What Is Training?

I fell in love with this photo when I saw it.  He seems to be thinking, “Would you please just tell me what you want from me?”

When a parrot begins to display problem behavior, it is usually due to a combination of things gone wrong and things undone.

In most cases, things have gone wrong in the process of creating the bird’s daily life. This is rarely due to a lack of caring on the owner’s part. It’s due to the difficulty of finding true, reliable information about parrot care.

Thus, the diet may be unbalanced. A social pair bond may have formed. The bird may not have enough to do or get out of his cage for enough hours each day.

And, in addition, behavioral training may have been neglected.

Inappropriate diet, pair-bonded social relationships, and inadequate environmental provisions + lack of effective guidance for the bird = behavior problem.images (11)  By “effective guidance,” I mean that the bird has not received guidance from the owner that would have steered his behavior into desirable channels.

So, most behavior consultations follow a similar pattern. We improve the diet, evolve social relationships, and increase enrichment and choice-making opportunities – if changes in these areas are necessary. This ensures that the bird’s needs are being met, which then sets him up for success when we formulate a plan to modify his behavior.

Inevitably, I wind up talking about training and that’s when things get really interesting.

A client asked me recently, “What actually is training?”  That was an excellent question and I’m happy to have a chance to discuss it here because I think many people have misconceptions about training. More than one person has mentioned to me that it almost seems demeaning for the parrot – that teaching tricks puts the parrot on the level of a circus animal. Others can’t imagine why you would want to train a parrot at all.

Many folks don’t really understand positive reinforcement training. They talk about clicker training, as if that is something different and apart and more special. It is not. Clicker training is positive reinforcement training. The clicker is used simply to make a sound that lets the bird know that he did the right thing. This buys you some time to deliver a treat. A spoken word works just as well in most cases.

Training is the process of teaching an animal a particular skill or type of behavior. target training

That is an oversimplified definition, of course. A more accurate, more scientific, definition would be that training involves teaching specific responses to specific stimuli. To expand on both, we can say that training involves the development of desirable responses and the suppression of undesirable responses. For example, we can teach a parrot to talk instead of scream when it wants attention. We can teach a parrot to stay on a perch rather than get down to cruise the floor.

The best trainers embrace positive reinforcement training as their primary behavior change strategy. Positive reinforcement is the process of offering the animal a valued item after it has performed a desirable behavior.  images (12)Most often, when training begins, food treats are used as reinforcers until others have been identified.

So, why do I always wind up talking about training when I do behavior consultations?  … Three reasons.

First, when you teach a bird new behaviors, you often see an almost “automatic” reduction in the problem behavior, so it affords a bit of quick success, which always helps.

Second, the bird has to unlearn the problem behavior and learn another, alternate, more desirable behavior that it can offer instead. That takes training, i.e. teaching.

Third, many parrots have developed pair bonds with their owners and these pair bonds often contribute to the very behavior problem that we are trying to resolve. By beginning to do some training, the owner can encourage the bird to look to her for guidance, rather than physical affection.pairbond

This photo may appear to represent a desirable social moment. It does not. By focusing your social interactions around the exchange of physical affection, everyone loses. You, as the owner, lose the ability to see the parrot as the resourceful, intelligent, incredibly capable creature he is. And your parrot loses out on a more enriched existence that involves learning new things.

Once I have convinced someone of the benefits of training, I often hear yet one more concern: “I can’t train because my bird is not food motivated.” I actually hear this quite often online, as well. It is a common perception.

Let’s examine this statement. It expresses the belief that the bird is not motivated to eat food. So, right out the gate, we know that’s wrong. Right? Parrots need food to live, so they must by definition, be food motivated.

What owners usually mean when they say this is that their parrot has not seemed interested in taking a treat in exchange for a cued behavior.  That is a whole different problem, and it’s always the same problem. If parrots are not motivated to earn training treats, it is almost always because they are getting too many fatty and carbohydrate-rich foods in their daily diet.013

This is why we so often have to improve the bird’s diet before we can modify his behavior. If you convert the parrot to eating formulated foods and fresh vegetables with limited fruit, you will have a parrot who is “food motivated.”  And, in fact the best practice is always to reserve seeds and nuts for use as reinforcers. It’s a win-win situation. The bird still gets to have some treats, but has to earn them rather than finding them in the food bowl.

There are many different things we can train parrots to do. We can teach simple, fun behaviors like targeting, turning around, or waving. We can teach a parrot to stay on a hand, rather than fly to a shoulder. We can teach a parrot to stay on a particular perch, rather than climbing down to the floor to terrorize people’s feet and the household pets. We can teach a parrot to fly to us on cue. We can teach a parrot to take medication willingly from a syringe or walk into a carrier when asked. There is no limit to what we can teach and our parrots can learn.

Anyone can teach these things!  We don’t need to be professional trainers. You would be amazed at how forgiving, flexible, and adaptable parrots can be in the face of our own lack of training skills. They still learn quite readily and have fun doing it.

Chris Shank Photos 023However, training is not necessarily easy for people in the beginning. It can be tiring because of the focus it takes. For many of us, so used to having our attention fragmented, this type of focus can seem like very hard work.

And often, beginning training sessions reveal our own lack of hand-eye coordination. This means practice for us, even when training simple behaviors like targeting. It can take a bit of repetition to get to the point where we don’t feel so awkward.

This was the case with a client of mine recently. In frustration, she told me emphatically, “I am NOT a trainer.” I wonder how many of you are nodding your heads in agreement right now, feeling the same way?  I, myself, might have made that comment at one point.

The truth is, however, we are all trainers. Animals are always learning with every single social interaction they have with us. Their learning ability doesn’t switch off and on. If they are always learning, then we are always teaching.

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Photo by Ruth Caron on Unsplash.com

And, as I pointed out to my unhappy client, she IS a trainer. She had very effectively trained her parrot to scream and lunge aggressively.  The fact that her training was unintentional doesn’t matter. It was her reactions to her parrot’s behaviors that reinforced them to the point where they became serious problems that required professional help to resolve.

So, we really don’t have a choice. We must accept that we are all trainers. We have the responsibility to think about what we are training our animals with our social attention…all of the time. As I once heard Barbara Heidenreich say, “If an animal is aware of us, we must be aware of the animal.” I have never heard better advice.

Wouldn’t the world be a better place if we all, each of us, maintained a daily awareness of the power we hold to influence the behavior of others? What if we all went around asking ourselves, when interacting socially with any creature, “What am I teaching at this moment?” images (13)Our relationships with our parrots and all animals would improve, certainly. Our relationships with other people would be kinder and more thoughtful, perhaps.

So, imagine please, how we might change the world simply by learning training and behavior principles and using positive reinforcement with all living things in our daily lives. Our parrots at least would fly straighter and truer their whole lives long.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Please note: Credit for the featured photo goes to Егор Камелев on Unsplash. 

Success Story: A Case of Feather Damaging Behavior

Abbie contacted me in early April 2018.  Scout, her Black-headed Caique, had suddenly begun destroying his feathers the previous December.  He was 13 years old at the time and had livOscarandChristieed with Abbie for 5 years.  Before that, he had one previous owner who returned him to the breeder for a biting problem.  Abbie had adopted him from that breeder after his return.

Abbie did exactly the right things once she noticed the problem. She scheduled a vet visit to rule out any medical causes. She then sought professional behavior support.  Abbie describes her feelings at the time: 

When we first noticed Scout had picked his feathers, and could see the holes in his plumage, I was heartbroken. I knew that feather picking was an unhealthy behavior. As I looked into it, I was overwhelmed and scared for Scout because there are so many differing opinions and so many suggestions. It is confusing, and the internet just makes it more impersonal. I didn’t want to spend months or years trying one thing and it not working, being frustrated, and starting over. I knew Scout couldn’t go through that either, not if I was serious about ending the feather picking. 

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Before Photo (early April 2018)

Scout is part of our family and we love him dearly. My heart was broken, but I was determined to help this get fixed. I thought I was already a good bird owner. I didn’t realize how much I didn’t know. We actually prayed, as a family, to be able to take care of Scout and for him to get better. 

 It was Abbie’s determination to get help quickly that ensured her success. As a specialist in feather damaging behavior (FDB), I have learned to provide prognoses to clients struggling with this problem. If you get effective help within six months of start of the problem, there is a 95% chance that your parrot will again be completely feathered. If you wait until the problem has gone on for a year, that chance of success drops to about 85%. If the problem goes on for two years or more, chances of resolution drop to about 70% or lower.

It’s always worth getting help from a professional because quality of life can be improved. However, if you are serious about having a parrot with perfect plumage again, getting help quickly is the key to success.

A Complex Problem

Feather damaging behavior (FDB) is a complex problem and finding solutions depends upon a detailed review of all aspects of the parrot’s life. There is rarely just one cause for this problem, unless it’s a medical one. Typically, there are several factors that combine to push the parrot over the edge into this extreme behavior. Thus, each case is a bit like a crime scene investigation.  You must take into account all the clues available by taking a thorough history.

Describing all of the risk factors for FDB is not within the scope of today’s blog. For a more thorough discussion of possible causes, please read my two-part article Feather Destructive Behavior in Companion Parrots.

I will tell you, though, that a lot has to be wrong in a parrot’s life for this problem to begin at all.  I was at a client’s home recently to talk about their cockatoo who had begun to bite. As we talked, she admitted that she is terrified that her parrot will start feather picking in the future.  I could immediately reassure her.  The bird has a large cage with plenty to do. He’s got great play skills. He enjoys full flight and regular training sessions. He eats a perfect diet. He gets time outdoors and bathing opportunities regularly. There is no way this bird is a candidate to develop this problem.  It just doesn’t happen “out of the blue.” There are always very clear, identifiable reasons that all relate to quality of life.

Identification of Causes

I sent Abbie an eight-page questionnaire to complete. Prior to our telephone consultation, I needed her to provide a detailed history. As I reviewed all of the information that she provided, I formulated some thoughts about the possible causes.

  1.  First, Scout had formed a pair bond with Abbie and was regularly on her shoulder for extended periods. He also took advantage of his out-of-cage time to go cavity seeking on the floor. I believe that both factors lead to an increased production of reproductive hormones, which is a risk factor for FDB.
  2. Scout also lacked “play skills.”  He didn’t interact much with enrichment, preferring instead to cruise the floor. He needed help learning to forage and we needed to find out what types of toys he might find interesting.
  3. I also thought his diet could use improvement. Abbie had never been able to get Scout to eat pellets. His main dietary staple was Lafeber Nutriberries with various fruits and vegetables added, depending upon what was in the house. I thought the diet might be a bit low in protein. The Nutriberries, while a valuable addition, only contain 12.5% protein. Since Scout also ate other foods, this brought the overall protein content of what he consumed even lower. Further, while the Nutriberries do contain some pellets, they have too much seed to be the primary dietary staple for a caique.
  4. Last, while some caiques can be fairly bullet-proof when it comes to dealing with stressful situations, I didn’t think this was the case with Scout. He had experienced a number of stressful situations within the relatively short period of five months. These included a week-long evacuation for a hurricane, a change of appearance for Abbie, an owner absence during which Scout stayed in the home alone with a caregiver coming in twice a day, and the advent of the Christmas holiday with all the changes to routine and home appearance that this brought.

Stress and Feather Picking

I want to take a minute to emphasize something. I read too often that a parrot started to destroy feathers because the dog died…or the owner went on vacation…or the daughter went off to college.  Events like those can trigger the problem, but are no more than that.

Despite the prevailing “wisdom” on the Internet, I don’t find that stress plays a role very often in the development of feather damaging behavior. Parrots are flexible and adaptable and forgiving.  Most are well able to return themselves to a state of equilibrium after a stressful event. However, this does take a bit of time. If enough stressful events happen within a short enough period of time, the result can impact the parrot adversely.

Testing Hypotheses While Keeping within Limits

All of these possible causes that I identified were only hypotheses. With a case of FDB, you can’t know for sure what the causes are.  However, with enough experience, you can make some educated guesses. The process from that point onward requires making changes and measuring your progress.

In Abbie’s case, we had limits within which we needed to work.  As with so many of us, these had to do with money and time.  Not only does Abbie work full-time outside the home, her husband is often away and she has a toddler to care for. It wasn’t easy for her to accomplish the changes I recommended. As she put it:

Over the past few months, working with Pamela, there were times when I got confused, frustrated, overwhelmed and busy with life. But, when I talked to her, she helped me break things down into realistic things that I could do, in my personal situation in life, to make steady progress.

Evolving the Pair Bond

Since Scout had begun feather picking in December, just as the days were beginning to grow longer, I suspected that increased production of reproductive hormones was a significant factor.

I wanted to see what we could do to reduce hormone production and encourage Scout to pursue more “functional” behaviors. This required evolving the pair bond that he had with Abbie. I asked her to gradually reduce the amount of time that he spent on her shoulder. The end goal was to be no “shoulder time” for more than five minutes once or twice a day. She was also to confine any petting to his head only. If he started to masturbate when with her, she would cheerfully but immediately put him down and walk away. He would learn that this sort of attention was not welcome.

The Solution to Cavity Seeking is Stationing

It was important that Scout not be allowed to roam the floor.  This practice not only results in a lot of destruction to baseboards and furniture, it allows the parrot to seek out “nesty” spots. His time would be a lot better spent in foraging or flying. To solve this problem, she began stationing training with him.  He would get all the good stuff (toys, treats, and social attention) when he was on his perch. He would get nothing except a return to his perch when he tried to access the floor.

However, before she could begin this training, she had to provide some stations (perches). OscaronBasketAgain we worked within our limits and Abbie found that baskets make great perches for birds Scout’s size.  They can be moved from room to room and the base filled with items that might trigger interest.  Scout soon learned to station well. He had lots to do in his basket each time he was on it and Abbie rewarded him liberally for staying there.

We found a coiled rope perch that Abbie could hang from the ceiling. This too would help to keep Scout off the floor. His wings are not clipped, but he doesn’t choose to fly much.  Therefore, this would be a great way to keep him up high where he couldn’t get into trouble. By mid-May, Scout was no longer getting down to roam the floor.

Foraging and Enrichment

Together, we increased the amount of enrichment that Scout received daily.  This is important for any feather picking bird. If a bird is chewing on enrichment, he can’t be chewing on his feathers.  Granted, some birds must be taught to forage and enjoy toys to chew.

In my experience, you just have to find a starting point.  I gave Abbie some suggestions for specific toys to purchase and others to make at home. To increase his foraging efforts right away, we put his Nutriberries in a foraging wheel along with plenty of beads of a size that he couldn’t swallow. He had to fish out the beads to get at the Nutriberries. That was a beginning. If Abbie had the time, she would provide a new foraging project every day before she left for work.

While it may seem fairly inconsequential, I also asked Abbie to change the perching in Scout’s cage.  If you want a parrot to do something, you must set him up for success. The way that the perches were placed, it wasn’t as easy as it could be for Scout to access his toys.  By placing these in more convenient (for him) locations, we encouraged him to interact with enrichment more often for longer periods.

Making Changes to Diet

We changed Scout’s diet and began to provide a lot of it in foraging toys. If a parrot isn’t on an optimal diet, you won’t get optimal behavior. Abbie introduced pellets into the daily ration. She also began to include more variety, in terms of fresh foods.

I suggested that she feed supplemental foods twice a day – first thing in the morning and again when she got home from work. She was to focus on vegetables and limited low-sugar fruits. She would put the veggies into an acrylic foraging ball when she was short of time. When her schedule was freer, she would make a chop mix and feed that.

I asked Abbie to stop giving Scout cashews as treats and instead reserve these solely for training and foraging. We would gradually reduce the number of Nutriberries he ate each day as he began to sample the new foods. By mid-May Scout was eating the new foods, although his consumption of the pellets was a bit slower.

Teaching New Behaviors and Strengthening Existing Ones

I recommended that Abbie engage in some active training with Scout to teach new behaviors. When a parrot has formed a pair bond with you, beginning to train new behaviors can help. Over time, the parrot learns to look to you for guidance rather than physical affection. It gives everyone a more functional way to relate and serves to round out the social experience.

Thus, Abbie began target training with Scout.  Scout, however, met this effort by exhibiting such excitable behavior that training wasn’t possible. Once we saw this, we backed off a little and just reinforced him for calm behavior in the presence of the target. ChristieTargeting Once he could remain calm when a training session started, Abbie could proceed with the process of teaching him to touch the chopstick with his beak.

In addition, I asked Abbie to work on the step-up cue with Scout. He did step up, but wasn’t consistent. I saw this as another way to evolve her relationship with him. She was to reinforce him every time he stepped up quickly when cued to do so. Once they had achieved better compliance, she would begin to work on recall with him, which would increase the amount of exercise he gets.

Stress

We did not make any specific changes to reduce stress.  There were no vacations or other potentially stressful events planned and I knew that just increasing enrichment and training would have a beneficial impact on any stress that might still linger.

Results

By mid-June, it was obvious that Scout had stopped his feather destruction.

OscarAfter
After Photo (mid-June 2018)

Remember the “before” photo above?  The photo to the right shows how Scout looked in mid-June, only two and a half months after we began our consultation.

Granted, this was a very fast resolution of the problem.  However, it proves what can be accomplished when an owner seeks help as soon as the problem starts and then implements religiously the right recommendations.

It also reflects the fact that Scout was just starting a molt.  In cases where the parrot bites feathers off, you won’t necessarily see progress until those feather ends molt out and new feathers take their places. It can mean months of waiting to find out if your efforts have been effective.  In the meantime it helps to keep a photo diary by taking pictures at the start of each month.  That way, you can assure yourself that at least the feather loss isn’t still continuing.

Abbie’s reflection on the experience: Some of my biggest takeaways are that it is ME that needs the behavior training; after I am trained, I can train Scout. The emphasis must be on being a Zookeeper first. And, the emphasis on being a parental [guiding] role in your parrot’s life, not a mate.

Lessons to Be Learned

  • If you have a parrot who starts to damage his feathers, get help quickly. If you have a parrot who has been chewing off feathers for some time, get help anyway. You will at least improve his quality of life and your knowledge.
  • Limits won’t limit your success. We all have limited time, energy, and money. That doesn’t have to stop you from taking action today.
  • Feather damaging behavior can absolutely be resolved with the right interventions.
  • Keeping parrots in a way that prevents problems is not necessarily easy. Since reliable information is hard to find, even the sharpest owners can still have problems.  Success isn’t measured by a lack of problems. It gets measured in how quickly you address them. Way to go, Abbie!

Have you found success in stopping feather destruction?  If so, please share what helped the most by leaving a comment.

Thank you for reading my blog. I am Pamela Clark, an IAABC Certified Parrot Behavior Consultant and licensed veterinary technician. My passion is helping people with parrots. For more information and to access many free resources, please visit me at http://www.pamelaclarkonline.com. Until next time!

Pellets: To Feed or Not to Feed

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. photo-1436902799100-7eb776a61f79

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. downloadIf 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)Photo by Kris Porter

“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.images (7)

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.images (8)

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? GreyIn 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.) Chop.FBWhole 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.

Sources:

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