Traditionally pet birds have been fed on seed diets. Research over the last 30 years has identified that seed diets, while high in palatability (taste) and acceptance by birds, are actually very poorly suited to the nutritional requirements of our feathered friends. In fact, they contribute directly to the ill health and subsequent death of high numbers of beloved pet birds every year.
Did you know:
- Sunflower seed contains 49% – fat three times as much fat as the average chocolate bar? Many other seeds contain similar levels.
- Birds love to eat fatty foods just like many people?
- Birds on seed diets suffer the same health problems as people who eat high fat diets: obesity, heart disease, fatty liver disease, bad skin, cancer?
- Birds on a pelleted diet live longer, have fewer health problems, and look better than birds on a seed diet
The problems with seeds: Pellets are formulated diets for birds which typically utilise a grain base, and are supplemented with the correct proportions of micronutrients that birds require, as well as reducing the high fat levels seen in seed diets. They also inhibit the bird’s ability to pick and choose only their favourite items out of the food bowl (usually the fattiest things!). The benefits of pellets include they are complete and balanced and they provide nutritional consistency through the use of high quality ingredients. Standardised processing improves food hygiene by reducing contamination with harmful microorganisms such as moulds. Pellets can reduce waste and mess because they are 100% edible reducing the 50-70% of inedible husks and fillers that are found in seed mixes. Though pellets initially appear to be more expensive than seed, when you factor in the reduced amount of wastage, and the improvement in health and vitality for your bird they become much more attractive!
But seed is all that my bird will eat.: Some people claim that pellets are too boring for birds, but compared to what – endlessly cracking seed? It is a pretty sad situation if the only enjoyment a pet bird gets is from eating. Fortunately, pellets aren’t meant to be fed alone – vegetables and salads should be included in a healthy diet as well. This breaks up any potential boredom. The concept of feeding scientifically formulated, pelleted diets has been accepted for other pet species like dogs, cats, guinea pigs, and poultry for a long time. Australia has been slow to get on this band wagon for pet birds; but, feel confident that by feeding your bird a good quality pelleted diet, you can expect to see it live a longer and healthier life! Australian bird owners are now able to source several different brands of pellets, through their Avian veterinarians, bird shops and general pet stores. Reputable brands include: Harrison’s, Roudybush, Zupreem, Kaytee, Vetafarm and Tropican. Any pelleted diet that your bird will eat is going to be better than a seed based diet. If you are having a hard time finding pellets, ask your vet about ordering some in, or encourage your favourite pet shop to start stocking these healthier diets for pet birds!
What other foods can I give my bird?
- The general rules when feeding fresh foods to birds is to feed small amounts of a wide variety of items to round out the diet; and the foods that are healthy for you are generally going to be the ones that are healthy for your bird!
- Avocado has been identified as containing a toxin that affects the heart muscle of birds and so this should never be given to your pet. Other types of foods that are off limits for pet birds include stimulants such as coffee and tea, chocolate and other high sugar foods and alcoholic beverages. Birds are naturally very curious, and do seem to have some pretty liberal taste preferences so you must ensure your pet does not have access to these items.
- Human table foods such as pasta, toast, meat and even chicken bones can be given occasionally as treats. Birds do not have the right digestive processes to digest lactose (the sugar in milk) so dairy products should be avoided – this includes cheese, yoghurt, ice cream and butter.
- For most Australian parrots, fruit is not a necessary component of the diet. The exception is rainforest birds such as King Parrots and Eclectus Parrots. Many South American parrots (Macaws, Conures, Quakers), African parrots (lovebirds, Africa Greys) and Asiatic parrots (Ringnecks, Alexandrines) will benefit from some fruit in their diet as well. This may include but is not limited to apples, oranges, grapes, berries and stone fruit.
- Garden plants that can be fed include milk thistle, dandelion, flowering gums and gum nuts, banksia flower, and seeding grasses.
- Vegetables that can be fed include silverbeet, broccoli, cabbage, lettuce, celery, peas, beans, capsicum, parsley, carrot, sweet corn, cauliflower, sweet potato, pumpkin, and even Brussel sprouts! Mixed frozen vegetables are a simple, convenient yet healthy way to provide vegetables in your bird’s diet.
- It is not advisable to feed 100% pellets to any bird, and cockatiels especially seem to have problems tolerating this. Pellets should make up about 60-75% of your bird’s diet, the remaining 25-40% should be made up of vegetables, and perhaps some fruit.
Won’t my bird get bored eating pellets?
- Unfortunately, many bird breeders wean young birds onto a seed diet, and so seed is likely the only thing the bird has learned to recognise as food. When you combine this with the delicious taste of a high fat meal it is easy to understand why many birds will ignore healthy food and just eat the seeds available. Birds can also be highly suspicious of new things and it is possible they are too nervous and scared of the pellets initially to have even tried them. Luckily, we can teach birds to tolerate and then accept pellets and other healthy foods in their diet!
What should you be feeding?
- Disease problems due to seed based diets don’t happen immediately – it is not uncommon for a 30-year-old cockatoo to present to the hospital for the first time ever showing signs of malnutrition. Parrot species like cockatoos and galahs may withstand the effects of these diets for a considerable time before developing illness. However, more tropical species like Eclectus parrots, Alexandrines, Conures and Macaws have a very low tolerance for the nutritional deficits of seeds and may show clinical signs of illness very early in life.
- The same happens with our pet birds: seeds have excessively high levels of fat, but are deficient in proteins and the fat soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K. Protein is essential for muscles and feather developments, and the vitamins all play vital roles in keeping the bird’s cells and organs working properly. Seeds also have inappropriate amounts of the minerals such as Calcium and Phosphorus, which will contribute to your bird having thin and brittle bones predisposing them to bone deformities and fractures. Other problems related to low calcium levels in the body include heart and muscle weakness and egg binding in females. In total, seeds are estimated to be lacking over 30 nutrients required to keep birds healthy.
- Well in short, seeds are junk food for birds! They have plenty of calories to keep the bird alive, but they are seriously lacking in nutrients and lead to numerous health problems. The example I always use is to think about a human child eating nothing but potato chips for their entire life. Sure, they’ll have plenty of calories coming in, but over time that child will suffer from malnutrition, nutrient deficiencies and become seriously unwell.