The Role of Diet and UV Light in Avian Behavioural Issues.

I type this with my parrotlet, Ptak, sitting on my hand – an unprecedented behaviour. He is exhausted, having just been to see the Big, Bad Vet (hereby known as the BBV**). At the clinic, the BBV reached into the offensive tub of travelling and plucked him gently out. Afterwards, Ptak was subjected to many humiliating practises, such as having his underbelly examined and being stuffed into a box to find his weight (30 grams on the dot!). When all was said and done, and he was returned stuffed back into the tub of travelling, he instantly set to preening his lovely, ruffled feathers.

**Everything regarding this experience is the view of the parrotlet, and not of related parties; the humans found the Big, Bad vet to be very nice and knowledgable.

______

Our parrotlet has a clean bill of health! Despite his finicky eating habits and love of chowing down on paper, the vet assured us that he is not a sick bird in the slightest. And we humans learned a good deal of things, too. The thing is, if you have any doubts, questions, or concerns, going to an avian vet is your best option. It’s far quicker and more reliable than sifting through the thousand and one differing opinions on the web.

So – the beginning of the appointment. Ptak’s keel bone was fine; it’s got plenty of muscle around it. He was put into a box to weigh him, the fidgety thing, and then examined. He has some stress barring on his tail feathers. Each bar apparently represents one day of stress – be it actual stress, fear, cold, or poor nutrition.

In case you’re curious, here’s how to judge if your bird is close to a healthy weight: put it on its back and feel gently down the centre of the body with one finger. If you can feel the faint jut of a bone along the upper belly – like a dull knife, surrounded by muscle or a little fat – you’re good. If you can’t feel it at all, your bird is overweight. And if it’s sharply jutting, your bird is underweight and should probably see a vet. You can gently blow aside the feathers on the chest to check just how sharp/muscly the keel bone is.

We learned some interesting things about parrots and food, too – and from here, this post turns into ‘how to make your picky bird eat vegetables.’ First, a mix of seeds and pellets (and fruit/vegetables) is definitely ideal in a bird’s diet. Harrison’s is a recommended pellet brand. We also learned that seed mixes from most pet shops should be regarded warily. Here are some thoughts:

  • Seed mixes are bagged by the shop themselves, often times, and so sit on the shelves for ages until you pick them up. These have no expiry dates.
  • You can’t guarantee what’s actually in the mix. Many are filled with sunflower seeds and millet, both of which are fatty and addicting to a bird. They’ll want literally nothing else!
  • There could be unpleasant infestations. (Freezing the seed can help.)
  • The pet shop bagged mixes are usually in clear plastic bags: the light in the shop reduces nutritive value. By the time a bag gets to you, the consumer, the healthy vitamins in the seed are pretty much gone.
  • Boxed mixes are much better. They don’t let in light, and have an expiry date and a guarantee as to what’s in it.
  • Sunflower seeds’ shells (as well as peanut shells and others) can contain aspergillosis, a deadly fungus. It’s best to find pre-hulled seed mixes.

A bird like Ptak will pick through its seed mix and eat its favourite bits – usually the fatty ones that mean easy, fast energy – just like a wild bird would do. These selective eaters see no reason to eat anything else.

Notice it's the millet that's eaten, and the lettuce ignored.

Notice it’s the millet that’s eaten, and the lettuce ignored.

To persuade them to eat the right things, there are things you can do. Obviously your bird needs to eat! When battling to get it on the right diet, you must offer your pet what it’ll eat at some point, or it’ll starve. A bird simply will not eat anything it doesn’t recognise as food; watching you enjoy eating something is a great start. Often they’ll want to try (and it’s a good bonding experience if they do). Many parrots will also forage around on the floor, and a few conveniently ‘dropped’ scraps can help convince it that these things are tasty.

To start the complete conversion, our vet recommended feeding the seed addict his crack-cocaine preferred seed twice a day: once in the morning and again in the evening, leaving the mix in for a hour each time. Feed less than you usually do, but enough that the bird definitely eats – perhaps a teaspoon each time.

This is not a training diet.

After, replace the seed bowl and its contents with fresh veg, fruit, chop, birdie mash, or other bird-safe foods. This way, the bird will hopefully turn to the healthy options, rather than filling up on seed as it usually would. Persistence is key. It can take months, the vet said, to persuade a picky eater to give up its ‘addiction.’

In the meantime, serve up different things in different ways. Offer veg and fruit chopped, cubed, grated, whole, in strips, or hidden inside things. String them on bird-safe skewers, or put them in a bowl, mixed with small amounts of seed. If that doesn’t work, you can even mix in some fruit juice or cool tea. Try everything, and if it fails, keep trying! That’s what I have to remember with our parrots.

Biting is often caused by an inadequate diet. Imagine feeling malnourished, tired, and grumpy. This can all be fixed by changing the diet! You may have to tweak your parrot’s diet many times before finding the right combination of foods and nutrition.

If you want to convert your picky eater to an optimal diet, make sure you consult your avian vet first. He or she will help guide you and probably (as with us) prescribe probiotics and vitamin supplements for the process.

The vet also talked about the importance of UV lighting and how it actually ties into diet and overall health. All birds, even ones whose cages are kept right by a window all day, get next to no UV light. They need several hours out in the sun for optimal health and beautiful feathers. For obvious reasons, going outside is not an option in the winter – or even at all, for some individuals.

So the recommended solution for every caged bird is to get a UV spectrum light. One per bird, ideally, as full spectrum light doesn’t tend to travel much farther than a foot.

Benefits: a happier bird (who can now better process vitamins and minerals) with an overall improved mood. Less biting, screaming, and even plucking, if that’s something you encounter!

Ultra violet also plays a part in the selective eating of our feathered companions. It’s a known thing that birds see into the UV spectrum… to put it into perspective, the vet said that scientists think they can see over three hundred colours that we can’t. To a bird that has no exposure to the sun, their inside world is black and white and grey. Boring.

The food in their dishes looks grey. They can’t see the colours of it. How unappetising must that be? If your bird is a picky eater, putting in a UV spectrum light like one from this companycan help.

The parrots and other birds who get these things (UV light, proper foraging, cuttlefish and other supplements, good nutrition, exercise, and mental stimulation) live a lot longer than birds who don’t. I’m really hopeful that we can get Ptak’s diet back on track. I’ll definitely keep this blog updated on my ‘battle.’

Note: Remember, NO chocolate, alcohol, avocado (or guacamole), caffeine, dairy products, apple seeds, raw onions, garlic, or fatty/salty/sugary foods. If it’s not healthy for you, it’s not healthy for them.

And if you’re trying to convert your peep, good luck. I’m right there with you.

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