Parrots and finches require a specialised and healthy diet that does involve a lot of cooking and preparation. Proper nutrition is critical in terms of raising a healthy pet. Depending on your views, you can feed anywhere from 50% fresh to 50% pellets, to 85% fresh and 15% pellets/seeds. I choose the latter. To me, feeding less than 50% fresh food is too little.
Diet has become my obsession. It is so important to our pet birds, and also quite complex! Did you know that through changing how you feed, you can solve, or at least help, many behavioural issues in parrots – including hormone-related ones?
I have helped my Senegal’s hormones by changing his diet, and am currently working with other birds and their owners in the process of fixing behavioural issues through nutrition. It is not the easiest thing to do, but with a bit of work, you can put your bird on the path to feeling great.
An all-pellet diet is just as bad as an all seed diet. It is damaging to the liver and system in general, and is boring besides. With birds who come from an arid environment in the wild (such as parrotlets, cockatiels, and lovebirds), an all-pellet diet can even be deadly. To put it into perspective, a poor avian diet is like feeding a child nothing but sweets and crisps every day for every meal. Imagine the internal damage, even everything outwardly seems to look okay.
Just how important are diet and nutrition to a pet parrot?
Answer: Many behavioural problems boil down to diet, according to the Island Parrot Sanctuary.
You can fix – or at least help – biting, screaming, and plucking through the addition of proper diet. That leaves the question of what is a good, healthy diet for my bird?
Feeding parrots right consists of the following elements:
- Fresh vegetables and small amounts of fruit, mostly raw
- Grains, legumes, and beans
- Seeds and nuts as treats or snacks, in moderation
It also varies per species. We tend to speak in terms of wide, sweeping generalisations about parrot nutrition, but the truth is, parrots species all have specific requirements. Yes, they each need fresh veggies and fruit in moderation, but many require more consideration than just that. African Greys, for instance, require extra calcium. Parrotlets in the wild do eat seed, as do cockatiels. Many species of macaw need extra fat through nuts. Lorikeets – adorable little birds – are nectar-drinkers, and require the most specialised diet of all.
Experimenting with avian diet is wonderful. Just keep your vet involved, because this is something that affects a bird’s health in so many ways.
How do I convert my parrot to a healthy diet, or get him to eat new fruits and vegetables?
Diet conversion is a tough battle for many owners. It took us over a year of experimentation to get our parrotlet to so much as consider trying new foods, especially vegetables. He used to hate new food. Parrots do not instinctively know what is edible; nor do they know what is bad for them. They learn by example, in both captivity and in the wild. When they’re captive, we humans have to teach them what is good and healthy. This can take months of time and effort. The question of how to get your parrot to actually eat his vegetables boils down to the individual.
What is toxic to a pet parrot? The ‘toxic foods’ list for pet parrots is relatively small. In general, you can feed a pet parrot anything you might eat yourself, so long as you can guarantee it is fresh, healthy, and free of salt, fat, sugar, and other additives. Do NOT feed the following:
- Avacado (due to fat content this is deadly to captive birds)
- Raw garlic or onion
- Alcohol, sugary drinks, fizzy drinks, or caffeine
- Salt and sugar
- Fatty foods
- Fruit pits and seeds, including peach, pear, apple, apricot, cherry, or plum
- Raw honey
- Raw tomato
- Grit (parrots hull/shell their seeds, so this is NOT necessary, and is in fact deadly)
What kind of foods are safe for my parrot? This list is expansive and wonderful, bringing plenty of enrichment to your parrot’s life. This is not a complete list; Cockatiel Cottage has a good list of ‘safe’ foods, as does the Parrot’s Pantry group on Facebook.
- Vegetables and herbs: basil, thyme, beets, beet tops, broccoli, bok choy, mustard greens, endive, water cress, collard greens, spinach, Swiss Chard, Romaine letttuce, red lettuce, kale, dandelion greens, cilantro, carrots, carrot tops, sweet corn on the cob, rutabaga, turnips, turnip greens, parsnips, radish and radish tops, sweet potatoes, yams, squash, pumpkin, cucumber, zucchini, peas, dandelions, sprouts, bell peppers, hot peppers, parsley, green beans, string beans, fennel, cauliflower.
- Grains, seeds, and legumes, cooked: beans (such as mung, pinto, lima, wax, etc.), whole-grain pasta, quinoa, wild long-grain rice, cous cous, brown rice, oatmeal, barley.
Plus the following are generally considered safe in moderation, but shouldn’t be fed daily or in large amounts:
- Cabbage, eggplant, asparagus, celery, cooked potato, unsalted popcorn, cooked eggs with shell
- Citrus and other acidic foods: lemon, lime, grapefruit, orange, tangerines, clementines, cranberries, cooked tomato
- Fruits: apples, pears, apricot, cherries, mango (no skin), papaya (with seeds), watermelon (seeds are safe), star fruit, grapes, cantaloupe, berries, etc., due to the natural sugar content
- Seeds and nuts: safflower, sunflower, hemp seed, flax seed, pine nuts, walnuts, pistachios, pumpkin seeds, millet, etc.
- Dairy is much debated, but birds are not equipped to digest it, and so are often lactose intolerant. Only feed dairy in tiny quantities, knowing the risks.
A note about Tofu: Tofu is made with soy, and soy often stimulates breeding hormones in parrots. While technically safe, this is one food I choose to forgo.
Should I be feeding cooked, or raw?
Raw is generally best. Cooking can deprive a food of nutrients, but, in things like sweet potatoes or carrots, it helps by breaking down nutrients and making them easier to digest. Heating up food, however, has advantages of its own in that you can provide extra variety once in awhile. Steaming is often your best bet. Chop for parrots is an example of feeding raw and super healthy.
What role does sunlight play in my parrot’s nutrition?
This is an important question, one that I feel needs to be addressed more in the bird community. Parrots and finches both need the sun. Without it, avians simply do not get the most out of their diet, or grow their best feathers. UV encourages healthy feather habits (reducing the likelihood of plucking or feather barbering), and helps birds feel generally better and healthier – meaning less biting and screaming! Read more about the importance of sunlight to parrots.
An aviary or UV-A lamp beside the cage will help your parrot immensely in a number of ways.
Can I feed my bird meat like fish, pork, chicken, or beef?
It’s true that you can also safely feed cooked meat to your parrot up to twice a week, but many choose not to. This is not a necessity for a captive parrot. It may be interesting to know that species, like wild Amazon parrots, will actually canibalise their own dead. How often would an average wild parrot actually eat eggs or meat, though? Probably not that much.
As to eating chicken, parrots are a completely different species, so it is not cannibalistic. They are utterly unrelated.
Note: Protein typically causes hormonal issues. Start by cutting back on protein intake to reduce a parrot’s hormones. Pellets ARE a culprit here, especially ones with soy.
Do I need to feed pellets? (Alternatively, ‘Does my parrot need pellets in his diet?’)
This is a tricky question. I am currently experimenting with going pellet-free. Parrots would not be eating pellets in the wild, just like meat, and so this is one I don’t feel too bad about cutting out. It does require a lot of extra work to keep your parrot nutritionally balanced. You can’t just feed seed instead, as that will result in health problems of a different kind.
Obviously, we can’t mimic the wild diet (hence feeding vegetables like kale, which they would not see!), which is where pellets could potentially come in. Look out for the pros and cons of feeding a parrot pellets. This is too long to debate in a few sentences here and now.
My parrot wouldn’t eat these fruits and vegetables in the wild, just like pellets!
This is very true, but we are not able to offer exactly what a parrot would eat if left in its natural habitat. There are many things that wild parrots eat that are actually toxic to our captive birds – perhaps in part because of the mineral sources they flock to and ingest. In an owner’s case, offering fresh fruits and vegetables becomes about getting them the right nutrition for their current situation (cage or aviary living), and providing enrichment through it.
Besides this, we have to take into consideration the fact that wild parrots burn off much more energy than our captive ones, since they fly many miles each day in search of food. Captive birds need far fewer calories. Basically, we have to modify their diets in captivity to keep them healthy. The amount of fat that a parrot in the wild could tolerate differs because of what it is doing.
What birds need vegetables in their diet?
To conclude, all birds need healthy fruits, grains, and vegetables. Each and every one benefits from eating well – from zebra finches to canaries – and macaws, cockatoos, budgies, cockatiels, parrotlets, and all other parrots. Just like people.
Want to start to fix your bird’s biting or screaming? Begin with diet.