The Benefits of Fresh Food for your Companion Parrot
After having a look through parrot magazines, books and websites, a person could be forgiven for being a bit confused over what the ideal diet for his parrot should consist of. A few people insist that only pellets should be fed to parrots because they provide a perfect balance of all the nutrients a parrot will need. Adding other foods, the argument goes, could disrupt this balance. However, many parrot owners and breeders say that a mix of pellets and fresh foods is best. Still, a few parrot keepers do not feed pellets at all and feed a diet composed of seeds and other fresh foods. So, what is the best diet to feed?
First, let’s look at the claim that pellets provide a perfect diet. Most companies do base the contents of their pellets on a large body of research on avian nutrition, so a parrot fed pellets will be very unlikely to develop any major nutritional deficiencies. However, whether pellets are “perfect” for all species is questionable, particularly given that the formulations are generally based on research done either on poultry, or on one parrot species, usually the cockatiel. When results based on studies on poultry are used in determining how much of a certain nutrient a parrot would need, the differences between the two birds’ digestive systems and growth rates are taken into account. This may not be ideal, but is done because doing detailed studies on every parrot species’ nutritional needs is unfeasible.
Many parrot owners also question whether a few types of pellets couldprovide perfect nutrition for the approximately 350 species that exist. Since parrots are found in various habitats across several continents, there is no “one size fits all” diet suitable for all parrots. For example, Hyacinth Macaws eat high-fat palm nuts almost exclusively, while other species, such as most Amazons, will include parts of dozens of plants in their diets. An ideal diet for an Amazon would not provide sufficient fat and energy for a macaw, and a good macaw diet would make an Amazon fat. Many pellet manufacturers have taken this into account and do make low-fat or high-energy diets. Different formulations are also available for breeding birds or those with allergies. Still, most manufacturers only make a small number of pellet types for the hundred or so parrot species commonly kept by pet owners and aviculturalists. So, while pellets are a very good source of nutrition for birds, it’s unlikely they are perfect.
Also, the claim that adding additional food offsets the nutritional balance in the pellets assumes that the parrot owner is offering the parrot mostly junk food. This is the case for a few unknowledgeable parrot owners. However, there are many conscientious parrot owners who are careful about what their parrot eats. Adding whole grains, fruits, vegetables, seeds and nuts to a parrot’s diet will provide extra nutrients and enrich his life greatly.
Augmenting a pelleted diet with fresh food will also allow an owner who has studied the habits of wild parrots to tailor the diet for the bird’s specific needs. For example, the owners of large macaws can add more fatty nuts to their bird’s diet, because many wild macaws like Blue-throats and Hyacinths eat palm nuts in the wild, which are about 56% fat. Owners of Eclectus Parrots can include fewer nuts but more fruits and vegetables in their bird’s diet, since wild Eclectus eat a great deal of fruit. Many Australian parakeets, such as budgies, cockatiels or Bourke’s Parakeets, enjoy grains and small seeds and eat a lot of these in the wild, so owners of such birds should enrich their pet’s diet with items like millet.
Phytonutrients: A Great Reason to Feed Fresh Foods
Fruits and vegetables also provide extra nutrition to parrots in the form of
phytonutrients, which are also called phytochemicals. “Phyto” refers to plant, so these are simply organic chemicals that occur naturally in plants. Phytonutrients are different from vitamins or minerals in that they are not 100% necessary for proper functioning, but do provide major health benefits. For example, a search I did for research articles on the subject revealed hundreds of studies that have demonstrated that many of the molecules that occur naturally in plants help reduce cancer rates in humans and lab animals. Some phytonutrients actually selectively destroy cancer cells in cultures that contain a mix of cancerous and healthy cells.
Phytonutrients also help counteract the damage done by oxygen to animal cells. Ironically, while it’s required for survival and used by the immune system, oxygen can damage animal cells over time. This damage is called “oxidative stress.” In particular, oxygen can react with other chemicals to produce two types of reactive, damaging molecules: free radicals and peroxides.
Normal animal cells have their ways to correct a lot of the damage done by peroxides or free radicals, but as animals age, these mechanisms become less effective. By ingesting plant-based foods, animals can give their bodies a boost in the fight to correct cell damage. Many fruits and vegetables contain antioxidants that react with free radicals or peroxides to render them harmless. Because a great deal of oxidative stress can cause age-related problems such as atherosclerosis, feeding lots of fruits and vegetables to your parrot will help keep him fit and healthy for a long time. Parrots can end up with atherosclerosis, which causes inflammation in the arteries, just like people can (Bavelaar and Beynen, 2004). Eating a great deal of fruits and vegetables also helps slow or prevent the onset of various neurodegenerative disorders.
Examples of phytochemicals include anthocyanins (which are the red, purple or blue pigments in plants), lycopenes (the red pigment in tomatoes and grapefruit), carotenoids (red, yellow, or orange pigments) or phenolic acids (found in many berries, nuts and chili peppers). Vitamins A, C, and E also act as antioxidants. These vitamins will be found in pellets, but other beneficial antioxidants found in plant-based foods will be either absent or present in low levels in pellets. A few pellet brands do contain vegetables, but these tend to be far down on the list of ingredients, meaning that they make up a small part of the pellet.
Healthy Table Foods for Parrots
For most species, a pelleted diet should be supplemented with a mix of fruits, vegetables, whole grains, nuts and seeds to give the parrot an optimal diet. At least 25% of the diet should consist of unprocessed food, although this percentage can go higher if the owner wishes and has done his research. For birds on a seed-based diet, many extra foods must be added to the diet to prevent the parrot from developing severe nutritional deficiencies. The seed mixtures found in most pet stores lack many vitamins and minerals parrots need for proper functioning. Parrots on all-seed diets often suffer from vitamin A, calcium and/or iodine deficiencies and many, especially Amazons and Rose-breasted Cockatoos, often become obese on such a diet (Stahl and Kronfield, 1998; Doneley, 2003).
Grains: A Good Source of Carbohydrates, Vitamin B, Minerals and Protein
Grains and grain-based foods can make up about 30% of the fresh food portion of a parrot’s diet. Grain-based foods should be made of whole – not refined – grains. Whole grains are far nutritionally superior to refined grains or products made from them. Refined grains are those that have had the bran and germ – in other words, most of the nutrition – removed. White bread, white pasta, and white rice are examples of products made of refined grains. Some products made from refined grains are enriched with some B vitamins and iron, although these refined products will still contain less fiber than whole-grain products.
Examples of whole grains that can be offered to parrots include cooked brown rice, oatmeal, and brown millet. The sprigs of millet sold in pet stores can be offered as a treat to most birds. They tend to be marketed to people with small birds, but many large birds love them too. My Amazon, Ripley, loves her millet, and as a bonus, it’s low in fat. Other exotic grains or grain-like foods, including bulgur, brown couscous, quinoa or amaranth are also great to feed to parrots. Bulgur is similar to cracked wheat, but it is usually boiled, dried, and broken up. Quinoa and amaranth are not true grains since they are not from plants in the grass family, but they are very grain-like in taste and appearance. Bulgur, quinoa and amaranth have a somewhat nutty flavor, so most parrots relish them. They are a good food to offer “seed junkies” or birds who eat seeds and resist their owner’s attempts to feed them a better diet. For example, a Quaker Parrot I fostered wouldn’t accept many fresh foods at first, but he chowed down on the first bowl of quinoa I offered him.
Quinoa can be cooked like rice, but it does have one disadvantage. The “grains” are coated in unpalatable saponins, which should be removed before cooking. This can be done by soaking the grain in water for a couple of hours and then discarding the water, or by rinsing the grains for a few minutes under running water in a fine strainer. Sometimes, boxes of pre-rinsed quinoa are available to purchase. Amaranth seeds, like quinoa, are grain-like and can also be cooked like rice. They do not need to be rinsed first.
Most whole grains are excellent sources of B vitamins, minerals, carbohydrates, and proteins. Most whole grains also contain all or most of the essential amino acids your parrot will need. Amino acids are the “building blocks” that proteins are made out of, and there are several types that parrots must consume. The majority of whole grains contain approximately 10-12% protein, which is about how much protein most non-breeding, adult parrots need for maintenance. During a molt, this can be increased to 15-19%.
Fruit for Provitamin A and Antioxidants
Fresh fruits are an excellent item to supplement your parrot’s diet with. All can be offered to your parrot, except avocado. However, not all fruits are created equal and some do contain more vitamins than others.
The best way to gauge a fruit’s vitamin content is to consider the colour of the flesh (not the skin) of the fruit. Most red, yellow, and orange fruits are excellent sources of vitamin A precursors, or provitamin A. These are the compounds (carotenoids) that can be converted to vitamin A in the body by parrots. Carotenoids also act as antioxidants. The best fruit sources of them are cantaloupe, sweet red, yellow, or orange peppers, apricots, red or pink grapefruit, papayas, mangos, pumpkin, and tomatoes. Orange peaches, plums, and green peppers also contain some carotenoids. Generally, the darker the flesh of the fruit, the more carotenoids it contains.
On the other hand, some fruits contain few vitamins or minerals. These include fruits with pale flesh, such as apples, pears, or grapes. However, since these tend to be many parrots’ favorite fruits, and do contain beneficial phytochemicals, feed them to your parrot as treats. Bananas can also be fed to parrots who like them, as they are a good source of B vitamins.
Offer berries to your parrot as well, because not only are they nutritious, but many parrots enjoy extracting the seeds from them. This can become very messy, so feed berries to parrots somewhere that a mess will be easy to clean. My conure, Lucy, will take a bite of berry and shake it vigorously to get most of the juice out so she can get the seed inside. She always manages to splatter juice everywhere. Note that berries can turn the bird’s droppings red or purple. When I first got her, I panicked temporarily once when I noticed that Garnet’s droppings were dark red (is that blood?) until I remembered I put some berries in her food. Garnet is my cobalt Lineolated Parakeet.
Blackberries, blueberries, and raspberries are all sources of vitamin K, and all berries contain very high levels of antioxidants – more than most other fruits (Neto, 2007; Wu et al., 2004; Žitňanová et al., 2006). In particular, blackberries contain high levels of phytochemicals that may help prevent or slow the growth of cancers (Ding et al., 2006). Pomegranates, like berries, also contain very high levels of antioxidants.
Most fruits contain some vitamin C, with citrus fruits and berries containing the most. However, most parrots do not need an external source of vitamin C, because they can synthesize it in their own bodies. Injured or ill parrots, however, may benefit from receiving foods with some vitamin C.
Lentils and Beans for Protein and Antioxidants
Beans and lentils are very nutritious, and contain high levels of protein. For example, 24%, 19%, and 27% of the calories in cooked kidney beans, garbanzo beans and lentils come from protein, respectively. Beans and lentils also contain B vitamins and many minerals. A combination of beans or lentils and grains will give your parrot access to all the amino acids he will need. Additionally, some beans contain high extremely high levels of antioxidants. Pinto and kidney beans contain more antioxidants than most vegetables (Wu et al., 2004).
Vegetables for Vitamins and Minerals
Frequently offer vegetables to your parrot, as they are excellent sources of vitamins, minerals and phytonutrients. Over the long term, a parrot should eat more vegetables than fruits.
Many vegetables are great sources of calcium, and if you offer your parrot a lot of grains and/or beans, you will need to add a source of calcium to the diet. This is because most parrots need a phosphorus:calcium ratio of 1.5:2 to 1:2 in their diet, and most grains contain a lot of phosphorus and little calcium.
The dark green, leafy vegetables like broccoli are among the best plant-based sources of calcium for your parrot. The problem is that, unless they were fed these as juveniles, not all parrots will eat them! Some persistence may be needed to get a parrot to eat his greens. Some seeds and nuts also contain calcium, with sesame seeds being a wonderful source. Almonds, flaxseeds, hazelnuts, Brazil nuts, and pistachios also contain some calcium. Yogurt is also fine to add to your parrot’s diet because it contains plenty of calcium and little or no lactose, which parrots cannot digest. This is because the bacteria in the yogurt digest the lactose first. Tofu – especially the kind made with calcium sulfate – also contains a great deal of calcium.
In addition to being high in calcium, most dark green vegetables also contain plenty of carotenoids – more than most fruits. Orange veggies like carrots and sweet potatoes are excellent sources of carotenoids. Green peas and green beans also contain some carotenoids, lots of vitamin K, B vitamins, and some protein. Try offering green peas whole in the pod, because some parrots like opening the pod to get the peas on the inside. If you can find them, unsprayed, clean dandelion or chickweed greens can be fed to birds as well – they are good sources of calcium and provitamin A. Beets and Brussels sprouts can also be fed to parrots and they contain very high levels of antioxidants (Žitňanová et al., 2006). Just be careful when feeding beets to your bird – the dark red juice stains most things it touches and will turn the bird’s droppings bright red.
Avoid feeding onions, as they can cause anemia in some other animal species. I do not know if this is the case with parrots, but I do not feed mine onions anyway. Also, limit the amount of spinach in a parrot’s diet. Spinach contains oxalic acid, which interferes with calcium utilization.
Seeds and Nuts: A Parrot’s Favorite!
For a long time, it was common for parrot owners to feed their birds nothing but seeds and nuts. This is an inadequate diet. However, seeds and nuts should be offered as part of the diet. Use as treats for parrot species that are prone to obesity, such as Amazons, Rose-breasted Cockatoos, or Pionus parrots. For example, Ripley recieves, on average, an almond or two daily, and spoonful of a sunflower-free seed mix a couple times a week, and sunflower seeds or bits of various nuts as rewards during training sessions. However, seeds and nuts can make up a bigger part of the diet for large macaws, like Hyacinths and Greenwings, which eat a lot of high-fat nuts in the wild. I have noticed that many of the Blue and Gold and Greenwing Macaws I have met who are given a handful of nuts in addition to their pellets each day have much more vibrant-looking feathers than ones fed only pellets. Many conures also metabolize fat well and can have a spoonful of seeds each day without becoming obese. Since most parrots love shelling and eating seeds and nuts, they also make terrific training aids. I haven’t met many parrots that will refuse a sunflower seed or piece of nut and most will gladly “step up” or do simple tricks for the opportunity to have one.
Most nuts are great sources of trace minerals, fat, and protein. Some also contain essential fatty acids. We are all probably used to viewing fat as something bad – and too much of it is – but it is required for many biological processes, like hormone production and the absorption of certain vitamins. The fatty acids are essential for growth, proper nerve functioning, and the formation of new, healthy feathers. There are two types that need to be included in the diet: Omega-3 and Omega-6. Flax seeds, sunflower seeds, pine nuts, and walnuts are a great source of both, with pecans, sesame seeds, Brazil nuts, and pumpkin seeds being moderate sources of them. Flax and fish oils contain essential fatty acids as well, as do most oils from plant sources.
While seeds and nuts are nutritious, be careful in how you offer them to your parrot. Many parrots, if offered a lot of seed along side other foods, will ignore the other foods and eat only the seeds. If your parrot does this, then do not offer seeds alongside his fruits, pellets, and vegetables. None of my birds will touch fruits or vegetables if there are seeds around to eat. The seeds will be eaten and the other foods will be tossed to the floor. I’ve noticed that my Amazon, Ripley, does this with corn as well. If I add corn to her grain and veggie mix, she eats the corn and throws out the rest of the food. If I leave the corn out, she’ll eat the carrots, peas, and grain. Since corn is not as nutritious as other grains and vegetables, I’d prefer she not eat it to the exclusion of other foods. She does, however, receive it sometimes as a treat. Remember that offering your parrot a varied diet doesn’t always mean that she’s actually eating a varied diet, so monitor what your parrot eats at first to be sure she’s actually eating a variety of foods.
Most parrots love peanuts, which are really not a nut but a legume. However, be careful if you like to offer your parrot peanuts, and do not feed him anything but clean, roasted, human-grade peanuts. This is because a toxic fungus, Aspergillus, sometimes grows in peanut shells. This fungus produces aflatoxins, which can damage a parrot’s liver. Look for black specks inside the shells, which indicate that the fungus is present.
Sprouts: Living, Concentrated Packets of Nutrition
Sprouts are one of the most nutritional foods a parrot can eat. Once a seed starts germinating, it begins to produce lots of protein, antioxidants, and provitamin A. Mung beans, lentils, wheat, alfalfa seeds, millet, quinoa, or sunflower seeds are among the many seeds that can be sprouted. Seeds for sprouting are best purchased from health food stores or grocery stores. Use seeds that are intended for human consumption.
Here’s how to sprout seeds: First, obtain clean seeds and rinse them until the water runs clear. Then, soak them overnight in water and rinse them off well in the morning. Spread them out in a jar, pan, commercial sprouter, or colander and place them in a dark, ventilated area. Rinse them several times daily. They are ready to feed once the little tails (the roots) appear. It is not necessary to wait until the green plant shoot appears. These newly-germinated seeds are another good food to offer seed junkies.
Sprouts are prone to becoming moldy, which is why the many rinses are needed. Refrigerate them right after they sprout and don’t keep them for more than a few days. Do not feed sprouts that smell sour or rancid.
Species with Special Dietary Needs
1. Lories and Lorikeets
These vibrant, lively parrots have nutritional needs quite different from those of the “typical” parrot. Most wild parrots consume a lot of seeds, fruits and vegetation, while lories and lorikeets tend to eat a lot of nectar. Many commercial nectar mixes are available for owners of these parrots, and a dish of nectar should replace pellets or seeds as the base diet for a lory or lorikeet. The nectar will need to be replaced a few times daily, to prevent bacterial growth.
In the wild, the diet of the smaller species (like the Scaly-breasted Lorikeet) will contain proportionally more nectar than the diet of one of the larger species. Lories and lorikeets also eat the sugary excretions that some species of insect leave behind on vegetation. These excretions and the nectar they eat are composed primarily of water, simple sugars and a small amount of amino acids. One of the sugars is called raffinose and cannot be digested by lories. However, raffinose seems to promote the growth of beneficial bacteria in the birds’ digestive system. These beneficial bacteria can inhibit the growth of harmful bacteria. Raffinose is found in beans, whole grains, and vegetables in the mustard family, such as broccoli, cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, or cabbage.
Wild lories and lorikeets will also consume pollen in the wild. However, they do not digest it very well: adults can only digest 4.5-6.6% of pollen, while nestlings can digest up to 26% of it. Lories overall do have lower protein requirements than other parrot species, and if fed a very high-quality and easily digestible source of protein (like egg whites), Rainbow Lories can do well on a diet with as little as 3% protein. Wild lories will also eat fruits, including figs, if available. They eat very few seeds.
Based on a review of the diet of wild lories, Debra McDonald, Ph.D (2003) recommends that they be fed a diet made of commercial lory nectar, very few seeds (if any), very little food that has a high iron content, lots of fruit containing provitamin A (like apricot, mangos, or cantaloupe), and small servings of foods that contain raffinose. She also recommends adding some pollen, although I noticed that this is an ingredient of many lory nectar mixes. Don’t forget to provide water as well! Even though their nectar mix is water-based, lories given water will drink and bathe in it. Try offering edible, unsprayed flowers as an enrichment item. Many lories with eat the pollen of flowers such as pansies, marigolds, roses, or hibiscus, before they tear them up.
2. African Grey Parrots
While all parrots need calcium, African Grey Parrots seem to suffer from hypocalcaemia more often than other birds. Symptoms include weakness and seizures. Recent research suggests that African Grey Parrots need to be exposed to UVB rays to properly metabolize calcium, because in an experiment on this, birds exposed to UVB light had more calcium in their blood than they did prior to having access to the UVB (Stanford, 2006). Lights designed for reptiles give off the required UVB rays that African Grey Parrots need. However, carefully read the box to be sure that this is the case. The lights only need to be on the birds for an hour or so a day to be effective and they should be kept a few feet away from the parrot. Natural sunlight also contains UVB rays; however, glass filters them out. Leaving a bird outside in a cage (with supervision) will also benefit his health by giving him access to UVB rays.
Birds also need vitamin D to metabolize calcium properly. Exposure to sunlight allows birds to synthesize vitamin D3 from plant-based lipids. However, vitamin D3 is also available in pellets. Do not add extra vitamin D to a parrot’s diet unless a veterinarian recommends you do so. Excess vitamin D can cause kidney problems and gout. In general, it’s not necessary to add vitamins to your parrot’s diet if he’s eating pellets and healthy, fresh foods.
Pellets are a very useful, healthy item to include in a parrot’s diet, and parrots that are fed them as a base diet are unlikely to become malnourished. However, augmenting the diet with healthy, unprocessed foods will enrich your parrot’s life and provide him with many beneficial phytonutrients. The best items to supplement a pelleted diet with are whole grains, vegetables, fruits (especially carotenoid-rich ones and berries), nuts, seeds, sprouts, and beans.
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Wu, X., Beecher, G. R., Holden, J. M., Haytowitz, D. B., Gebhardt, S. E., and Prior, R. L. 2004. Lipophilic and hydrophilic antioxidant capacities of common foods in the United States. Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry. 52: 4026-4037.
Žitňanová, I., Ranostajová, S., Sobotová, H., Demelová, D., Pecháň, I., and Ďuračková, Z. 2006. Antioxidative activity of selected fruits and vegetables. Biologia. 61: 279-284.
-This is an interesting website to play with. You can enter nearly any type of food, and it’ll give you nutritional data on it. You can also do searches on a certain nutrient, and it will tell you which foods are highest in it.