Americans frequently tell us that pellets are the only proper way to feed our birds. Yet even they use far fewer pellets than you would think.
By MALCOLM GREEN BSc (Hons) Biological Sciences
The European Experience
North American pellets arrived in the UK in the early 1990s with great fanfare, big advertising budgets and extensive sampling campaigns. British breeders and pet owners were swept up in the frenzy. After all, the argument that pellets were complete foods was very persuasive. Yet within a couple of years British breeders had completely rejected pellets. Why was this? The answer is simple Ė breeding results plummeted. British parrot breeders reverted to their more conventional diets based on seed mixtures, fresh foods and supplements. Small bird breeders continued with their diets based on seeds, soft foods and supplements.
Many pet bird owners also tried pellets. Most rejected them for palatability reasons. Those that did convert and still use pellets mostly dilute them with seeds and human foods. The British experience was repeated on the Continent a few years later.
The American manufacturers who opened offices in Britain all those years ago have now shut up shop and rely on importers to service their small remaining pet market.
What happens in America?
It is nearly two years since I started making regular trips to the USA. What initially surprised me most was the small amount of pellets being used by breeders. Whilst there are a few breeders using 80% plus pellet diets they are in a clear minority. Most people "dilute" their pellets with seeds and fresh foods of some sort. The pellet manufacturers are correct - this is not the best thing to do. After all, pellets are only a very dilute supplement themselves. Dilute them again and their efficacy is substantially reduced. As the pellets are not concentrated they don't balance the nutritional deficiencies of the other foods. These diets are still far less than perfect.
While most American breeders don't use pellets as recommended by the manufacturers I have met a few who do. People breeding in the hot and humid areas like southern Florida, do report that they achieved productivity gains when they switched from seed to pelleted diets. But, when probed, the real benefits seem to have come from the elimination of easily spoilable fresh produce from the diet. The resultant health benefits, combined with an increase in vitamins etc improved results. The further north I travel in America the less relevant this argument becomes as spoilage is more easily controlled.
Unfortunately the US bird food industry has put its research effort into pellets not supplements. So Americans haven't had access to the sophisticated products now available in the UK. Fortunately that has changed in the last two years as enlightened breeders have experimented with imported products and they are now stocked in America and readily available over the Internet and through a growing number of bricks and mortar retailers.
Pet bird diets
Research carried out in New York in the mid 1990's (and reported at a pet bird symposium in Hannover) told us that 98% of the pet parrots surveyed were getting less than the recommended levels of selected key nutrients. This is terrible! What the authors did not report to the delegates was that about half of the sample where being fed pellets!
This is not a criticism of pellet formulations. But it does highlight the compliance problems pellets have. Most of the magazine articles on pellets go to great lengths to describe how to get your bird to eat them. Why? Because it can be difficult! Many owners fail and almost all owners allow their birds to dilute the pellets with un-supplemented "treats" like seed, fresh produce and table foods.
It would be an exaggeration to say that supplements don't have some compliance problems. But the difficulties are far less than trying to get birds to eat a monotonous and unnatural food.
I would always recommend that supplements be given on food whenever practical. It is both safer and increases the number and quality of ingredients that can be used. However there are some circumstances when the drinking water is the only option. One such is the proverbial "sunflower junkie". We now have the first in-water supplementation system that has solved the technical challenges involved in addressing the protein needs of these birds as well as all the other trace nutrients. And all this in a totally safe way which has worked wonders for the quality of life of many previously malnourished birds.
Breeder Diets
Nutritional change is one of the major influences over the breeding response. Wild birds breed when the food is good and captive birds respond to these changes in just the same way. But the needs of the parents are different from the needs of the chicks. And the nutritional needs of the chicks vary daily as they grow. Belgian research on racing pigeons tells us that before chicks hatch adult birds select a diet of about 15% protein. After hatching the adults select 19% protein. In Zimbabwe work on ostriches highlights the changing needs of growing chicks. The older they are the lower their protein needs.
A pellet diet of uniform nutritional value neither gives the adult birds the message that food is becoming suitable for breeding nor does it enable the parents to alter the amount of protein they feed to their chicks as the needs of those chicks change. Using supplements we can steadily increase the nutritional value of the food (so giving the parents a message that mimics nature). And, by supplementing a varied diet, the birds can (and do) select the balance of nutrients most suitable for their chicks' needs on that particular day.
No pellet manufacturer is likely to claim that they have designed a product with the perfect protein to energy ratio for any particular species. When you consider the differences between individuals of the same species, the differences between species and the huge variation in the needs of birds at different stages of their life cycle it is obvious that pellets must make huge compromises. Can this be the best way to feed your birds?
One key breeder nutrient that is managed far better by supplements than pellets is calcium. Pellets all contain calcium sources with poor bio-availability. They have no choice as highly bio-available calcium should not be given daily. But carefully formulated liquid calcium supplements used correctly generated huge gains in clutch sizes, hen health, egg shell quality and chick development.

Posted Courtesy of The BirdCareCompany.

Why do I like this? It backs up most of what I have been saying for years.
I now have 4 Eclectus (As well as 9 other birds) who only get fed raw fresh foods, seeds, and nuts.
All 4 have tested in good order January and February this year.
I have managed to bring many secondhand birds into good condition, most times with just good diets.