Is Your Parrot REALLY Eating A Good Diet?

Liz Wilson
Parrot Behavior Consultant


Several years ago, I was talking to a new boarding client on the phone. As I collected information about her parrot, I asked her what her cockatoo ate, and she said "Everything." Confident that I understood what that word meant, I went on to talk about other things, like whether or not she covered the cage at night or something.

A week later, the bird came in to board for ten days. During that time I offered vegetables in every way that I knew. I offered them cubed, minced and pureed, diced and French cut. I steamed them, sautéed them, baked them and offered them raw. Nothing worked. In the 10 days that cockatoo stayed with me, it ate absolutely nothing but seed.

When the client came to pick up her bird, I commented that I'd failed miserably at getting her parrot to eat vegetables. She looked at me like I had two heads.


A Failure To Communicate
"Oh, he doesn't eat vegetables!" she said, obviously amazed that I would even consider such a thing. It was then that I had a true epiphany -- a luminous moment of discovery. Our verbal confusion was due to differences in the definition of the word EVERYTHING. When she said her parrot ate everything, she meant every-thing that her family ate. And she only looked slightly embarrassed as she explained that her family didn't eat vegetables. So the parrot was happily eating meat and potatoes, pasta and pizza and potato chips, etc..


Forced Clarification
That was when I realized I needed a better way to get boarding clients to explain what their parrots ate. I finally came up with the following questions for new boarders. The first is What is your bird's Base Diet? [i.e., pellets or seed.] Next question (and this drives everyone nuts): If you took your bird's total daily food intake as 100%, what percentage would be in each of the following categories: base diet [seed mix or pellet], vegetables, fruits [which are NEVER categorized with veggies], protein, and Other [with a space in which to write what they meant by that]. I have since dumped the Other category, and added the categories of: carbohydrates [pasta, bread, etc.] and junk food [cookies, potato chips, ice cream, etc., etc., etc.] Official Disclaimer #1: before any of you get all flustered (I can hear you sputtering from here) let me state that I’m perfectly aware that any numbers like these are simply guestimations. We all know that it is virtually impossible to tell what a parrot simply decimates and what it actually consumes.

And that doesn't even take into consideration all the stuff it lobs across the room so it rolls under your antique roll top desk, to be found in a prune-like, unrecognizable state sometime in the future. However, the point of the exercise is not to drive people crazy -- their parrots are already doing that, thank you very much. The point is to force clients to rethink what their feathered friend is actually consuming, as opposed to what the humans are putting into the bird's bowl. Obviously, two totally separate things.


An Explanation of The Various Categories
Now, let me go into more detail about each of these categories. The base diet is pretty self-explanatory -- a parrot's base diet is generally a seed mix or pellets. However, I find it surprising how many people get confused about the remainder of the categories. (I mean, don't they teach anything about nutrition in school, anymore? Am I showing my age, again?)

Many people don't seem to really understand, for example, the difference between vegetables and fruits. They are so used to lumping them together (as in, fruits and veggetables fruits and vegetables)) that they have difficulty separating the two. When I ask what vegetables a parrot eats, owners often list apples and grapes – apparently unaware that they are adding fruits to their list. However, differentiating is really important, since there is often a stunning difference in the nutritional content of the two groups. (More on that later.)


Pros and Cons Re: Vitamins
Many people also don't understand the difference between vitamins and minerals. I can't tell you how many times I have mentioned to someone about how important calcium is to a parrot's diet, only to have him/ her respond, "Oh, that's not a problem -- I give him vitamins." (Note: in case I slipped that one by you, calcium is a mineral, not a vitamin. So if you are just giving vitamins [as opposed to a vitamin-MINERAL powder], then you are not supplementing calcium, or any other mineral.) I should insert here that of course, any vitamin or vitamin-mineral supplements must be specifically avian products. Dog and cat vitamins (and people ones, too), utilize vitamin D2 and D2 cannot be used by birds. Avians (and reptiles) require vitamin D3. More on that later. And while I'm at it, here are a few more comments on the subject of vitamins:

Vitamins added to a bird's water [no matter what the manufacturer says] are NOT recommended by avian veterinarians for several reasons.

1. Vitamins added to water also adds color -- some birds stop drinking completely (which isn’t good).

2. Vitamins added to water are impossible to calibrate as to actual dose -- owners have no idea how much they are giving and how much the bird is getting. Directions often call for "x number of drops" for a particular size of bird, but neglect to mention the size of the water bowl. Without specifying the volume of water in the bowl, manufacturers are completely ignoring the concept of dilution. Knowing the actual concentration the bird is receiving is therefore impossible.

3. Vitamins added to water maintain potency for a short time -- maybe as little as an hour. So if your bird doesn't drink right away, it may be getting no benefit at all.

4. Vitamins added to water DO benefit the bacteria that normally inhabit everyone's water (bottled or otherwise). Makes them big and strong. (That is what that slimy feeling stuff in the bottom of a water bowl is -- bacterial growth. Veritable cities of bacteria.) According to Avian Medicine: Principles and Application (Richie, Harrison and Harrison, Winger Pub., 1994, p. 65), there can be a "100-fold increase in the bacterial count in 24 hours".

5. Vitamins added to water have been implicated as the cause of some cases of feather plucking -- birds that bathe in their water bowls can end up with sticky feathers that the bird can't get clean -- so they get pulled out.

So obviously, vitamins should be added to fresh food, not water, and a vitamin-mineral powder is much better than just vitamins. According to the Association of Avian Veterinarians, a parrot on a seed-based diet DEFINITELY needs avian vitamin-mineral supplementation, since the base diet is so lacking in nutrition. However, research on human nutrition has proven that vitamin-mineral supplementation helps, but it does not counteract a poor diet. In other words, you can't eat a steady diet of fast foods and junk and think that a vitamin-mineral supplement will put you on a good nutritional plane. It doesn't and can't -- and not for your parrot, either.


Back to Fruits vs. Veggies
So back to the subject of veggies vs. fruits. The problem with fruits is that they are often lacking in nutritional value --and this of course, means that most parrots adore them. Veggies, on the other hand, are generally much higher in nutritional value, which translates to parrots (and many humans, young and old) often not liking them as much. This is obviously due to the basic rule (I think it may be one of Murphy's Laws): if it's good for you, it does not taste good. Official Disclaimer #2: I feel compelled to mention here that I really like vegetables, and eat them daily with great pleasure. However, given the option, I would NOT choose vegetables over say, chocolate cake…which I don't eat daily but would like to.


NUTRITION 101 – FIRST: The Myth of Vitamin C
Before I babble further, let me give you some background information regarding nutrition. First of all, everyone knows Vitamin C is very important for people, so they are forever trying to get their birds to eat citrus fruits. However, the truth is most animals don't need vitamin C supplementation in their diet, because they manufacture their own. The only animals I know of that don't make their own are the primates (that includes us, folks) and Guinea pigs. Most avian vets agree that healthy par-rots have no demonstrable need for vitamin C in their diets. So you don't need to worry any more if your parrot doesn't like oranges. (However, if your bird is sick, your avian vet may recommend vitamin C supplementation -- especially if there is any liver involvement.)


SECOND: The Calcium to Phosphorous Ratio
Of all the mineral interrelationships, the most critical in companion bird nutrition (and in most other species) is the relation between calcium and phosphorous. To maintain strong bones and pro-per health, the ratio of calcium to phosphorous should be within a range of 1½:1 to 2:1. [Richie, Harrison and Harrison, p.66] This means that a parrot needs about 1½ - 2 times as much calcium to phosphorous in their diets. So if you feed something high in phosphorous -- like seed, for in-stance, or some of these cooked bean/corn/rice diets for pet birds, then you need to counteract the high phosphorous intake by getting your feathered friend to eat 1½ -- 2 times as much calcium-rich foods like beet greens, mustard greens and broccoli tops.


THIRD: Calcium & Phosphorous Plus Vitamin D3
The calcium to phosphorous ratio is critical, but there is another factor that enters into the equation, and that is vitamin D3.

Vitamin D3 is the vehicle by which the body can absorb calcium and phosphorous from the diet, so it's crucial that adequate vitamin D3 be available. According to Richie, Harrison and Harrison (again), "Inadequate vitamin D3 levels in the body can cause calcium deficiency symptoms in an otherwise calcium-adequate diet." (p.67) Sources of vitamin D3 are simple: unfiltered sunlight (i.e., not through glass or plastic, so sunlight through a window does not count), full-spectrum lighting, avian vitamin supplements and pelleted or extruded diets for birds.


FOURTH: Vitamin A
By far the most common vitamin deficiency seen in avian medicine in this country, vitamin A is critical to a healthy immune system, and maintaining cell wall integrity in the mucus membranes, among other things. The mucus membranes cover the gastrointestinal and respiratory tracts, functioning to protect the organism from outside invaders or pathogens. Classic signs of vitamin A deficiencies (hypovitaminosis A) in parrots include signs of upper respiratory disease, and abscesses in the mouth.


Reptile Book Food Chart -- Fact vs. Fiction
Well-known reptile veterinarian Frederick Frye included an extremely interesting nutritional chart in his recent book Iguanas: A Guide To Their Biology And Captive Care, [1993]. It offered nutritional breakdowns for a variety of foods, and much of it was based on the US Department of Agriculture publication called "Composition of Foods" [Hand-book Number 8]. This chart was quite an eye-opener for me, considering what I thought was nutritionally valuable as opposed to what actually turned out to be. The chart outlined the content of several nutrients -- vitamins A, B1, B2 and C, as well as the minerals calcium, phosphorous and iron, plus grams of protein -- in each of a wide variety of vegetables and fruits.

People, lemme tell you, I was amazed. For instance, those apples that are supposed to keep the doctor away are simply pitiful nutritionally. Essentially sugar water and a little fiber. There were many items I had thought were nutritious, but turned out not to be -- things like oranges, grapes, pears and grapefruit (and I always feel so sanctimonious when I eat grapefruit!]. Bananas, another favorite on the parrot hit parade, has 3½ times as much phosphorous as calcium. This means the human has to feed and the bird has to eat, 5-7 times as much calcium-rich foods to counteract it. Grapes are also a problem, with twice as much phosphorus as calcium. Yellow peaches had a nice shot of vitamin A (1000 IU [international units] in 3 halves), but white peaches had only a 1/10th as much at 100 IU. Otherwise, the two were identical nutrition-ally. (Neat, isn't it? The white peach is considered to be a wonderful achievement for fruit growers, but in removing the color they removed the only nutritional value of the fruit! And this is supposed to be an improvement?? Humans are so cool, sometimes, aren't we?)


Good Nutritional Values for Veggies
On the other hand, vegetables did really well nutritionally. Green beans were OK but not great, but beet greens had an amazing 22,000 IU of vitamin A, as well as twice as much calcium as phosphorus. The broccoli leaf turned out to be the most nutritious part of that vegetable, having 4½ times as much vitamin A than the flowerette and 15 times that of the stem. Weird, huh? Corn, on the other hand, had an almost 1:13 calcium to phosphorus ratio! According to this chart, there really IS a difference between sweet potatoes and yams, with yams the hands-down winner, containing almost 1½ times the vitamin A as well as twice the calcium. (Nice to have THAT mystery solved!) As far as greens go, collards, endive, kale, beet greens and spinach were wonderful in terms of not only vitamin A, but also in their ratios of calcium to phosphorus. Parsley was excellent in both those categories, plus a hefty 20 grams of protein and 1½ times the vitamin C as an orange.

But by far, the nutritional winner was the lowly dandelion, scourge of the suburban lawn. Dandelion greens contained an incredible 20,000 IU vitamin A, a 2½:1 ratio of calcium to phosphorous and (for humans) a whopping 100 mg. of vitamin C -- TWICE what you find in a medium-sized orange. (Boy, those citrus growers have sure done a fine PR job, don't you think?)


Just How Big Is That Parrot REALLY?
We parrot companions often make a fundamental mistake when we feed our birds. We apparently believe our birds are actually as big as THEY think they are -- as opposed to how big they REALLY are. I don't know about you guys, but Sam, my 40+ year old blue and gold macaw definitely thought she was bigger than the 80 pound Doberman I used to have. A friend of mine has a Grey cheek parakeet named Cyclone who is bigger than a Great Dane. It's true -- just ask him.

There's one thing for believing in the psycho-logical size of a parrot -- there is another for FEEDING for the psychological size. The fact is that we all tend to overfeed our parrots. There is no problem with that unless we overfeed stuff a parrot loves, like pasta, as opposed to what is truly good for them, like dandelion greens and kale. I happen to like vegetables a great deal, but like I said before, if I were offered the choice of veggies or chocolate cake, well….

The other day, when a new boarding client brought her Congo African grey to stay with me, she brought the following foods: a large container of seed, a box of Fig Newtons™ and a jar of maraschino cherries. (Yup, this was a new one for me, too!) When questioned, she explained that they gave the bird a cherry when they left for work and a cookie at bedtime. When I expressed concern, she said "But it's only one cookie and one cherry -- that isn't much." I saw the same problem with the lady who "only fed her Amazon (another one pound parrot) nine grapes a day." Well, I believe it was Greg Harrison who worked out the math -- that one grape to a bird the size of a cockatiel [approximately 100 grams] was equal to 49 grapes to a human. And that, my friends, is A LOT OF GRAPES. With the lady with the Fig Newtons™ and maraschino cherries, I did some math. [Now, you math majors, be nice!!] The bird weighed 430 grams. As I understand it, birds can consume anywhere from 15-20 % of their body weight daily. (For those people who actually believe that old saying, "She eats like a bird " – at a 140 lb., if I ate like a bird, I would consume anywhere from 25-30 pounds of food per day.) ANYWAY, if a 430 gram bird consumes, say, 15-20% of their body weight daily in food, then that bird is consuming 65-86 grams of food per day (a-bout 2-3 ounces). A Fig Newton™ weighs about 15 grams and a maraschino cherry weighs 4 grams. (OF COURSE I weighed them, how else would I know what they weigh?), or 19 grams of junk. Di-viding 19 g. by 65 and 86 g., we find that 23-29% percent of that bird’s daily food intake is JUNK. That’s A LOT of junk, don’t you think? Maybe too much, eh?

I was talking to a lady the other day on the phone, and she told me that she feeds her budgie pellets, but since it loves them, she also gives the bird "just a little seed for a treat." I asked her how much seed, and her answer was one tablespoon daily. Well, American budgies weigh about 30 g. (one ounce), so 15-20% of their body weight would equal 4½ -6 grams of food per day. Just out of curiosity, I weighed one table-spoon of small bird seed on my $50 digital kitchen scale, and you know what? That tablespoon of seed weighed 10 grams – almost double the bird’s total food intake for the day! Not exactly a little treat, no? Do you really think that little budgie is eating any pellets, with that much seed in it’s cup?


The Myth of the "Table food Diet"
In her article "Parrot Diets & The 'Idiot Factor'" [Pet Bird Report Issue #26], Blanchard commented on the variety of food stocked in pet super store bird departments -- 95% seed mixes and only a couple of types of pellets. She felt this was proof that the average bird owner in this country still feeds a substandard diet, and I agree. If more bird owners fed pellets, then they would demand that these stores stock in a better variety of pellets. Unfortunately, the same is true of human diets in this country -- a brief perusal of the menu in a fast food restaurant or the shelves of the average grocery store will not leave a person with a comfortable feeling that the average American is eating a balanced diet. On the contrary. Consequently, the best avian vets in my area no longer recommend feeding table food to a bird at all. They have realized how nutritionally poor most table food is in this country. Instead, they recommend feeding a good quality pellet along with vegetables high in vitamin A. Besides the food already mentioned, other vita-min A-rich foods would include: red chili peppers (dried are better than fresh), cantaloupe, beef liver, egg yolks, papaya, carrots and mango.

A number of times, I have boarded parrots that are on a base diet of "table food," and I‘m really uncomfortable with that. I don’t feel that I know enough about nutrition to be able to provide a balanced diet of just table food. To quote Dr. Brue, again [R, H&H p. 65]:

"Just as providing complete, through veterinary care is impossible without proper training, so is the formulation of a properly balanced, complete diet. The formulation, development and production of a diet is surprisingly complex due to the large number of nutrient interactions, the differing bioavailabilities of nutrients from different ingredients and the difficulty of procuring and administering micronutrients into the diet. A well formulated, properly balanced diet represents a precise combination of over 40 nutrients, sometimes provided by just as many different ingredients."


Conclusions….. FINALLY
So all of this babbling boils down to rather simple stuff. Don’t assume that you are feeding a good diet – really analyze not only what you are putting in your bird’s bowl, but what he is actually consuming. Look at the volumes he eats in terms of how big he really is. There is absolutely nothing wrong with treats or even junk food, as long as the volumes are sensible. Don’t undermine a good pelleted diet with too much junk or too many treats. It is your responsibility as an educated parrot companion, to make sure that your little friend is eating a balanced diet, so that (s)he can enjoy the maximum potential life span with the best possible health.

This article was first printed, in part, in THE PET BIRD REPORT, Issue #31 Vol. 6 No. 5

Liz Wilson, Certified Veterinary Technician, has been assisting pet bird owners with parrot behavior problems for several years through lectures, phone consultations, and house calls in the Greater Philadelphia area.

Copyright Elizabeth H. Wilson, April, 1998.
All rights reserved. Parts or whole may be reprinted, but not distributed without express written permission of the author.


About Liz Wilson To Contact Liz ArticlesLiz's Books