird from become an addicted ‘seed junkie'. A good quality seed mix will also contain other items like oats, rice, fortified sticks similar to pellets, and a variety of dried fruit & vegetables.

For smaller birds such as various parakeets, ensure that you use a good quality pre-packaged seed mix that contains a good variety of different seeds. Some are even fortified with vitamins. If you purchase loose seed in bulk, the chances are that it will be stale, and any vitamin content decreases with age, hence you will be feeding your birds a deficient fatty seed mix.

There are also many different brands of pellet diets available for parrots. The benefit of these is that they are fortified with vitamins and minerals that are needed on a daily basis, and therefore nutritional deficiencies are less likely to occur if the bird eats pellets regularly. However, I would not recommend that you feed an all-pellet diet. This may put a strain on the birds' kidneys, sometimes even resulting in renal failure. So, pellets can be a good, nutritionally beneficial addition to the diet, but should not make up all of the diet.

Unfortunately, there are different kinds of pellets out there, and many are full of artificial preservatives and colorings and excessive amounts of sugar, all of which can make a pet bird very sick. Make sure that you check the ingredients of the bag or box, and don't buy anything that contains ethoxyquin (a type of preservative not allowed for human use any longer but still used for birds), added sugar, added salt, and/or added animal fat.

Why is Variety Important?

With such a wide choice of diets available, it is sometimes difficult to know which one to choose. Therefore it is important to keep your bird's diet as varied as possible. The best approach is to offer as many different food items as you can on a daily basis. Not only does variety decrease the likelihood of dietary deficiencies, but it also helps to prevent boredom. Offer a good quality seed based mix, some good quality pellets, and include a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. You can also include some other household food items on occasion, which I will discuss below.

Fruits & Vegetables

Fruit and vegetables must be offered daily. Offer many different items to get your bird used to accepting new things. Just because your parrot refuses to eat something one day, it doesn't mean that he/she will never accept that food item on another day.

Fruits that you can offer include apples, pears, bananas, apricots, plums, peaches, papaya, melon, mango, pineapple, strawberries, raspberries & blackberries. Vegetables that you can offer include broccoli, carrot, spinach, watercress, green beans, red and green peppers and sweet corn. I have specifically chosen to mention green foods and fruits that have a good nutritional content. Other items such as tomatoes and cucumbers are okay in small amounts, but do not contain as much nutritional value and are mainly water based, hence feeding too much of these can cause diarrhea. Take care where you buy your fresh greens and fruits from, as it has been known for some exotic fruits to contain levels of pesticides that are harmful to birds. Organic foods are usually the safest.

Other Food Items

There are many other food items that can be offered to your parrot on occasion. These include soaked pulses and beans (chick peas, black-eyed beans, soy beans, green peas etc), cooked pasta, boiled rice, boiled potatoes, hard boiled egg, and some chicken off the bone now and then, as these items offer good nutritional value for your bird. You can also offer very small amounts of cheese on occasion. Cheese contains calcium, but too much of it will not be digested very well, and undigested cheese can lead to sour crop. Cheese can also be quite fattening, so it is advised to feed only moderately.

Items to Avoid

Avoid foods like mushrooms, onions and avocado, as these have been reported as toxic to birds. Do not feed your bird chocolate, coffee or tea because of the caffeine content. Too much caffeine can cause seizures and collapse because it can speed up the heart rate. It can also affect the kidneys, causing high urine output and leading to dehydration. Dairy products are not digested well by birds, and because they are lactose intolerant they do not tolerate milk based products. Small amounts of cheese, as I mentioned before, are okay as an occasional treat. If you are giving your parrot any food items from your own dinner plate, make sure that there is not too much table salt on them, otherwise your bird will become thirsty and need to drink more water to enable more urine output. Do not feed any carbonated or alcoholic beverages at all.

Grit

It very much depends on your species of bird whether you should be giving it grit or not. Hook bills (all parrots and parakeets), canaries, and most finches hull their seeds (take the outer shell off), and therefore do not need grit to help them break the food down. It has been common practice until recently that budgies and cockatiels are given grit, but it is of no benefit to them, and can cause serious crop problems and impactions. However, other birds, such as quail, chickens, and doves do require grit to digest their food, and should always have a supply of grit or sand.

Mineral Blocks & Cuttlefish Bones

A mineral block is usually put into the cage to provide calcium and other minerals, and can be pretty good for your bird to clean his/her beak on (unless the mineral block is brown and the bird is white!). A mineral block is usually a good idea, but make sure that the mineral block does not have added activated carbon (no benefit for your bird unless your bird eats something poisonous).

Cuttlefish bone is often sold in pet stores as a calcium source for birds, but the calcium it contains is not easily absorbed by birds. It makes a good chewing/shredding toy for the birds, but that's about it. If your bird only has a cuttlefish bone in their cage for the calcium, it is important that you supplement with other calcium sources, such as boiled eggshells and a more effective calcium and vitamin D3 supplement.

Vitamin Supplements

It is advisable to include a vitamin supplement in your bird's diet if the bird will only accept a seed based diet with limited intake of fruits, vegetables & other food items. They can help to make up for important vitamins lacking in the diet, and can be used whilst trying to convert the bird to eating a more well balanced diet. These supplements can be given regularly, once a week. The liquid supplements that are administered in the bird's water are more affective than the power supplements that get sprinkled onto the food, as the powder sticks to the shell of the seed, which is discarded by the bird. However, problems can arise if water that has been enriched with a vitamin supplement it left more than 12 hours, as a rapid bacterial growth can occur. It is therefore vitally important that bowl hygiene is carried out regularly to avoid this.

Water soluble supplements are not to be confused with water administrated medications. Supplying added vitamins to a deficient diet via the water can be a great way to get a fussy eater to consume much needed vitamins and minerals. But with medications, it is never recommended to administer in the water because the bird needs to consume a specific dosage of medication that is not assured by this method. For more information on this, please refer to our Tailfeathers article: Medicating Pet Birds Orally.

Nectar-Based Diets

Some parrots, like Lorikeets, Hanging Parrots, and also Eclectus require some nectar in their diet. In the wild they eat fruit, flowers, pollen and nectar, some seeds, and also a very limited amount of insects. In captivity, you can purchase a reputable nectar mix that you make up by mixing a powder into water. This mix needs to be changed at least 2-3 times a day because it can go off very quickly. A dry powdered diet is also available, but it can be difficult to wean these bird onto it, therefore not all birds will accept it. The main benefit of this diet as opposed to the nectar is that the bird produces less mess (nectar diets cause runny poop). A bird on a powder diet must have access to fresh, clean water, as the bird will usually consume the powder, then drink lots of water. These types of diets need to be supplemented with fruits and flowers.

Thank you to DizzyDezzy for providing some additional information.
All photo credits go to Lee-Anne, Birdmad Girl.

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