Feeding Your Parrot

The trade in wild caught birds stopped many years ago in many parts of the world; the last commercial shipment of wild caught parrots reached the US in 1992. Europe followed in 2005. But many countries still receive shipments of wild birds, these originating primarily in Africa and Latin America. The intention of this article is not to enter into the polemics of the trade but rather to try and answer the many requests I get each week asking for information.

Europe and the US learned many lessons during years of trade, but aviculture in many of the countries in Asia and the Middle East where trade still occurs had not yet discovered the character, intelligence and beauty of parrots. They were thus not privy to the vast amount of information that circulated at the time in the avicultural press; sadly many of the early magazines that documented this information are no longer published. When these countries started to become active in aviculture, that information was largely forgotten and thus they are now finding, often by mistake, how to address the various issues.

The primary request that I get refers to diet. The birds are received feeding solely on peanuts or sunflower and nothing else. All other foods presented are ignored, or pushed aside to find the peanuts or sunflower seeds that the birds are accustomed to eating. These birds can— and for their long term health must– be converted to a much more nutritious diet with some patience and ingenuity.

Aviculturists in the West learned long ago that diet is key to health and success. One cannot feed just sunflower seeds or peanuts and expect the birds to remain healthy. These items are skewed nutritionally, often being overly fatty and lacking an adequate calcium level. Peanuts also pose a risk of aflotoxins, which is a mold that cannot be tasted, seen or smelled. It is a silent killer that emerges from improper storage of peanuts. This is why personally I believe peanuts should be avoided altogether.

Seeds can be fed as part of the diet in those countries where pellets are unavailable but only if the bird is taught to eat a large mix of seeds and the diet is heavily supplemented with vegetables, greens, fruits, whole grain bread and more. The application of vitamins to seeds is a selling gimmick intended to fool the buyer and in my opinion is akin to sprinkling vitamins on a hamburger wrapper. If you doubt my word, split open some of those colorful, allegedly vitamin impregnated seeds and see if the color has seeped into the inside?

Pelleted feeds on the other hand contain an array of vitamins and minerals, which are added during the grinding, mixing and cooking process. Almost everyone augments the pelleted feeds with some fruits and raw or par-cooked vegetables; I prefer vegetables and greens to fruit, which have evolved to become overly sweet in order to satisfy the human taste buds—fruits eaten by wild parrots are typically bitter, astringent and not what we would term as palatable. Some owners that use pellets also feed nuts, some seeds, wheat bread and a whole array of other foods. I also feed natural pods, palm seeds and more when possible, this to enrich captivity; a parrot feeding on palm seeds or pods must often spend long periods of time chewing away at the fibrous covering to reach the nutritious seed.

So the question is how does one convert an obstinate seed or peanut addict into eating a broader array of foods?

The process should start by conceiving a diet that is broad and incorporates the best available ingredients. Nuts like peanuts are susceptible to aflotoxins. They should be acquired from a clean source, as contamination is likely if these were stored in damp or dirty conditions. Next fresh, dust free seeds should be acquired. For parrots, I recommend feeding seeds in like-size groups. Smaller seeds can be fed one day and the next the larger seeds. This avoids excessive waste.

This mix along with the staple the bird was accustomed to eating on arrival should form the basis of the inception diet. The reasoning is simple: All freshly imported birds should be induced to start feeding as soon as possible. Some schools of thought years ago suggested that the birds should be converted to a different diet immediately. I always differed with that opinion. The birds are already stressed enough and this state would only be aggravated by semi starvation, as they did not readily recognize the food being offered. They should be allowed to start feeding on an item they recognized immediately.

Once the birds are eating well, the diet expansion phase could begin. Parrots are attracted to bright colors: red, orange, yellow, bright green, etc. For new arrivals that I acquired during the era of the wild bird trade I always offered a medley of chopped papaya, broccoli, fresh cranberries, and par boiled carrot, sweet potatoes, pumpkin and beets. This was always topped with fresh corn off the cob, which the birds always recognize, as dry corn is a staple fed to wild birds across the globe. None of the items were so ripe or cooked that they became mushy; they maintained their structural integrity, as a mushy mix seem to detract attention.

The conversion process begins as follows. The seeds the birds are eating should be removed in the evening. In the morning the fruit/vegetable mix should be presented to the birds. The birds will then be hungry and more amenable to sampling foods they do not recognize. After 3-4 hours, the fruit/vegetable mix should be removed and the seed presented. This prevents starvation in obstinate individuals. At all times a watch must be kept on their weight, as any dramatic loss in body mass is a sign the birds are not accepting the change. Return to the old diet and start again after a week if weight loss is experienced.

I also recommend offering the seeds on the floor of the cage and the fruit/vegetable mix near the perch, so as to make them more enticing; parrots are as a whole arboreal and thus feed far from the ground. By presenting the fruit/vegetable mix near the perch, a more natural element is created.

Once the birds are eating the fruits, you can expand the diet. Sprinkle pellets or one of the multi grain breakfast cereals that contain no sugar and no salt on top. In a warm climate, the pellets and cereal can spoil quickly as they become moist from the fruit/vegetable juices. This may require changing the food much earlier.

Other elements that can be added to the diet are cooked whole grain pasta with corn, peas and cooked garbanzo beans or a crumbly eggfood made by mixing boiled eggs, grated carrot, whole grain bread and chopped greens. If these mixes are fed warm, they will be readily eaten, even by wild birds once they have settled down. Once consumed to eating these mix, you can expand on the ingredients to include many more vegetables, greens and pulses. Again spoilage is a problem and the diet will need to be monitored closely to prevent it from souring and becoming a source of bacterial contamination.

Once the birds are eating the fruits, vegetables and other foods, then an attempt can be made to add other items to their diet. I know that pellets are either prohibitively expensive or not available in parts of the Middle East and Asia, but a diet of varied—and the key is varied– seeds, nuts, fruits, vegetables, greens and whole grain pasta and bread can be a nutritious substitute.

For macaws and African Greys Psittacus erithacus, high fat diets are important as palm seeds are a significant part of their wild diet. In captivity, this fat can be supplemented in the form of nuts or by mixing a good grade oil into pellets; in my collection, when fresh nuts are not available, we blend extra virgin olive oil into the pellets, which hold their integrity well when lightly coated with the oil. The birds seem not to notice and readily eat the pellets. We could also utilize RBD (raw bleached degummed) palm oil, but a good source is not available locally. The oil can also be added to the aforementioned softfood. When we give our macaws the pasta mix, we add oil to it along with whole grain breadcrumbs, which helps the oil stick to the pasta.

Diet is the pyramid of life. With thought, patience and even a basic understanding of nutrition, your bird´s life can be improved significantly. Good luck!