Parrot nutrition is a special area of interest for me and one about which I am fairly passionate. The foods that a parrot eats will literally determine his experience, physically and emotionally, throughout his life.
What we are doing as a population of bird owners is not working. Too many parrots are diagnosed daily with malnutrition and the often fatal illnesses that result. As a veterinary technician, I have seen it too often.
I also know how hard bird owners work at feeding a healthy diet. But it’s not an easy task. Information found on the internet results in both confusion and frustration. Too many websites voice strong opinions without citing sources or even acknowledging authorship in some cases.
And, parrots offer their own set of challenges. Adult parrots often don’t accept new foods readily. Second, they are biologically “programmed” to consume high energy (high fat) foods before consuming others that may offer better nutrition and more fiber. This can make them resistant to eating lower fat foods if both are offered in plenty. (Molukwu, M. 2011)
I will tell you up front that I am a strong advocate of feeding pellets – not as 100% of the diet, but as a wholesome and beneficial staple in the diet. If you are staunchly opposed to feeding pellets, then please do not read on. This is written for those with an open mind. On the other hand, if you are undecided or wish you could get your parrot to eat pellets and can’t…then this blog is for you.
Nutrient Requirements for Parrots
I once again just recently researched published scientific information about parrot diets. It is still true that the best minds don’t know for certain what the best diet is for any parrot. They readily admit this. “Few nutrient requirements have been derived scientifically for companion birds, so nutrient requirements are based on the best guess from galliforms [chickens, ducks, turkeys, Japanese quail]”. (Orosz, S. 2006)
“Companion bird nutrition has virtually no tradition. In the last fifteen years progress has been made in the area of pet avian nutrition. As companion bird popularity increases, interest into researching nutritional needs has surfaced. There is still a relative lack of research information due to lack of funding, need to research “natural” diets, and the difficulty in duplicating nutritional needs in captivity.” (Ritzman, T. 2008) It is now ten years after that was written, and progress in growing our knowledge has been slow.
In the face of such a lack of knowledge, why would anyone adhere so strongly to their own prejudices that pellets aren’t important to a balanced diet when most veterinarians advocate their use so strongly? Significant advances in parrot health have been seen since they were introduced. Yet many do.
Let’s take a look at the many aspects of feeding pellets, so that you can make up your own mind about the correct choice: Should I feed my parrot pellets, or not?
The Default Diet
First, I contend that we all need a “default” diet. By this I mean a diet that our parrots will eat that we can pour out of a bag. Serving other foods can be good for adding variety into the diet to ensure nutritional balance. However, the day may come when some problem prevents you from following through with your usual parrot food preparation plans. In times of disaster, we need a food that we can serve quickly that will support good health.
This “default diet” is going to be either a seed mix or a formulated diet. If we want to protect our parrots’ health, we can’t feed seed as the main dietary staple. Not only does daily consumption of a seed mix lead to malnutrition, it sets the parrot up to develop diseases like obesity, lipoma development, atherosclerosis and fatty liver disease.
Problems with Seed Mixes
Seed mixes are deficient in 32 essential nutrients. They are very low vitamin A, which is essential if the immune system is to function correctly. If it does not, illness results. Seed mixes also lead to calcium deficiencies, which can put a bird’s life in peril. Many egg-bound birds who lay soft shell eggs do so because of the seed mix they eat.
Feeding a high-fat diet can also contribute to behavior problems. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom explains: “As we provide these high carb, high lipid diets, we’re also providing these birds with high energy. If the parrot has insufficient opportunities to expend this energy, it leads to some of the aberrant behaviors, such as screaming and biting, that we see in these birds.” (Lindstrom, J. 2010)
Fatty foods give the parrot more energy, which may be channeled into biting or screaming. With one client years ago, I improved a screaming problem simply by converting a Scarlet Macaw from a seed mix to pellets and vegetables. That wasn’t the sole solution of course, but that change was crucial to long-term success. It is also thought by many that high fat diets contribute to increased “hormonal” behaviors, such as cavity seeking, intense bonding with one person in the family, paper shredding on the bottom of the case, and territorial aggression. (Hoppes, S. 2018)
In Defense of Seed Mixes
Some defend seed mixes by pointing out that pellets have been mixed with the seed or that vitamins have been sprayed on the outside of the seeds to create a “balanced” diet. However, whether a diet is deemed balanced or not depends upon what that bird actually eats. When given the option of seeds vs. pellets, parrots usually only eat the seed. When vitamins are sprayed on the outside of seeds, this also does nothing to balance the diet. Parrots hull all of the seeds they consume. Thus, the added vitamins wind up on the floor of the cage with the shells. “For the supplement to be effective, it must be consumed in proportion to its presence in the mix.” (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)
Even if the attempt is made to balance a seed mix by feeding table food, the fact still remains that seed mixes contain too much fat for the average parrot. Adding table food can make this worse, as most Americans do not eat a low-fat diet. There really is no valid argument in favor of feeding a seed mix as the chosen dietary staple. That leaves us with the option of feeding pellets (formulated diets).
Types of Formulated Diets
Formulated diets come in three types. Two of the types are typically lumped together, being described as “pellets.” The third type is manufactured by combining seeds and pellets into one product. An example would be the Lafeber Nutriberries and Avicakes.
Pelleted or Extruded Diets
Not all pellets are created equal. There are two methods for manufacturing a “pelleted” diet. The first creates an extruded nugget. An example of this type would be Zupreem or Pretty Bird. Some extruded products contain sugar, which makes them a favorite among many parrots. Some say that it is easier to convert a parrot to an extruded nugget, but I have not found this to be true.
Extruded diets are manufactured by forcing a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and water through a die under high pressure and high temperature. The higher temperatures required to produce extruded diets may cause more nutrient depletion than happens with pelleted foods. In either case, nutrients that break down under higher temperatures are then added back into the product to ensure that nutrient levels are met. (Brilling Hill. 1996)
Extruded diets often, but not always, contain chemical dyes that are made from petroleum. It has not been substantiated definitively that food dyes cause behavior problems or allergies in children. However, many swear that this is the case. Choose a product without artificial coloring if this is a concern of yours.
True pellets, on the other hand, are produced by adding steam to a mixture of dry, ground ingredients and then forcing this through a die to create the shape. Generally, they are produced under lower temperatures than are extruded nuggets. Some pellet brands are organic and non-GMO. Ingredients may be less finely ground and there may be more whole-food ingredients listed on the label. Harrison’s is an example of a pelleted diet.
A word of caution: You can’t choose a pellet simply by reading the ingredient list. Organic, non-GMO, and a variety of ingredients are all good claims. However, you must also ask yourself what person or body is behind the product.
Who formulated the product? Do they have a degree in nutrition or other pertinent education? Was any research done during the formulation? Any feeding trials performed? Do they claim that the pellet is a complete diet? If the company cannot willingly and happily provide you with this information, you should consider another choice.
Arguments Against Feeding Pellets
Let’s look at some of the arguments often given for not feeding pellets:
Argument: Pellets are too dry and can contribute to a “dry crop mix” if the parrot doesn’t drink enough water.
Answer: I have never seen or heard of such a case. Parrots in the wild consume many foods, including soil, that vary widely in moisture content. It is likely that they readily adjust their water intake to account for this. If a parrot is ill or is prevented access to water, this could be an issue. However, consuming pellets poses no risk to a healthy parrot.
Argument: Pellets are boring.
Answer: They are to us. We can’t know how our parrots regard them. In any case, I’m not sure that parrots expect their food to be exciting. That said, this is why it’s a good idea to offer a variety of vegetables, limited fruit, whole grains, and legumes.
Argument: Pellets do not allow for natural foraging behavior.
Answer: They do if you include them in foraging toys and other foraging opportunities.
Argument: Pellets cannot possibly meet the nutritional needs of all species of parrots kept in captivity.
Answer: This is probably true, especially for those species who forage from a huge selection of plant materials and invertebrates in the wild. However, it’s no reason not to feed them. They offer balanced nutrition. It’s up to us to supplement the pellets with enough healthy variety as described above to make sure that we get as close as possible to offering a balanced diet.
Argument: Pellets are not palatable so parrots don’t like them.
Answer: Not true. This argument is the result of incorrectly interpreting behavior. Many people conclude this after offering pellets and finding that the parrot won’t eat them. Introducing pellets has to be done correctly to ensure acceptance. You can’t offer a choice between seeds and pellets and then conclude that the parrot doesn’t like pellets. This is like offering a two-year-old a choice between broccoli and ice cream. Further, if a parrot hasn’t seen pellets before, it may take several weeks of offering them before he accepts them.
Argument: Eating pellets leads to iron storage disease (hemochromatosis).
Answer: True… IF your parrot consumes moderate quantities of both pellets and citrus fruits or juice. Parrots do not need dietary iron and too much iron absorbed from the diet can cause a health risk. The ascorbic acid in citrus fruit causes increased absorption of iron from the diet. There is no need to feed citrus fruits and they are best avoided in a pellet-eating parrot.
Argument: Veterinarians only recommend pellets because they make money off of them.
Answer: This is so ludicrous it doesn’t even merit a response.
Argument: Eclectus parrots develop toe-tapping and wing flipping if you feed them pellets.
Answer: Actually, these behaviors cannot be blamed solely on pellets or vitamin supplementation. (Desborough, L. 2014)
Argument:: Converting my parrot to pellets is just too hard; he never eats them.
Answer: He will if you introduce them in the right way. Read on…the next section is for you.
But first, an additional argument is often presented. Why feed pellets at all? Why not just offer a healthy variety and allow the parrot to choose which foods he needs? In theory, this should work. In practice, it does not. I can assure you of that from my own personal experience. In addition, “a self-selected diet in African grey parrots (Psittacus erithacus) resulted in a diet that was deficient in a total of 12 dietary components consisting of vitamins, minerals and amino acids. (Orosz, S. Lafeber.com)” For most species a combination of a formulated diet (50-80%) is ideal along with fresh vegetables, fruits, legumes, and other appropriate fresh foods.” (Ritzman, T. 2008)
Converting the Seed-Eating Parrot to Pellets
Let me reassure you about two things. First, I have never been unsuccessful in converting a parrot from seed to pellets. Second, I have never found it necessary to make the parrot hungry in order to accomplish this goal. If pellets are introduced correctly, your parrot will choose to eat them. The following is a foolproof method for getting your parrot to eat pellets:
First, make a chop mix for your bird. You may already have heard of “chop.” (While some lay claim to this idea, some version of it has been around for a long time.) Whole grains are cooked, then mixed with finely chopped vegetables and other items. The mix is frozen and then defrosted for feeding. It’s a good way to get a lot of variety into a parrot’s diet and offer a foraging experience. Here is an excellent article about making chop.
The only way you can screw this idea up is by including too many “goodies” (nuts, wheat-based pasta, dried fruit, etc.) into your mix. It should include only grains as close to nature as possible and a wide variety of vegetables. Other healthful additions might include flax seed, pasta made from legumes, sprouts, etc. Using the chop mix to convert the parrot to eating pellets works extremely well for birds who are used to being offered variety.
Once you have created your chop mix:
- Measure the amount of seed mix consumed each day.
- Mix this into an equal quantity of chop mix; offer this on a daily basis. (Your parrot will need to forage through the chop in order to eat his seeds. If he won’t go near the dish, then you will need initially to offer a small quantity of seed in a separate dish so that he doesn’t go hungry.)
- At the same time, begin to offer in a separate dish a good-quality pellet. Don’t worry if he doesn’t eat them at this time. Feed fresh pellets daily in a small quantity (two or three) until he starts to eat them.
- When you observe that he is eating some of the grains and vegetables, start reducing the amount of seed you mix into his chop. (You can reduce the overall quantity of seed by as little as one teaspoon a week if he is slow to eat the chop. Or, you can reduce it more quickly if he eats the chop mix readily. Take your cues from your parrot. Go as slowly or as quickly as he needs, but continue to steadily reduce weekly the amount of seed you put into the chop.)
- Drumroll: At some point (once the quantity of seed mix offered gets to the point where he can no longer rely on it to meet his nutritional need for dietary fat) he will begin to eat the pellets. You won’t have to do anything else to encourage him to eat pellets.
- Once he is eating the pellets well, completely eliminate the seed mix from the daily diet. Give it to the wild birds or use it to reward different behaviors that you ask him to perform.
Please note that this method is intended for species other than budgerigars and cockatiels. Generally, veterinarians recommend feeding these species fewer pellets. I convert these birds first from seed to Labefer Nutriberries and Avicakes, then add in a smaller quantity of pellets. This method has been most successful.
There are other ways, of course, to successfully introduce pellets to parrots. However, if I make this blog any longer, no one will read it!
Feeding Other Foods
If you do offer other foods in addition to the pelleted or extruded diet, you may change the nutrient balance of the diet as a whole, which could be problematic. This only becomes a serious problem if you are adding in seeds or nuts. As previously stated, parrots will eat high fat foods in preference to formulated foods. The best practice is to reserve any treats, whether seeds or nuts or cheese, for use in reinforcing behaviors that you have asked the parrot to do.
If you supplement with fruits and vegetables, you are less likely to upset the total nutrient balance of the diet. These foods are high in water content, so even if they make up a high proportion of dietary weight, they have a relatively small influence on the balance of nutrients supplied by dry pellets or extrusions that contain much less water. (Brilling Hill, Inc. 1996)
Veterinarians generally recommend that formulated foods make up between 50% and 80% of what is consumed. My best advice is to consult your own veterinarian as to what brand and amount to feed.
A Few Cautions
If pursuing a diet change, please weigh your parrot regularly to guard against weight loss. This is easier than trying to figure out what the parrot is actually eating. (An exception to this would be if your veterinarian has recommended weight loss for your parrot and is monitoring your progress with this.) Otherwise, weigh your parrot once or twice a week. You can use a good-quality kitchen scale. Alternatively there are many websites that sell scales with perches.
You should also be monitoring the droppings as an added precaution. What goes in must come out. If you have more than one bird in the cage, please also increase the number of food dishes. You should eliminate any competition for food as the diet conversion is completed.
Brue, R. (1997) Nutrition. In: D. Zantop, abridged edition, Avian Medicine: Principles and Application. Lake Worth: Wingers Publishing, Pages 23-46.
Brilling Hill, Inc. for Veterinary Practice Publishing Company. 1996. Nutrition of Psittacines (Parrot Family.) [online] Available at: https://www.marionzoological.com/docs/NutritionPsittacines-1009.pdf
Dr. Sharman M. Hoppes, DVM, Dipl ABVP. (2018) Reproductive Diseases of Pet Birds. Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/exotic-and-laboratory-animals/pet-birds/reproductive-diseases-of-pet-birds.
Clark, P. Dr. Jamie Lindstrom (2010) Telephone interview: The Link Between Diet and Behavior.
Desborough, L. (2014) Toe-tapping in Eclectus Parrots. [online] Available at: https://eclectusparrotcentre.com/contact/toe-tapping
Molokwu, M and Nilsson, J and Olsson, O. (2011) Diet Selection in Birds: trade-off between energetic content and digestibility of seeds. Oxford University Press for the International Society for Behavioral Ecology. [online] Available at: https://academic.oup.com/beheco/article/22/3/639/269921
Nijboer, J. (2018) Nutrition in Psittacines. In: Merck Veterinary Manual. [online] Available at: https://www.merckvetmanual.com/management-and-nutrition/nutrition-exotic-and-zoo-animals/nutrition-in-psittacines
Dr. Susan Orosz, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. (2006) Avian Nutrition Demystified. In: North American Veterinary Conference Proceedings, Volume 20. [online] Orlando: IVIS. Available at: http://www.ivis.org/proceedings/navc/2006/SAE/565.pdf?LA=1.
Dr. Susan Orosz, DVM, DABVP, DECAMS. Date unknown. Avian Nutrition Revisited: Clinical Perspectives. Pet Birds by Lafeber Co. [online] Available at: https://lafeber.com/pet-birds/avian-nutrition-revisited-clinical-perspectives
Dr. Tracey Ritzman, DVM, DABVP. (2008) Practical Avian Nutrition (Proceedings). CVC In San Diego. [online] Lenexa: UBM Animal Care. Available at: http://veterinarycalendar.dvm360.com/practical-avian-nutrition-proceedings